Cowper and Berkhamsted: Memories and Memorials

Volume:

Excerpt

Given his reputation as the poet who celebrated domestic life, little affection for a specific home or homes emerges from Cowper’s poems or letters. Especially during the years shortly before and after his and Mrs Unwin’s removal from Olney to Weston, it is striking how he describes the time at Orchard Side – the place where he lived longer than any other, for eighteen years – as a period of imprisonment. He writes to Newton in July 1783 describing himself as both free and a Prisoner at the same time. The world is before me; I am not shut up in the Bastile though often as miserable as if I were, there are no Moats about my castle, nor locks upon my gates but of which I have the Key—but an invisible uncontroulable agency, a local attachment, an inclination more forcible than I ever felt even to the place of my Birth, serves me for prison walls and for bounds which I cannot pass.1 In 1786, writing to Newton of the ‘intended removal’, he refers to the ‘thirteen years that I have been a prisoner,’ implicitly dating this sense of imprisonment to 1773-4, when he suffered a major breakdown (he and Mrs Unwin had first moved into Orchard Side in 1768).2 In other letters to Newton around the time of the move to Weston, he meditates upon his mixed feelings about Orchard Side, ‘that ruinous abode’, marvelling at how desolate it looks now, yet also remembering ‘that I had once been happy there, and could not without tears in my eyes bid adieu to a place in which God had so often found me’.3 A similar ambivalence characterises Cowper’s attitude towards the place of his birth, Berkhamsted. Writing to Samuel Rose on 19 October 1787, Cowper recalls returning there, aged

Given his reputation as the poet who celebrated domestic life, little

affection for a specific home or homes emerges from Cowper’s poems or

letters. Especially during the years shortly before and after his and Mrs

Unwin’s removal from Olney to Weston, it is striking how he describes

the time at Orchard Side – the place where he lived longer than any

other, for eighteen years – as a period of imprisonment. He writes to

Newton in July 1783 describing himself as

both free and a Prisoner at the same time. The world is before me; I am not

shut up in the Bastile though often as miserable as if I were, there are no Moats

about my castle, nor locks upon my gates but of which I have the Key—but

an invisible uncontroulable agency, a local attachment, an inclination more

forcible than I ever felt even to the place of my Birth, serves me for prison

walls and for bounds which I cannot pass.1

In 1786, writing to Newton of the ‘intended removal’, he refers to the

‘thirteen years that I have been a prisoner,’ implicitly dating this sense of

imprisonment to 1773-4, when he suffered a major breakdown (he and

Mrs Unwin had first moved into Orchard Side in 1768).2 In other letters

to Newton around the time of the move to Weston, he meditates upon his

mixed feelings about Orchard Side, ‘that ruinous abode’, marvelling at

how desolate it looks now, yet also remembering ‘that I had once been

happy there, and could not without tears in my eyes bid adieu to a place

in which God had so often found me’.3

A similar ambivalence characterises Cowper’s attitude towards the

place of his birth, Berkhamsted. Writing to Samuel Rose on 19 October

1787, Cowper recalls returning there, aged 24, at the time of his father’s

death in 1756:

When my Father died I was young; too young to have reflected much. He

was Rector of Berkhamstead, and there I was born. It had never occurred

to me that a parson has no fee-simple in the House and glebe he occupies.

There was neither Tree nor Gate nor stile in all that country to which I did

not feel a relation, and the House itself I preferred to a palace. I was sent for

from London to attend him in his last illness, & he died just before I arrived.

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Then, and not ’till then, I felt for the first time that I and my native place were

disunited for ever. I sighed a long adieu to fields and woods from which I

once thought I should never be parted, and was at no time so sensible of their

beauties as just when I left them all behind me to return no more.4

This nostalgia contrasts with the tone of a letter written to his friend John

Duncombe just a few months after paying another visit to Berkhamsted

(presumably to wind up some of his late father’s affairs) in June 1757, where

the jaunty heartlessness of youth is largely uninflected by nostalgia:

