Contributor: Nicola J. Watson
Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney
Description: On 25 April 1900, the centenary of the death of the English poet and hymnodist William Cowper (1731-1800), his house Orchardside was presented by its then owner to the town of Olney as a public museum. Cowper’s house would become one of the earlier writer’s house museums in Britain, part of a cluster of such openings at the end of the century which included Dove Cottage in 1891. These came out of a strengthening desire to celebrate an intimate relation between literature and the national landscape, a Romantic mentality that had found its first widespread expression in Britain and Europe during Cowper’s own lifetime. The programme of celebratory events laid out here is eloquent of the meanings that the figure of Cowper had shed and accumulated over the century since his death. It is perhaps also inadvertently eloquent of the extent to which Cowper has since fallen out of the accepted canon of Romantic poetry.
The programme detailed on this poster provides for ‘a public celebration’ serviced by ‘late trains’ for London to be attended by locals and national figures alike: local children, the Olney band, the local MP, an impressive number of London journalists and intellectuals, and the Dean of Canterbury. The festivities, which featured a procession of children ‘wearing the handsome Centenary medal and ‘favours of buff and green’, were clearly in part modelled on the Shakespeare Birthday Procession in Stratford-upon-Avon centred on Shakespeare’s Birthplace which had been purchased in 1847 for the nation. The talks were designed to celebrate aspects of Cowper’s afterlife: an association between Cowper and animals, deriving from the celebrity of his three pet hares; his authorship of the Olney hymns (1779); domestic retirement as exemplified by ‘Cowper relics’; his sufferings from depression; his private circle; and his ‘place in Literature’. This list reflects the cultural importance of Cowper’s life as retailed in his lengthy poem, The Task (1785), his own letters and William Hayley’s biography of 1803 and is the culmination of a tradition of representing Cowper at home in illustrations to The Task, paintings and engravings of incidents in his life, and engravings of locations mentioned in The Task. Perhaps the most charming and telling of these might be ‘Cowper Boiling his Watch and Timing it with an Egg’ (n.d.) or ‘Cowper with his Mother’s Portrait’ (1902) by Samuel Wright (1831-1915).
The opening of the Cowper house as a museum was thus the culmination of a long process of making Cowper into one of the most important Romantic poets for the Victorians and Edwardians. In 1911, the journalist, author, collector, and literary critic Clement Shorter (he who gave a lecture at the opening of the museum) summed up what Cowper meant for the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Cowper is among the poets who are epoch-makers. He brought a new spirit into English verse, and redeemed it from the artificiality and the rhetoric of many of his predecessors. With him began the “enthusiasm of humanity” that was afterwards to become so marked in the poetry of Burns and Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron. With him began the deep sympathy with nature, and love of animal life, which was to characterize so much of later poetry.
Although Cowper cannot rank among the world’s greatest poets or even among the most distinguished of poets of his own country, his place is a very high one… Added to this, one may note Cowper’s distinction as a letter-writer. He ranks among the half-dozen greatest letter-writers in the English language, and he was perhaps the only great letter-writer with whom the felicity was due to the power of what he has seen rather than what he has read.
This assessment had already translated into an interest in Cowper’s own homes and haunts; by 1803 there was a little book that would guide the literary pilgrim along Cowper’s daily walks, Cowper, illustrated by a series of views; by 1858, as William Howitt noted, ‘There is scarcely any ground in England so well known in imagination as the haunts of Cowper at Olney and Weston’ (p. 269). The strength of this desire to locate Cowper at home at Olney was reasonable given that Cowper had lived at Orchardside for twenty years; but in fact, Cowper had never much cared for the house, and in 1786 moved to a house in the village of Weston Underwood with considerable relief.
Subject: William Cowper (1731-1800)
Media rights: copyright Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney
Object type: poster
Format: ink on paper
Publisher: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney