Thursday, November 26, 2009

William Cowper

William Cowper, sometimes called the greatest English poet of his age, was born today in 1731 in Berkhampstead. Some sources continue to list his birthday as November 15, but this is under the Old Style Gregorian calendar, abandoned in England in 1752 for the Julian calendar.

He was educated for a career in law, but felt unequal to the pressure of the necessary examinations for a position as a clerk to the House of Lords and attempted suicide three times. This led to his first confinement in an asylum for the insane at St. Alban's. Modern diagnosis of his condition generally supposes it to be manic depression or bipolar disorder. Upon his recovery, he moved to Huntingdon to be near one of his brothers, and took lodgings with the Unwin family. Two years later the Reverend Unwin was killed in a fall from a horse, but Cowper continued to live with the widow and her children. During this time, Cowper and the Unwins met
John Newton, who suggested that they move to Olney, the parish where he was now curate.

Cowper and Newton shared an interest in hymnwriting, and each helped to encourage the other. Their influential collection,
Olney Hymns, was eventually published in 1779. Cowper's sixty-eight contributions to that volume include a good number that are still sung today. Today's hymn takes its themes from the Sermon on the Mount (today's Gospel reading for Thanksgiving in my church) and from Habakkuk 3:17-18. Though this one may not have remained among his most popular, it is still one of my favorites.

Sometimes a light surprises
The child of God who sings;
A light from One who rises
On gentle, healing wings:
When comforts are declining,
God grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may,

It can bring with it nothing
But God will bear us through:
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe all people, too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And God who feeds the ravens
Will give all children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their usual fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet, God the same abiding,
Whose praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in God confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

William Cowper, 1779; alt.
Scottish Psalter, 1615

The critic Hugh L'Anson Faussett, who later edited a collection of Cowper's poetry, claimed that Newton's influence on Cowper only served to “indulge and inflame his sensiblity in the dark ecstasies of Calvinism, while at the same time affronting all that was reasonable and humane in his nature.” It seems unlikely that Cowper would have agreed. At any rate, this hymn is surely as joyful an expression of hope and certainty as one could find.

Cowper suffered at least two more periods of severe depression and confinement. The first, in 1773, seems to have ended his plans to wed Mary Unwin, though she remained his close friend and cared for him after his release from the asylum on that occasion. After her death in 1796 he never quite recovered, and died himself in 1800.

Cowper's primary fame as a poet in his own time came after the bulk of his hymnwriting, with the publication of works such as The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782), The Task (1785) and his blank verse translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1791). However, his hymns have reached a much larger and broader audience, even though many thousands of singers may have never remembered his name.


Dorothy said...

Those words bring tears to my eyes, C.W.S. Especially that first verse. It could have been my song this past week as I faced the specter of treatment for thyroid cancer and saw God remove that from my life at this time.

C.W.S. said...

I've been catching up on my blog reading in the last few days, Dorothy, and came upon your joyful news a bit late. I'm so glad that Cowper's words are speaking directly to you in this time of thanksgiving.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

Amen to that!

Leland Bryant Ross said...

I blogged last night briefly about the suggestion in Rejoice in the Lord that there is something "undesirable" in the wording of Cowper's verse here. If anyone knows what the objection is, please help me see it.

jrpv said...

Working on a paper (to upgrade a fb note for Light Shining Out of Darkness: God moves in a mysterious way ), I tried to account for Cowper's contributions to the Olney Hymns (67), and added the following paragraph.

After publication of the Olney Hymns in 1779, and the departure of Rev. Newton the following year, Cowper is known to have written two additional hymns:
Longing to be with Christ: To Jesus, the Crown of my Hope (possibly written in 1783, eight stanzas of four lines in Long Meter, Philippians 1:20-23, 1 Peter 1:8).
For the Use of the Sunday School at Olney: Hear, LORD, the song of praise and pray’r (six stanzas of four lines in Common Meter, written in 1789, first appeared in The Northampton Mercury for the 7th of August, 1790, published 1808).

C.W.S. said...

Thanks for the additional information, jrpv.