William Cowper’s Pocket Watch

William Cowper's Pocket Watch

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: Olney, UK

Description: This watch became the property of the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) after the death of his uncle Ashley Cowper in 1788. Ashley Cowper held the prestigious office of Clerk of the Parliaments and was the subject of a famous arcadian portrait by William Hogarth, ‘Ashley Cowper with his Wife and Daughter’ (1731), now in the Tate. Ashley was the father of Theodora Cowper, and it was he who intervened to stop the marriage of William and Theodora in the 1750s on the grounds of his nephew’s limited means, and attempted to advance William’s legal career in the 1760s.

As one might expect of a man with an important station in public life, Ashley Cowper’s pocket watch is a desirable object. It is a repeater (i.e. it chimes the hour of the day when the button is depressed) mounted in a gold case, and is protected in two further cases of shagreen and brass. It was made some time between 1740 and 1788 by Thomas Martin, of the Cornhill and later at the Royal Exchange, who was made a Liveryman of the Clockmakers’ Company in 1780, and whose timepieces are held in the British Museum. At a biographical level the beautiful pocket watch represents the sophisticated political world of Ashley Cowper, one that his nephew distanced himself from at Olney, while in William Cowper’s poetry a repeater serves to ‘strike the hour’ for the many recalibrations in European thought that he prophesied for the close of the century.

English developments in pocket watch technology were a major practical achievement of the scientific revolution associated with the Royal Society. Advances by London watchmakers such as George Graham and Thomas Tompion meant that pocket watches went from being an unreliable curiosity to a common and useful accessory for middle-class men. The popularity of the pocket watch led to it becoming a common symbol in eighteenth-century literature and philosophy. The watch was employed as way for man to understand a post-Newtonian universe, notably in the writings of Samuel Clarke and Pierre Simon de Laplace who explore the metaphorical potential of a clockwork universe built by a divine watchmaker. While the pocket watch was often invoked on the side of progress, the vogue for watches was also a gift to satirists. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1724), when the Lilliputians discover Gulliver’s pocket watch they presume it is the ‘god that he worships’ and claim that Gulliver ‘called it his oracle, and said, it pointed out the time for every action of his life’. Swift’s satire of homo economicus, of man ruled by earthly and practical concerns, developed later in the century into one of the key criticisms that Romantic writers made of the Newtonian Enlightenment.

Cowper’s poetry in general, and his blank verse poem The Task (1785) in particular, is a crucial step in the developing critique of eighteenth-century materialism. The Task is divided into six books, with the first two, ‘The Sofa’ and ‘The Time-Piece’, playing on the symbolic potential of fashionable objects. The poem begins with a mock-epic on the development of the sofa, when man ‘made three legs four, / Gave them a twisted form vermicular’, but this tale of improvement is quickly undercut as Cowper suggests that more comfortable furniture may lead to ‘pampered appetite obscene’ and ‘the gouty limb’. The second book, ‘The Time-Piece’, does not immediately address this object, but later lines provide a clue to one meaning behind the title:

Time, as he passes us, has a dove’s wing,
Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.
But the world’s time is time in masquerade.

The first sort of time is—from its incipit position, the mention of the dove with its connotations of the Holy Spirit, and the allusion to the opening of Paradise Lost (1674)—a thing beyond human comprehension or measurement, whereas the ‘world’s time’ is a passing fancy at the masked balls of the immoral metropolis, that can be easily understood in the ordering of a social calendar or the ticking of a clock. The ornate pocket watch that Cowper was to inherit from his worldly uncle three years after the publication of The Task seems a fit symbol for this ‘time in masquerade’. Cowper’s friend John Newton (1725-1807) queried why he had titled the second book of The Task ‘The Time-Piece’; Cowper gave a suggestive reply on December 13 1784:

The book to which it belongs is intended to strike the hour that gives notice of approaching judgment, and dealing pretty largely in the signs of the times, seems to be denominated, as it is, with a sufficient degree of accommodation to the subject.

The evangelical Newton is encouraged to see the book in religious terms: to read the accounts of European natural disasters in Book II as apocalyptic warnings, and to avoid the mistake of the Pharisees who looked too much at the material world – who could ‘discern the face of the sky’ but ‘not discern the signs of the times’ (Matthew 16:3). In a brilliant reversal, it is the Enlightenment symbol of the pocket watch, specifically a repeater ‘to strike the hour’, that Cowper chooses when he calls time on ever-improving and ever-civilising Europe.

Cowper’s attitude to his times, and to the concept of time, may be at variance with the luxury of the pocket watch he inherited, but they are in keeping with those of later Romantic writers. Cowper is an initiator of the cultural yearning for simpler non-urban life that became central to many Romantic writers’ lives and works. This nostalgia manifests itself in a fond remembrance for older forms of time-keeping, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s memory of church-bells as ‘the poor man’s only music’ in ‘Frost at Midnight’ (1798), and Hazlitt’s rejection of ‘gold repeaters, watches with metal covers’ in his essay ‘On a Sun Dial’ (1827). But Cowper’s attitude is also part of a deeper concern about the spiritual worth of a clock-watching culture, that is neatly captured in William Blake’s infernal proverb: ‘the hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom, no clock can measure’.

Date: c. 1740–1788

Creator: Thomas Martin.

Subject: Cowper and Newton Museum

Media rights: author’s own photo

Object type: pocket watch

Publisher: Cowper and Newton Museum

Catalogue number: 3.23


For a specially commissioned soundscape inspired by this exhibit, see below.

Composed by Lara Poe. Performed by Olivia Palmer-Baker (Bassoon).

To play the video of the complete suite, ‘Romantic Sounds’, click here.