ZV | ET Student
The small market town of Olney, Buckinghamshire in southeast England is one of the more underrated literary sites of pilgrimage toured by England Term 2017. Which is quite fitting, considering it is the home of the renowned romantic poet William Cowper. Despite being a forerunner for romanticism, Cowper is under the radar compared to other writers we have studied from his era. Until our stop in Olney, I was unfamiliar with the significance of William Cowper and his work.
It did not take long on our tour of the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney to understand the importance of Cowper’s writing. Cowper co-produced the famous Olney Hymns with John Newton and embodied the traditional themes and styles of writing popularized in the romantic era. He believed that his writing should bring the reader to feel what was right, instead of simply contending them into submission. Cowper was honest with his readers by exposing his feelings, which became a common virtue held in high regard for Romantic writers.
One of his most prolific works, The Task, served as an inspiration to William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. In the first book of The Task, Cowper introduces his work by addressing the reader, which appealed to Wordsworth. Wordsworth used the same strategy of reaching out to the reader to justify his poetry in the preface of the Lyrical Ballads.
“Thou know’st my praise of nature most sincere, / And that my raptures are bit conjur’d up / to serve occasions of poetic pomp./ But genuine…” (The Task, Book 1, 150-153).
The Task served as a foundation for similar epic poems like the Lyrical Ballads, particularly in its structure. The way the poem rambles from topic to topic and is written in blank verse became a popular format for romantic epic poetry.
Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge referred to Cowper as, “The best modern poet.” It is hard to believe that a poet of such stature is not more prominent or taught more in literary classes. A couple of hours spent in Olney showcased that Cowper is by far one of the more respectable and admirable poets of the eighteenth-century.
Regardless of the time period and audiences for which Cowper was writing, many of his works are still relevant today. For instance, during the civil rights movement his anti-slavery poem, “The Negro’s Complaint”, was frequently quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many of the hymns he wrote for the Olney Hymns are still sung for worship in today’s churches. The way Cowper inspired great writers of his time represents the significance of his works today, particularly in Olney. Many of Cowper’s works still draw out emotions and are relevant to contemporary audiences.