William Lisle Bowles was born in Kings Sutton, Northants where his father was the local vicar. The family moved to a living in Uphill and Brean in Somerset when William was seven. He was educated at Winchester College where he proved to be an outstanding scholar and finished up as school captain. He went on to Trinity College, Oxford where he was a pupil of the poet Thomas Warton. He won the Chancellor’s prize for Latin Verse and graduated with a BA in 1786 and an MA four years later. He was engaged to be married in the late 1780’s but his fiancée’s parents did not approve of his status and, deeply depressed, he went on a tour of the north of England, Scotland and the continent to console himself. He later got engaged to another woman who died in 1793 and he married her elder sister four years later.
Following the disappointment in not being made a fellow of the College, he was ordained and became the vicar of Chicklade, Wiltshire in 1792, moving to Dumbleton, Gloucestershire in 1797 and Bremhill, Wiltshire in 1804, a living he held until his retirement. He was also appointed prebendary at Salisbury Cathedral in 1804 and became its residentiary canon in 1828. He had earlier in 1818 been appointed chaplain to the Prince Regent, the future George IV.
In 1789, whilst still at Cambridge, he published a small quarto volume of fourteen sonnets which was well received, particularly by the distinguished poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth. His inspiration for these had come from his earlier travels. By 1794 this had been enlarged to 27 sonnets and thirteen other poems. These remain his best works and his later longer poems, of which there are several, are not considered to be of great merit. His sonnets display purity of imagination, graceful diction and tenderness of feeling.
In 1806 he published an edition of Pope’s works together with notes and an essay containing some criticism of Pope’s pursuit of the artificial as opposed to the natural. Criticising Pope was a dangerous thing to do and Byron and Thomas Campbell rallied to Pope’s defence. This literary spat with Byron continued for some time, Byron labelling him as “the maudlin prince of mournful sonneteers”. He had a point, as Bowles’s themes are often sad. Bowles also wrote a biography of Bishop Ken, Chaplain to Charles II and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and an autobiographical work, Scenes and shadows of Days Departed, as well as a collection of hymns, Little Villagers’ Verse Book. He resigned his position as vicar of Bremhill in 1835 through ill health and died in 1850, aged 88.