Judith Cowper (1702 – 1781)

Judith Cowper (1702 – 1781) by William Samuel Wright

I think I first encountered my 7 x great grandmother Judith Cowper in the Ahnentafel my relative Rafael Madan kindly sent me. I have to admit that I hadn’t given her much thought because the geometric progression of ancestry means there are literally thousands of ancestors to follow up. However, I found a portrait of her and her father on the BBC’s Your Paintings Art Collection while putting together my The digital portrait collection post. It turns out that she was a poet and muse of Alexander Pope who was a famous beauty “remarkable for the loveliness of her neck. Judith has her own entry on the Wikipedia, and one in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). There’s a longer biography by William Prideaux Courtney, in Dodsley’s Collection of Poetry, its Contents and Contributors (1910).

Here’s a potted summary of her with links so you can read more if you are interested. I write a follow-up post about her family soon. She was born on 26 August 1702, probably at the family estate, Hertingfordbury Park, Hertfordshire. She was the only daughter of Spencer Cowper (1670–1728), lawyer, judge, and MP, and his first wife, Pennington (baptised 1665 and buried at Hertingfordbury on 19 Oct., 1727), daughter of John Goodere. She was the granddaughter of Lady Sarah Cowper (1644–1720), the diarist. Judith was also the aunt of William Cowper the English poet and hymnodist, and grandmother of General Frederick Maitland. She died at Stafford Row, Westminster on 7 December 1781, and was buried in St. George’s burying-ground, Mount Street.

Hertingfordbury Park
Hertingfordbury Park, pulled down in 1810.

She married Lieut. Col. Martin Madan on 7 Dec., 1723. He was the groom of the bedchamber to Frederick, Prince of Wales, and M.P. for Wootton Basset in 1747. He died at Bath 4 March, 1756, aged fifty-three.

They had seven sons and two daughters, including:

  • Rev. Martin Madan, married Jane, 2nd dau. of Sir Bernard Hale Cambridge
  • Right Rev. Spencer Madan, bishop successively of Bristol and Peterborough.
  • John Madan
  • John Charles Madan, Ensign Madan. Foot Guards, died 1 April 1761 in Germany.
  • Frederic, Lieut. Colonel 1st Foot Guards, died in North America. Adm’on 9 Feb. 1785.
  • Penelope, my ancestor who married General Sir Alexander Maitland, 1st Bt
  • Maria Frances Cecilia, married before 1750 William Cowper of Hertingfordbury, her first cousin

From “The history of the island of Antigua, one of the Leeward Caribbees in the West Indies, from the first settlement in 1635 to the present time”

I will cover some of her family below, but in summary she was a poet who is most well known for her correspondence with Alexander Pope who she probably met while sitting to his friend Charles Jervas for her portrait. Pope compared her favourably with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 2.138–9):

Tho sprightly Sappho force our Love & Praise, A softer Wonder my pleasd soul surveys, The mild Erinna, blushing in her Bays.

According to the ODNB, she composed verse from her mid-teens, mainly in heroic couplets, that are described as “characteristically in imitation and celebration of the poets she was reading”. The are some interesting notes on Women Poets of the Romantic Period, which mentions her two ambitious early poems. The first was “Abelard to Eloisa”, written when she was 18 in 1720. It was a response to Pope’s famous “Eloisa to Abelard”poem. The second, “The Progress of Poetry,” was written in about 1721, which surveyed the English poets from Chaucer to Pope.

Judith admiration of Pope led to a correspondence in 1722-3. He was apparently flattered by the admiration of a young woman of good family. He even corrected the verse she showed him, encouraged her writing, addressed some lines to her (which he later adapted to Martha Blount in his Epistle to a Lady), and hoped for her friendship.

She suffered from depression and Pope suggested poetic projects as diversions. It’s not clear about how much actual contact there was between them, and the correspondence ends in November 1723 shortly before her marriage. Pope continued to communicated through their common friend Mrs. Caesar but by 1733 she described herself as ‘forgotten’ by him. His side of the correspondence was to appear in Letters to a Lady (1769), and although not identified it assumed that she presumably approved of its publication.

After her marriage it seems that money was short with her husband often abroad, and she suffered recurrent depression. She was confirmed about 1749, joining the Methodist circle of John Wesley and Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon. She also corresponds with her “like-minded’ nephew the poet William Cowper. Her daughter Maria also published religious verse.

