William Cowper (November 26, 1731 – April 25, 1800) was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. His name is pronounced Cooper. He often visited a kinsman General Cowper who lived at Ham in a house near the Common. Cowper was fiercely against slavery, one of his best known works was The Negro’s Complaint written in 1788 was often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. But he is probably best known for his translations, from the Greek, of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, published in 1791. Overall more than 100 editions of his poems were published in Britain and almost 50 in America. Among them was the poem Light Shining out of Darkness which gave the phrase: ‘God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.’ He was born at the rectory in Great Berkhamstead (now Berkhamsted), Hertfordshire, the first surviving child of the Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper, the daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. Horrendously bullied at school he suffered a second major trauma aged six, when his mother died. After leaving school he trained to be a solicitor during which time he began writing poetry. Janet Dunbar in A Prospect of Richmond writes: “William’s cousin Theodora Jane was often there too and he fell in love with her (she is the Delia of his early poems). Her father Ashley Cooper objected to the match: the poet, he said, could hardly support himself, let alone his wife. William objected to Ashley Cooper’s green hat with its yellow lining, which William, declared, made a gentleman look like a mushroom. Relations became even more strained. William finally accepted the fact that he was non persona grata with the Ashley Coopers and did not appear to be particularly heartbroken at the rejection of his suit. Theodora Jane did not take the disappointment so calmly. She grieved for Williams all her life, and it was a long life, for she was ninety when she was at last buried in Petersham Churchyard.” But the doomed relationship and pressures from work are thought to have sent the young man into fits of depression and he tried to commit suicide. He was encouraged to write more hymns and poetry to occupy his troubled mind. He died after contracting dropsy and is buried in the chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury, St Nicholas’s Church in East Dereham, and a stained-glass window there commemorates his life.
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