I believe no man ever quitted his Native place with less Regrett than myself,

and were it not for the sake of a Friend or two that I have left behind me, one of

which small Number you will doubtless reckon yourself, I should never wish

to see either the place or any thing that belongs to it again. Notwithstanding

this Jack, you & I have spent many merry hours together in the Parsonage,

my poor Father has often been the better for your Drollery, for you had the

Knack, or the Natural Gift of making him Laugh, when no Creature else

could have done it.5

Changing his tune again, in October 1767 he writes to Mrs Madan

describing a visit made with Newton to a Rev. Mr Moody at Dunton,

12 miles from Berkhamsted, and reports feeling deeply ‘affected’ at the

sight of ‘my Native Place’ which made ‘my Childhood and Youth in

their most affecting Colours pass in review before me’.6

It is with the receipt of his mother’s picture many years later, in

1790, that the most bittersweet memories seem to have come flooding

back, and Cowper describes how ‘I seem t’ have lived my childhood

o’er again, / To have renew’d the joys that once were mine’ (ll. 15-16).7

Elsewhere in this issue of the Cowper and Newton Journal, Vincent

Newey writes eloquently on the poem as a whole; what concerns us

here are the poem’s evocations of Berkhamsted, which seem to have

influenced later local admirers of Cowper to memorialise the parts of

the town with Cowperian associations. The poem recalls the day of his

mother’s funeral, before moving into a more general reminiscence about

his childhood home:

I heard the bell toll’d on thy burial day,

I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away,

And, turning from my nurs’ry window, drew

A long long sigh, and wept a last adieu! […]

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Where once we dwelt, our name is heard no more,

Children, not thine, have trod my nurs’ry floor;

And where the gard’ner Robin day by day

Drew me to school along the public way

Delighted with my bawble coach, and wrapt

In scarlet mantle warm and velvet-capt,

’Tis now become a hist’ry little known

That once we call’d the Past’ral house our own.

(ll. 28-31; 46-53)

The small details in the poem contribute to its poignancy. It is generally

acknowledged that ‘gard’ner Robin’ Pope was indeed the Rectory

gardener,8 and the image of the tiny Cowper in his miniature ‘bawble

coach’ is endearing. The dame school he mentions is long gone, its site

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now occupied by part of ‘M and Co.’ at 212 High Street.9 The ‘pastoral

house’ is a slightly peculiar way to describe the substantial Rectory in

which Cowper was born and grew up, but doubtless reflects Cowper’s

idealising memories, as well as the genuinely green and rural environs

which this engraving of the house reproduced in Thomas Wright’s The

Loved Haunts of Cowper (1894)10 suggests. Note how the artist has

placed little William and his mother on the lawn in the foreground, with

his little wheelbarrow beside her, and his hoop and stick. The gardening

implements next to the flowerbed, while no doubt left there by ‘gard’ner

Robin’, are suggestive of his adult passion for horticulture.

The poem’s sad reflections upon how ‘little known’ he and his family

must now be in Berkhamsted recall a passage from one of Cowper’s

letters, written a little over a year earlier to Mrs King, describing how,

by pure chance, he has recently come across a piece of newspaper used

as padding in a parcel of books:

This thought struck me very forcibly the other day, on reading a paper called

the County Chronicle which came hither in the package of some books from

London. It contain’d News from Hartfordshire, and inform’d me among

other things that at Great Berkhamstead, the place of my birth, there is hardly

a family left of all those with whom in my early days I was so familiar. The

Houses no doubt remain, but the inhabitants are only to be found now by

their Grave-stones, and it is certain that I might pass through a Town in which

I was once a sort of principal figure, unknowing and unknown.11

In the century following Cowper’s death, however, his status as a

‘principal figure’ in the town’s cultural history was re-established by a

succession of citizens and local historians. Percy Birtchnell, writing in

1960, noted that although Cowper’s name is now ‘seldom mentioned’ in

the town of his birth,

in Victorian times and the earlier years of the [twentieth] century, William

Cowper was the subject of many a public lecture, and schoolchildren were

left in no doubt that Berkhamsted had produced a very great poet whose

works deserved a place on every bookshelf. Members of learned societies

came here on literary pilgrimages …12

Victorian local historians in particular had shown themselves enthusiastic

champions of Cowper and the continuing relevance of his writing. The

Revd John Wolstenholme Cobb, Curate and subsequently Rector of St

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Peter’s (1871-83), devotes several pages to Cowper in his Two Lectures

on the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted, describing him as

