James King and Charles Ryskamp (eds), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Vol. 1: Adelphi and Letters 1750–1781

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textual history

The narrative of his own life and his affectionate recollection of his brother John's last days are among Cowper's most interesting pieces of writing. They are skilfully conceived, carefully controlled narratives of fearful moments of crisis in the lives of the two brothers. The tormented, self-accusing autobiographical narrative has its foil in the gentle and sensitive rendition of John's conversion to the truths his brother has learned; William, who has been taught God's ways in a harrowing manner, as we learn in his own narrative, becomes, in the second narrative, the patient and gentle interpreter of God's plan to his younger brother.

Cowper's autobiographical narrative was not published in the author's lifetime. In 1816, two rival editions of Cowper's Memoir made their way into print. The Edwards edition claims to be the first publication of the narrative of Cowper's early life. The Cox edition makes the same claim. The best available evidence would suggest simultaneous or near-simultaneous publication.1

According to Samuel Greatheed, the Revd. David Simpson published part of Cowper's narrative concerning his brother in Deathbed Evidences of the Gospel, although such a work has not been located.2 The first known printing of Cowper's memoir of his brother, Adelphi, as it was known, appeared in 1802, 'Faithfully transcribed from his original Manuscript, by John Newton', Cowper's close friend.

The whereabouts of Cowper's holograph (or copies of it) of his own life and that of his brother are unknown. Readers of Cowper's Memoir have thus been forced to settle for either the Cox or the pg xxivEdwards version of 1816. Recently, Mrs. Madan's copy, made from Newton's copy and transcribed in 1772, has become available. This manuscript contains both narratives under the joint title of Adelphi (The Brothers). The copyist appears to be Maria Cowper, Mrs. Madan's daughter (a small portion of the copying was perhaps done by Mrs. Madan herself). The manuscript is in 'Common Place Book Vol. 2', once owned by Miss Mary Hog of Edinburgh, and was presented by Mr. Roger Hog in 1967 to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Despite the fact that the accidentals in spelling and punctuation are obviously not Cowper's, there can be little doubt that the Bodleian manuscript is a much more accurate rendition of Cowper's Memoir than any previously available to the public.

A theory may be advanced concerning the textual history of Adelphi. Martin Madan was allowed to read Cowper's holograph copy of his Memoir in 1767 (see Cowper to Mrs. Madan, 26 September 1767). John Newton, Lady Hesketh, and Mrs. Madan were allowed the same privilege in 1768 (see Cowper to Mrs. Madan, 18 June 1768). Cowper lent his manuscript copy of the two narratives to Newton some time after 1770 (either his original Memoir with the narrative concerning John added to it, or a completely new holograph). Newton lent a copy he had made of this manuscript to Mrs. Cowper by 8 August 1772. She then transcribed this copy into Mrs. Madan's Commonplace Book (it would seem by this time that a great number of accidentals not by Cowper were introduced—either by Newton and copied by Mrs. Cowper, or by Mrs. Cowper herself, or a combination thereof). Mrs. Cowper then most probably returned Newton's copy to him after receiving his directions for doing so in his letter of 4 November 1772.3 Newton published the second part of the narrative in 1802 (Newton took Cowper's title for the entire interlocking narrative and assigned it to the latter, smaller, portion). It is probable that the Cox and Edwards editions of 1816 (as well as the two manuscripts of the Memoir which predate 1816) are derived from an expurgated version of Cowper's holograph. The excisions to the holograph may originate with Newton.

The 'authority' of Mrs. Madan's Commonplace Book over previously available versions of Adelphi may be presented by means of pg xxva tree showing the probable relationship of Cowper's no longer extant holograph to the available versions.


All the manuscript versions (dating from 1803 onwards) and all printed versions of the Memoir (two editions, 1816) are probably derived from Newton, either from his copy of the 1767 holograph or from a copy of a possibly new holograph post 1770. All these versions are substantively close to each other, and none contains the excised portions found in Mrs. Madan's Commonplace Book. Mrs. Madan's version, which also derives its authority from Newton, is clearly closer to Cowper's holograph than any previously available version. Since Mrs. Madan's version pre-dates all others and since there is no evidence indicating that it was Cowper's intention to 'edit' or 'revise' his original holograph, her version must take precedence over the others now known.

The excisions in the previously available Memoir of Cowper's life are of two kinds. Some of the references to Martin Madan have been omitted. A question of decorum seems to be at issue in the other significant cuts. Cowper's lie about a missing buckle is left out. The vivid evocation that Cowper conjures up of the interior of an imaginary cathedral has been removed. The more ghastly aspects of Cowper's attempts at suicide and his behaviour while in a suicidal frame of mind have also been deleted. The effect of the excisions is to present Cowper's Memoir in a way that was probably considered more readily sympathetic to some of its first readers, and less objectionable to his family.

