But now we float: Cowper, Air-Balloons, and the Poetics of Flight




In early December 1783, William Cowper wrote to John Newton (Anglican clergyman and Cowper’s collaborator on Olney Hymns) to share his thoughts about the recent air-balloon flights in France: My mind however is frequently getting into these Balloons, and is busy in multiplying speculations as airy as the regions through which they pass. The last account from France, which seems so well authenticated, has changed my jocularity upon this occasion, into serious expectation […] But now we float; at random indeed pretty much, and as the wind drives us, for want of nothing but that steerage which Invention the conqueror of many equal if not superior difficulties, may be expected to supply. – Should the point be carried, and man at last become as familiar with the air as he has long been with the Ocean, will it, in its consequences, prove a mercy or a Judgement? I think a Judgement. First because if a power to convey himself from place to place like a bird, would have been good for him, his maker would have formed him with such a capacity. But he has been a groveller upon the earth for six thousand years, and now at last when the Close of this present state of things approaches, begins to exalt himself above it.1 This letter is remarkable for the poet’s trepidation at the prospect of aerial travel and its possible divine repercussions, but also for the connection he traces between the air as region of travel and as a form of thought. Cowper’s phrasing at the beginning of this passage does not suggest that he has been merely thinking about balloons, but that, by getting ‘into’ them, his mind has embodied the path of their flight or even journeyed away from him via his ‘speculations’. His description of

In early December 1783, William Cowper wrote to John Newton

(Anglican clergyman and Cowper’s collaborator on Olney Hymns) to

share his thoughts about the recent air-balloon flights in France:

My mind however is frequently getting into these Balloons, and is busy in

multiplying speculations as airy as the regions through which they pass. The

last account from France, which seems so well authenticated, has changed

my jocularity upon this occasion, into serious expectation […] But now we

float; at random indeed pretty much, and as the wind drives us, for want of

nothing but that steerage which Invention the conqueror of many equal if

not superior difficulties, may be expected to supply. – Should the point be

carried, and man at last become as familiar with the air as he has long been

with the Ocean, will it, in its consequences, prove a mercy or a Judgement?

I think a Judgement. First because if a power to convey himself from place

to place like a bird, would have been good for him, his maker would have

formed him with such a capacity. But he has been a groveller upon the earth

for six thousand years, and now at last when the Close of this present state of

things approaches, begins to exalt himself above it.1

This letter is remarkable for the poet’s trepidation at the prospect of

aerial travel and its possible divine repercussions, but also for the

connection he traces between the air as region of travel and as a form

of thought. Cowper’s phrasing at the beginning of this passage does

not suggest that he has been merely thinking about balloons, but that,

by getting ‘into’ them, his mind has embodied the path of their flight or

even journeyed away from him via his ‘speculations’. His description of

these ‘speculations’ as ‘airy’ similarly captures a quality of thought as

flighty and insubstantial, yet also as capable of carrying you into other

‘regions’ entirely. The rise of aerial travel in the late eighteenth-century

revealed, as Clare Brant observes, ‘much unknowing’, at the same

time as it brought air into sharper focus as an ‘imaginative medium’.2

Scientific progress and the creative imagination met in the image and

potential of balloons, as the ‘dream of flight’ that had ‘haunted men –

especially poets’ became an emergent reality.3 Through close attention


to his letters from the period 1782-5, this essay will consider Cowper’s

conflicted interest in air balloons, noting in his reactions to the advances

in ballooning a negotiation between wonder and fearful scepticism.

Balloon flights, and their promise of new forms of liberation and

knowledge, captured Cowper’s intellectual curiosity and imagination as

much as they caused him to grapple with the place of the human and

everyday life in relation to the air as an emergent region (a conflict that

was informed particularly by his faith and spiritual anxiety). However,

balloons also, as I will explore through a reading of his poem ‘An Ode

to Apollo: On An Ink-Glass Almost Dried in the Sun’ (1792), offered

Cowper a means of thinking about poetry in relation to flight and to

aerial invention.

Cowper seems an unlikely participant in the so-called ‘balloonomania’

of the late eighteenth century, and yet his letters are full of anecdotes

about and references to air balloons.4 The above letter in particular,

with the poet’s mention of the ‘last account from France’, sees Cowper

participating in the pique of public interest in aeronautical developments.

The rise of air ballooning (especially in France and England) in the

eighteenth century has been well-documented by Clare Brant, Siobhan

Carroll, and Richard Holmes, and Michael R. Lynn, to name a few.5

Their work recovers a various history of air ballooning, but they all

agree that the Montgolfier brothers (Joseph and Etienne) remain pivotal

figures in the development of aeronautics in the period. Whilst Lynn

argues persuasively that we need to look beyond the Montgolfiers and

towards ‘the many other balloonists, and the hundreds of other launches,

across Europe and North America who brought this new invention to

the forefront of the cultural lives of people at the end of the eighteenth

century’, it was the experiments carried out by these two brothers that

ignited the public imagination and that first captured Cowper’s interest.6

The ‘last account from France’ that Cowper refers to above was the first

manned hydrogen balloon flight orchestrated by Dr Jacques Alexandre

Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert on 1 December 1783. Their balloon

was launched from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, with the voyage

lasting for about two hours and covering roughly 27 miles.7 This short

voyage was, however, a culmination of efforts and experiments sparked

initially by the Montgolfiers, who first launched their hot air balloon


in Annonay, France, in June 1783. An unmanned vessel, this balloon

was constructed from painted silk sections and heavy paper that were

buttoned together and filled with hot air; it travelled less than two miles.

The brothers then made a second attempt at Versailles in September

1783, where their balloon the ‘Aerostat Reveillon’ was launched, this

time manned supposedly by a sheep, a duck, and a rooster who had been

selected over a human pilot due to fears about the effects of flight and

shifts in altitude on the human frame. The more sophisticated hydrogen

balloon launched by Charles and Robert in the December of that year

was of course an improvement aided by the discoveries of Joseph

Priestley and, later, the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier. Priestley’s

treatises on Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air

(1774-7) traced his endeavours to discover the composition of air and to

isolate its elements, most significantly his identification of what he called

‘dephlogisticated air’, later identified as oxygen. It was Lavoisier who

built on the work of Priestley and made this final identification in 1778.

Lavoisier also, crucially, identified hydrogen in 1783, a discovery which

fuelled the development of aeronautic technology due to its buoyancy.

Cowper’s correspondence makes no overt references to the scientific

developments lying behind aerial travel, but his tracking of the

‘accounts’ from France bears witness to them. His letters tuned into

the Montgolfiers’ initial experiments. Writing to Newton in September

1783, the poet’s discussion of the ill-health of various villagers in Olney,

as well as his and Newton’s recent illnesses, led him to reflect on the

place of this sickly community in the grander scheme of things:

Oh what things pass in Cottages and hovels, which the Great never dream of.

French Philosophers amuse themselves, and according to their own phrase,

cover themselves with glory, by inventing Air-balls which by their own

buoyancy ascend above the clouds, and are lost in regions which no human

could ever penetrate before.8

News of the Montgolfiers’ launches in June and September had reached

Olney, and with it the microcosm of ‘cottages and hovels’ that Cowper

was immersed in seemed a stark contrast to the new regions that ‘Airballs’

were supposedly capable of reaching. The poet’s comparison of his

local acquaintances with the ambitions of ‘French Philosophers’ is also

symptomatic of, as Arden Hegele traces, the disruption of ‘the identity


politics of home and nation’ that air travel introduced.9 The clumsiness

of Cowper’s description is fitting, and expressive of the novelty of this

invention as his vocabulary strains to accommodate it. That something

as surprisingly solid-sounding as an ‘air-ball’ could be buoyant enough

to ascend ‘above the clouds’ captures both the captivating and alienating

qualities of air balloons; the ‘air-ball’ as a man-made object which can

then fly into realms beyond human reach or recognition straddles both

the known and the unknown. The fact that the balloon is also figured as

ascending purely by its ‘own buoyancy’ makes it all the more startling.

If Cowper responds to the first launches of the Montgolfiers here, then it

is the idea that their flights were unmanned that also grabs his interest.

Balloons entered his consciousness as objects that are ‘lost’ to our control

once they are in the air, marking a significant advance in human invention

but also transcending the bounds of lived, quotidian experience. As his

later letter to Newton shows, the newly manned hydrogen balloon flight

of Charles and Robert that followed the Montgolfiers’ efforts brought

home to Cowper the potential for aerial travel to take humanity into

those mysterious regions, albeit in potentially disruptive ways, which I

will discuss later on in this essay.

Alongside his suspicion of air balloons, however, was Cowper’s

‘jocularity’ at their invention. This was perhaps best expressed through his

sudden interest in Vincenzo Lunardi, the Italian aeronaut who manned a

balloon flight launched from the Honorable Artillery Company’s grounds

in London in September 1784. Lunardi’s significance in relation to the

popular interest in ballooning in Britain especially is well-documented.10

The fashionable ‘Lunardi bonnet’ memorably depicted in Burns’ ‘To a

Louse’ (1786) is just one example of how air balloons became pervasive

in late eighteenth-century literature and culture. Cowper was given a

copy of Lunardi’s An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England

(1784) by William Unwin’s niece, also named Mary like his mother, and

stated that ‘I have read Lunardi with pleasure. He is [a] lively sensible

young fellow, and I suppose a very favourable sample of the Italians’.11

The poet was seemingly caught up in the celebrity culture of ballooning

as much as he was captivated by the developments of aerostatic

engineering and the exciting new form of travel they suggested could be

possible for everyone.


