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William Cowper, 1731-1800

by Norman Mable

William Cowper God moves in a mysterious way.
Hark, my soul, it is the Lord.
O for a closer walk with God.

Had you met William Cowper during one of his melancholy periods, you would never have imagined him to be the writer not only of most delightful hymns of the deepest spiritual character, such as God moves in a mysterious way and O for a closer walk with God, but also of the humorous poem,

John Gilpin was a citizen
Of credit and renown,

which at one time enjoyed immense popularity.

As one has said: 'A life of more pathetic charm, and of deeper gloom, it would be hard to find'. Poor William was pursued nearly all his life by the dismal spirit of melancholy. Indeed, at times he went actually insane. And yet in his lucid intervals he produced some of the most beautiful hymns in our language.

William Cowper, born in 1731, was the son of Dr. John Cowper, Chaplain of George II and Rector of Berkhamsted. He had the great misfortune to lose his mother at the early age of six years. This was a terrible blow to the young and very sensitive boy, and had a lasting effect on him.

Upon leaving Westminster School, where he obtained most of his education and became an excellent cricketer and footballer, he entered the office of a solicitor to be trained for the Bar. But although he resided for eleven years in the Middle and Inner Temple, he never practiced, preferring rather to follow his literary bent.

Becoming financially embarrassed, a kinsman, Major Cowper, offered William an appointment as Reading Clerk and Clerk of Committees of the House of Commons. This necessitated an examination; and he so dreaded the prospect that it brought on the first attack of insanity. Upon his recovery he was looked after by his family, who made him an annual allowance.

About the time he was studying law he fell in love with his cousin, Theodora; but owing to the opposition of her family, on account of his mental disability, he never married. Although they parted, never to meet again, Theodora also remained single; and throughout her life she treasured up the poems Cowper had addressed to her and maintained a constant, though secret, interest in his welfare.

Wishing to be near his brother, a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he went to live at Huntingdon, where he met a clergyman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Unwin. The acquaintance quickly ripened into friendship, and finally Cowper persuaded the Unwins to let him live with them. Not long afterwards, however, Mr. Unwin lost his life in a riding accident, but Cowper continued to live in the Unwin's house.

Amongst the many people who came to condole with the widow was the Rev. John Newton, Curate of Olney, Bucks, and it was in this way that Cowper and Newton first met. At the curate's suggestion, Mrs. Unwin and Cowper went to live at Olney; and so was formed the association of Newton and Cowper which added so much to the enrichment of our psalmody by the production of the famous Olney hymns, three hundred and forty-eight of which were written by these two friends, many becoming very popular.

Not long after taking up his new residence Cowper was seized with another attack of insanity, aggravated mostly by the death of his beloved brother. He recovered, and in 1771 the Olney hymns were commenced at the suggestion of Mr. Newton. But a further attack intervened, and by his autobiography one realises how awful was Cowper's state of mind under this affliction.

Years of intermittent insanity followed, but in his sane periods Cowper was inspired to write hymns of the deepest emotion and spirituality. It is indeed strange to think that such hymns as, God moves in a mysterious way; Hark, my soul, it is the Lord; There is a fountain filled with blood; Sometimes a light surprises, and O for a closer walk with God were written by one who suffered so much from the worst mental distress. And yet there is a noticeable touch of pathos in more than one of these hymns. For instance, in the last verse of Hark, my soul:

Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore—
Oh, for grace to love Thee more.

The last hymn Cowper wrote for the Olney collection was composed after a particularly grievous visitation of mental disturbance.

At its worst stage he believed it was necessary to take his own life as an offering to God. He gave his coachman orders to drive to the River Ouse. Either by accident or design or shall we say by Divine guidance? the coachman lost his way, and after driving about for some while they eventually found themselves back at Cowper's house; by which time he had recovered his reason.

It was once thought that as a result of this experience the hymn, God moves in a mysterious way, came to be written, but there is considerable doubt about it. The hymn, composed in June 1773, has been described as the greatest on Divine Providence ever written; and it cannot be estimated to how many sad hearts it has brought peace and salvation.

Cowper died in 1800 at the age of sixty-nine.

As a relief to his pathetic record, a humorous incident in connection with another of his hymns is worth relating: A mother was in the habit of singing to her little girl, aged six, in order to coax her to go to sleep. One night the child particularly wanted a certain hymn to be sung, but had great difficulty in explaining what hymn it was. Finally, she said it was about a 'she-bear'. After much cogitation her mother at last realised it was Hark, my soul, the third verse of which commences:

Can a woman's tender care
Cease towards the child she bare?

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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