Adelphi, as Cowper originally conceived it, is a direct and primitive pg xxviaccount of the torments of the suicidal mind. The 'restored' Adelphi makes Cowper's interlocking narratives available in a form undoubtedly very close to his holograph narrative.

manuscript sources


'Adelphi, an Account of the Conversion of W. C. Esqre., Faithfully transcribed from his own Narrative and likewise His narrative of the memorable Conversion of his Brother the Rev. John Cowper. Late fellow of Bennet Colledge Cambridge.' This is a transcript of Cowper's Memoir, copied by Maria F. Cowper (some perhaps in Judith Madan's hand) from Newton's copy. 'Common Place Book Vol. 2', the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

post 1770

Shorthand transcription of Cowper's Memoir and John Newton's transcription of Cowper's Narrative of John Cowper's life. Contemporary marbled boards, 8vo, 46 leaves on paper manufactured by Joseph Portal from 1770 to 1796. Sold as lot 206 at Sotheby's sale, 22 June 1976. Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University.

The shorthand transcription of Cowper's life, similar to that in Mrs. Madan's Common Place Book, is in an unknown hand. Newton's transcription of John's life is very similar to his Adelphi (1802). Neither transcript can be accurately dated.

The authority of both transcriptions in the McMaster manuscript is open to serious doubt. John Newton provided Mrs. Madan in 1772 with his copy of the interlocking lives, and there is no evidence of a shorthand version at that time. Furthermore, Mrs. Madan copied what Newton claimed was a literal transcription.


'A Narrative of Cowper's experience by Himself.' The watermark is 1803. It is item 311 in Quaritch catalogue 714. Collection of Mr. Brian Spiller.


'Memoirs of William Cowper, Esqr. 'till the age of 40—Written by himself—.' The half-title page reads, 'Geo. White 1815. Memoirs of pg xxviiWilliam C'. This copy is written in an old bank book (11·4 × 18·4 × 1·2 cm); 1/4 calf, marbled sides, pages unnumbered, but containing 170 including 63 that are blank. Formerly owned by Kenneth Povey. Princeton University Library.


'Life of William Cowper.' This MS. is dated 1819 and once belonged to the late Hiram Corson, Professor of English at Cornell; it probably also belonged to 'Anne White'. Cornell University Library.


'A Narrative of Cowper's Experience, written by Himself.' The paper on which this MS. is written is watermarked 'T. Stains 1812'; there is a frontispiece drawing of Cowper, signed in a hand which is presumably the same as that of the entire MS.: 'A.A. March 10th. 1821.' Pforzheimer Collection, New York.




Adelphi. A Sketch of the Character, And An Account of the Last Illness, of the Late Rev. John Cowper, A.M. Fellow of Bennet College, Cambridge. Written by His Brother, the Late William Cowper, Esq. of the Inner Temple. Faithfully Transcribed from His Original Manuscript, by John Newton. London: 1802.

Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq.


Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. Written by Himself, And Never Before Published. London: Printed for R. Edwards, Crane Court, Fleet Street; And Sold by All Booksellers. 1816.

Memoirs of the Most Remarkable and Interesting Parts of the Life of William Cowper, Esq. of the Inner Temple. London: Printed for the Editor, and Sold by E. Cox and Son, St. Thomas's Street, Borough; And All Other Booksellers in Town and Country. 1816.


Although one can be reasonably sure from the statements by Newton and Mrs. Madan that we have an accurate substantive version of Cowper's holograph, there can be little doubt that a variety of accidentals, not of Cowper's making, have crept into the Bodleian manuscript. For example, Cowper is usually careful in the punctuation of his sentences; the Bodleian manuscript is erratic in this respect. Capitalization is also haphazard in the manuscript. It is almost impossible to decide which word Cowper himself would or would not have capitalized. We have, therefore, made no substantive changes in this edition, but have introduced changes in capitalization, punctuation, and spelling so that it may be read without difficulty.

For example, Mrs. Cowper's transcription of the following passage is awkward and difficult to read:

… The morning was clear, and calm, the sun shone bright upon the sea and the country upon the borders of it, was the most beautiful I had ever seen. We sat down upon an eminence at the end of that arm of the sea which runs between Southampton, and the new Forest.

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 coud have weept with transport. I must needs beleive that nothing less, than the Almighty Fiat, coud have fill'd me with such inexpressible delight, not by a gradual dawning of peace, but as it were, with one flash, of his Life-giving countenance. I think I remember somewhat of a glow of gratitude to the Father of Merceis for this unexpected blessing, and that I ascribed it to his gracious acceptance of my Prayers …

The same passage, changed in accordance with modern punctuation and usage, presents a version which, we trust, is easy to read and yet in all likelihood more faithful to the holograph originally lent to Newton:

… The morning was clear and calm; the sun shone bright upon the sea; and the country upon the borders of it was the most beautiful I had ever seen. We sat down upon an eminence at the end of that arm of the sea which runs between Southampton and the New Forest.

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 pg xxixin a moment, and had I been alone, I could have wept with transport. I must needs believe that nothing less than the Almighty Fiat could have filled me with such inexpressible delight, not by a gradual dawning of peace, but, as it were, with one flash of His life-giving countenance. I think I remember somewhat of a glow of gratitude to the Father of Mercies for this unexpected blessing, and that I ascribed it to His gracious acceptance of my prayers….

Although the other manuscript and printed versions of both narratives have been consulted, their authority for substantives and accidentals now seems questionable. It has been decided, therefore, to use Mrs. Madan's Commonplace Book as the basis for what it is hoped is an accurate and readable edition of the Adelphi.


important editions of cowper's letters


The Life, and Posthumous Writings, of William Cowper, Esqr. By William Hayley. Three volumes. Chichester: 1803–4.

Four hundred and seventy-three letters by Cowper were published for the first time. Two more were added in the edition of 1809 and four more in 1812.


The Letters of the Late William Cowper, Esq. To His Friends. A New Edition. Revised by His Kinsman, J. Johnson. Three volumes. London: 1817.

The letters, although available as a separate collection, were volumes IV–VI of Johnson's ten-volume collected edition of the works. The 479 Cowper letters collected by Hayley up to 1812 are printed in this edition. These letters were republished in a single volume in 1820 and again in 1827.


Private Correspondence of William Cowper, Esq. with Several 01 His Most Intimate Friends. Now First Published from the Originals in the Possession of His Kinsman, John Johnson. Two volumes. London: 1824.

This is a collection of 221 additional letters, of which a few had been published in part by Hayley. The most important of these were pg xxxthe religious letters addressed to Newton. John Johnson declared in his preface that their deliberate exclusion by Hayley had given a distorted impression of Cowper and that their publication should help to answer the charge that his insanity had been caused by his religion. Johnson also wanted to give a more balanced picture of Cowper by restoring some of the lighter passages of humorous comment on men and events which Hayley had cut out as undignified. There were second and third editions in the year of first publication.


The Miscellaneous Works of William Cowper, Esq. of the Inner Temple. With a Life and Notes, by John S. Memes. Three volumes. Edinburgh, London, and Dublin: 1834.

Memes printed 481 numbered letters by Cowper in his first two volumes, introducing many others, also taken from Hayley, into his Life. He also quoted freely from the Private Correspondence, although it was still in copyright, sometimes reprinting a whole letter.


The Works of William Cowper His Life and Letters by William Hayley, Esq. Now First Completed by the Introduction of Cowper's Private Correspondence. Edited by the Rev. T. S. Grimshawe. Eight volumes. London: 1835.

Grimshawe's edition of the letters was largely based on Hayley's Life which he endeavoured to present and supplement from an evangelical point of view. He printed nearly all the letters published by Hayley and nearly all those in the Private Correspondence, adding about a dozen new ones. There was a second edition in 1836.


The Works of William Cowper, Esq. Comprising His Poems, Correspondence, and Translations. With a Life of the Author, by the Editor, Robert Southey. Fifteen volumes. London: 1835–7.

Since he had access only to a limited number of originals, Southey was obliged to use Hayley's text. Where he was able to get hold of manuscript letters, he made strenuous efforts to improve upon Hayley's readings. Southey also printed a number of previously unprinted letters from Cowper to Newton, Hill, Bagot, Mrs. King, as well as the collections of letters to Lady Hesketh and William Unwin. He published 753 letters plus parts of a further 128.

pg xxxi1904

The Correspondence of William Cowper. By Thomas Wright. Four volumes. London: 1904.

This edition contains 1,041 letters, 753 being wholly from Southey and 51 from other published sources. Of the remaining 237, 105 were unpublished and 132 had been partly published. Wright had seen the originals of about 400 letters and of these he printed the complete text.


Poems of William Cowper. Edited by J. C. Bailey. London: 1905.

This edition contains 35 new letters to Joseph Hill and John and Catherine Johnson.


The Unpublished and Uncollected Letters of William Cowper. Edited by Thomas Wright. London: 1925.

This adds 31 new letters to various correspondents.


William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq. A Study of his Life and Works to the Year 1768. By Charles Ryskamp. Cambridge: 1959.

The appendices add 19 new or substantially new parts of previously known letters. They also include literary essays.

The present edition is indebted to Norma Russell's A Bibliography of William Cowper to 1837 (Oxford, 1963) for the descriptions of the items analysed in her study. For a list of letters printed separately before 1837, see pp. 205–9 of her book. Since many Cowper letters in print appear only in part, we have not indicated previous publications for any letters which exist as holographs or reliable manuscript copies. For example, Southey printed C's letter to Hill of 10 March 1766, but he omitted the entire second paragraph as well as transcribing 65£ for 15£.

principal collections of cowper's letters

The Hannay Collection, Princeton University Library

It consists of 404 holograph letters and 46 copies of Cowper letters. Assembled by the late Professor Neilson C. Hannay, this is the pg xxxiilargest collection of Cowper letters. Princeton University Library has supplemented the Hannay Collection by purchasing additional letters by Cowper.

Most of the Princeton copies are addressed to John Newton, who lent Cowper's letters to himself to friends, including Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Ring of Reading. Sophia Ring and her friends made copies of the holographs lent them, and the texts of some Cowper to Newton letters are now known only from these transcriptions.

The Cowper Johnson Collection

This is a collection of 176 letters from 10 October 1755 to 10 December 1793 on 472 pages. They were arranged and prepared for binding by John Johnson in 1820. These letters are owned by the Misses C. and A. Cowper Johnson.

The British Library

The British Library owns 118 letters of Cowper to William Unwin from 1770 to 1786 on 244 pages. These were purchased from the Unwin family in 1861; letters to other correspondents have also been acquired.

The Panshanger Collection, Hertford County Record Office

A collection of 72 letters to various correspondents including Joseph Hill, Maria Cowper, William Hayley, Joseph Johnson, and, especially, Lady Hesketh.

The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

Approximately fifty Cowper letters are contained in this collection. The holograph letters and copies at Olney are described in K. Povey's 'Hand-list of Manuscripts in the Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Bucks', Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, iv, No. 2 (1965), 107–27.

The Pierpont Morgan Library

In addition to some miscellaneous letters, Morgan MSS. MA 86–7 contain most of the correspondence between Walter Bagot and Cowper (44 letters to Bagot, 9 from Bagot); letters to other correspondents have also been acquired.



Holograph Letters

Two concerns have governed our printing of holograph letters: the primary authority of a literal transcription and the need for a clear, easily read text. We have retained Cowper's exact spelling, numerals, and use of capital letters; we have preserved the ampersand (which gives one a sense of the immediacy of many letters) and we have transcribed exactly abbreviations of signatures, addresses, endorsements, and dates and places in the headings and conclusions of letters, since conventional usage in this respect has not altered much in two centuries, and so that the reader will be better able to realize the quickness of Cowper's writing. Punctuation is adjusted only when required for smooth reading, with the appropriate stop at the end of each sentence. Several minor changes have been made for the same purpose: other abbreviations in the body of the letters are expanded, raised letters are lowered, capital letters have been added where necessary, and the placement of apostrophes has been rendered consistent with modern practice (they are added for possessives, but deleted in plurals). Square brackets [ ] indicate doubtful readings.


In the preparation of this edition, we have sometimes employed manuscript copies (mainly in the Hannay Collection, Princeton University Library, and the Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney) as sources for our text. We have done this when a manuscript copy is the only source for a letter. We have also used copies of Cowper's letters in preference to printed versions when the relevant copies seem closer in substantives to Cowper's practice or have better authority than a printed version. In editing these manuscript copies, we have silently changed punctuation and spelling to accord with Cowper's customary usage when the copies are obviously reliable transcripts of holographs (this is true of the copies at Princeton; Mrs. Ring's transcriptions of extant Cowper letters are always faithful to the holographs). In the case of manuscript copies with punctuation, spelling, and syntax that vary significantly from Cowper's practice, we have modernized the texts (this is the case with Mrs. Cowper's transcriptions, now at Olney, of Cowper's letters to herself and to pg xxxivMrs. Madan; her transcriptions of extant Cowper holographs are very inexact).


Except for silently correcting any misprints, the texts are reprinted literally. In the case of some letters where the punctuation and spelling are obviously not Cowper's, we have changed the letter in accordance with Cowper's practice.