Indeed, it was not just via Lunardi’s Account that Cowper got closer

to balloon travel. ‘Balloonomania’ eventually reached Olney, and the

poet’s letters reveal his participation in aerial launches: ‘Balloons are so

much the mode, that even in this Country we have attempted a Balloon’.

The poet and Mary Unwin were invited numerous times by their friend

‘Mr. Throckmorton’ (John Courtenay Throckmorton) to ‘an attempt to

throw off a Balloon’. These attempts seemed to arouse a large amount

of excitement in the village residents (‘The whole Country were there’),

but came to little success. On two occasions the balloon ‘could not be

filled’, and on the third that Cowper records, it ‘went up, and came down

no more […] it kindled in the air, and was consumed in a moment’.12 As

seems to be characteristic of Cowper’s discussion of air-balloons in his

letters, the humour and ‘jocularity’ found in this long-anticipated launch,

culminating in the balloon bursting into flames, is tinged with something

more ominous. He quickly, albeit still perhaps with a sense of irony,

turns to discussion of this disaster as an ‘omen’, musing that ‘I […]

shall wonder a little, if the Newton Shepherd prognosticate any thing

less from it than the most bloody war, that was ever waged in Europe’.13

Again, the anxiety that air-balloons and aerial travel provoked about

national identity and relations can be detected in Cowper’s playful, if

doom-laden, prophecy. It is striking how quickly the poet can shift from

depicting balloons as a parochial, communal form of entertainment into

a looming threat to domestic stability.

Air-balloons are certainly a significant vehicle for thinking about

Cowper’s complex attachment to the safe and the familiar. In the same

letter to Newton that recounts the catastrophic balloon launch, he

jokingly reflects on his somewhat introverted way of living in Olney.

Aware that Newton is currently visiting the port town of Lymington,

Cowper compares his own situation: ‘I am not however, totally destitute

of such pleasures as an inland country may pretend to […] if I have not

an hermit in a grotto, I have nevertheless myself in a greenhouse’.14 The

poet sequestered in his beloved greenhouse is a recognisable image of

the kind of private, domestic sanctuary with which Cowper is frequently

associated. And yet, from this secure vantage point, he suddenly turns

outwards: ‘nor are we in this nook altogether unfurnished with such

means of philosophical experiment and speculation, as at present the


world rings with. On Thursday morning last, we sent up a balloon from

Emberton-meadow’.15 Ever interested in the ‘loop-holes of retreat’ (The

Task, IV, l. 88), Cowper enjoys both the secure hermitage of his greenhouse

and exposure to the cultural fascination with scientific developments,

materialised for him here in the air-balloon. The confident position he

offers in this letter, as possessing both the pleasures of retirement and

the excitement of new technology, is surprising given a previous letter

to Unwin where he is more reserved in his enthusiasm:

I hear that Mr. Throckmorton is making another Balloon, a paper one,

containing 16 quires. It is to fly upon the wings of ignited spirits, and will

therefore I suppose be sent up at night. I take it for granted that we shall be

invited to the spectacle but whether we shall have the courage to expose

ourselves to the inconveniences of a nocturnal visit is at present doubtfull.16

Aware of the exciting draw of the balloon launch, Cowper is wary of

abandoning his home comforts here. If air-balloons and their launches

are important as communal social events as much as they are markers

of scientific and ‘philosophical’ progress, then the poet treads these

boundaries coyly. He seems happy enough with the idea of balloons

arriving in Olney, but less sure of the necessary ‘courage’ needed to

venture out and witness one for himself. Once aerial travel encroaches

onto Cowper’s home territory, it causes him to reassess his own domestic

boundaries, weighing up whether inclusion in cultural and scientific

‘spectacle’ is worth the risk of venturing out of his habitual routine.

He seems to want to hold onto both possibilities – that of having an

‘invitation’ and of being able to decline if he wants to – and in doing so

draws air-balloons and their novelty into a negotiation of social politeness

as well as of the threshold between participation and retirement.

Although air-balloons in some ways interrupted Cowper’s sense of

self-containment, they also offered the poet a freer form of imaginative

transport and play. His excitement at the fact that ‘the balloons prosper’

turned into dreams and speculations about the fantasy of flight.17 A

yearning for balloon travel arose strongly in Cowper during episodes

of perceived confinement, where staying indoors felt enforced rather

than preferred. He wrote during a particularly harsh winter in 1785, for

example, that his local surroundings had ‘been render’d impassable by

frost’, keeping him ‘so close a prisoner’.18 Looking for a solution to such


episodes of seasonal imprisonment, the poet turned to the skies: ‘Long

live the Inventors and Improvers of Balloons. It is always clear over head,

and by and by we shall use no other road’.19 Cowper strikes a curious

balance between confident prediction and enjoyable fantasy here, looking

forward to a time when the inconveniences of the weather will no longer

keep him cooped up indoors, and enjoying the imaginative freedom that

thinking of his liberation offers in the present moment of captivity. This

is not the only occasion where Cowper fantasises about balloon flight. In

another letter, he also recalled a bizarre but exciting dream, claiming that

‘upon my own experience […] this way of travelling is very delightfull.

