Julian's Account of William Cowper, the poet:
The leading events in the life of Cowper are:-
The simple life of Cowper, marked chiefly by its innocent recreations and tender friendships, was in reality a tragedy. His mother, whom he commemorated in the exquisite "Lines on her picture", a vivid delineation of his childhood, written in his 60th. year, died when he was six years old. Here are the 'Lines' he wrote:
My mother! When I learned that thou wast dead
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hovered thy spirit o'er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life's journey just begun?
Perhaps thou gavest me, though unfelt, a kiss
Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss.
Ah, that maternal smile! It answers Yes.
I heard the bell tolled on thy burial day,
I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away,
And turning from my nursery window drew
A long, long sigh and wept a last adieu!
But was it such? It was. Where thou art gone
Adieus and farewells are a sound unknown.
The lines were inspired by seeing his mother's smile on her picture.
At his first school he was profoundly wretched, but happier at Westminster; excelling at cricket and football, and numbering Warren Hastings, Colman, and the future model of his versification, Churchill, among his contemporaries or friends. Destined for the Bar, he was articled to a solicitor, along with Thurlow. During this period he fell in love with his cousin, Theodora Cowper, sister to Lady Hesbeth and wrote love poems to her. The marriage was forbidden by her father, but she never forgot him, and in after years secretly aided his necessities. Fits of melancholy from which he suffered in school days, began to increase as he entered on life, much straitened in means after his father's death. But on the whole it is the playful humorous side of him that is most prominent in the nine years after his call to the Bar; spent in the society of Colman, Bonnell Thornton and Lloyd, and in writing satires for "The Connoisseur" and "St James Chronicle" and half-penny ballads. Then came the awful calamity which destroyed all hopes of distinction, and made him a sedentary invalid, dependent on his friends. He had been nominated to the Clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords, but the dread of appearing before them to show his fitness for the appointment overthrew his reason. He attempted his life with "laudanum, knife and cord", in the third attempt nearly succeeding. The dark delusion of his life now first showed itself — a belief in his reprobation by God. But for the present, under the wise and Christian treatment of Dr. Cotton at St Albans, it passed away; and the eight years that followed, of which the two first were spent at Huntingdon (where he formed his lifelong friendship with Mrs. Unwin), and the remainder at Olney in active piety among the poor, and enthusiastic devotions under the guidance of John Newton, were full of the realisation of God's favour, and the happiest, most lucid period of his life. But the tension of long religious exercises, the nervous excitement of leading at prayer meetings, and the extreme despondence (far more than Calvinism) of Newton, could scarcely have been a healthy atmosphere for a shy, sensitive spirit, that needed most of all the joyous sunlight of Christianity.
A year after his brother's death, madness returned. Under the conviction that it was the command of God, he attempted suicide; and he then settled down into a belief in stark contradiction to his Calvinistic creed, "that the Lord, after having received him in holiness, had doomed him to everlasting perdition" (Southey). In its darkest form, his affliction lasted sixteen months, during which he chiefly resided in J. Newton's house, patiently tended by him and by his devoted nurse, Mrs Unwin. Gradually he became interested in carpentering, gardening, glazing and the tendance of some tame hares and other playmates. At the close of 1780, Mrs. Unwin suggested to him some serious poetical work; and the occupation became so congenial that his first volume was published in 1782. To a happy episode in 1783 (his fascination by the wit of Lady Austin) his greatest poem "The Task" and also "John Gilpin" was owing. His other principal work was his Homer published in 1791. The dark cloud had greatly lifted from his life when Lady Hesbeth's care accomplished his removal to Weston (1786); but the loss of his dear friend, William Unwin, lowered it again for some months.
The five years' illness of Mrs. Unwin, during which his nurse of old became his tenderly watched patient, deepened the darkness more and more; and her death brought fixed despair of which his last poem "The Castaway", is the terrible memorial. Perhaps no more beautiful sentence has been written of him than the testimony of one who saw him after death that "With the composure and calmness of the face there mingled as it were a holy surprise".
