This essay is not about Richard III. And yet it is. It is about a man who has suffered similar damage to his legacy, a man whose name - just like that of Richard III - has been attached to an unchallengeable stereotype, and yet a man who would very probably have been a better neighbour and more loyal friend than most.
William Cowper was an athletic youth. He excelled in every sport at school. He was bright. He liked girls, at least the few the schoolboy knew. He was inclined to make pranks on them and had sufficient charm to be forgiven.
When Cowper was still a young man, he encountered more problems than he could handle. His father died. His best friend drowned. He and his fiancee were separated by her father. On the plus side, Cowper received a job through sinecure, so at least he would be well placed as a new member of the Bar.
But Cowper did not like the job he was given. It was too public, too important, too serious. He wanted another man's job. He wished the man would die to create a vacancy. And then the man died! It was a shocking turn of events, but Cowper overcame his natural feeling of guilt to arrange to fill the dead man's shoes. The private arrangement turned into a public fiasco. Cowper was suddenly at the centre of a storm. He could not have either job. It was decided that Cowper should not be promoted through sinecure. Instead he would be made an example and - his skill was going to be tested, in public.
This was the most acute nightmare that could have been devised for Cowper. His bravado left him. The strong sportsman cowered. The cocky charmer failed. He could not even kill himself, although his many attempts were dramatic and sincere.
When he was discovered on the floor of his lodgings after hanging himself almost unconscious, his career was over. His friends disappeared. He entered that darkness called "conviction of sin". 18 months later, when the conviction was lifted and he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, Cowper was a different man. He had no time for sports. He entered a retiring life in the countryside and made friends amongst ordinary people, far below the station into which he had been born. It was entirely natural that as William Cowper became a poet, his poetry would reflect his Christian beliefs. Sometimes it is explicit. Sometimes it is implicit.
Cowper was not without problems for the rest of his life and he did not always cope. Because ... and here we must whisper ... Cowper was human.
If only Cowper had been strong, we read in the biographies, if only Cowper had been manly - he would never have let problems worry him! A stronger man would have coped. Someone less "sensitive" (to borrow Thomas Wright's choice of word in Life of William Cowper, footnote, p.42) would have fought and won. Because we know that we all cope with any and every crisis, without one hair turning grey. Don't we?
Cowper's chief "failing" (in his biographers' eyes) was to be human enough to admit defeat, to submit to God and find hope outside himself. Through their own prejudice, they proceed to reinterpret Cowper's religious beliefs as insanity!
One lie leads to another and when men become monsters, they never stop growing tails, withered arms and extra toes. Thomas Wright uses the word "sensitive" in the context of accusing Cowper of possessing a dark secret: of being a woman.
Now William Cowper never married. This does not mean that he did not want to marry. But when unpleasant biographers ask why he never married, they immediately answer their own question with the unsubstantiated assertion that it was because Cowper lacked male genitalia. Ask them for proof and they will tell you he was a mummy's boy (his mother died when he was 6) and that he was bullied at school age 10, because a boy discovered his secret. What evidence do we have for this? None whatsoever. We know from his own writing that he was bullied. We know nothing more. Indeed, we know that he suffered from an eye problem at this age, so any conjecture must settle on the likelihood that Cowper was ridiculed because of that! We do not need to invent a reason, and we certainly don't need to descend into the extreme fantasy Wright poses.
Rumours get repeated (for instance in David Cecil's The Stricken Deer, page 21, Constable and Co., 1933). In the hands of other authors the rumour becomes diluted. They picture Cowper as effeminate, a "dandy" in spite of the fact that Cowper disliked such men intensely, in spite of the fact that his first 30 years were spent as a sporting man!
In this war of attrition against the truth, not everyone will know of the immasculation myth. They will perhaps know of William Cowper as "depressed", never troubling themselves to find out whether he had valid reasons to find life difficult. People who swallow one lie are more likely to believe another. And it is belief. If we believethat Cowper was a depressed fop because someone has told us it is so, then we will have no argument when another "authority" informs us that he was effeminate, immasculated and, in fact, female.
As the myths surrounding King Richard III are regurgitated in the media this week, it gives me a sense of deja vu. Is it a coincidence that both Richard and Cowper have been turned from men into monsters?
Nobody cares what good King Richard III did. The wickedness of Queen Elizabeth I in destroying Katherine and Mary Grey (sisters of the late Queen Jane) is ignored in her iconography. But the possibility of one offence by King Richard III (the Princes in the Tower) is enough to have him changed before our eyes into something sub-human?
The statue of Richard III at Middleham Castle gives him a tail. We removed it digitally in our Middleham Castle DVD because it is so offensive to the memory of a man whose guilt has not been proven and whose virtues were many. But he still wears that tail in public attitude, in myth, in tabloid headlines about the "twisted" king.
William Cowper possessed different virtues to King Richard III, but they are united in the betrayal of history.
In no natural struggle for existence would he [Cowper] have been the survivor; by no natural process of selection would he ever have been picekd out as a vessel of honour. If the shield which for eighteen centuries Christ, by His teaching and His death, has spread over the weak things of this world, should fail, and might should again become the title to existence and the measure of worth, Cowper will be cast aside as a specimen of despicable infirmity, and all who have said anything in his praise will be treated with the same scorn.
William Cowper by Goldwin Smith, p. 128
This is an abusive, blatant lie.
King Richard III possessed all those qualities Goldwin Smith so cruelly claimed that William Cowper lacked. And Richard III has known nothing but scorn. When men are hated in history, they are given "despicable infirmities" in death, whether or not they had them in life.
If you are interested in The Life of William Cowper, please visit our CD page. Also available in paperback.
Update on February 9, 2013 by Abigail J. Fox
You wish to hear from me at any calm interval of epic frenzy. An interval presents itself, but whether calm or not is perhaps doubtful. Is it possible for a man to be calm who for 3 weeks past has been perpetually occupied in slaughter. Letting out one man’s bowels, smiting another through the gullet, transfixing the liver of another, and lodging an arrow in the buttock of a fourth?
Letter from William Cowper to Walter Bagot, 3rd January 1787
In this quotation Cowper alludes to his translation work. He completed both the Odyssey and the Iliadand he was not shy about the bloody body count, as his letter to Bagot suggests. Was the translation good?
It has been suggested by Maurice Blaring that if the same single poet really wrote both, then the Iliad was his mature work, but the light, delightful Odyssey was the work of his old age. One would never have predicted that Cowper should be its ideal translator, yet I suspect he is.
Peter Levi, Introduction to Everyman's edition of The Odyssey translated by William Cowper
There is a difference between a man capable of executing warfare like Richard III and a man capable of writing about it with boldness. The skills are different. But both are men. If anyone is tempted to give credence to the view of Cowper as less than manly, they should first read his translations and then judge, for while a critic may then give the credit of masculinity to the original work, it cannot be overlooked that Cowper wanted to translate these works and admired them deeply.