I dreamt a night or two since that I drove myself through the upper

regions in a Balloon and pair, with the greatest ease and security […] my

horses prancing and curvetting with an infinite share of Spirit’.20 Clare

Brant recognises in Cowper’s poem ‘The Diverting History of John

Gilpin’ (1782-4) a ‘fantasia of horse-powered speed’ that ‘anticipates

balloon madness: all sorts of things in the poem are flying – windows,

gates, cloaks, horse and rider’.21 If Brant suggests that this poem and its

depiction of Gilpin’s horse galloping him ‘away’ at speed can be read as

an anticipation of flight, then Cowper’s letter makes this connection all

the more clear.22 The poem does not fit recognisably into the category

of ‘balloon writings’ that flourished in this period, but Cowper’s dream

permits a reading of the ‘chaise and pair’ in ‘The Diverting History’

as fancifully reimagined into a fully-fledged mode of aerial travel (his

‘Balloon and pair’).23 The image of horses flying through the air, guiding

a balloon, is a strange configuration that aligns an emergent technology

with an everyday mode of transport. Moving beyond his earlier, and

rather more practical, fantasy of balloons allowing him to overcome the

inconveniences of being snowed in, Cowper takes pleasure in a more

artful and dynamic (‘prancing and curvetting’) path of flight that is still

safely within his control (‘I drove myself’). Horses are made newly

strange here as much as balloons are made to seem secure and reliable.

In another letter to Unwin, Cowper again exercised this tendency not

only to marvel at balloons, but to use them as a means of reimagining

and destabilising the familiar:

By the way, what is your Opinion of these Air-Balloons? I am quite charmed

with the discovery. Is it not possible do you suppose to convey such a quantity


of inflammable Air into the Stomach and Abdomen, that the Philosopher no

longer gravitating to a Center, shall ascend by his own comparative Levity,

and never stop ‘till he has reached a Medium exactly in Equilibrio with

himself? May he not by the help of a pasteboard Rudder, attached to his

posteriors, steer himself in that purer element with ease, and again by a slow

and gradual discharge of his aerial contents, recover his former tendency to

the earth, and descend without the smallest danger or inconvenience? These

things are worth enquiry, and I dare say they will be enquired after as they

deserve. The Pennae non homini datae [wings not given to man], are likely

to be less regretted than they were, and perhaps a flight of Academicians,

and a Covey of fine Ladies may be no uncommon spectacle in the next


The imagery that Cowper brings forth here goes beyond his imagining

of airborne horses driving him in a balloon, to conceive the human form

itself as a form of aerial technology. There is obvious comedy in this

image of the poet’s ‘Philosopher’ who is somehow inflated and fitted

with a ‘pasteboard rudder’, only to have to ‘discharge’ his own ‘aerial

contents’ in order to descend. Indeed, Cowper’s description brings to

mind the lively visual culture associated with eighteenth-century air

balloons, especially when they were depicted in satirical prints that

either ‘focussed on ballooning directly or incorporated references to

ballooning as part of their ironic account of other social issues’.25 Paul

Sandby’s ‘The English Balloon’ (1784), which likened the enthusiasm

for ballooning to a form of madness, depicted an air-balloon resembling

a giant inflated head, with donkey’s ears and fool’s cap, being launched

outside the gates of Bedlam.26 James Gillray’s mockery of the church,

‘He Steers His Flight, Aloft Incumbent on the Dusky Air’ (1810),

displayed a bishop tethered to a balloon in the act of flinging his tracts

and sermons overboard in order to lighten his load. The bishop’s body

appears also to be inflated, a smaller copy of the spherical balloon that

floats above him. Cowper may be poking fun at ‘Philosophers’ who are

‘full of air’ and seemingly flighty speculations, but his physiological

reimagining of the human frame as a form of balloon also demonstrates

the captivating way that he engaged with air travel as a means of playing

with physical and social orders and categories.

Cowper’s frequent reference to balloons and the aerial as predominately

the domain of ‘Philosophers’ reveals, as I discussed in the opening


of this essay, his tendency to explore flight and being ‘in’ the air as a

figure of thought and of stretching the boundaries of knowledge. In the

same letter to Unwin where he fantasises about the human frame itself

becoming an air-borne vessel, Cowper claims that there are:

