Cowper’s Windowpane

Cowper's Windowpane

Contributor: Fiona Stafford

Location: Orchard Side, Market Place, Olney, Buckinghamshire, UK, MK46 4AJ

Description: In the Cowper and Newton Museum, you can still see some of the original eighteenth-century windowpanes, flecked, blurry, bubbled and much more individual than modern mass-produced glass. It is easier to see why the poets of earlier centuries scratched poems and signatures into the windows of inns when looking at such attractive surfaces. Although William Cowper (1731-1800) was not in the habit of inscribing impromptu lines on panes of glass or, indeed, to making overnight stops in inns, the windows of this house are indirectly responsible for some of his finest poems, including The Task (1785) and ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ (1785).

Orchard Side, home to William Cowper and Mary Unwin (1724-1796) between 1768 and 1786, dominates the eastern corner of the Market ‘Square’ (really more of a triangle) in the small Buckinghamshire town of Olney. The roof rises head and shoulders above the neighbouring buildings, as if proud of its three storeys of red bricks, striped with lighter stone. The most striking feature of this tall, symmetrical, rectangular façade is the glass, or rather the neat rows of windows running from side to side – eight squares across the top floor, eight grand sashes on the first floor and five interspersed with three entrances on the ground floor. It would be difficult to fit more windows into a frontage of these proportions. For a townhouse built in the eighteenth century, when homeowners were taxed by the number of windows, there could hardly have been a more determined display of wealth. It’s a surprising residence for a poet famous for his love of simple pleasures and rural retirement (‘The calm retreat, the silent shade’).

In a house with such large and numerous windows, Cowper might have composed poetry full of light interiors and references to the people congregating daily in the market square. Instead, his indoor poems are full of thick curtains and cosy firesides: ‘Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast’ (The Task, IV, 36). The large sash windows at Orchard Side were designed to allow maximum light into the rooms, but this also meant letting in plenty of cold air. There was, however, more to Cowper’s desire to ‘Let fall the curtains’ than a straightforward wish to exclude draughts. ‘The Retired Cat’ depicts a nervous reaction to hearing ‘inexplicable scratching’ at night (‘His noble heart went pit-a-pat, /And to himself he said – what’s that?’) The poem is light-hearted, but the anxieties are real enough: even the thickest eighteenth-century glass windows were a fragile shield from the outside world, its dangers and disturbances. The Task presents a poet inclined to ‘peep at’ the world ‘through the loop-holes of retreat’ (IV, 88-9) rather than pursue an active, public life, and generally preferring to read about war, politics and foreign lands from the safety of his home. The window he seems happiest opening is over the hotbed, when the steam from the manure starts to condense on the ‘dewy sash’ (The Task, III, 496). Cowper did spend hours in his greenhouse, writing, though he was often inspired by what was inside rather than what he could see through the glass. Some poems reveal a suspicion of glass itself, as in ‘Hope’ where the transparent medium deceives with ‘imputed tints’, preventing clear-sighted perception of the truth: ‘So Flora’s wreath through colour’d chrystal seen / The rose or lily appears blue or green’ (72). With the distortions inherent in handmade glass, even an uncoloured window might mislead the beholder – making Cowper’s persistent emphasis on unmediated responses to the natural world a moral and religious, rather than purely aesthetic choice.

And yet, we know from Cowper’s friend and biographer William Hayley (1745-1820) that on one famous occasion when Cowper did look out of his window, what he saw had a transformative effect on his life and writing: ‘A new aera opens in the history of the Poet from an incident that gave new ardour and vivacity to his fertile imagination.’ Among Cowper’s restricted circle was a Mrs Jones, whose husband was the vicar of the nearby village of Clifton and whose widowed sister was visiting in the summer of 1781. Hayley relates that ‘as the two ladies chanced to call at a shop in Olney, opposite to the house of Mrs Unwin, Cowper observed them from his window. Although naturally shy, and rendered more so by his very long illness, he was so struck by the appearance of the stranger, that hearing she was sister to Mrs Jones, he requested Mrs Unwin to invite them for tea. So strong was his reluctance to admit the company of strangers, that after he had occasioned the invitation, he was for a long time unwilling to join the little party; but having forced himself at last to engage in conversation with Lady Austen, he was so reanimated by her uncommon colloquial talents, that he attended the ladies on their return to Clifton’ (Life of Cowper, I, 116).

Their friendship developed rapidly, once again helped by a window. After an attempted burglary at the Clifton vicarage, when thieves tried to climb in through the kitchen window and failed only because it had been nailed up to keep out the cold, Lady Austen was so frightened that she was invited to stay at Orchard Side instead (Letters, II, 80-1). In one of their lively conversations, Lady Austen suggested Cowper should attempt a poem about his sofa, which turned into The Task; on another occasion, eager to ward off his recurrent bouts of depression, she recounted the hilarious anecdote of John Gilpin. As Hayley comments admiringly, Ann Austen was ‘highly accomplished in herself, and singularly happy in animating and directing the fancy of her poetical friends.’ He paid tribute to her on behalf of all Cowper’s readers by adding ‘to this lady we are primarily indebted for the Poem of the Task the Ballad of John Gilpin and the Translation of Homer.’ (Life of Cowper, I, 115)

Date: 18th century

Subject: William Cowper (1731-1800)

Object type: windowpane

Format: glass

Media rights: Photo by Fiona Stafford

Publisher: Cowper and Newton Museum