Super Cowper

William Cowper (yes, it is pronounced “Cooper”), born in 1731, was an early Romantic poet. He was partly responsible for shifting the focus of poetry away from religious experience towards personal, human experience. He was admired by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Jane Austen, and is best known today for epithets such as “the lord moves in mysterious ways and the anti-slavery motto, “am I not a man and a brother?”. He was also inspired by a deep love for nature, especially animals, including his three tame pet hares that he kept in his home in Olney.

Cowper was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, where his father was Rector. The house is still there, tucked well away down a little lane and quite hard to find. Young William trained for a career in law, for which he lodged with his uncle and, whilst living there, fell in love with his Cousin, Theodora. At the same time, he was to undergo an examination for entry into the House of Lords and, unable to take the pressure, coupled with his uncle’s refusal of a relationship between William and his daughter, he suffered a breakdown. This was the first sign of the mental health issues that were to haunt him throughout his life. In order to recuperate, he was sent to Huntingdon to lodge with a clergyman, Morley Unwin and his wife, Mary. When the Unwins moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire, Cowper moved with them.

The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

Olney is a charming little market town in Buckinghamshire, tucked away out of sight in the Ouse valley between Milton Keynes, Bedford and Northampton. Mrs. P and I visited in the summer. It was busy: the streets rammed with traffic and nary a parking space to be had anywhere. We eventually found one on a side street reasonably close to town. Close enough to walk, anyway. It is a lovely looking town, with buildings of a soft, sandstone and trees lining the streets. At the centre is a little market square, populated with cafés and antique shops. Mrs. P, her eyes wide with excitement, went to explore further, agreeing to meet me at the pub for lunch, while I found the museum. Orchard Side, the house that Cowper moved into, has been preserved as a lovely museum. I was greeted there by a very friendly woman who gave me the background story and told me about Cowper and John Newton, his lifelong friend and Neighbour.

John Newton was a hymnist, probably best known today as the composer of Amazing Grace. He started his career in the navy, eventually becoming captain of a slave-trading vessel. Whilst at sea he suffered a crisis of faith. He accepted Christianity and devoted the rest of his life to helping to ensure that the evil practice of slavery was abolished once and for all. He became a friend and advisor to William Wilberforce and convinced William Cowper to write abolitionist verse. They published the book, Olney Hymns, together, Cowper contributing some of his greatest work to it. It included the Hymn Light Shining out of Darkness, which begins with the line: “God moves in a mysterious way.”

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

William Cowper, Light Shining out of the Darkness
William Cowper’s bedroom, restored with his own bed and possessions

Morley Unwin died in 1767, after being thrown from his horse. Cowper stayed with Mary, who remained his lifelong friend and companion. Unfortunately, Cowper had another lifelong companion and a bout of depression visited him in 1773. This time, he attempted suicide. Mary stayed by his side throughout and greatly aided his recovery. During this period, his many interests and occupations helped him back to health. He liked caring for animals, particularly his three pet hares: Puss, Tiney and Bess. He enjoyed gardening, carpentry, drawing and, of course, poetry. Eventually, Cowper feared that he was becoming too reclusive in his little house in Olney, particularlyhas his great friend, John Newton, moved to London in 1780. He and Mary moved to the nearby village of Weston Underwood, where he produced some of his best-known poetry, including The Task and John Gilpin.

Cowper’s writing shed

The Cowper and Newton museum tells this story beautfully. It has just the right balance of rooms furnished with Cowper’s own possessions, paintings and exhibitions of personal artefacts. In fact, it is absolutely stuffed with Cowper memoriabilia. There are some horrific artefacts of the slave trade, illustrating some of the horrific practices that were carried out under slavery. Some of Cowper’s clothing and possessions are visible. Outside, the garden recreates an eighteenth century gentleman’s garden; Cowper was an adventurous gardener and experimented with growing the plants arriving from the new world. There is an ancient shed in the garden, where Cowper retreated to write poetry. The door was shut but I was able to lift the latch and take a look inside. Not much to see but it was nice to seen such an extremely old building that had been a sanctuary for a great writer. I carefully closed the door and replaced the wooden latch. A gardener, who had been busily working marched across to the shed, grasped the ancient door and flung it wide. “It’s supposed to be left open!” he growled. I smiled at him sympathetically. Some peope find life very difficult.

The Bull Hotel, Olney. Home of quality pies.

Having returned to the reception to have another chat with the smiley woman and purchase some souvenirs, including a felt hare I was rather pleased with, I met Mrs. P back at the Bull. Cowper occasionally used the Bull, on one occasion retreating there to live when one of his servants became ill. It is a rather handsome market square pub complete with a large dining room. There was an exceedingly helpful barman with an alarming shock of hair standing straight up from the top of his head! He conducted me around the ale collection and I plumped for a tropical IPA. Tasting largely of grapefruit, it was unusual but very pleasant nonetheless. I had a steak pie, and I can honestly say, it was one of the best I have ever had: A small ball of suet pastry was brought forth and, when probed with a fork, it exploded into a large pile of steak. It was amazing! Mrs. P was similarly impressed with her cod and chips, with a particularly good mint flavoured pea purée. Mrs. P and I have eaten very well in pubs throughout the country but this was particularly special.

Goosey Bridge, Olney church in background

After lunch we took a walk to the church where John Newton preached: a magnificent, tall-steepled church remodelled by George Gilbert Scott, another Olney Resident. Cowper and Newton are both remembered here, in a rather beautiful window dedicated to them. We crossed the road and walked through a modern housing development, built up close to the river and its meadows. Cowper has left his mark here: in street names in particular. There is even a plaque to Cowper in a children’s play area, named in his honour. A short walk through the meadow brings you to Goosey Bridge. There is a lovely view back towards the church from here, the steeple just peeking above the trees. It was in this spot that the events recalled by Cowper in The Dog and the Water-Lily took place. Unable to reach a particularly beautiful lily from the bank, Cowper abandoned the attempt, only for his dog to dive in and retrieve the flower for him; a lovely moment of connection between man and dog.

I saw him with that lily cropp’d,
Impatient swim to meet,
My quick approach, and soon he dropp’d,
The treasure at my feet.

William Cowper, The Dog and the Water-Lily
Cowper’s Alcove

The village of Weston Underwood is a short drive from Olney. A lovely, honey-coloured village and, Cowper’s Lodge, an elegant and quite substantial cottage. Above the village, on top of a hill is Cowper’s Alcove, marking the place, to which he used to walk to write. The famous Yardley Oak, about which Cowper wrote a poem much admired by Wordsworth, used to stand near here. Its presence is commemorated by a pub, the ‘Cowper’s Oak’, in Weston Underwood. From the Alcove it is possible to look back to the town of Olney, nestling among the trees in the Ouse Valley. A verse from, Cowper’s poem The Task, is inscribed upon a plaque.

In 1795 Cowper’s cousin, Dr. John Johnson, fearing for Cowper’s mental health, suggested he move to the rural peace of Norfolk. He and Mary stayed in a number of houses, some of which are still visible. Mrs. P and l saw some of them on our trip to Norfolk earlier this year. After settling at the large and rather grand Dunham Hall near Swaffham, Mary suffered a stroke and died. Cowper fell into a depression from which he never fully recovered. He moved out to the coast at Mundesley, on Johnson’s recommendation but he found that the sea air irritated his eyes, which only served to depress him further. Cowper moved back inland to East Dereham. The building in which he stayed is now a chapel, named: the ‘William Cowper memorial chapel’, in his honour. While living in this house, he became ill and, in 1800, died.

St. Nicholas, Dereham, Norfolk

He is buried in the church of St. Nicholas in Dereham: a magnificent, grand, squat-towered building, worthy of the prosperous market town that supports it. In the churchyard is St. Withburga’s well, a Victorian grotto built around an ancient spring. Inside, in the chapel of St. Thomas of Canterbury, you will find Cowper’s grave. beneath a large stained glass window, dedicated to him and depicting him with his three hares. William Cowper’s poems were hugely influential in his time. It is his anti-slavery verse that remains most powerful and continues to have resonance today:

And so we must be able to cry out with the eloquent poet:
“Fleecy locks and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim,
Skin may differ but affection dwells in black and white the same.
If I were so tall as to reach the pole or to grasp the ocean at a span,
I must be measured by my soul, the mind is the standard of the man.”
And we must believe this firmly and live by it.

Martin Luther King,
quoting Cowper’s ‘Negro’s Complaint
Glenville, Ohio, 1967

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