many good consequences that may result from a course of experiments upon

this Machine; and amongst others that it may be of use in ascertaining the

shape of Continents and Islands, and the face of wide extended and far distant

countries. An End not to be hoped for, unless by these means of extraordinary

elevation, the Human prospect may be immensely enlarged, and the

Philosopher exalted to the skies, attain a view of the whole Hemisphere at


It is not only the potential that air-balloons held for geographical

expansion and discovery that Cowper is exploring here, but also how this

newly enlarged ‘prospect’ could stretch the horizon of human thought

and capacity. Furthermore, it seems here that the widening of the human

prospect is more important for Cowper than actual travel or a developed

understanding of the earth’s geography; that it is an ‘End not to be hoped

for’ unless it also ushers in a reconfiguration of the human mind. The

‘Philosopher’ that could achieve a ‘view of the whole Hemisphere at

once’ would seemingly have improved his or her mental flexibility over

and above their capability to actually travel to such far-flung regions. In

The Matter of Air (2010), Steven Connor explores how ‘from the end

of the eighteenth century onwards’ there was a noticeable conception of

air as a medium akin to the process of thought.28 He uncovers an idea

of air as a kind of ‘thought-form’, an element that is expressive of the

‘immaterial action of thought’.29 Cowper certainly seems captivated by

an affinity between thought and air, as figured in his own assessment

that his ‘speculations’ have become ‘airy’ and his ‘mind’ is getting ‘into’

balloons. It is not just the capacity for travel and innovation that excited

Cowper about balloons, then, but the way in which they promised to

materialise the air as a region of thought itself, and to therefore immerse

us in new ways of thinking and feeling.

That Cowper considered the air as a medium, and a region conducive

to different ways of knowing and being, is already apparent from his

poetic explorations of birds and their flight. Take his poem ‘The Jackdaw’

(1782), for example. In his study of the bird and its roosting behaviours,


Cowper seems to insist on humans as being inherently dissimilar to

birds, and therefore not formed for participation in an aerial domain:

There is a bird who by his coat,

And by the hoarseness of his note,

Might be suppos’d a crow;

A great frequenter of the church,

Where bishop-like he finds a perch,

And dormitory too.

Above the steeple shines a plate,

That turns and turns, to indicate

From what point blows the weather;

Look up – your brains begin to swim,

‘Tis in the clouds – that pleases him,

He chooses it the rather.

Fond of the speculative height,

Thither he wings his airy flight,

And thence securely sees

The bustle and the raree-show

That occupy mankind below,

Secure and at his ease.


Thrice happy bird! I too have seen

Much of the vanities of men,

And sick of having seen ‘em,

Would chearfully these limbs resign

For such a pair of wings as thine,

And such a head between ‘em.

(Poems, I, 422-23, ll. 1-18, 31-6)

This poem offers a striking contrast between human and non-human

experience of the aerial. The jackdaw that sits nonchalantly upon the

weather vane at the top of the church steeple is positioned above not

only the ‘customs’ and ‘business’ of human life, but also above the need

to measure and order the aerial region he inhabits. When Cowper turns

our view away from this safety of aerial measurement (the weather


vane) and towards ‘the clouds’ themselves – the airy region given over

to the bird – the sense of control gives way to a feeling of mental and

bodily disorientation: ‘Look up – your brains begin to swim, / ‘Tis in

the clouds; – that pleases him’. Contemplation of the clouds themselves

brings about a series of interruptions to the iambic metre, the halting

dashes and semi-colon, that do not completely disrupt the rhythm but halt

its progress in comparison to the steady run of the previous three lines.

Cowper also confuses the distinction between ‘your brains’, already in

a state of swimming disarray, and the bird itself in these lines – we

don’t know if ‘Tis in the clouds’ refers to the jackdaw or to the ‘brains’

that are suddenly struggling under the effects of being ‘in the clouds’.

The clouds that are so easily navigated by the jackdaw are dizzying for

the speaker, with Cowper’s use of the second-person perspective also

offering this disordered experience to the reader. These lines show him

to be captivated both by our attempts to control and record the aerial, and

our mental and physical vulnerability to its effects that might estrange

our faculties from us.

And yet, in the last stanza of ‘The Jackdaw’, Cowper’s speaker

expresses the wish ‘for such a pair of wings as thine / And such a head

between ’em’. The air as a region, as much as it seems to shut out or to

confuse human experience, also calls to Cowper as a form of escape,

or an emergence into a new way of being and knowing. He explores a

similar idea in the letter to Newton that opens this essay, where birds

and balloons meet in his discussion of man’s emergent ability to fly.