The heading to each letter gives the name of the recipient, the day and date of the letter, the address in Cowper's hand (if available), the postmark (if available), and the source of our copy-text. Owners of manuscript letters are identified by name; owners of manuscript copies are identified by name with the addition of the word 'copy' in parentheses; printed sources are italicized. Information available from franked letters, with the address in the hand of the person providing this service, is also cited. Letters of unknown or questionable dating are placed at the most appropriate point in the text.


The introduction to each volume includes biographical sketches of Cowper's correspondents. The emphasis in each biography is on Cowper's relationship to that person during the years covered in the volume.

We have tried to make the footnotes as brief and as informative as possible. In providing documentation on the persons, places, historical and contemporary events, and books mentioned by Cowper, our intention has been to clarify Cowper's references and to present unobtrusively sufficient information for a clear understanding of the context in which Cowper writes.


Cowper is seen in a wide variety of moods in the letters extending from 1750 to 1781. There is first of all the sprightly, energetic man about town revealed in his early letters to such friends as Walter Bagot, John Duncombe, Clotworthy Rowley, and Chase Price. Cowper is cognizant of the latest fashions in dress and literature. He is pg xxxvanxious to be seen as the earnest lover and the sophisticated raconteur. As might be expected, these letters are youthful attempts at epistle-writing. They are unusually and sometimes precociously self-conscious.

This very real and important side of Cowper's personality disappears almost completely in the sad, weary letters of 1763 (the events leading to this state of mind are chronicled in Adelphi). The prosaic and often comfortable life at Huntingdon and Olney (interrupted in his life and in the correspondence from 1772 to 1775 by Cowper's second period of depression) is related in the letters from 1765 to 1772 and from 1775 to 1781. The letters from 1764 to 1770 are strongly evangelical in tone, or they are concerned with his finances, the produce of his garden, requests for fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, his clothes and his tailor in London. His spirit and his writing seem to change mid-way through 1778, and it is only then that the letters which show his particular style, his grace and wit, begin to appear.

Cowper's preparations for his major book of 1782 are clearly seen in the letters of 1780 and 1781. The first volume of letters ends on the eve of the publication of Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq., the book of verse which contributed significantly in making Cowper one of the best-known English poets.


Lady Austen (1738?–1802), born Ann Richardson, the daughter of John Richardson of North End in the parish of Fulham in the county of Middlesex. She married Robert Austen (1708–72) on 23 June 1755; Austen succeeded to the baronetcy in 1760. Sir Robert and Lady Austen probably went to Sancerre in France in 1763 and returned to England in 1767. They were back in Sancerre in 1768, and in Britain in 1771. Sir Robert died on 13 February 1772 and Lady Austen went to Sancerre in 1774; she was not again in England until the autumn of 1778. In 1781, Lady Austen lived at the parsonage, Clifton (Lady Austen's brother-in-law, Thomas Jones, was curate there) and in 1782 at the vicarage of Olney, where Thomas Scott was curate. Cowper met Lady Austen in July 1781, when she first took up residence with the Joneses. Cowper and Lady Austen quarrelled about the end of January 1782. Their reconciliation took place pg xxxviabout the time of her return to Clifton in June–July 1782; the final break happened between 24 May and 12 July 1784. Lady Austen has been immortalized as the muse of The Task, and it is evident that Cowper admired much of her charm and wit. It is also clear that Lady Austen had a satirical turn of mind and Mrs. Unwin was offended by her conduct. It seems likely that Mrs. Unwin's influence led Cowper to the two estrangements with Lady Austen. Lady Austen went to Bath in May 1784 and then to Bristol. She married for a second time (probably in 1796) Count Claude Tardiff du Granger. She died at Paris on 12 August 1802.

There is some possibility that Lady Austen made a veiled proposal of marriage to Cowper and that this afforded him the opportunity to renounce her. 'That Cowper rejected her advances as a mere human indiscretion and spoke of her afterwards without bitterness was because his three years' friendship with her had brought him back to the outward habits of a sane and happy life.' (Kenneth Povey, 'The Banishment of Lady Austen', R.E.S. XV (1939), 400.)

