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William Cowper: The Castaway

NPG D20230, William Cowper

William Cowper by William Blake, after a portrait by George Romney. National Portrait Gallery.

In his introduction to the 1984 Carcanet Press edition of William Cowper’s Selected Poems, Nick Rhodes says of Cowper:

“Aside from a few buoyant, devotional years , he spent most of his life in a state of severe internal conflict and doubt, suffering particularly from a conviction that he, uniquely among mankind, had been selected for an irrevocable, special damnation.”

… and it’s too easy, in a brief biographical sketch, to make Cowper’s life sound out-and-out tragic.  His mother died when he was just six years old, he was bullied at boarding school, pursued a career in the law just to please his father, suffered a mental breakdown under exam pressure, attempted suicide, was haunted by extreme melancholia and the loss of his faith and finally descended into despair.

In fact, much of his youth was quite happy if not positively gilded, and for many of his 70 years he appears to have been reasonably contented – a benign if troubled soul with a wry sense of humour who appreciated life’s simple pleasures.

Following his suicide attempt, he spent 18 months in an asylum in St Albans run by an Evangelical but kindly doctor called Nathanael Cotton, and while he was there underwent something of a religious conversion.  The story goes that he woke from a pleasing dream, picked up a bible, read St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and his recovery began on that morning.  On leaving St Albans, in 1765, he moved to Huntingdon where he met the Unwins, a married couple with whom he formed a close friendship.  When Mr Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, his widow Mary moved with Cowper to Olney in Buckinghamshire, where they remained for the rest of their lives, in a small house called Orchard Side (which is now the Cowper Museum).

The curate at Olney when they arrived was the Reverend John Newton.  He was a major influence on Cowper, but not necessarily for the good. A former slave-trader turned Evangelical preacher, Newton was as strong-willed and certain in his faith as Cowper was aimless and tentative, and it’s unlikely to be coincidental that all of the poet’s best work dates from after Newton left Olney for London in 1780.

On the other hand, the cheerfully sensible Mary Unwin was Cowper’s rock.  She ran the house for him and provided him with stability and companionship, as well as ideas for his poems.  It was during the Olney years that Cowper – once freed from Newton’s dampening influence – produced most of his best-known and best-loved work, as well as a clutch of much-loved hymns.  He wrote about his pet hares – Puss, Bess and Tiney – he gave us the whimsical masterpiece that is John Gilpin, he addressed a poem to his sofa, he wrote about dogs, cats and the natural world – and he bequeathed to us one of the loveliest verses in the hymn book:

“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footstep in the sea
And rides upon the storm.”

Although he was outwardly settled, his underlying despair never left him.  In 1773 he had a peculiarly vivid and terrifying dream which tipped him over the edge yet again and although he did eventually recover – with patient nursing from the ever-faithful Mary – he lost his faith so completely that he couldn’t even bring himself to enter a church.  He never regained it.

In 1796, after a protracted illness, Mary Unwin died and the effect on Cowper was nothing less than devastating.  Without her, his life lost all sense of purpose and direction and he sank inevitably into the slough of despond that had always been there, just beneath the tranquil surface.

He wrote The Castaway in 1799 after reading a vivid account of a crewman being washed overboard during George Anson’s 1741 around-the-world voyage.  Prevented from helping him by the ferocity of the sea conditions, his shipmates could only watch as he struggled with the waves:

“We … conceived from the manner in which he swam, that he might continue sensible, for a considerable time longer, of the horror attending his irretrievable situation.”

                        (‘A Voyage Round the World … by George Anson’.   Richard Walter.  1748)

How long the man’s terrible fate preyed on Cowper’s fragile mind before he put pen to paper, we cannot know; but the end result was a poem so painful and personal that reading it seems almost like an intrusion.

Like all of his work, it requires no explanation.  In spite of a classical education, he never went in for high-flown allusions or rhetorical flourishes.  He wrote simply and from the heart – and in this case, the heart was broken.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.

The Castaway was Cowper’s final poem. He died a year later, at the age of 69.

It’s an achingly sad swansong from the man who once wrote a poem addressed to a sofa.


The Castaway – Audio file – Click to play:

9 comments on “William Cowper: The Castaway

  1. david
    May 20, 2011

    What a treat, Moira, to read such a succinct yet informative summary – thank you !

    You doubtless know that Cowper was a very strong influence on Norman Nicholson (NN).

    I think NN identified very closely with Cowper as an individual and in his circumstances – eg both eschewed the cosmopolitan or metropolitan life for a provincial, country, one and both were wracked by spiritual and relationship dilemmas.

    NN published, in 1951, a book devoted to Cowper; I reproduce the publishers ‘blurb’ here

    In this new study of Cowper, NN is more concerned with the development of the poet than the details of the man’s life. He considers the strange paradox, that Cowper, a recluse and at times a madman, [mo political correctness back in 1951 !!] became the spokesman for a great popular social and religious movement, and reassesses the influence of the Evangelical Revival on his work. He devotes considerable space to the nature poetry [NN was a great nature-lover, especially botanical], though not to the neglect of the earlier poems and hymns. Admirably written, the particular charm and insight of the book arises from the fact that it is a poet’s book about a poet for whic he feels a special, intuitive, sympathy.
    [my comments in parentheses]

    – remarkably good stuff, as ‘blurbs’ go !!

    IMHO, NN surpassed himself in the closing words of this book, which read

    In his precarious pilgrimage he looked at the few feet of grass about him, at the creatures he saw, or te fireside he knew with a love wide enough to include all Nature and all his fellow-men, and with the sharp tenderness of a long Goodbye.

    – stunning stuff, I think.

    Much later, in 1975, NN edited a ‘Choice of Cowper’s Verse’ for a Faber paperback and wrote the Introduction.

    Congrats. again, Moira..

  2. david
    May 20, 2011


    the colour portrait titled ‘William Cowper’ on this website [don’tcha just love the hat!] illustrates both NN’s Cowper book covers, and seems to be of the guy in later years.

  3. rosyb
    May 20, 2011

    You have really given so much info in this – quite fascinating and rather sad too. But it is right what you say that if you take the dramas out of someone’s life and concertina it down it can inevitable all look rather sadder than it might have been. There sounds like there were some good bits.

    I don’t think Cowper’s poetry looks like it’s for me. I’m don’t know why by I don’t tend to go for very simple and rhyming. In fact it’s rare I go for rhyming at all – simple or otherwise. Not sure why this is. Perhaps the reason I didn’t like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience for so long despite seeing so much in them now.

    I am very curious about the sofa poem though. Is there a link?

  4. Jackie
    May 20, 2011

    I wondered about the sofa poem, too, Rosy.
    While I’d heard of Cowper before, I knew nothing of his life, which does sound sad, even with the good bits. I’m glad he found someone to love him, Mary Unwin must’ve added so much to his life, though of course, that only made her loss much worse.
    It’s good that so many of his poems still exist. He had such empathy, but that was probably an outcome of the bullying & breakdowns. In a way, he was almost too sensitive. And why is it always the kinder, mild mannered types that feel such guilt, why is it never the people who are doing horrid things?

  5. David
    May 20, 2011

    I’ve spent my entire life studying WC. You summed him up as nicely and neatly as possible. Thank you for sharing.

    May 21, 2011

    Cowper’s life is a really fascinating one. There was indeed much incidental happiness in his life with Mrs Unwin at Olney, as born out by the letters.

    It is incredible how few people nowadays are aware of his work, or even familiar with his name.

  7. kirstyjane
    May 22, 2011

    Thank you so much, Moira, for this informative and eloquent piece. (I did spit out my tea at the last line — brilliant!) You clearly have a real empathy with your subject.

  8. Hilary
    May 22, 2011

    This was so moving, Moira, and the poem beautifully read. I couldn’t help thinking of Fanny and Edmund, in Mansfield Park, and their shared admiration for Cowper. Such a rational world, Jane Austen’s – I wonder who among his admiring readers knew of Cowper’s tormented spirit? Knowing Fanny, she didn’t just stick at jolly John Gilpin, but would have savoured his most serious reflections. From this poem, people could learn and experience empathy, even catharsis – I can just see Fanny, sitting in the drawing room at Mansfield Park, as far from the sea as you can be in Britain, but with her brothers at sea, seeking fellow feeling with them by reading accounts of Anson’s voyage, and suffering over this poem.

    (End of reverie – I know Fanny isn’t real, but Jane Austen wrote her, from her own family experience).

  9. lisa
    May 24, 2011

    Moira, i thought this was wonderful. Illuminating, sensitive and moving. Thank you.

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This entry was posted on May 20, 2011 by in Entries by Moira, Poetry, Poetry Week and tagged , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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