a man of whom we may all be proud – a man of whom it has been truly said

that if anyone was born a poet it was Cowper, the poet of Christianity. The

life, indeed, and writings of one who has been characterised by Hazlitt as the

most popular poet of his generation and the best of English letter-writers,

and as one whose poems contain a number of pictures of domestic comfort

and social refinement which can hardly be forgotten but with the language

itself.13

In that part of his book focused on a detailed history of St Peter’s

Church, Cobb suggests that one particular draw for literary pilgrims was

the memorial to the poet’s mother, ‘that monument which is perhaps of

greater interest than any other in the church’, and one suspects that the

emotional appeal of the memorial must owe something to the enduring

power of Cowper’s poem on her picture, as well as to the inherent pathos

of the memorial’s inscription, which Cobb reproduces:

‘Here also lyes interred the body of Ann Cowper […] late wife of John

Cowper, D.D., rector of the parish, who died Nov. 13, 1736. As also the

bodies of Spencer, John, Ann, Theodosia, Judith and Thomas, the children of

the said John and Ann Cowper, who all dyed infants, and Mrs Cowper died

in the thirty-fourth year of her age’.14

Cobb also mentions the memorial window in St Peter’s Church installed

by the renowned Victorian stained-glass company Clayton and Bell in

1872, noting that ‘The Rev. J. E. Greatheed, the son of one of Cowper’s

intimate friends, aided greatly in the selection of the subjects, which

are all chosen with reference to Cowper’s poems. On the topmost light

will be observed the spotless lamb, with the angelic choir around’.15 The

window depicts Christ the King flanked by the women and disciples

going to the empty tomb on the first Easter Day. The inscription at

Christ’s feet is taken from the Olney Hymn, ‘Jesus Hasting to Suffer’,

and reads ‘Salvation to the dying man, And to the rising God’. Cowper

is also depicted in the window, at a prayer desk with his pet hares.16

According to the church’s website, the Cowper stained glass is now in

the Lady Chapel and not accessible to the general public.

Aside from the church, there were few tangible links to Cowper

for nineteenth-century literary pilgrims or historians. Henry Nash’s

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Reminiscences of Berkhamsted in 1890 waxes nostalgic for the ‘rural

appearance of the town’ in Cowper’s day, noting how its crowded side

streets are now ‘teeming with human life’. He recalls that, in the previous

century, ‘at the corner of the Rectory lane’, there was a ‘large barn for

the storage of corn and where the duet of flails during the winter days

produced those rural sounds of country life which have fled before the

march of intellect, and no longer greet our ears’.17 However, he also

concedes that ‘at this time the science of drainage had not yet reached

us’, and that the town was awash with sewage and refuse, used by

enterprising pigs as ‘a cooling bath’.18

As Birtchnell laconically observes, if visitors in Nash’s time expected

to see Cowper’s birthplace they were disappointed. The ‘old rectory’

was pulled down by John Crofts, rector between 1810 and 1850, who

had a new rectory built, higher up the hill. It seems that the engraving

which graces Grimshawe’s 1849 edition of Cowper was made just in the

nick of time. Today, Crofts’ replacement rectory is no longer the home

of the rector. A smaller house has been built for the rector, which, in an

appealingly recursive move, now occupies the actual site of Cowper’s

birthplace.

Demolition of the ‘old rectory’ excited strong feelings among

townsfolk of the time. Henry Nash in 1890 still found the event shocking,

his lament recalling not only Jane Austen’s disdain for ‘improvement’

but also Cowper’s own elegy for the poplars ‘fell’d’ near Olney: ‘Under

the plea of improvement every stone of the old building has been swept

away, and the beautiful walnut trees, under whose shadows the poet

must often have reclined, have been pulled down and converted into

implements of war, a practice that his very soul abhorred’.19

But one object ‘on which the poet’s eye had rested’ still remained to

gladden the literary pilgrim’s eye in the late nineteenth century – the

well house by the side of the drive in the garden, containing the well,

which supplied the rectory from a spring. Nash praises Revd Cobb for

doing what he could to honour the name of Cowper, and reproduces the

poetic inscription on the commemorative marble slab which Cobb had

caused to adorn the old well house, composed by Cobb’s own friend

‘the late Rev. G. S. Cantley, a man whom Cowper would have hailed as

a brother poet’:

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The shy perennial fountain the ivy-tods among,

Just emblem of his modesty and pure undying song,

With daily crystal draught refreshed the poet’s fragile youth,

Amid the precious opening buds of genius, grace, and truth.