Walter Bagot (1731–1806), of Pipe Hall, Staffs. He was the son of Sir Walter Wagstaff Bagot (1702—68), 5th baronet, and his wife Barbara (d. 1765), eldest daughter of William Legge, first Earl of Dartmouth. The family of Bagot had held property at Blithfield and Bagot's Bromley, Staffs., since the Conquest. Bagot and Cowper were intimate friends at Westminster but drifted apart soon afterwards, and visited each other only twice in the years 1750–81. Bagot was very much like Cowper in his taste and in his simple, amiable, gentle manners, and in a similar relish for humour. He had been a handsome boy and a slovenly dresser; he published poetry in his youth, and throughout his life; while he held the family livings (from 1759) of Blithfield and Leigh in Staffordshire, he spent hours of every day in reading—especially the classics. On 7 September 1773, he married Anne (d. 1786), daughter of William Swinnerton, of Butterton, Staffs. Bagot subsequently married Mary Ward.

Maria Frances Cecilia Madan, afterwards Mrs. Cowper (1726–97), the Major's wife and Martin Madan's sister. An unusually accomplished woman, Mrs. Cowper was sufficiently skilled in French to act in Racine's Athalie, and she was so successful in that endeavour that she desired to become an actress. Also a pg xxxviiperson of a very devotional cast, she reveals in her letters to Cowper a community of intense religious feelings.

William Cowper (1721?–69). William Cowper was the eldest surviving son of William Cowper (1689–1740) of Hertingfordbury, and Cowper's first cousin. He matriculated at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1739 but left without a degree. He was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1740 and became a major in the Hertfordshire Militia. As early as 1743, Cowper proposed marriage to Maria Frances Cecilia Madan, his first cousin. Maria's mother, Judith Madan, objected to the marriage of first cousins and also believed that William did not have sufficient means. However, on 5 August 1749, they were married at St. James's, Westminster. The major's profession frequently took him away from Hertingfordbury Park. Cowper bought, late in 1751, Newland Park, near Snaith in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the family was often in residence there. Major Cowper died at Hertingfordbury on 28 August 1769.

John Duncombe (1729–86). A graduate (B.A. 1749; M.A. 1752) and Fellow (1751–8) of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Duncombe probably became acquainted with William Cowper through John Cowper, who must have known Duncombe at Felsted School and Cambridge. At school Duncombe had been the first scholar and captain. He gained the very highest reputation for scholarship, and by his pleasant temperament and manners made strong friendships with his masters and fellow-students. Duncombe, in collaboration with his father, William, published translations of Horace in 1756 and 1759 (The Works of Horace in English Verse); in this they were assisted by several friends, including William Cowper. Duncombe also turned very early to studies preparatory to the taking of Holy Orders. His 'inclination, virtuous turn of mind, and unquestionable abilities, concurred to render him peculiarly qualified' for the ministry (Andrew Kippis, Biographia Britannica, V (1793), 509). He wrote many original poetical compositions, and was an essayist and reviewer of merit. From 1766 to 1786, he undertook the 'Review of Books' in the Gentleman's Magazine, and in this capacity it was he who most probably reviewed Cowper's books for the Magazine—the most important reviews to Cowper. In 1757, Duncombe had been presented to the united livings of St. Andrew and St. Mary pg xxxviiiBredman, Canterbury, and he was one of the six preachers at Canterbury Cathedral (from 1766). Duncombe's clerical career also included the following appointments: assistant preacher at St. Anne's, Soho (1758–9); the living of West Thurrock, Essex (1763–9); the masterships of St. John's Hospital, Canterbury, and St. Nicholas, Harbledown (1770); the living of Herne (1773). On 20 April 1761, he married Susanna, daughter of the painter Joseph Highmore of Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Harriot Cowper, afterwards Lady Hesketh (1733–1807). Lady Hesketh, the eldest surviving daughter of Ashley Cowper, was Cowper's first cousin and the sister of Theadora Cowper, whom Cowper wished to marry. She was the wife of Thomas Hesketh of Rufford Hall in Lancashire, who was created a baronet in 1761 and died in 1778, leaving Cowper a small legacy. The Heskeths went to Italy after Cowper moved to Olney and lost touch with him. Lady Hesketh resumed correspondence with Cowper after the publication of The Task in 1785, and she henceforth devoted a great deal of her time to his welfare. A person of somewhat austere refinement, she sometimes put people off by her manner. Mrs. Thrale in a diary entry of 10 January 1781 provides a description of her: 'Dear Lady Hesketh! and how like a Naples Washball She is: so round, so sweet, so plump, so polished, so red, so white … with more Beauty than almost any body, as much Wit as many a body; and six Times the Quantity of polite Literature … I never can find out what that Woman does to keep the people from adoring her.' (Thraliana, ed. K. Balderston (Oxford, 1942), i. 478.)

