John Johnson: Diary transcripts on William Cowper

Scope and Content

A transcription of entries from the diary of John Johnson, 28 July 1795 - April 1800, relating to William Cowper. Although the paper is watermarked 1816, the document dates from a later period.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Johnson (1769-1833) was educated at Bungay School and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1793, and that year became curate of East Dereham, Norfolk, and Vicar of Hempnall. He was Rector of Yaxham and Welborne, 1800-1833. Johnson was the grandson of William Cowper's mother's elder brother, Roger Donne. He was friends with Cowper at Cambridge, and later cared for him in his final years. Johnson died at Yaxham on 29 September 1833.

William Cowper (1731-1800), poet, was born at Great Berkhamsted on 15 November 1731, the son of John Cowper, D.D., and Anne, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. He was educated at Westminster School before spending three years articled to a solicitor. He entered the Middle Temple in 1748, and was called to the bar in 1754, becoming a commissioner of bankrupts in 1759. As a result of his declining mental health, Cowper was taken to a private house at St Albans for treatment in December 1763. After his recovery, he resigned his commissionership of bankruptcy. He removed to Huntingdon in 1765, where he befriended John Newton, Vicar of Olney, whom he assisted in his parish duties. Cowper suffered from a fresh bout of mania in 1773, but recovered to devote himself to literary work. A volume of his poems was published in 1782, and the publication of The task in 1785 won him popular acclaim. As well as producing other volumes of poems, Cowper's translation of Homer's Iliad was published in 1791, and he edited an edition of Milton, which included his translations of Latin and Italian poems. He died on 25 April 1800.

Access Information

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

Received from the library of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, 1982.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. The biographical history was compiled with reference to the entry on John Johnson in J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, part II, vol. III (Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. 580, and the entry on William Cowper in Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds, Dictionary of national biography, vol. IV (London, 1908), pp. 1319-1327.

Other Finding Aids


Related Material

Cambridge University Library also holds 'Pro et Contra', MS.Add.5993, a diary kept by John Johnson of the dreams, voices and notices of William Cowper.


The collection is no. 1686 in Sir Geoffrey Keynes, Bibliotheca bibliographici (London, 1964), p. 173.