Ere spectral wrath had clouded in despair the noble mind,

Self loathing, yet so loving still, so boon to all mankind,

Oh, stranger, in your heart of hearts let tender reverence dwell,

And love of love revived to-day at gentle Cowper’s well.20

If Cowper’s visiting fans today expect to refresh themselves at ‘gentle

Cowper’s well’, they are doomed to disappointment. The well house,

together with its memorial slab, is gone too. All that now remains is

an anonymous metal grid at the side of Rectory Lane, which hides the

private water supply of the present house.

But, at least, the features of William Cowper remain on display in the

town today, thanks to the initiative of the Mechanics’ Institute, which

arranged in 1873 for a copy to be made of a portrait ascribed to John

Jackson, R.A. (but actually made after the famous portrait by Lawrence),

and hung in Berkhamsted Town Hall, where it is still visible.21 An article

in the Berkhamsted Chronicle in 2005 summarises further evolutions

in Cowper’s profile in the town of his birth, noting the existence of a

Cowper Road and a Gilpin Ride.22

Although the foregoing discussion has focused mostly on particular

buildings within the town, both Cobb and Nash are equally concerned to

attribute Cowper’s lifelong love of the countryside to the rural environs

of Berkhamsted. Nash in particular, who in the passage quoted above

regretted the nineteenth-century urbanisation he described, suggests that

‘the rural sights and sounds peculiar to country life met one at every

turn’ in the Berkhamsted of Cowper’s day, and that ‘doubtless our own

poet had Berkhamsted in mind when he penned the oft-quoted words –

“God made the country, but man made the town”’.23 Although Cowper

lived mostly away from his birthplace after his mother’s death, he

continued to visit his father throughout his time at Westminster and the

Inns of Court, and the quiet pastoral landscape seems to have refreshed

him in a manner that Wordsworth was later to describe more fully in

‘Tintern Abbey’. In The Task, Cowper recalls how he has ‘loved the

rural walk / O’er hills, through valleys, and by river’s brink, / E’er since

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a truant boy I pass’d my bounds / T’enjoy a ramble on the banks of

Thames’. It is tempting to compare this with the memories of another

distinguished Berkhamsted writer, Graham Greene, for whom truanting

on the Common and among the woods of Ashridge provided welcome

relief from the perceived pressures of the classroom, ‘for then I could

be alone in the solitude of the countryside, and at this period of my life

I loved the country. It was my natural escape route … I grew clever at

evasion. Truancy was impressed as the pattern of my life’.24

Both Nash and Cobb wax lyrical over the charms of Berkhamsted

Common, ‘one of our chiefest antiquities, and at the same time one of

our greatest present glories’, and Nash suggests it could be turned into

a convalescent resort.25 Both historians relate the local legend whereby

‘the celebrated naturalist’ Linnaeus ‘was once journeying across our

Common when the gorse was in full bloom, and the good man was

so impressed with the sight that he fell on his knees and thanked God

for the great beauty with which he had clothed the earth’, and cite a

poem on the subject ‘kindly written by Mr. Cantley [author of the poem

on Cowper’s well] for our parish magazine in 1874’.26 Intriguingly,

Linnaeus’s visit is dated by Cobb to 1736, when the small boy Cowper

was still in Berkhamsted.

If the Linnaeus anecdote offers a somewhat rare insight into the

spiritual sensibility of the great naturalist, a similar conjunction of

religious and natural devotion characterises what is the most recent

and impressive of Berkhamsted’s efforts to memorialise Cowper. In

2000, the town’s Cowper Society ‘commissioned a new engraved glass

window in the north wall of the nave’ to honour Cowper and to mark the

new Millennium (a conjunction which would likely have amazed him).27

Made of transparent etched glass by David Peace and Sally Scott, its

upper panel depicts the church surrounded by trees and wildlife while in

the lower panel panes, Cowper’s pet hares are seen frolicking, and there

are inscriptions from two further Olney Hymns, ‘Oh! for a closer walk

with God’ (‘Return, O holy Dove, return!’) and The Light and Glory of

the World’ (‘Let everlasting thanks be Thine for such a bright display as

makes a world of darkness shine’).28

Copyright

All articles are subject to copyright

Footnotes

The Cowper and Newton Journal 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.