Joseph Hill (1733–1811). Perhaps Cowper's closest friend during his Temple days, Joe Hill had been born near Chancery Lane, the son of Francis Hill (d. 1741), an attorney who was the nephew and secretary of Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls, and Theodosia Sedgwick (d. 1784). He had been well known to Cowper's Uncle Ashley and his family, and soon after Cowper left Westminster he and young 'Sephus' became friends. Hill had been early bred to the law; he acted as a clerk in Chancery Lane (he served his articles of clerkship under Robert Chester of the Six Clerks' Office in Chancery Lane), later qualified as solicitor and attorney, and became one of the Sixty, or Sworn Clerks in Chancery. He was made Secretary of pg xxxixLunatics in 1778. He became a rich man owing to the justified esteem in which so many of his wealthy clients held him. During most of his life Cowper was financially dependent on Hill. Hill not only handled Cowper's small monetary matters—paying his London bills, apportioning his income for expenses in Huntingdon, Olney, etc.—but from his own pocket made it possible for Cowper to live as a gentleman, though still a poor one. Hill married Sarah Mathews (1742– 1824) in August 1771.

Joseph Johnson (1738–1809), publisher and bookseller, was born at Everton, near Liverpool, and arrived in London in 1752. He established himself at St. Paul's Churchyard from 1772 onwards. A man of advanced, firmly held opinions, he published important works on surgery and medicine as well as some of the most innovative works of his time. His authors included Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Horne Tooke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine, Henry Fuseli, and Maria Edgeworth. Johnson had been one of the booksellers distributing the Olney Hymns. Newton, whom Cowper consulted at every stage of the preparation of Poems in 1782, found his publisher for him.

Judith Cowper, afterwards Mrs. Madan (1702–81), the mother of Martin Madan and Maria Cowper; Cowper's aunt. Mrs. Madan was the only daughter of Judge Spencer Cowper (1669–1728), Cowper's grandfather. A correspondent of Pope's, she was forced to curtail her literary interests when she married Captain Martin Madan, of the King's Own Regiment of Horse, in 1723. She was greatly troubled by the continual separations necessitated by her husband's military life. Though her children were a consolation to her, she found solace primarily in religion after she came to know Lady Huntingdon and John Wesley about 1749. Her letters to Cowper testify to their similar feelings about evangelical religion.

Martin Madan (1725–90). Educated at Westminster (admitted 1736) and Christ Church, Oxford (B.A. 1746), and admitted to the Inner Temple in 1747, Madan was called to the Bar in 1748. He was a member of the Poetical Club from 1748 to 1750. He was very moved by hearing John Wesley preach in 17500 and in this year he obtained Wesley's licence to become an itinerant preacher and was eventually pg xlordained deacon in the Church of England in 1757. Madan was much involved with the Wesleys, Lady Huntingdon, George Whitefield, and other distinguished Methodists. He was Chaplain at the Locke Hospital from 1762 to 1780 and in 1767 was involved in a simony scandal concerning the parish of Aldwinkle. A man of extraordinary faith and self-confidence, he had published several theological works (among others: A Collection of Psalms aud Hymns, Extracted from Various Authors, 1760; A Scriptural Account of the Doctrine of Perfection, 1763; A Scriptural Comment upon the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, 1771) before the appearance of the infamous Thelyphthora in 1781. On 17 December 1751, Martin married Jane (c. 1723–91), daughter of Sir Bernard Hale (1677–1729), chief baron of the Irish Exchequer.

John Newton (1725–1807) and Mary Catlett, afterwards Mrs. Newton (1729–90). Newton, a fervent, extremely dedicated, and sometimes over-zealous man, led a very strange and adventure-filled life before and after his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1748. His autobiography, An Authentic Narrative (1764), tells the story of his life as the master of a slave-ship and of his conversion. Newton had first gone to sea in 1736 and had made six journeys before 1742. After his marriage to Mary Catlett on 12 February 1750, he made three further voyages but in 1754, owing to ill health, he relinquished the sea. When he retired from the sea, Newton became surveyor of tides at Liverpool for five years, using his leisure time for the study of Greek, Hebrew, and theology. He applied for Holy Orders to the Archbishop of York in December 1758 but was refused. He spent three months in charge of an independent congregation at Warwick in 1760. Newton was ultimately ordained deacon (29 April) and priest (17 June) in the Church of England in 1764. He accepted the curacy of Olney in 1764, where he remained until 1780, when he became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. In addition to his contributions to the Olney Hymns (1779), Newton was the author of some important theological works, including Olney Sermons (1767), Omicron's Letters (1774), and Cardiphonia (1781). Mrs. Newton was a quiet, unassuming but firm person who suffered from ill health.

