Portrait of William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1792  

It was the last day of a week-long book sale in the basement of the Edinburgh University Library, and everything had been marked down to ten pence. Among the many volumes I crammed into a box and lugged to the purchase table was The Poetical Works of William Cowper, edited by Humphrey Milford. Cowper (1731–1800) was one of those authors about whom I thought I knew a lot; I’d grown up singing his hymn “Oh, for a Closer Walk with God” and knew he had suffered from depression and been friends with the great hymn-writer and preacher John Newton; and in graduate school I had...


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