chapter  1
2 Pages

Early life and writings

William Cowper was born at Great Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire on 15 November 1731. His father, John Cowper (born 1694), who was rector of the parish, belonged to a prosperous and important Whig family, the most prominent of whom had been Lord Chancellor under Queen Anne and George I. The rector, whose Anglicanism was 'moderate' and reasonable rather than zealous, also enjoyed Whig patronage as one of George II's chaplains. William's mother, born Ann Donne in 1703, was thought (mistakenly) to be descended from John Donne the poet and from ancient royalty itself (see Letters III, 350, and 'On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture out of Norfolk', line 109, note, p. 305 below). She died on 13 November 1737, a few days after giving birth to William's brother John; her other five children had died in infancy. Ann Cowper's death left the six-year-old William with a lifelong sense of loss that deepened periodically into depression. He worshipped her memory. In his fifties he wrote: 'I while I live must regret a comfort of which I was deprived so early. I can truely say that not a week passes, (perhaps I might with equal veracity say a day) in which I do not think of her' (Letters II, 294: 6 November 1784).