William Cowper … The Best Friend I Never Met (Part 4: The Hares)

PART 4:  The Hares

In 1773, William became convinced that
he was damned, “below Judas”, bringing him again
plunging into the despair of Melancholy …

“In 1773, however, his malady returned, and he
sunk into a state of the blackest despondency,
from which he did not begin to recover till the year
1778; and it was two years later before his mind
was sufficiently restored to allow of his engaging
in literary composition.” [ Hayley, 1805 ]

In 1774 William acquired a leveret
that was being abused by brats
from a neighbouring house.

Having rescued the one, William then
opened his home to another three –
Puss, and Tiney, and Bess.

“In the year 1774, being much indisposed
both in mind and body, incapable of diverting
myself either with company or books,
and yet in a condition that made some diversion
necessary, I was glad of any thing that would
engage my attention without fatiguing it.

The children of a neighbour of mine
had a leveret given them for a plaything:
it was at that time about three months old.

Understanding better how to tease the poor creature
than to fed it, and soon becoming weary of their charge,
they readily consented that their father,
who saw it pining and growing leaner every day,
should offer it to my acceptance.

It was soon known among the neighbours
that I was pleased with the present;
and the consequence was, that in a short time
I had as many leverets offered to me
as would have stocked a paddock.

I undertook the care of three, which
it is necessary that I should here distinguish
by the names I gave them, Puss, Tiney, and Bess.

Notwithstanding the two feminine appellatives,
I must inform you that they were all males.

Immediately commencing carpenter,
I built them houses to sleep in;

each had a separate apartment so contrived
that their ordure would pass thro’ the bottom of it;

an earthen pan placed under each received
whatsoever fell, which being duly emptied and washed,
they were thus kept perfectly sweet and clean.

In the daytime they had the range of a hall,
and at night retired each to his own bed,
never intruding into that of another.

His affection for the animals who depended
upon his care, is recorded in “The Task” (1785).
Here, William makes a promise to the three hares:

“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.”

Bess died shortly after Cowper acquired him
– in 1775; Tiney lived until 1783 (aged 9);
while Puss remained with Cowper the longest …

“Tuesday, March 9th, 1786. This day died poor
Puss, aged eleven years, eleven months. He died
between twelve and one at noon, of mere old age,
and apparently without pain.”

William’s regard for the animals is evident
in this portion of “Epitaph on a Hare”,
written upon the death of Tiney …

“ … His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regal’d,
On pippins’ russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads fail’d,
Slic’d carrot pleas’d him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he lov’d to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out his idle noons,
And every night at play.

I kept him for his humour’s sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come …”

“Puss grew presently familiar … He would
suffer me to take him up and to carry him about
in my arms, and has more then once
fallen asleep upon my knee …

He would invite me to the garden by drumming
upon my knee, and by a look of such expression
as it was not possible to misinterpret.

If this rhetoric did not immediately succeed,
he would take the skirt of my coat between his teeth,
and pull at it with all his force.”

“Puss was tamed by gentle usage;
Tiney was not to be tamed at all;
and Bess had a courage and confidence that made
him tame from the beginning.”

“I cannot conclude, Sir, without informing you that
I have lately introduced a dog to his acquaintance,
a spaniel that had never seen a hare,
to a hare that had never seen a spaniel.

I did it with great caution, but there was no real
need of it … There is therefore, it should seem,
no natural antipathy between dog and hare …

the dog pursues because he is trained to it:
they eat bread at the same time out of the same hand,
and are in all respects sociable and friendly.

Yours, etc. W.C.

P. S. I should not do complete justice to my subject,
did I not add, that they have no ill scent belonging to them,
that they are indefatigably nice in keeping themselves clean,
for which purpose
nature has furnished them with a brush under each foot … ”

[ Letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine, 28th May, 1784 ]

In a letter written in 1780, to John Newton, William relates
an account of the escape of Puss, and the chase to retrieve her
that followed …

“My dear Sir, … Last Wednesday Night, while we were
at Supper, between the Hours of 8 and 9, I heard an unusual
Noise in the Back Parlour, as if one of the Hares was entangled,
& endeavouring to disengage herself.

I was just going to Rise from Table, when it ceased.
In about 5 Minutes, a Voice on the Outside of the Parlour
Door, enquired if One of my Hares had got away.

I immediately rushed into the next room, and found
that my poor Favourite Puss had made her Escape.
She had gnawed in sunder the Strings of a Lattice Work …

… not expecting to see her again, but desirous, if possible
to learn what became of her. In somewhat less than an
hour, Richard returned almost breathless, with the following

That soon after he began to run he left Tom behind him,
and came in sight of a most numerous Hunt, consisting of
Men, Women, Children, and Dogs; that he did his best to
keep back the Dogs, and presently outstripp’d the Crowd,

so that the race was at last disputed between himself and Puss.
… She pushed for the Town again, and soon after she enter’d it,
sought Shelter in Mr. Wagstaff’s Tan Yard …

There she encountered the Tan Pits full of Water,
& while she was struggling out of One Pit & Plunging
into another, and almost drowned, one of the Men
drew her out by the ears and secured her.

She was then well washed in a bucket, to get the Lime
out of her coat, and brought home in a sack at 10 o’clock.

This Frolic cost us four Shillings, but you may suppose
we did not grudge a Farthing of it. The poor Creature received
only a little hurt in one of her claws, and in one of her ears,
& is now almost as well as ever.”

William’s tender care for the animals was – perhaps,
of all the personal qualities we shared – the one that
bound me to him the most.

Whatever William did in life that I had yet to discover,
I always knew that, in him – I was effectively looking
at myself.

It actually came as little wonder to me, then,
to discover that, like me, this compassionate man
preceded me in writing against
the savagery of “hunting”
and those sadistic creatures who enjoy it.

“You will not wonder, Sir, that my intimate acquaintance
with these specimens of the kind has taught me
to hold the sportsman’s amusement in abhorrence;

he little knows what amiable creatures he persecutes,
of what gratitude they are capable,
how cheerful they are in their spirits,
what enjoyment they have of life, and that,

impressed as they seem with a peculiar dread of man,
it is only because man gives them peculiar cause for it.”


In 1781, at the age of 50, William was playfully challenged
by an acquaintance, Lady Austen, to write a poem about a Sofa.

He did.
Added several to it.

And achieved fame from the resulting volume that this
collection produced upon its publication in 1782.

Success came to William Cowper at the age of 51.

Later life was most satisfactory for William at which time
he described life at home “by a domestic fireside, in a retreat
as silent as retirement can make it;
where no noise is made
but what we make for our own amusement.”

In 1786, William moved with Mary to a village a mile
from Olney, called Weston Underwood, in Buckinghamshire.
Here, the proceeds from William’s volume of poems allowed him
to see Mary and himself established in a fine house.

Finally, life had allowed him to experience happiness.

It was exceptionally short-lived when, from 1791 to ‘93,
Mary Unwin fell increasingly ill.

“The paralytic seizure which Mrs Unwin experienced
in 1792, seems to have given a shock to Cowper’s mind,
from which it never recovered.” [ Hayley ]

Again they moved – this time in 1795, to four successive
residences in Norfolk.

But William’s efforts to return Mary Unwin to health
would be to no avail.

Mary’s illness finally claimed her, and she died
in December of 1796, at the age of 72.

With an impact as shattering as the death of his beloved mother,
William’s world was devastated and he fell into a deep melancholy
from which he never recovered.

William succumbed to the swelling of Oedema and,
on the 25th of April of 1800, after lapsing into a coma
that, for some 12 hours seemed such a peaceful sleep

that those seated at his bedside
could not tell at what point

… William Cowper left this life.

I would like to Thank You for stopping by here today,
and for making the effort to become more acquainted
with the life of William Cowper.

I am very glad that you did.

You see, I have always wished that more people
knew something about William Cowper …

And now,

you do.


Cowper: Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. (1816)