Judith appears in other work, and is praised as ‘Cornalia’ in John Duncombe’s Feminiad (1754). She is also the ‘mask’ of the Ovidian monologue Miss Cooper to — by fellow woman diarist, letter-writer and poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. This maybe linked to some courtship letters where a jealous Judith wrote that her suitor and later husband, Captain Martin Madan, neglected her. Judith’s poems appear in various works, but according to the ONDB much of her most interesting work remains unpublished with much of the rest having been destroyed by her. I’ve had trouble tracking her work down, but found the Progress of Poetry in English Poetry 1579-1830: Spenser And The Tradition and have included it below:

Unequal, how shall I the search begin,
Or paint with artless hand the awful scene?
Thro’ paths divine with steps advent’rous tread,
And trace the muses to their fountain head?

Ye sacred nine, your mighty aid impart,
Assist my numbers, and enlarge my heart!
Direct my lyre, and tune each trembling string,
Where POETRY’S exalted charms I sing;
How, free as air, her strains spontaneous move,
Kindle to rage, or melt the soul to love:
How her first emanations dawn’d, disclose;
And where, great source of verse! bright PHOEBUS first arose.

Where nature warmth and genius has deny’d,
In vain are art’s stiff languid pow’rs apply’d.
Unforc’d the muses smile, above controul:
No art can tune the inharmonious soul.
Some rules, ’tis true, unerring, you may cull,
And void of life, be regularly dull:
Correctly flat may flow each study’d rhyme,
And each low period indolently chime.
A common ear perhaps, a vulgar heart,
Such lays may please, the labour’d work of art!
Far other strains delight the polish’d mind
The ear well judging, and the taste refin’d.
To blend in heavenly numbers ease and fire
An ADDISON will ask, a POPE require:
Genius alone, can force, like theirs, bestow,
As stars, unconscious of their brightness, glow.

Hail GREECE! from whence the spark ethereal came,
That wide o’er earth diffus’d its sacred flame,
There the first laurel form’d a deathless shade,
And sprung immortal for thy HOMER’S head.
There the great bard the rising wonder wrought,
And plan’d the ILIAD in his boundless thought;
By no mean steps to full perfection grew,
But burst at once refulgent to the view.
Who can unmov’d the warm description read,
Where the wing’d shaft repels the bounding steed?
Where the torn spoils of rapacious war,
With shocking pomp adorn the victor’s car!
When from some hostile arm dismiss’d, the reed
On the mark’d foe directs its thirsty speed,
Such strength, such action strikes our eager sight,
We view and shudder at its fatal flight;
We hear the straighten’d yew recoiling start,
And see thro’ air glide swift the whizzing dart.
When higher themes a bolder strain demand,
Life waits the poet’s animating hand:
There, where majestic to the sanguin’d field
Stern AJAX stalks behind his sevenfold shield;
Or where, in polish’d arms severely bright,
PELIDES dreadful issues to the sight;
With martial ardour breaths each kindling page
The direful havock and unbounded rage,
The clash of arms tumultuous from afar,
And all that fires the hero’s soul to war!

Bold PINDAR next, with matchless force and fire,
Divinely careless, wak’d the sounding lyre,
Unbound by rule, he urg’d each vigorous lay,
And gave his mighty genius room to play:
The grecian games employ his daring strings,
In numbers rapid as the race he sings.

Mark, Muse, the conscious shade and vocal grove,
Where SAPPHO tun’d her melting voice to love,
While ECCHO each harmonious strain return’d,
And with the soft complaining LESBIAN mourn’d.

With roses crown’d, on flowers supinely laid,
ANACREON next the sprightly lyre essay’d,
In light fantastick measures beat the ground,
Or dealt the mirth-inspiring juice around.
No care, no thought, the careful trifler knew,
But mark’d with bliss each moment as it flew.

Behold the soil, where smooth CLITUMNUS glides,
And rolls thro’ smiling fields his ductile tides;
Where swoln ERIDANUS in state proceeds,
And tardy MINCIO wanders thro’ the meads;
Where breathing flow’rs ambrosial sweets distill,
And the soft air with balmy fragrance fill.
O ITALY! tho’ joyful plenty reigns,
And nature laughs amid thy bloomy plains;
Tho’ all thy shades poetick warmth inspire,
Tune the rapt soul, and fan the sacred fire;
Those plains and shades shall reach th’ appointed date,
And all their fading honours yield to fate:
Thy wide renown and ever-blooming fame
Stand on the basis of a nobler claim;
In thee his harp, immortal VIRGIL strung,
Of shepherds, flocks, and mighty heroes sung.