Brant’s discussion of air-balloons as a site of ‘much-unknowing’ in the

late eighteenth century also suggests that these new vehicles of flight

challenged ideas of discipline and categorisation. This was most apparent

in the vocabularies that people fell back on to describe the novelty and

innovation of balloons. Cowper’s clumsy use of ‘air-balls’, and his

fanciful imagining of people themselves being inflated and launched

into the air, are some initial examples that show him feeling around for

a way to describe and explore this new aerial phenomenon. Turning to

the topic of balloons in this letter, the poet turned to what was already in

the skies for inspiration, observing how there is

in every fowl of the air a pattern which now at length it may be sufficient to

imitate. Wings and a tail indeed were of little use while the body so much


heavier than the space of air it occupied, was sure to sink by its own weight,

and could never be held in equipoise by any implements of the kind which

human strength could manage.30

If ‘The Jackdaw’ suggested that the skies were a realm unsuited to human

experience, then here air-balloons possess the capacity to bring us closer

to the freedom of birds. The person who achieves flight in the form of

ballooning becomes for Cowper a kind of human-bird hybrid, finally

buoyant enough for ‘wings and a tail’ to become a real possibility, or at

least not physically out of the question. Drawing on ‘patterns’ that are

already familiar becomes a way not only to find a language to talk about

and define balloons, then, but also to anticipate the directions that their

development might take.

It is not just birds that offered a model for balloons to follow, either.

Cowper also compared the innovations in aerostatics to our navigation of

the sea, pondering how the ‘first boat or canoe that was ever formed […]

being only a hollow tree that had casually fallen into the water […] was

a more perfect creature in its kind, than a balloon at present’.31 The initial

distance between boats and balloons as effective methods of transport that

Cowper sets up, however, is bridged when he moves from considering the

vessels themselves to the mediums they travel in: ‘But the atmosphere,

though a much thinner medium, we well know resists the impression

made upon it by the tail of a bird, as effectually as the water that of a ship’s

rudder’.32 This comparison between the matter of air and sea, and between

flight and sailing, is better understood in light of Brant’s observation that

‘in eighteenth-century parlance’ air ‘is understood simultaneously as both

self-standing and coupled with water, as people located aerostation in

relation to sea-based knowledge, especially navigation’.33 Siobhan Carroll

also notes how ‘the invention of human flight invited Britons to imagine

the atmosphere as a space along the lines of, and perhaps a potential

rival to, the contested ocean’.34 Cowper is not exceptional, therefore, in

drawing on his knowledge of one medium in order to try and understand

our sudden ability to inhabit the other. What is remarkable, however, is

the intellectual curiosity and flexibility he employs—where human, bird,

sea, and air are held up against each other only to have their differences

challenged and partially dissolved—in light of other more rigid anxieties

he held about our entrance into the aerial region.


Although Cowper was clearly excited by the development of airballoons

as a form of imaginative exercise, a social ‘spectacle’, and as a

mode of travel that he was keen to see become more ubiquitous, he also

worried about their consequences. He expressed this most clearly when

writing to Newton about his spiritual anxiety. Carroll’s exploration of

balloon-flight in the eighteenth-century imagination characterises the

air as one kind of ‘atopia’, characterised as ‘forms of space deemed

penetrable but inhospitable’ that are contrasted with ‘the familiarity,

stability, and security implied by idealized sites of dwelling’.35 For

Cowper, the air certainly takes on an atopic quality in some respects.

His letter to Newton, where he worries over our emergent ability to float

‘at random’ into the sky, suggests a degree of fear about the air as an

unknown, uncontrolled region. However, it is not simply aerostation’s

threat to an idea of familiar, human dwelling that concerns Cowper, but

also a disruption of divine order. The air is not a completely unknown

entity to the poet, but exists already as a space laden with spiritual

connotations. In an earlier letter to his aunt, Mrs Madan, in September

1768, Cowper wrote:

How much of Heaven does a believing view of Jesus as our all-sufficient

Good bring down into the soul! We seem to breathe the pure air of that better

country where all the inhabitants are holy, and more than seem to converse

with God.36

Here, inhalation and salvation are concurrent, as Cowper envisages

Heaven as an aerial region to be encountered through the breath.

Significantly, though, this is a divine experience that has to be brought

‘down’ to the human; faith may be realised through aerial metaphor and

a sense of the divine ‘spirit’, but it keeps man firmly on the ground. The

emergence of air-balloons frightens Cowper because they precipitate

a human trespass upwards into a heavenly region, not an unknown

and inhospitable atopia. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should

anticipate ‘judgement’ as a result of air-balloons upsetting an established

spiritual topography and order. In the 1783 letter to Newton where

Cowper compared the ambitions of French ‘philosophers’ with his own

provincial circle, the impending death of a fellow villager caused him

to reflect on the relationship between flight via air-balloon, and true

spiritual salvation:


An English Taylor, an Inhabitant of the Dung-hills of Silver End, prays, and

his prayer ascends in the Ears of the Lord of Sabaoth […] he will never

discover the art of flying nor send a globe of Taffata up to heaven, but he

will go thither Himself. I am afraid there is hardly a philosopher among them

that would be wise enough to change conditions with him if he could, yet

certainly there is not one that would not be infinitely a gainer by doing so.37

Whilst Cowper has previously been shown to engage with air-balloons

as a site of categorical play, finding new similarities between sea and sky

or man and bird, he strikes a harder boundary here in his assertion that

flight via balloon cannot become equivalent to true spiritual ascension.

