The mad poet: William Cowper’s private pain in the public sphere

by Julia Marko


An examination of William Cowper’s life and poetry reveals a connection between the madness he suffered and the ambiguous nature of his relationship with God. Through studying madness related issues of the late eighteenth century and critical reception of Cowper’s poetry a great disparity in contemporary attitudes towards madness is discovered. Cowper is praised for his originality, natural genius and authenticity of emotion but criticized for his religious zeal. Focussing on Hatred & Vengeance! My Eternal Portion, The Shrubbery, and Ode to Peace, madness, melancholy and damnation prove to be major themes in Cowper’s poetry. This essay explores the act of writing poetry as a therapeutic means and consults Allan Ingram on the topic but deals with issues concerning Cowper’s private madness in a public domain to a greater extent. Cowper’s personal pain evokes pathos and praise from his contemporary audience but this same audience often finds his religious enthusiasm unattractive.