See HORACE shaded by the lyrick wreath;
Where ev’ry grace and all the Muses breathe;
Where courtly ease adorns each happy line,
And PINDAR’S fire and SAPPHO’S softness join.
Politely wise, with calm well-govern’d rage,
He lash’d the reigning follies of the age;
With wit, not spleen, indulgently severe,
To reach the heart, he charm’d the list’ning ear.
When soothing themes each milder note employ,
Each milder note swells soft to love and joy;
Smooth as the fame-presaging doves that spread
Prophetick wreaths around his infant head.

Ye num’rous bards unsung (whose various lays
A genius equal to your own should praise)
Forgive the muse, who feels an inbred flame
Resistless, to exalt her country’s fame;
A foreign clime she leaves — and turns her eyes,
Where her own BRITAIN’S fav’rite tow’rs arise;
Where THAMES rolls deep his plenteous tides around,
His banks with thick ascending turrets crown’d,
Yet not those scenes th’ impartial muse could boast,
Were Liberty, thy great distinction, lost.
BRITANNIA, hail! o’er whose luxuriant plain
For thy free natives waves the rip’ning grain:
‘Twas sacred liberty’s celestial smile,
First lur’d the muses to thy gen’rous isle;
‘Twas liberty bestow’d the pow’r to sing,
And bade the verse-rewarding lawrel spring.

Here CHAUCER first his comick vein display’d,
And merry tales in homely guise convey’d;
Unpolish’d beauties grac’d the artless song,
Tho’ rude the diction, yet the sense was strong.

To smoother strains chastising tuneless prose,
In plain magnificence great SPENCER rose:
In forms distinct, in each creating line,
The virtues, vices, and the passions shine:
Subservient nature aids the poet’s rage,
And with herself inspires each nervous page.

Exalted SHAKESPEARE, with a boundless mind,
Rang’d far and wide; a genius unconfin’d!
The passions sway’d, and captive led the heart,
Without the critick’s rule, or aid of art:
So some fair clime, by smiling PHOEBUS blest,
And with a thousand charms by nature drest,
Where limpid streams in wild MAENDERS flow,
And on the mountains tow’ring forests grow,
With lovely landskips cheers the ravish’d sight,
While each new scene supplys a new delight:
No industry of men, no needless toil,
Can mend the rich, uncultivated soil.

While COWLEY’S lays with sprightly vigour move,
Around him wait the gods of verse and love;
So quick the crouding images arise,
The bright variety distracts our eyes:
Each sparkling line, where fire with fancy flows,
The rich profusion of his genius shows.

To WALLER next, my wond’ring view I bend,
Gentle, as flakes of feather’d snow descend:
Not the same snow, its silent journey done,
More radiant glitters in the rising sun.
O happy nymph! who could those lays demand,
And claim the care of this immortal hand:
In vain might age thy heav’nly form invade,
And o’er thy beauties cast an envious shade;
WALLER the place of youth and bloom supplys,
And gives exhaustless lustre to thy eyes:
Each Muse assisting, rises ev’ry grace,
To paint the wonders of thy matchless face.
Thus when at GREECE divine APELLES strove
To give to earth the radiant queen of love,
From each bright nymph some dazzling charm he took,
This fair one’s lips, another’s lovely look;
Each beauty pleas’d, a smile or air bestows,
Till all the goddess from the canvas rose.

Immortal MILTON, hail! whose lofty strain,
With conscious strength does vulgar themes disdain;
Sublime ascended thy superior soul,
Where neither light’nings flash nor thunders roll;
Where other suns drink deep th’ eternal ray,
And thence to other worlds transmit the day;
Where high in AETHER conscious planets move,
And various moons attendant round them rove.
O bear me to those soft delightful scenes,
Where shades far spreading boast immortal greens,
Where Paradise unfolds her fragrant flowers,
Her sweets unfading and celestial bowers;
Where ZEPHYR breathes amid the blooming wild,
Gentle as nature’s infant beauty smil’d;
Where gaily reigns one ever-laughing spring;
EDEN’S delights! which he alone could sing.
Yet not these scenes could bound his daring flight,
Born to the task, he rose a nobler height.
While o’er the lyre his hallow’d singers fly,
Each wond’rous touch awakens raptures high.
Those glorious seats he boldly durst explore,
Where faith alone, till then, had power to soar.

Smooth glide thy waves, O THAMES while I rehearse
The name that taught thee first to flow in verse;
Let sacred silence hush thy grateful tides,
The osier cease to tremble on thy sides;
Let thy calm waters gently steal along,
DENHAM this homage claims, while he inspires my song.
Far as thy billows roll, dispers’d away
To distant climes, the honour’d name convey:
Not XANTHUS can a nobler glory boast,
In whose rich streams a thousand floods are lost.

