William Cowper was born, in Hertfordshire, England, on November 26, 1731.
His father, Reverend John Cowper, was a Church of England clergyman. His mother, Anne, died when William was but six years of age, and he found himself in boarding school facing “loneliness, insecurity and bullying”. It was probably the result of these sad days that led to bouts of insanity in adulthood.
He studied law, was called to the bar in 1754 … but never practised law. Fear of appearing in public and mental illness prevented him from doing so. “On this occasion he bought poison and placed a penknife at his heart, but hadn’t the courage to kill himself by either. Then he tried hanging himself with a garter, but the garter broke” (Gospel in Hymns, by Barclay, page 13).
Lord David Cecil, in his biography of Cowper, tells us that he was committed to Dr Cotton’s asylum in St Albans, “a gibbering, raving maniac” (page 71). “Day after day he lay upon his bed bound for fear he would kill himself.”
The fear that he had committed the unpardonable sin burned into his brain.
It was whilst in the asylum, “walking in a garden, he came upon a Bible lying on a bench”. He read John 12 – and took the Bible to his room to read some more. “I flung myself into a chair near the window,” Cowper wrote later, “and ventured once more to apply to it for comfort and instruction. The first verse I saw was the 25th verse of Romans 3: “Whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins.” Immediately, I received strength to believe it and the full beams of the Son’s righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood… In a moment I believed and received the gospel…” (Quoted in The Stricken Deer, the Life of Cowper, by Lord David Cecil, page 74).
It would be good to be able to say that he was miraculously healed of his mental troubles. But such was not the case. There were still days ahead of unbearable suffering, and attempted suicide again.
Eighteen months later, however, he left Dr Cotton’s asylum.
Cowper found lodging in Huntingdon, with the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife Mary and his family. After Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, Cowper continued to board with Mary and her family.
The following year Cowper and the Unwin ladies moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire to be under the ministry of the Reverend John Newton, who was the evangelical curate there. In 1786 Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to the nearby village of Weston Underwood.
Cowper formed a close friendship with Rev. John Newton who wrote “Amazing Grace”. For the next 12 years Newton and Cowper served the Lord as a team, the latter caring for “the poor, the sick and the dying”.
When a bout of melancholy oppressed his friend, Newton suggested they write hymns. Thus it was that William Cowper loomed large in the history of hymnody.
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform …
There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins …
Hark, my soul, it is the Lord, ‘tis the Saviour, hear His Word…
Oh, for a closer walk with God …
Sometimes a light surprises …
All these, and more, came from his pen.
Despite periods of severe depression (melancholia), Cowper’s eighteen years in Olney and eight at Weston Underwood were marked by his great literary achievements as poet, hymn-writer, letter-writer and translator.
Cowper’s works include: The famous Olney Hymns, published in 1779, on which Cowper and Newton collaborated; The Diverting History of John Gilpin, a humorous ballad written in 1782 and first published anonymously, but which became so popular that after Cowper admitted authorship, he became a household name; The Task, which condemned slavery, published in 1785 and was very well received by all levels of society, including the Royal Family, influencing the later Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth; and a new translation of Homer, which Cowper planned as an improvement on Alexander Pope’s version.
Cowper was also one of the greatest English letter-writers, writing both of everyday life in Olney and Weston Underwood and of political and literary events. His letters show wit, acute observation and great good humour.
Cowper’s place at Olney is now a museum. A painting on the wall shows an eccentric poet absent-mindedly boiling his watch over the grate and holding an egg in his hand! (Bailey, page 133).
Bouts of depression continued until 25 April, 1800, when he passed into his heavenly home where suffering and pain are no more.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.