He does not condemn the ‘art of flying’ here, but is instead alert to it as

a technological harnessing of the air rather than a true immersion in it

as a divine region.

For Cowper, then, the realisation that air-balloons opened up a new

space that we could ‘float’ freely into was cause for both excitement

and trepidation. The turn in his letter to Newton towards a sense of

balloons as an intrusion into divine space should not be taken as his

renouncing this aerial technology altogether, but rather as one strand

of the complex and sometimes contradictory opinions he held about it.

Cowper’s letters from the period 1782-5 are perhaps the best resource

we have for revealing how far the poet was immersed in balloons as a

social and cultural phenomenon, how far they occupied his thought and

pushed him into new figurations of knowledge, and how they ignited his

imagination. They offer a vivid, and sometimes humorous, archive that

feeds into our understanding of the wider reception of air-balloons in

eighteenth-century literature and culture. Yet these letters also, by way of

conclusion, offer a means of thinking about how balloons caused Cowper

to reflect on the practice of writing itself and on poetic composition

in particular. Air-balloons make no explicit appearances in his poetry,

and yet, there is one letter in particular where he gestures towards their

relationship with poetic imagination and inspiration. Writing to Unwin

in 1785 about Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s crossing of the English Channel

by balloon, he admitted his ‘insatiable thirst’ to ‘know the philosophical

reason why their vehicle had like to have fallen in the sea, when, for

aught that appears, the Gas was not at all exhausted. Did not the extreme

Cold condense the inflammable air and cause the globe to collapse? Tell


me, and be my Apollo forever’.38 The mention of ‘Apollo’ (as the god

of poetry and poetic inspiration) here is immediately telling of the union

of the poetic and the aerostatic in Cowper’s thought. The idea that the

person who could make legible the scientific intricacies of balloon flight

would be akin to the governor of poetic inspiration is striking. Brant’s

suggestion that ‘the association between poetry and elevated thought

was so strong that poets were figuratively airborne before balloons’, is

curious to consider in light of Cowper’s questions to Unwin; he seems

to appeal to his friend to divulge the secrets, and indeed the mechanics,

of his own flights of inspiration to him, as poetry becomes aligned with

this aerial technology as much as with classical notions of the ‘spirit’ of


If Cowper makes no mention of balloons specifically across his

poetic works, then the above letter does make room for a re-reading

of one particular poem in light of his captivation with ballooning.

‘An Ode to Apollo: On An Ink-Glass Almost Dried in the Sun’ (1792)

reflects on the nature of inspiration, finding in a drop of evaporated

ink a different, airborne model of composition:

Patron of all those luckless brains

That, to the wrong side leaning

Indite much Metre with much pains

And little or no meaning,

Ah why, since Oceans, rivers, streams

That water all the Nations,

Pay Tribute to thy glorious beams

In constant exhalations,

Why, stooping from the noon of day

Too covetous of drink,

Apollo, hast thou stol’n away

A Poet’s drop of ink? –

Upborn into the viewless air

It floats a vapour now,

Impell’d through regions dense and rare

By all the winds that blow.



Illustrious drop! and happy then

Beyond thy happiest lot

Of all that ever pass’d my pen,

So soon to be forgot! –

Phoebus, if such be thy design,

To place it in thy bow,

Give wit, that what is left may shine

With equal grace below.

(Poems, II, 28-29, ll. 1-16, 25-8)

Significantly, the manuscript of this poem was composed in September

1783, around the time of Cowper’s emergent recognition of the airballoon

launches of that year. The idea that his ‘drop of ink’ that ‘floats

a vapour now’ could conceive of evaporation as an inverted form of

inspiration (his poetry floating upwards back into the atmosphere rather

than being taken in from it), also leaves room to consider how the

technology of aerial travel influences Cowper’s conception of poetic

composition. Brant discusses how classical myth and allusion provided

many eighteenth-century poets with a familiar structure through which

to filter the novelty of air-travel, ‘acknowledging the startling and

strange effects of balloons’.40 Here, it also seems as if balloons offer

Cowper a new form for thinking about the strangeness of the poem

and how it comes into being. His spherical ink-drop that floats in the

air, directed by the winds, seems to become an ideal image of poetry

shaped by contemporary scientific developments, in the same way that

Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s floating soap bubbles of ‘verse’ in ‘Washing

Day’ (1797) are made akin to the Montgolfiers’ ‘silken ball’.41 As a

spectator of balloons, Cowper may have expressed anxiety about what

would become of us when we were able to ‘float’ aimlessly into the

air. As a poet, however, he seems to delight in an artful floating, where

his formal control finds some mastery over the aerial at the same time

as he expresses joy in relinquishing creative control. It seems fitting

that the poet who wanted both the safety of his home as well as the

spectacle of balloons would find, through the poem, a way to articulate

the aimless freedom of flight from the security of the page. The last letter

of Cowper’s to mention air-balloons exclaims ‘Long live the Inventors


and the Improvers of Balloons. It is always clear over head, and by and

by we shall use no other road’.42 Cowper could be seen to be testing out

that ‘road’ in this poem, writing with a view to flight, but from a position

firmly on the ground.


