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WILLIAM COWPER, ESQ.
If there is one individual whose memoir it is less necessary to prefix to an edition of his works than another, it is the poet, Cowper ; nor is it merely on the ground of the particulars of his life being so well known, but because his feelings, character, and situation, are so powerfully and correctly depicted in his poems, that to read them is to make you master of his whole history, character and conduct. It is true the dates of his birth and death, or the fact that he died a bachelor, may not be recorded in his works; but his character is there portrayed in colours the most vivid and the most correct.
William Cowper, the religious poet, as he has been correctly designated, was the son of the Rev. John Cowper, chaplain to his majesty, George II., and rector of Berkhamstead, in Hertfordshire, where the poet was born, on the 26th of November, 1731. Mr. Cowper's father was the son of the Judge, and nephew of the Lord Chancellor of that
His mother, in whose veins the blood of Henry III. flowed, was the daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Ludlam Hall, in the county, of Norfolk; and a woman of the most amiable dispositiou, and of great mental endowments.
It was under this parent that Cowper first imbibed the rudiments of education, and with them those moral feelings and principles which distinguished him through life. On her death, when in his sixth year, he was consigned to a village school, and afterwards he was sent to that of Westminster, where, in despite of a constitution remarkably delicate, he made great progress.
In 1749, he was articled to an attorney for three years,-a profession the most unsuitable to Cowper, and consequently, although he served the period, and was afterwards entered of the Temple, yet he never practised the law as a profession. Literature had now engrossed his attention, and renewing his acquaintance with Churchill, Colman, (the elder,) and Bonnell Thornton, he contributed some papers to the Connoisseur for which others got the credit.
As the connections of Cowper were of the first respectability, he was at the age of thirty-four appointed one of the clerks to the House of Lords, but his extreme sensibility prevented his retaining the office; his constitution was weak, and had a tendency towards melancholy, which afterwards, indeed, brought on a species of insanity, and clouded the brilliant genius of Cowper. To dwell on this period of his life is to linger over infirmity and calamity the most heart-rending ; nor were the incidents in the life of Cowper those which require a detailed recital. In 1765, he settled at Huntingdon, in the family of the Rev. Mr. Unwin; and when this gentleman died he continued to reside with his widow, one of the most amiable of her sex, at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, where he became acquainted with the Rev. John Newton, the author of the “ Letters of Omicron.”
It was not until the year 1782, that Cowper gave to the world a volume of his poems, and then it was published anonymously. The suc. cess which attended it induced him to succeed, and the result will be seen in the following pages ; in addition to which he wrote a translation of « Homer,» in blank verse. The latter years of his life were those of mental derangement, with lucid intervals, marked generally by a resignation to the will of providence, and a fervency of devotion rarely equalled ; at length, on the 25th of April, 1800, death released hiin of all his sufferings, and he died at Dereham, in Norfolk.
The poetical works of Cowper have been published in every variety of form, yet such is their popularity, that new editions are constantly called for. The one now offered to the public, combines economy with elegance; and is embellished with numerous engravings, from original designs, made expressly for the work. Some interesting notes from Cowper's Correspondence, as well as some additional Poems, are given in an Appendix, which render this edition the most complete that has hitherto appeared.