The Diverting History of John Gilpin: Shewing how he Went Further than he Intended, and Came Safe Home Again (1782)

The Diverting History of John Gilpin is a humorous ballad written by the English poet and hymnist William Cowper (1731–1800). It owes its existence to Lady Austen. One autumn afternoon in 1782 she noticed her friend William sinking into a depression. To raise his spirits she told him a story she had loved as a child, about the hilarious misadventures of a linen draper called John Gilpin. Cowper was cheered to the point that he turned the tale into a ballad, which became the most popular poem of the 1780s (to the point where pirate copies were being sold across England, together with biographies and toys of Gilpin).

The ballad begins with the draper heading and out of London to celebrate his twentieth wedding anniversary at the Bell in Edmonton. He rides a borrowed horse, while his wife, her sister, and the children are in a chaise and pair. Almost immediately poor Gilpin loses control of his horse, which speeds away with him, dislodging his hat and wig, and smashing the bottles of red wine hung over its side. It careers through Islington, leaves Edmonton and the Bell in its wake, before reaching Ware, its home, ten miles further on. At this point a “braying ass” gives it a fright and it turns and gallops all the way back to London, where the farce and Gilpin can finally terminate.

Cowper was 61 when he composed the ballad. Thirty years previously, during a serious depression, he had tried to take his own life: by swallowing a fatal dose of laudanum, drowning himself, stabbing himself with his pen knife (the blade broke), and hanging himself with a garter (it snapped just as he lost consciousness). From these depths of despair Cowper found solace and strength in composing Christian poems and hymns. One of these gave English the phrase “God moves in a mysterious way” — something true both of William Cowper and the man he immortalised, old John Gilpin.

Here we are featuring a 1906 edition of The Diverting History, published in the United States. The brilliantly comic woodcuts by Robert Seaver mimic those found in the eighteenth-century chapbooks in which many early readers encountered the ballad, in pirated form.