References

1 Cowper to John Newton, 27 July 1783; The Letters and Prose Writings of

William Cowper, ed. Charles Ryskamp, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

1979-1986), II, 150.

2 Cowper to John Newton, 5 August 1786 (Letters, II, 580-1); for similar

comments, see also Cowper’s letter to Unwin 3 July, 1786 (Letters, II, 573)

and to Hill, 11 July 1786 (Letters, II, 578).

3 Cowper to Newton, 17 November 1786 (Letters, II, 597); see also Cowper’s

letter to Newton 16 December 1786 (Letters, II, 618-19).

4 (Letters, II, 42-3).

5 Cowper to John Duncombe, 16 June 1757 (Letters, I, 79).

6 Cowper to Mrs Madan, 15 October 1767 (Letters, I, 182-3).

7 ‘On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk: The Gift of My

Cousin Ann Bodham,’ in The Poems of William Cowper, ed. John D. Baird and

Charles Ryskamp, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), III, 55-60.

8 James King, William Cowper: A Biography (Durham, NC; Duke University

Press, 1986), 10.

9 Percy Birtchnell, A Short History of Berkhamsted, published by the author,

1960, revised 1972, 109.

10 ‘The Parsonage, Great Berkhamsted’ , from Thomas Wright, The Loved

Haunts of Cowper, p.10 (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1894). This engraving,

by E. Brandard, is in turn based on ‘The House in which Cowper was born,

Berkhamstead’, by J. L. Harding and W. Greatbach, the frontispiece to The Life

and Works of William Cowper, now first completed by the introduction of his

‘Private Correspondence’, edited by Rev. T.S. Grimshawe, 8 vols (London:

Saunders and Otley, 1835-6).

11 Cowper to Mrs King, 6 December 1788 (Letters, III, 237).

12 Birtchnell, A Short History of Berkhamsted, 107.

13 John Wolstenholme Cobb, Two Lectures on the History and Antiquities of

Berkhamsted (London: Nichols and Sons, 1883), 71. The book offers a twopage

biographical sketch of ‘The Poet Cowper’ in an Appendix (140-2).

14 Cobb, Two Lectures, 70–72. The tablet was later moved to the north transept.

15 Cobb, Two Lectures, 142. Somewhat confusingly, in 1885 another window in

the church was installed to honour a local manufacturer of sheep-dip named

William Cowper.

16 See http://www.stpetersberkhamsted.org.uk/heritage/guide Accessed 18 April

2018.

17 Henry Nash, Reminiscences of Berkhamsted (Berkhamsted: W. Cooper and

Nephews, 1890), 10-11.

103

18 Nash, Reminiscences, 28.

19 Nash, Reminiscences, 11. See Jane Darcy, ‘“With what intense desire she

wants her home”: Cowper’s Influence on Jane Austen’, Cowper and Newton

Journal 7 (2017), 3-21, for a sensitive account of how Austen’s disdain for

‘improvement’ (especially evident in Mansfield Park) invokes several key

moments in Cowper’s poetry, especially The Task.

20 Nash, Reminiscences, 11; see also Cobb, Two Lectures, 141-2, where Cantley

is further identified as ‘author of the “Afterglow”’. A ‘tod’ in this context is a

‘bushy mass of vegetation’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

21 Jennifer Sherwood, ‘The story of Berkhamsted’s Mechanics’ Institute, Part I’,

The Chronicle, XIV (March 2017), 33-42.

22 Tony Statham, ‘William Cowper (1731-1800)’, The Chronicle, II (March

2005), 27-30; 28.

23 Nash, Reminiscences, 29.

24 Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (London: Bodley Head, 1971), 73.

25 Cobb, Two Lectures, 142; Nash, Reminiscences, 117.

26 Nash, Reminiscences, 117; Cobb, Two Lectures, 142.

27 Statham, ‘William Cowper (1731-1800)’, 28.

28 See note 14 above. On the website’s interactive tour, the items which relate

to Cowper (the two windows and the family memorial), and which are

attractively reproduced, are numbered 22, 5 and 15 respectively.

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