Tag Archives: William Cowper


9 Mar

William Cowper was a poet (1731-1800). He was an Evangelical Christian, raised by his father John Cowper, a priest. His Christian way of life was reflected in his many hymns and poems. Cowper suffered an attack of insanity in 1773, believing he was condemned to hell and believing that God wanted him to kill himself. His repeated suicide attempts in previous years reflected his unstable state. Cowper’s obsession with death and the afterlife, particularly imagery of hell, as well as his descent into madness is apparent in his work, ‘The Castaway’. The final stanza reads:

“We perish’d, each alone:

But I beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.”


Cowper’s loneliness is evident in his mentioning that he believes we each die alone. His comparison with his own suffering and a man drowning and his stating that his sea is rougher than the sailors, suggests that he believes madness is a fate worse than any physical act.

William Cowper: biography

4 Mar

William Cowper
• In 1763 he suffered a complete nervous breakdown because he worried about an examination
• After several attemps at suicide he was commited to a sanatorium
• Cowper spent his life under the care of some friends and patrons.
• In particular Mrs.Mary Unwin, an evangelical clergyman John Newton, and Cowper’s cousin Lady Hesketh
• His mental breakdowns were generally characterized by severe religious gloom and often by a sense that he was irrevocably damned.
• Most significant of his work was done in the last 2 decades of his life
• In 1783 he composed “John Gilpin’s ride” which is probably the most famous of his works
• In 1783 Cowper began his curious long poem The Task which starts with a mock-elevated disquisition on the historical evolution of the sofa from the three-legged stool. It then treats a big amount of multitutde of descriptive and reflective subjects and is probably Cowper’s most typical poem. In it quiet meditation is mingled with atmospheric description of simple rural life and natural scenes

His early isolation and the belief that he was damned connects to the poem. Elements from his hardships when growing up can be seen in the poem “The Castaway”. His early loss of his mother might have resulted in his belief that he was alone. In “the castaway” he is being left alone by his friends, “They left their outcast mate behind”.His early childhood experience might be the result of his melancholic nature. When he says “When such a destined wretch as I” he might imply to his “damned” self he believed he was. He also refers to love, even if not meant for a woman in the poem.“He loved them both, but both in vain”. His love for his cousin was great however In vain because her father did not allow them to marry because of his concern for Cowper’s mental instability.”Nor him beheld, nor her again” “her”, in between the lines he might be referring to the fact that he never saw his cousin again. Because the “the castaway” is a poem about isolation, and he believed that he was isolated as he was raised without a mother and was sent to a sanatorium at an early age because of his several attemps at suicide. The only people he lived with were Mrs.Mary Unwin, an evangelical clergyman John Newton who impacted his writing in terms of implying religion and evangecalism, and his cousin Lady Hesketh.

William Cowper, Evangelicalism and “The Castaway”

4 Mar

          British poet William Cowper grew up in England, with an Anglican reverend of a father. Thus, he was highly influenced by religion, particularly evangelicalism, from an early age. After the death of his mother, Cowper was sent to boarding school, where he was consistently bullied.  He was then determined to get a law degree and ended up falling in love with his cousin. Following the engagement, by 1763, signs of insanity started to emerge in Cowper. By that time, he had experienced a lot of loss and growing obsessed with the idea of determinism, that he was predetermined to be damned by God. Consequently, he attempted suicide three times, but they were failed attempts. 

        During this time period, Evangelicalism was prominent in English society, but it was not until Cowper moved to another town (Onley, Buckinghamshire) that he became influenced by this religious movement. It was in Onley where he met an evangelical clergyman and ex-seafarer, John Newton, who encouraged his path upon Cowper. He also had an influence on his writing, in terms of his sailing experiences, as Cowper started to include nautical imagery to present his religious ideas.  By 1773, however, it appeared that this new paradigm was too much for Cowper, as he started suffering attacks of insanity again. It is ironic how he preached gospel to others yet firmly believed he himself was condemned by God.  

        Newton’s influence over Cowper’s writing is especially evident in his work of The Castaway, a narrative representing the abandonment and drowning of a character (the castaway). This poem consists of various pronouns, which refer to about three or four people. One of these characters would be the Captain of the ship he embarked upon with, which I believe represents John Newton. This captain is described as brave and “expert to swim” when the ship is wrecked, which could be symbolic of the fact that in actuality, Newton was able to handle the evangelicalism, while Cowper, the ‘castaway’ was not able to, so he ‘drowned’. Also, several pronouns refer to the other shipmates or “comrades” who apparently abandoned the castaway in his time of need. This could be representing the Cowper’s abandonment by God (in his mind). Thus, Cowper sees himself as a “Castaway”,(which has ambiguous connotations), shunned by God, and uses the metaphor of a castaway from a shipwreck.