William Cowper
The Odyssey of Homer


"Thou god of our idolatry, the press...

Thou fountain, at which drink the good and wise;

Thou ever-bubbling spring of endless lies;

Like Eden's dread probationary tree,

Knowledge of good and evil is from thee. (The Progress of Error (1782))

William Cowper, poet and letter-writer, was son of the rector of Great Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire and amother who died when he was only six. After an education at Westminster he trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1754. As a child he was a sensitive individual who suffered at the hands of bullies and began to experience severe depression. Indeed he was so disturbed that he unsuccessfully tried to kill himself at least six times (by poisoning, stabbing and hanging) when faced with an examination for a clerkship at the House of Lords. In fact he later worked there with the help of family connections. His melancholy was worsened by his failure to marry his cousin Theodora Cowper and he had religious visions for the rest of his life, feeling cast from God's mercy. Cowper also spent some time at an 'Insanorum' in St Albans but was kept alive by his interest in evangelical Christianity and the help of the Reverend Morley Unwin with whom he lived as a kind of surrogate son.

He wrote Olney Hymns in 1779 and following another suicide attempt while living with Unwin's widow to whom he became engaged he entered a more settled time. He wrote his satires at the turn of the 1780s to be published in 1782 and also some shorter poems along with John Gilpin (1783-4) and his famous long poem The Task (1785). He moved in 1786 to Weston Underwood with Mrs Unwin and continued to write poetry until his death in 1800 including a translation of Homer's Odyssey in 1791. Cowper's sad life was made sadder still by the death of Mrs Unwin in 1796. He did not recover from the shock and spent his last four years suffering again from depression. His works' sybjects stretch from vehement criticism of public schools through contemplation of God to the praise of (of all things) a halibut representing himself. Strangely, given his melancholic tendencies, his poetry and other writings are known for their cheerfulness of spirit.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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