Cowper's poetry marks the dawn of the return from the conventionality of Pope to natural expression and the study of quiet nature. His ambition was higher than this, to be the Bard of Christianity (Benham p. xlvi) His great poems show no trace of his monomania, and are full of healthy piety. His fame as a poet is less than as a letter writer: the charm of his letters is unsurpassed. Though the most considerable poet who has written hymns, he has contributed little to the development of their structure, adopting the traditional modes of his time and Newton's severe canons. The spiritual ideas of the hymns are identical with Newton's: their highest note is peace and thankful contemplation rather than joy; more than half of them are full of trustful or reassuring faith; ten of them are either submissive (44), self-reproachful (17, 42, 43), full of sad yearning (1, 34), questioning (9), or dark spiritual conflict (38-40). The speciality of Cowper's handling is a greater plaintiveness, tenderness and refinement. A study of these hymns as they stood originally under the classified heads of the Olney Hymns, 1779, which in some cases probably indicate the aim of Cowper as well as the ultimate arrangement of the book by Newton, shows that one or two of his hymns were more the history of his conversion than transcripts of present feelings; and the study of Newton's hymns in the same volume, full of heavy indictment against the sins of his own regenerate life, brings out the peculiar danger of his friendship with the poet. It tends also to modify considerably the conclusions of Southey as to the signs of incipient madness in Cowper's saddest hymns. Cowper's best hymns are given in the "Book of Praise" by Lord Selborne. Two may be selected from these, the exquisitely tender "Hark! my soul, it is the Lord" and "Oh! for a closer walk with God". Anyone who knows Mrs Browning's noble lines on Cowper's grave will find even a deeper beauty in the latter, which is a purely English hymn of perfect structure and streamlike cadence, by connecting its sadness and its aspirations not only with the "discord on the music" and "the darkness on the glory", but the rapture of his heavenly waking beneath the "pathetic eyes of Christ".
Cowper has six hymns in 'Spiritual Songs':
1 Of all the gifts Thy love bestows.
4 Ere God had built the mountains. (Divine Wisdom) Prov. 8:22-31.
49 Christ delivered us when bound.
291 O Saviour, Whom absent we love.
322 There is a stream of precious blood (Passiontide). Zech.13:1.
437 God moves in a mysterious way. (Providence).
All these hymns were in the 1856 edition of the Little Flock Hymn Book (G.V.Wigram's), and have continued to be widely used in all subsequent editions.
Experiences of Cowper.
At a time when Cowper's spirit was melancholy he said "I found my heart at length so powerfully drawn towards the Lord, that having a retired and secret nook in the corner of a field, I kneeled down under a bank and poured forth my complaints before Him. It pleased my Saviour to hear me so that the oppression was taken off and I was enabled to trust in Him that careth for the stranger, to roll my burden upon Him and to rest assured that wheresoever He might cast my lot, the God of all consolation would still be with me. But this was not all. He did for me more than either I had asked or thought". The next day, Sunday, June 23rd. 1765 after church, Cowper returned to the place where his prayer had been answered, he continued "I went immediately after church to the place where I had prayed the day before and found the relief I had there received was but the earnest of a richer blessing. How shall I express what the Lord did for me, except by saying that He made all His goodness to pass before me. I seemed to speak to Him face to face, as a man conversing with his friend, except that my speech was only in tears of joy and groanings which cannot be uttered. I could say indeed with Jacob not how dreadful, but how lovely is this place; this is none other than the House of God".
Cowper's unstable mental condition can be realised by the contrasting lines he wrote when mentally unbalanced and when he was of a sober mind:-
'Man disavows and Deity disowns me,
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths
All bolted against me'
'The soul, a dreary province once
Of Satan's dark domain,
Feels a new empire formed within
And owns a heavenly reign.'
The Olney Hymns
Cowper contributed 67 hymns to this collection. The rest were composed by his great friend John Newton. They were published in 1779. Although outside of the hymnbooks proper, that work exercised a powerful influence on the collections of the next two periods; added two of the greatest names to the roll of hymn writers; and enriched the hymnody of all time.
In July 1764, he was sitting in his garden reading the epistle to the Romans. When he came to chap. 3, vv. 24 & 25, he was impressed by them: "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God". He relates, "Immediately I received strength to believe and the full beams of the Son of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement that Christ had made, my pardon in His blood, the fullness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel".
Cowper's experience when writing a hymn.
"I began to compose them yesterday morning (Dec. 9th. 1769) before daybreak, but fell asleep at the end of the first two lines; when I awaked again, the third and fourth were whispered to my heart in a way I have often experienced:-
"Oh for a closer walk with God,
A calm and Heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road,
That leads me to the Lamb".
William Cowper, born in 1731, was the son of Dr. John Cowper, chaplain of George II and Rector of Berkhamsted. His great uncle was Lord Chancellor of the Realm.
A nephew of Mrs. Cowper, a Mr. Johnson, was watching by his uncle's dying bed. About half an hour before his death, his face which had been wearing a sad and hopeless expression, suddenly lighted up with a look of wonder and inexpressible delight. It was as if he saw his Saviour, and as if he realised the blessed fact, "I am not shut out of heaven after all".