All articles are subject to copyright


The Cowper and Newton Journal (ISSN 2046 – 8814) includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.


1 Cowper to John Newton, 15 December 1783, The Letters and Prose Writings

of William Cowper, ed. James King and Charles Ryskamp, 5 vols (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1979-86), II, 188-90.

2 Clare Brant, ‘The Progress of Knowledge in Regions of Air?: Divisions and

Disciplines in Early Ballooning’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 45.1 (2011),

71-86; 72.

3 Richard Holmes, ‘Balloonists in Heaven’, in The Age of Wonder: How the

Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London:

Harper Collins, 2008), 125-62; 125.

4 Holmes, Age of Wonder, 125. For further discussion of ballooning and

Cowper, see also Fiona Stafford, ‘The surprising ‘hot air balloon’ mania of

Romantic literature’, Oxford University News and Events, December 17 2014,

http:// www.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-12-17-surprising-%E2%80%98balloonmaniaromantic-

literature (accessed 7 March 2018).

5 See Clare Brant, Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-

1786 (Boydell Press, 2017); Holmes, The Age of Wonder; Siobhan Carroll,

An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination,

1750-1850 (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 2015); Michael

R. Lynn, The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820 (London:

Routledge, 2015).

6 Lynn, The Sublime Invention, 3.

7 See Holmes, Age of Wonder, 129-30.

8 Cowper to John Newton, 23 September 1783 (Letters, II, 162-3)

9 Arden Hegele, ‘Romantic Balloons: Towards a Formalist Technology of

Poetics’, Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas,

15.2 (2017), 201-16; 204.

10 See, for example, Holmes, Age of Wonder, 137-43.

11 Cowper to William Unwin, 29 November 1784 (Letters, II, 306).

12 Cowper to William Unwin, 20 May 1784 (Letters, II, 247); Cowper to John

Newton, 10 May 1784 (Letters, II, 246); Cowper to William Unwin, 20 May

1784 (Letters, II, 248); Cowper to John Newton, 16 August 1784 (Letters, II,



13 Cowper to John Newton, 16 August 1784 (Letters, II, 273).

14 Cowper to John Newton, 16 August 1784 (Letters, II, 272).

15 Cowper to John Newton, 16 August 1784 (Letters, II, 272).

16 Cowper to William Unwin, 14 August 1784 (Letters, II, 270).

17 Cowper to William Unwin, 10 November 1783 (Letters, II, 179).

18 Cowper to Joseph Hill, 22 January 1785 (Letters, II, 321).

19 Ibid.

20 Cowper to John Newton, 17 November 1783 (Letters, II, 181-2).

21 Brant, Balloon Madness, 67.

22 Cowper, ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’, The Poems of William

Cowper, ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1980-95), II, 298, l. 7. All subsequent references to Cowper’s poetry

are taken from this edition and will be cited in the main text with reference to

specific volume, page, and line numbers.

23 Ivan Orvitz, ‘Fancy’s Eye: Poetic Vision and the Romantic Air Balloon’,

Studies in Romanticism, 56.2 (2017), 253-84; 254.

24 Cowper to William Unwin, 29 September 1783 (Letters, II, 165-6).

25 See Paul Keen and Melissa Speener, ‘ ‘‘Philosophical Playthings’ ”:

The Spectacle of Air-Balloons’, Romantic Circles Gallery, https://www.


romantic-era (accessed 7 March 2018).

26 See Paul Keen, ‘The “Balloonomania”: Science and Spectacle in 1780s

England’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 39.4 (2006), 507-35; 527 for further

discussion of this image.

27 Cowper to William Unwin, 29 September 1783 (Letters, II, 166).

28 Steven Connor, The Matter of Air: Science and the Art of the Ethereal

(London: Reaktion, 2010), 105.

29 Connor, Matter of Air, 105.

30 Cowper to John Newton, 15 December 1783, Letters, II, 189.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Brant, ‘The Progress of Knowledge in Regions of Air?’, 73.

34 Carroll, An Empire of Air and Water, 118.

35 Ibid., 6-7.

36 Cowper to Mrs Madan, 24 September 1768 (Letters, I, 204).

37 Cowper to John Newton, 23 September 1783 (Letters, II, 163).

38 Cowper to William Unwin, 15 January 1785 (Letters, II, 318).

39 Brant, Balloon Madness, 69.

40 Ibid., 70.

41 Anna Laetitia Barbauld, ‘Washing Day’, The Poems of Anna Laetitia

Barbauld, ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Athens; London:

University of Georgia Press, 1994), 133-5.

42 Cowper to Joseph Hill, 22 January 1785 (Letters, II, 321).

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