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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 Lords, a lucrative position that was at the disposal of one of his kinsmen. “The business of that place, being transacted in private, would exactly suit me,” observed Cowper. A rival for the post appeared however and opposed the nomination, and Cowper was told that he would have to appear for an examination at the Bar of the House to see if he was qualified.

Being necessarily ignorant of the nature of that business, it became expedient that I should visit the office daily in order to qualify myself for the narrowest scrutiny. All the horrors of my fears and perplexity returned. A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this intelligence. I knew to a demonstration that upon these terms the Clerkship of the Journals was no place for me. To require my attendance at the Bar of the House that I might there publicly entitle myself to the office was in effect to exclude me from it….

My continual misery at length brought on a nervous fever. Quiet forsook me by day and sleep by night. A finger raised against me was now more than I could stand against.

Once again Cowper tried prayer, but without hope: “I saw plainly that God alone could deliver me, but was firmly persuaded He would not and therefore omitted to ask it.” Finally, Cowper reached the limits of his despair:

I now began to look upon madness as the only chance remaining. I had a strong foreboding that it would fare so with me, and I wished for it earnestly and looked forward to it with impatient expectation.

Madness seemed to Cowper a solution—in fact, as he writes, his “only chance.” It is, of course, a solution like suicide, and depended equally on a strange mixture of cowardice and courage. Cowper did indeed attempt suicide several times, and his detailed accounts of his failures are painful to read. The report of his attempt to hang himself lost him the post in the House of Lords that he had both hoped for and dreaded. It was at this point that Cowper’s depression took a new and most terrifying form: religious despair. Awareness of sin brought him the sudden conviction that he was eternally damned. Everything he now did only seemed to confirm this:

In every book I opened I found something that struck me to the heart. I remember taking up a volume of Beaumont and Fletcher which lay upon the table in my kinsman’s lodging and the first sentence I saw was this, “The justice of the gods is in it.” My heart immediately answered, “So it is of a truth,” and I cannot but observe that as I found something in every author to condemn me, so it was generally the first sentence I pitched upon. Everything preached to me, and everything preached the curse of the Law….

Cowper’s madness led him to devise clever tests to confirm his ultimate damnation:

I made many passionate attempts towards prayer, but failed in all. Having an obscure notion about the efficacy of faith, I resolved upon an experiment to prove whether I had faith or not. For this purpose I began to repeat the Creed. When I came to the second period of it, which professes a belief in Christ, all traces of the form were struck out of my memory, nor could I recollect one syllable of the matter. While I endeavoured to recover it, and just when I thought myself upon the point of doing so, I perceived a sensation in my brain like a tremulous vibration in all the fibres of it. By this means I lost the words in the very instant when I thought to have laid hold on them.

The assurance by a clerical friend of “the corruption of every man born into the world, whereby we are all the children of wrath, without any difference” brought Cowper some consolation, as it has comforted generations of Puritans. “This doctrine set me more upon a level with the rest of mankind and made my condition appear to me less desperate.” The moments of confidence, however, were very brief and Cowper’s torments were to last another eight months. They were no less painful for being self-inflicted:

I slept my usual three hours well and then awakened with ten times a stronger sense of my alienation from God than ever. Satan plied me close with horrible visions and more horrible voices…. A numbness seized upon the extremities of my body, and life seemed to retreat before it. My hands and feet became cold and stiff; a cold sweat stood upon my forehead; my heart seemed at every pulse to beat its last and my soul to cling to my lips as if upon the very point of departure.

For Cowper, total madness still seemed a solution, and when it came and he finally achieved what he had longed for, the moment was the most terrifying of all:

At eleven o’clock my brother called on me, and in about an hour after his arrival that distemper of mind which I had before so ardently wished for actually seized me.

While I traversed the room in the most terrible dismay of soul, expecting every moment the earth would open her mouth and swallow me, my conscience scaring me, the avenger of blood pursuing me, and the city of refuge out of reach and out of sight, suddenly a strange and horrible darkness fell upon me. If it were possible that a heavy blow could light upon the brain immediately without touching the skull, such was the sensation I felt.

Cowper was taken by his brother to an asylum where he was treated with a humanity as rare in our time as it was in the eighteenth century. Even there, he attempted suicide. This period of depression lasted eighteen months, after which he renounced all his professional life and most of his income, and retired to live quietly in the country.

Another decade passed quietly, while Cowper was lodged in the house of friends, the Reverend Morley Unwin and Mrs. Unwin, whose piety resembled and sustained his own. During this time, Cowper was persuaded to write hymns by the evangelical preacher John Newton, a former slave-trader whose brutal and fanatical character cannot have helped Cowper’s mental instability. The evangelicals were believed by their High Church enemies to encourage insanity. “There is not a madhouse in England,” wrote Sydney Smith, “where a considerable part of the patients have not been driven to insanity by the extravagance of these people.”1

On the death of the Reverend Unwin, Cowper’s neighbors and friends felt that it was improper for him to continue to live in the same house as the widow without marrying her. Accordingly, he became engaged to Mrs. Unwin, who was, as he said, like a mother to him. The engagement was broken by his third period of depression in 1773. It would appear as if his crises were each neatly calculated to release him from the need to face his responsibilities—or what his society held to be his responsibilities, an opinion to which Cowper mildly subscribed. Nevertheless, his madness gave him the leisure to write his poetry and his correspondence, while driving him from his profession and from the distractions of London. “God made the country, and man made the town,” he wrote resignedly after madness had reduced him to poverty, and he was living largely upon the charity of the friends who loved him.

Cowper did not choose madness: it chose him, and he acquiesced. The words “voluntary” or “involuntary” cannot be made relevant in his case. The full extent of his madness is revealed by his belief that God had commanded him in a dream to commit suicide. He was not able to carry out the command, and this was his unforgivable sin. God had rejected him for this, and from then on Cowper, deeply and fanatically religious, never attended a church service and never uttered a prayer. There was no use in prayer: he no longer existed for God.

  1. 1

    From the first of two articles entitled “Methodism,” The Edinburgh Review, 1808.

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