The great English poet William Cowper (pronounced, “Cooper”) was born in Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, England on November 15, 1731. His father was a minister, and his mother died when he was but six years old, and he suffered from an especially sensitive nature throughout his entire life. Although he studied to become a lawyer, by the age of 23, he was experiencing severe attacks of depression. At the urging of friends, he went to live with the Reverend Morley Unwin and his wife Mary, in a small community.
When Reverend Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, Mary and her family, with Cowper, moved to Olney, where Cowper began a long friendship with the Reverend John Newton. It was here that Cowper’s writing ability began to flower. With Newton, he co-wrote many famous Christian hymns that became known as the “Olney Hymns.”
His depression continued to bother him, however. In 1774, he was given three young hares, known as leverets, as companion animals by the children of a neighbor who had grown tired of the animals. Although all three were males, Cowper always referred to them as “she.” He had written to a friend that he had been seeking something that would ‘engage his attention without fatiguing it,’ and the hares met that demand perfectly. Cowper immediately set about making them each a house within his home!
Each house had separate sleeping quarters for each of the hares, and had a tray underneath to catch the droppings. Cowper writes that by this means their quarters were kept “sweet and clean.”
Puss, Tiney and Bess, as they were named, were as entertaining as any rabbit could be. Bess, unfortunately, died shortly after reaching adulthood. The hares went out to play in the garden (a backyard) with Cowper daily, and he wrote that Puss would tug on his pants leg when he wanted to frolic outside. They danced for him in the evening, and he said that they often brought him out of his depression simply by being there. In the epitaph to Tiney, Cowper wrote, “A Turkey carpet was his lawn, whereon he loved to bound, To skip and gambol like a fawn, and swing his rump around.” That sounds like a binky to me!
Puss was a “lap rabbit,” and Cowper wrote that he often licked his hand and leap into his lap for attention. Tiney had a retractable personality that was well loved anyway, because he made Cowper smile often with his antics. Cowper writes, in The Task: “I describe these animals as each having a character of his own. Such they were, in fact, and their countenances were so expressive of that character, that when I looked on the face of either, I immediately knew who it was.”
In 1785, Cowper published his first book of poems, called The Task. In it, he wrote the touching poem, “The Garden,” to his beloved hares, then nearly ten years old. Lines such as this pull on the heartstrings: “For I have pledged all that is human in me to protect thine unsuspecting gratitude and love. If I survive thee, I will dig thy grave; and when I place thee in it, sighing say, I knew at least one hare that had a friend.”
Tiney was almost nine years old when he died. Cowper wrote at his death, “Old Tiney, surliest of his kind…was still a wild jack-hare. Though duly from my hand he took his pittance every night, He did it with a jealous look, and when he could, would bite.” Cowper’s most beloved companion Puss lived to be eleven years and eleven months old.
The Task was well received by the public, including the royal family. Mary Unwin and Cowper moved to Weston Underwood a year later and Cowper’s poetry flourished. Although they had been in an on-again, off-again engagement, when Mary died in 1791, Cowper lost both her and his living arrangement. However, King George III gave Cowper a stipend for the remainder of his life.
The poems raging against the tyranny of slavery are intense and emotional. He writes, “Canst thou, and with an honour’d Christian name, Buy what is woman-born and feel no shame? Trade in the blood of innocence, and plead Expedience as a warrant for the deed?” Although he staunchly called to the care of the poor (“No man can be a patriot on an empty stomach.”), he also longed for a “lodge in some vast wilderness….” where no bad news of wars or oppression could reach him again.
William Cowper’s poetry also is filled with love of the beauty of the earth and the animals that inhabit it and it is said that he was an inspiration to William Wordsworth. The poet Robert Burns also admired Cowper, who wrote eloquently about daily events, and common place things; The Task was started in response to a challenge to write about his sofa! But in it, he also lambasted the hunting traditions of his day with sharp words against the needless loss of life.
In other poems, he sang the praises of a bee, told an amusing story about his cat getting accidentally locked in a drawer, lamented that the shady poplar trees were felled by the axe and delighted in the antics of his beloved hares. Cowper died on April 25, 1800, as a well-known and much loved poet.
Editorial note: In present day United States, keeping a hare in captivity without a license would be illegal. Happily we have a different species, the domestic rabbit, to engage our attention.You can find more information about William Cowper at the website for the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney.