Sarah Allen and Kristen Childs

18th Century Theology

October 6, 2003

William Cowper

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me.

Hell might afford my miseries a shelter

Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all

Bolted against me.

These words came from a man who at another time also remarked, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” Indeed for most of his life, he struggled with severe bouts of insanity and depression. Yet in spite of this, his poetry, hymns and letters reflect a passion for God and a hope and confidence in God’s providence. How could a genuine believer plagued by such despair claim the promises of the grace of God? We are going to look first at William Cowper’s early life and family and how they influenced his future struggles; next we will consider the relationship between his Christian walk and the tortures of his melancholy after his conversion; and lastly, we will examine the significance of Cowper and his poetry in the greater context of the eighteenth century.

Many scholars point out three defining features of William Cowper’s early life: his mother, his father, and his education. William Cowper was born in November of 1731 to John and Ann Cowper. Although the fourth of seven children born to John and Ann, only he and his younger brother John survived past infancy. His mother passed away shortly after the death of the seventh child when William was only six years old. Fifty three years later, Cowper wrote “On the receipt of my mother’s picture out of Norfolk,” a poem in which he described his early recollections of their relationship.

“My mother! When I learn’d that thou wast dead,

Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?

Hover’d thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son,

Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun?

Perhaps thou gav’st me, though unseen, a kiss;

Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss…

Ah that maternal smile! it answers-Yes.

From these recollections, Cowper revealed the close relationship between he and his mother, a relationship cut too short. Yet her lasting impressions on her son influenced him throughout the rest of his life. At age sixty-three in a letter to a friend, Joseph Hill, Cowper remarked on his mother, “I can truly say that not a week passes (perhaps I might with equal veracity say a day), in which I think of her. Such was the impression her tenderness made upon me, though the opportunity she had for showing it was so short.” Along with such warm considerations, George Ella remarks in his biography that Cowper always felt drawn to his mother’s side of the family due to her connections with the Boleyns, the Careys, the Mowbrays, Sir Thomas More, Henry III, and most especially John Donne, who Cowper noted as dying one hundred years before his own birth. While he felt a strong attachment to his mother and her family, Cowper indicated that connections to his father did not exhibit the same warmth, and in fact, such connections even encouraged his impending depression. While Cowper readily and frequently expressed his appreciation of those whom he cared about, he was strangely quiet regarding the impact of his father. Gilbert Thomas claims that this silence merely and necessarily implies “nothing more that Dr. John Cowper’s want of religious ‘enthusiasm,’” and that he “lacked those finer qualities which the [Tiroconium] defines and praises,” not that he was necessarily a poor father. Because William Cowper came from such a prominent family, his father’s strong wishes compelled him to enter law and politics. Cowper was offered the position of Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords, which he accepted in 1763. When this position was challenged, the very thought of appearing before an examination board hurled him into the first series of his most intense struggles. Shortly after his mother’s death, Cowper’s father sent him away to the boarding school of Dr. Pitman, and later to Westminster. While away at school, Cowper experienced much agony at the hands of older classmates, which inevitably affected his perception of relationships and of himself. Yet his training in the classics proved invaluable to his later work, and he even commented later on his appreciation regarding his education. Undoubtedly, his relationship with his mother, the impersonal bond with his father, and his various educational experiences impacted not only his heart, but also affected his mind, creating the ability to express himself while he dealt with swelling emotions and the crushing realities of life.

Those bleak realities of inner turmoil drove Cowper to four suicide attempts before his true conversion, after which he continued to struggle with severe depression but at the same time strove to live a life of submission to God. On the eve before he would appear before the examination board concerning his position as the Clerk of Journals, the anxiety in Cowper’s mind had prompted him to plan his own end, and yet his plans of poisoning, drowning and stabbing resulted in failure. After a laundress found him unconscious in his chamber with a garter round his neck, his family rushed him to the asylum at St. Albans. Cowper encountered his strongest spiritual experience there leading up to his conversion. One day, he found a Bible on a garden bench and began reading, eventually coming across Romans 3:25, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are passed, through the forbearance of God.” He responded thus,

Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement he had made, my pardon sealed in his blood, and all the fulness [sic] and completeness of his justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel. Whatever my friend Madan had said to me, long before, revived in all its clearness, with demonstration of the Spirit and with power. Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.

Following this awakening, Cowper was so elated that he sang these words:

All at once my chains were broken,

From my feet the fetters fell,

And that word in pity spoken

Snatch’d me from the jaws of Hell.

Sweet the sound of grace divine,

Sweet the grace that makes it mine.

After this conversion experience, Cowper trod a path of spiritual vacillation, experiencing two more major breakdowns. His concern focused primarily on his unworthiness to stand in the presence of God and he was continually convinced that God had turned His back on him regarding Cowper’s salvation. Yet amid those most soul wrenching works there still remained glimmers of hope. Cowper maintained his confidence in God and echoed the sentiments of Job, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in Him!” He always accepted that his afflictions came from the providence of God, and never questioned God’s purposes, and yet this acknowledgement did not remedy his despondency. When Cowper despaired, he still held on to the reality of the existence of a holy God. It was this comprehension of the holiness of God that led to his desperate struggles, and his acknowledgement of his own unworthiness and sinfulness which caused this tension in his life. His depression was not about forsaking God, but rather resulted because of his acknowledgement of who God was. God was at the center of his deepest struggles. This is illustrated in a manuscript written in Cowper’s own handwriting. The manuscript contains two of Cowper’s most depressing poems, but those darkest works are followed by a beautiful hymn of hope, entitled To Jesus the Crown of my Hope.

Despite his constant vacillation and struggle in his own Christian walk, Cowper understood his role in eighteenth century society as reforming poetry and literature by grounding it in the truth of the gospel and the glory of God. He wrote, “Pity! Religion has so seldom found a skillful guide into poetic ground.” It was his desire to become that skillful guide, as Ella remarked in his biography of Cowper, “Cowper believed that he knew what was the one new thing to revive true poetry…” That “one new thing” was, as Cowper himself wrote, making God poetry’s theme. Cowper’s primary literary accomplishment was his work entitled The Task, which was originally written in response to a request for a poem about a sofa. It developed into a six-book poem in which Cowper expressed his understanding of man’s purpose and his intended lifestyle. In accordance with his desire to revive true poetry by refocusing on God, Cowper set forth the premise that man’s sole duty is to live a life worthy of the calling of God, and that happiness is meaningless and impossible apart from a right relationship with God. Some of Cowper’s most enduring and broadly known works over the centuries have been his hymns, most of which he composed while at the Olney church, many in conjunction with his close friend, John Newton. In October of 1767, Cowper moved to Olney where Newton resided. Several years later, the two men began to write and arrange the Olney hymns for use in Newton’s congregation. According to Ella, “Cowper’s idea of writing poetry at this time was to put Bible truths in verse to make them easier to learn off by heart and keep in memory.” Yet while many of these hymns proclaim the majesty of God, they also exude Cowper’s own sense of worthlessness and, as Thomas observed, seem inappropriate for congregational singing. Though often overlooked, Cowper also contributed much in the area of translation, in particular of the Latin and Greek poets, such as Horace and Homer. His translations often made these great works available to women and young girls who did not have the privilege of classical education. In addition, Cowper thought that he rendered a more accurate translation than previous translators who had, for example, made Homer’s language too flowery. But most importantly, his view of translation assisted his ultimate goal in reforming the world of poetry. In his mind, language continually degenerated and by making accurate accounts of the works of those who had used language so well, he hoped to elevate the English language. Cowper aspired to get back to the language of Eden, before the fall had corrupted all of creation. In all things, therefore, he hoped to conform himself and his work to the image of Christ in form and in content.

On April 25, 1800, William Cowper died, leaving behind significant classical and literary accomplishments that would affect the greater English society. But more than his contribution to the literary realm, Cowper offered much to the Christian Church by way of reintroducing God to the world of poetry. He also offered a highly honest perspective of a man plagued with numerous mental, emotional and spiritual battles. These battles were intricately woven into his personal history, his conversion, and even his scholarly activity. Cowper considered himself the worst of sinners, and yet he saw the overwhelming mercy of God, which sustained him throughout his tumultuous existence.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream

Thy flowing wounds supply

Redeeming love has been my theme,

And shall be till I die.