The strong, the soft, the moving, and the sweet,
In artful DRYDEN’S various numbers meet;
Aw’d by his lays, each rival bard retir’d:
So fades the moon, pale, lifeless, unadmir’d,
When the bright sun bursts glorious to the sight,
With radiant lustre and a flood of light.

The comic muse, with lively humour gay,
In CONGREVE’S strains does all her charms display.
She rallies each absurd impertinence,
And without labour laughs us into sense.
The follies of mankind she sets to view
In scenes still pleasing, and for ever new.

Sure heav’n who destin’d WILLIAM to be great,
The mighty bulwark of the BRITISH state,
The scourge of tyrants, guardian of the law,
Bestow’d a GARTH, designing a NASSAU.

Wit, ease, and life in PRIOR blended flow,
Polite as GRANVILLE, soft as moving ROWE;
GRANVILLE, whose lays unnumber’d charms adorn,
Serene and sprightly as the op’ning morn;
ROWE, who the spring of every passion knew,
And from our eyes call’d forth the kindly dew:
Still shall his gentle Muse our souls command,
And our warm hearts confess his skilful hand.
Be this thy least of his superior fame,
Whose happy genius caught great LUCAN’S flame,
Where noble POMPEY dauntless meets his doom,
And each free strain breathing LIBERTY and ROME.

O ADDISON, lamented, wond’rous bard!
The god-like hero’s great, his best reward:
Not all the lawrels reap’d on BLENHEIM’S plains,
A fame can give like thy immortal strains.
While CATO dictates in thy awful lines,
CAESAR himself with second lustre shines:
As our rais’d souls the great distress pursue,
Triumphs and crowns still lessen to our view:
We trace the victor with disdainful eyes,
And all, that made a CATO bleed, despise.

The bold pindarick and soft lyrick Muse
Breath’d all her energy in tuneful HUGHES!
Musick herself did on his lines bestow
The polish’d lustre, and inchanting flow!
His sweet cantata’s and melodious song
Shall ever warble on the skilful tongue!
When nobler themes a loftier strain require,
His bosom glows with more than mortal fire!
Not ORPHEUS’ self could in sublimer lays
Have sung th’ omnipotent CREATOR’S praise.
DAMASCUS’ moving fate, display’d to view,
From ev’ry eye the ready tribute drew:
Th’ attentive ear, the bright EUDOCIA charms,
And with the gen’rous love of virtue warms;
She seems above the ills, she greatly bears,
While PHOCYAS’ woes command our gushing tears.
ABUDAH shines a pattern to mankind;
In him the hero and the man are join’d.

High on the radiant list, see! POPE appears,
With all the fire of youth and strength of years:
Where-e’er supreme he points the nervous line,
Nature and art in bright conjunction shine.
How just the turns! how regular the draught!
How smooth the language! how refin’d the thought!
Secure beneath the shade of early bays,
He dar’d the thunder of great HOMER’S lays;
A sacred heat inform’d his daring breast,
And HOMER in his genius stands confest:
To heights sublime he rais’d the pond’rous lyre,
And our cold isle grew warm with GRECIAN fire!

Fain would I now th’ excelling bard reveal,
And paint the seat where all the muses dwell,
Where PHOEBUS has his warmest smiles bestow’d,
And who most labours with th’ inspiring God:
But while I strive to fix the ray Divine,
And round that head the lawrel’d triumph twine,
Unnumber’d bards distract my dazzled sight,
And my first choice grows faint with rival light.
So the white road that streaks the cloudless skies,
When silver CYNTHIA’S temp’rate beams arise,
Thick set with stars o’er our admiring heads,
One undistinguish’d streamy twilight spreads;
Pleas’d, we behold, from heaven’s unbounded height,
A thousand orbs pour forth promiscuous light:
While all around the spangled lustre flows;
In vain we strive to mark which brightest glows;
From each the same enlivening splendors fly,
And the diffusive glory charms the eye.

Judging by the critical review from 1783 below it was not to everyone’s taste:

The editor of this poem assures us, it may with propriety be styled Mrs. Madan’s master-piece. Whether with justice or not, we will not presume to say, being but little acquainted with this lady’s other poetical productions. In the present performance, which, we believe, has been already published, we look in vain for brilliancy of fancy or originality of thought; but if pure description, perspicuity, and an easy flow of verse, entitle a writer to approbation, she deserves it.


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