He was born in 1731 at Great Berkhamstead, where his father was rector. The family had already attained great legal distinction, and the poet’s mother was a Miss Donne, of the house of the great Dean of St. Paul’s. Cowper was educated at Westminster where, notwithstanding the black account of public schools given later in “Tirocinium,” he made many friends, as he also did in his subsequent study of both branches of the law. He wrote for the fashionable periodical, the “Connoisseur,” and seemed likely to be happy and (for his family interest was great) prosperous.
But the seeds of madness in him were developed by the crossing of his love for his cousin, Theodora, by the nervous excitement of his appointment to certain clerkships in the House of Lords, and by religious stimulus. The form which his mania took (1763) was suicidal and though, after proper treatment, he recovered, his prospects were irrecoverably blighted. Removing into the country with a small allowance, he lived first at Huntingdon, and then at Olney, in friendship with the famous evangelical clergyman, John Newton, and with the family of the Unwins. After about fifteen years (during which he had at least one return of mania or, at best, melancholia), he began to write – first, hymns with Newton, and then miscellaneous poetry.
For rather more than ten years, he was happy, sane, and (for a part of them) a good deal in love with a widow named Lady Austin. His first poems, “Truth,” “Error,” etc., appeared in 1782, “The Task,” in 1785, his “Homer,” a little later. He should have died, now, but, unluckily for him, he survived for yet another decade of misery, through mental and bodily illness, dying at East Dereham in 1800, in the frame of mind expressed by his last and, perhaps, greatest poem, the wonderful “Castaway,” where the poetry of utter despair is expressed, albeit with the utmost simplicity, yet in a fashion which makes mere Byronism of Leopardi and the second James Thomson.
From: A Short History of English Literature by George Saintsbury (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1898), p. 588.
William Cowper’s last name, by the way, is pronounced “cooper.”