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Paul once wrote to the Corinthians: “God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong.”

In a very special sense this truth was exemplified in the life of the poet William Cowper. If God ever made use of a frail instrument through which to glorify Himself, He did it in this man. Feeble in health from childhood, with a sensitive, high-strung mind that ever was on the point of breaking, he still worked and wrought in such a way that his sad and feverish life certainly was not lived in vain.

Cowper was born at Great Berkhamstead, England, in 1731. His father was an English clergyman. His mother died when the child was only six years old. Even as a youth, he was distressed by frequent mental attacks. He once wrote pathetically: “The meshes of that fine network, the brain, are composed of such mere spinner’s threads in me that when a long thought finds its way into them it buzzes, and twangs, and bustles about at such a rate as seems to threaten the whole contexture.”

In the previous sketch we related how the famous friendship between the poet and John Newton led to the joint publication of “The Olney Hymns.” Newton’s idea in suggesting this project was not merely “to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship,” as he states in the preface of the noted collection, but also to occupy 254 Cowper’s mind, which already had given signs of approaching madness.

In 1773, two years after the two friends had begun “The Olney Hymns,” Cowper passed through a mental crisis that almost ended in tragedy. Obsessed with the idea that it was the divine will that he should offer up his life by drowning himself in the Ouse river, the afflicted poet ordered a post chaise, and instructed the driver to proceed to a certain spot near Olney, where he planned to leap into the river. When he reached the place, Cowper was diverted from his purpose when he found a man seated at the exact place where he had intended to end his life. Returning home, he is said to have thrown himself on his knife, but the blade broke. His next attempt was to hang himself, but the rope parted.

After his recovery from this dreadful experience, he was so impressed by the realization of God’s overruling providence that he was led to write the hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way.” It is regarded by many critics as the finest hymn ever written on the theme of God’s providence. James T. Fields declares that to be the author of such a hymn is an achievement that “angels themselves might envy.”

That God had a purpose in sparing the life of the sorely tried man is made clear when we learn that Cowper lived for twenty-seven years after passing through this crisis. Although he continued to experience some distressing periods, it was during these years that he wrote some of his most beautiful hymns. Among these are “O for a closer walk with God,” “Sometimes a light surprises,” “Jesus, where’er Thy people meet,” “In holy contemplation,” and “There is a fountain filled with blood.”

The latter hymn has often been criticized because of its strong figurative language. The expression, “a fountain 255 filled with blood,” has proved so offensive to modern taste that many hymn-books have omitted this touching hymn. Dr. Ray Palmer, writer of “My faith looks up to Thee,” opposed these views vigorously. He once wrote:

“Such criticism seems to us superficial. It takes the words as if they were intended to be a literal prosaic statement. It forgets that what they express is not only poetry, but the poetry of intense and impassioned feeling, which naturally embodies itself in the boldest metaphors. The inner sense of the soul, when its deepest affections are moved, infallibly takes these metaphors in their true significance, while a cold critic of the letter misses that significance entirely. He merely demonstrates his own lack of the spiritual sympathies of which, for fervent Christian hearts, the hymn referred to is an admirable expression.”

Certainly it is a hymn that has spread blessings in its path, and countless are the stories of how it has broken down the resistance of hardened human hearts. One of these tells how a Belfast minister once visited a mill where two hundred girls were employed, many of them from his own congregation. One girl, when she saw her pastor entering, began to sing “There is a fountain filled with blood.” Other girls took up the lines, and soon the glorious song was ringing above the noise of all the looms. The manager, who was an unbeliever, was so moved that he seized his hat and ran from the building. Later he confessed to the minister, “I never was so hard put to it in all my life. It nearly broke me down.”

Cowper also wrote a number of secular poems that achieved great fame. “The Task,” has been called “one of the wisest books ever written, and one of the most charming.” 256 Another poem, “John Gilpin,” is a very happy and mirthful narrative.

Although Cowper’s mother died in his early childhood, he never forgot her. When he was fifty-six years old, a cousin sent him a miniature of his mother. In acknowledging the gift, he wrote: “I had rather possess my mother’s picture than the richest jewel in the British crown; for I loved her with an affection that her death, fifty years since, has not in the least abated.”

Cowper died in 1800. Three years before his death, he lost his lifelong comforter and friend, Mrs. Morley Unwin, who had cared for him with the solicitude of a mother. The sorrow was almost too great for his feeble nature, and he again sank into deepest gloom. At times he thought God had forsaken him. Only at intervals was he able to resume his literary work. His last poem was “The Castaway,” written March 20, 1799. Through all his spiritual and mental depression, however, he was ever submissive to the will of God. But the time of release for this chastened child of God was at hand.

Bishop Moule tells the story of his departure thus: “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 realized the blessed fact, ‘I am not shut out of Heaven after all!’ This look of holy surprise and of joyful adoration remained until he had passed away, and even as he lay in his coffin the expression was still there. One who saw him after death wrote that ‘with the composure and calmness of the face, there mingled also a holy surprise.’”


Mrs. Browning, in her poem entitled “Cowper’s Grave,” concludes with these lines:

“O poets, from a maniac’s tongue was poured the deathless singing!

O Christians, at your cross of hope a hopeless hand was clinging!

O men, this man in brotherhood your weary paths beguiling,

Groaned inly while he taught you peace, and died while you were smiling.”

It is a noble tribute to the deathless work of an afflicted man, and reminds us that Cowper is still singing his wondrous theme of “redeeming love,” although his

“poor lisping, stammering tongue

Lies silent in the grave.”

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