Reflection on William Cowper from Revd Ian Tattum

Most people know the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ and almost as many will know, if not the hymn, the opening line of ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. The first by the ex-slave trader John Newton, and the second by the poet William Cowper.

There was a link between them which has a strong personal connection for me and one which I have found getting stronger as the years go by. That link is the little, but growing, Market Town in Buckinghamshire called Olney, where my parents and my brother still live and which was also the parish that supported me when, over thirty years ago, I first set off on the journey to see if I might have a calling to the priesthood. Newton and Cowper published both hymns together in the Olney hymn book in 1779. They were friends and collaborators who have, church and local history-wise, become metaphorically joined at the hip as a result. Newton is much better known because of the drama of his life, which has even been turned into a film: a boy sailor who was later press-ganged before rising up the ranks to captain a slave ship, converting to evangelical Anglicanism and becoming the vicar of Olney and an active and vociferous abolitionist. The theological plot of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, of being overwhelmed by the grace of God, repenting and having one’s soul renewed, is the story of his life!

Things are very different with Cowper. Most of the drama in his life was internal. He is remembered, if at all, as a provincial poet who retreated to the country after a shattering mental breakdown whilst studying law in London. To me, it is interesting that Newton, the penitent sinner, is more cherished than Cowper, the man who suffered in turn from catastrophic and chronic periods of mental illness but who developed a unique sensitivity to the world around him. He has often, rightly, been hailed as a forerunner and inspiration for the Romantic poets, but that has often meant that the richness of his own, profoundly Christian, vision has been overlooked.

That plaque on his old home in Olney, which is now the Cowper and Newton Museum, acclaims him as the translator of Homer, which he was, but much more besides. He was the favourite poet of Wordsworth but also one of the most often quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote a philosophical poem inspired by a sofa (pictured right, now on display at the Newton & Cowper Museum at Olney).

He befriended hares. He was a friend of fire and brimstone preachers like Newton and of the firebrand, pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

He was chronically mentally ill but a kind companion.

He walked miles around his home and noticed things and he was a writer of hymns which were forged out of deep personal trauma. ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ is not an optimistic declaration that with God it will be alright on the night, but a re-telling of the drama of the Book of Job, from the point of view of someone whose security had been similarly swept away but eventually finds a glimmer of solace and meaning in the wake of the storm.

water meadows in Olney

I too once walked around the fields of Olney in the grip of a depression that I feared would never subside.

Cowper was someone who suffered but was drawn by the experience into a deeper presence in the world, where everyday places and creatures became more significant, and people – he was as much disturbed by the cruelties of the lace-making industry in his own town as he was by the agonies of slaves.

Here are a few extracts from his poems that show the breadth of his sympathy, and I am sure you will not only get a glimpse into the past he inhabited but find echoes of your experience of the present, where we find ourselves bombarded by troubling news.

Here is a quite lengthy quotation from ‘The Task’, his poem written in 1784 inspired by his sofa and one of Jane Austen’s favourites. It probably isn’t quite what you would expect.

Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more! My ear is pained,
My soul is sick with every day’s report
Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.
There is no flesh in man’s obdurate heart,
It does not feel for man. The natural bond
Of brotherhood is severed as the flax
That falls under the touch of fire.
He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not coloured like his own.

You might have noticed the reference to the prophet Ezekiel slipped in there, where he hears the promise of God that he will change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh?

I mentioned earlier Martin Luther King, Jr.’s love of his poetry. Cowper wrote ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ in 1788. As it was set to music – to the tune of ‘Admiral Hosier’s Ghost’, or ‘As, near Porto-Bello lying’ – it could be seen as a protest song. And like the previous passage, it was rooted in a theological vision of the world.

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there One who reigns on high?
Has He bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne the sky?

Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of his will to use?

Hark! He answers!—Wild tornadoes
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks.
…are the voice with which he speaks.

I will give just one more example that speaks of Cowper’s contemporary bite.  ‘The Poplar Field’ speaks to our increasing sensitivity to the loss of nature – not just the extinction of creatures we have only heard about through the media, but the destructions we witness locally and that change our place as they deprive us of sound and sight.

There are people who know trees so well that they can identify them from the distinct sound that their leaves make. If you ever listen to the sound of poplars in the breeze, you will know that this famous verse is not poetic whimsy but description. And the river Ouse is a mirror that witnesses any loss of greenery.

The poplars are fell’d, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

I wonder if having considered all the above we can hear or sing Cowper’s other famous hymn quite the way we did before. Our sense of what a closer walk with God might involve might have been enriched.

O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!


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