The Task by William Cowper

Object name: The Task by William Cowper

Object number: CHWJA: B112

Category: Book

Description: First edition of The Task by William Cowper. Printed for J. Johnson 1785.

Made: 1785

Context: In the brief ‘Biographical Notice of the Author’ written by Jane Austen’s brother Henry to preface Volume 1 of the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Henry identified Cowper as Jane’s favourite poet. Jane refers to Cowper in Mansfield Park, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, as well as in a number of her personal letters.

The Task: A Poem in Six books by William Cowper, was published in 1785 and is considered his greatest achievement.  It was written after a friend, Lady Austen (no relation to Jane), challenged him when he complained of writers’ block, to write a poem in blank verse about his sofa.  He did so and followed it with five further volumes – “The Timepiece”, “The Garden”, “The Winter Evening”, “The Winter Morning Walk” and “The Winter Walk at Noon” – in which he covered a wide range of topics including the blessings and power of nature, humanity as a destructive force and religious faith.  He made attacks on, amongst other things,  blood sports, the failings of the clergy and slavery.  He later wrote poems specifically for the anti-slavery campaign and his poems would be quoted by Martin Luther King Junior during the 20th century civil rights movement.

Credit: Given from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library by the Friends of the National Libraries, 2022.

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