The Mad Poets

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 1, ‘Adelphi’ and Letters 1750–1781,

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 598 pp., $115.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 2, Letters 1782–1786

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 652 pp., $149.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 3, Letters 1787–1791

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 630 pp., $110.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 4, Letters 1792–1799

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 498 pp., $150.00

The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 5, Prose 1756–c. 1799 and Cumulative Index

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 246 pp., $72.00

William Cowper: Selected Letters

edited by James King, edited by Charles Ryskamp
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 236 pp., $55.00

The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart, Vol. 2, Religious Poetry

edited by Marcus Walsh, edited by Karina Williamson
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 472 pp., $95.00

The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart, Vol. 3, A Translation of the Psalms of David

edited by Marcus Walsh
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 480 pp., $120.00

The first severe attack of the depression that was to make so much of the life of the poet William Cowper an unbearable torment occurred when he tried to take up the practice of the law. Born in 1731, the son of a Hampshire rector, he was unstable from infancy; he lost his mother when he was six and he was mercilessly bullied at school. His elegant poetic talent was late in appearing. In the moving account of his melancholy and his religious faith, Adelphi, he writes:

I became in a manner complete master of myself and took possession of a set of chambers in the Temple at the age of twenty-one [in 1753]….

I was struck not long after my settlement in the Temple with such a dejection of spirits as none but they who have felt the same can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horrors and rising in despair.

The religious poetry of George Herbert provided some consolation, although by 1753, the poems of the previous century were bound to seem, as Cowper called them, “gothic and uncouth.” Cowper was related on his mother’s side to John Donne, who also, no doubt, seemed gothic and uncouth.

Cowper’s own poetry enjoyed a great reputation for at least a half century after his death: it has since lost much of its luster. The new critical edition, of which only the first volume has been issued, may restore it. However, most of his verse is probably too amiable and diffuse for modern readers—it retains some of the elegance of Pope’s style without the extreme formality, but also without the malice or the bite. His correspondence, once as famous as his poetry, is in many ways a more impressive achievement. He seizes the tone of conversation without mannerism, and makes the people to whom he wrote live for us.

During this initial onset of madness, prayer was some help, but the temporary cure, when it came a year later, was achieved in true eighteenth-century fashion by landscape, the sight of the sea near Southampton:

Here it was that on a sudden, as if another sun had been kindled that instant in the heavens on purpose to dispel sorrow and vexation of spirit, I felt the weight of all my misery taken off. My heart became light and joyous in a moment, and had I been alone, I could have wept with transport.

Ten years later, in 1763, the second professional crisis of Cowper’s life was the occasion for his second period of depression. A member of a popular group of young writers (called “the Geniuses”) who founded the Nonsense Club, where they read aloud their works, he spent the decade writing light poetry. He had not been a success as an attorney and had wasted most of his patrimony, but there was a chance of his being named Clerk of the Journals in the House of …

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