Chase Price (1731–77). Price, the 'Toby' of Cowper's early letters, was of Knighton, Radnorshire, Wales, and was in the sixth pg xliform with Cowper at Westminster in 1749, the last boy (twentieth) in the form. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in the same year. He was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1750 or 1751 and afterwards called to the Bar. Price was a member of parliament for Leominster (1759–67) and for Radnorshire (1768–77) and was constantly embroiled in various schemes involving land grants, mining adventures, and Indian trade. A writer of verse in a very casual way and an enthusiastic patron of the theatre, Price was one of the most ribald and celebrated wits of his time.

Clotworthy Rowley (1731–1805). Rowley was the son of Sir William Rowley, K.B., Admiral of the Fleet, of Tendring Hall, Stoke by Nayland, Suffolk. Of a robust and unruly nature, Rowley lived in accordance with the adventurous spirit of his extremely distinguished Admiralty family. Rowley was admitted to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and then to the Inner Temple in 1750. Rowley and Cowper were neighbours at the Temple. Rowley withdrew from there in 1768, at which time he was called to the Irish Bar, and later became M.P. for Downpatrick (1771–1801).

Mary Unwin (1724–96), daughter of William Cawthorne, a draper of Ely, and wife of the Revd. Morley Unwin (1703–67), whom she married in 1742. On 11 November 1765, Cowper moved into the house of Mary and Morley Unwin. Of the Unwin family, she in particular made Cowper feel immediately like a near relation, and he found in her what seemed to him a perfect combination of piety with a gentle, cheerful, intelligent character. Mrs. Unwin—it has often been said by Cowper's friends and relatives as well as by himself—was like a mother to him.

William Cawthorne Unwin (1744–86), Mrs. Unwin's only son. William had been educated at Charterhouse and at Christ's College, Cambridge. He took his degree, and was awarded the Chancellor's Classical Medal in 1764 (M.A. 1767); was ordained deacon in 1767 and priest in 1769. After a short ministry as curate at Comberton, Cambridgeshire, where his evangelical sermons earned him a substantial reputation, he was instituted rector of Stock with Ramsden Bellhouse in Essex in 1769 (in 1781 he was to become rector of Ramsden Crayes as well). He married Anne Shuttleworth pg xlii(d. 1825), by whom he had three children. An ambitious and occasionally over-excitable person, Unwin revered Cowper, and Cowper's letters to him often have the tone of the proud yet cautious parent offering advice to his offspring.


There are 325 letters in this volume, 264 taken from holographs, 1 from facsimile, 38 from manuscript copies, and 24 from printed sources. (The text of one letter—12 July 1765—is derived from both a manuscript copy and a printed source. The letter of 21 December 1780 is a composite made from two manuscript copies.) Manuscripts or manuscript copies of Cowper's letters in this volume are, for the most part, in the collections of The British Library (55), the Misses C. and A. Cowper Johnson (104), The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney (28), and Princeton University Library (65). In addition, the following own holographs or manuscript copies printed in this volume: The Berkhamsted Historical Society (1), The Boston Public Library (1), The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (1), Harvard University Library (3), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (1), Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. (2), The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery (2), Miss Mary Barham Johnson (3), Professor H. C. Longuet-Higgins (1), The Massachusetts Historical Society (1), The New York Public Library (1), The Panshanger Collection, property of Rosemary, Lady Ravensdale (14), The Pierpont Morgan Library (3), Charles Ryskamp (2), the Marquess of Salisbury (1), Robert H. Taylor (1), Trinity College, Cambridge (1), The Victoria and Albert Museum (1), G. H. H. Wheler (3), Yale University Library (4). The text of four letters is derived from the Gregg Commonplace Book. Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University, owns the holograph of Mrs. Unwin's letter to Mrs. Newton of 7 October 1773.


1 M. J. Quinlan in his edition of the Memoir (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, xcii, 1953) contends that the Cox edition preceded the Edwards by nearly two months. See, however, Russell, pp. 192–5 and Charles Ryskamp, Modern Philology, liii, No. 1 (1955) and, especially, ibid. No. 3 (1956).

2 'A Collection of Materials towards a Life of Cowper', Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney: 'While Mr C lived at Weston I met with part of it in print, in the late Revd. David Simpson's "Deathbed Evidences of the Gospel". I showed him the book, and having read [it,] he said to the best of his recollection it was accurate, as far as it went.'

3 Newton's letters to Mrs. Cowper of 8 Aug. and 4 Nov. 1772 appear on pp. 190–2 of Mrs. Cowper's Serious Common Place Book, vol. iii (Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney).

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