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Poetry Bee Blog #17: William Cowper

Updated: Feb 17

You will probably be happy to know that this poetry bee blog is much shorter than the previous one; there will be a lot less information to memorize!

The Neoclassical poet William Cowper was a most sensitive, retiring man. He did not even have the courage to earn a livelihood by reading the titles of bills in the House of Lords; his closest friends were a blind old lady and an Anglican priest (John Newton); and his topics for poetry included talking about pet birds and rabbits. Yet, it was through his keen sensitivity that he was led to faith. After a nervous breakdown, the poet sought the help of a physician named Cotton in St. Alban’s who said there was only one thing that he lacked, one thing that could cure his depression: “an experimental knowledge of the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.”

    William Cowper is mostly remembered for his book of Christian songs, Olney Hymns, which he coauthored with John Newton; his personal letters, which are considered the finest written in the English language; an excellent ballad titled “The Diverting History Of John Gilpin”; and the major work The Task, which in its portrait of nature and lyrical qualities is a poetic precursor to the Romantic period. Although not ranked among the “major poets,” Cowper brought poetry out of the stale expressions of the polite Age of Reason and he set the stage for the later Romantic poets. In other words, he wrote more in the language of common people (typical of poets such as William Wordsworth), than in the artificial poetic language that was the fashion of his day (typical of poets such as Alexander Pope). As one critic observed, “the part which [he] performed was rather that of Moses than of Joshua.” Although he didn't enter the promised land of poetry, he “opened the house of bondage.”


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