Saturday 28 May 2011

William Cowper

During a train journey, today, I had the chance to read some William Cowper.

Cowper was a contemporary and friend of John Newton, in Olney but a very different character. He was from a prominent family who hoped that he would achieve high office but severe depression prevented this. Cowper was converted, after an initial severe episode, and went on to write hymns and other poetry. He lived, for many years, in Olney in a house backing onto Newton's. He had several further episodes of depression.

I'm no expert on poetry. John Gilpin is a fun read-not what I was expecting. There was a very tempting illustrated copy in a second hand bookshop today. John Gilpin was apparently popular in Cowper's life time.

The hymns are fascinating and many are still well known-"God moves in a mysterious way", "Sometimes a light surprises", "What various hinderances" etc.

Perhaps the most striking from my recent reading is the hymn that follows. This really is a hymn not a poem-not the sort of thing that would be sung in public. It is based on Isaiah 57 verse 15 "For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the spirit of the contrite ones."

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
Insensible as steel;
If ought is felt, 'tis only pain,
To feel I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love Thee, if I could;
But often feel another mind,
Adverse to all that's good.

My best desires are faint and few,
I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, "My strength renew,"
Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted I know,
And love Thy house of prayer,
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.

Oh make this heart rejoice, or ache;
Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break,
And heal it, if it be.

Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.


  1. Cowper is one of my favorite writers/poets. I see so much of God's grace in his writings. Do you know of any good biographies about him? :)

  2. We've got a modern biography but I'm not sure it is the best. The anthology,from which I was reading, had a very unsympathetic biographical sketch. Not much help-sorry. I will ask around!