Monday, April 25, 2011

William Cowper (1731-1800)

Cowper is one of my personal favorites. His struggle with depression and the place of his faith in the middle of it have been truly an inspiration. Born in Berkhamstead, Hertferdshire, England in 1731 and educated Westminster School as a solicitor. In1825  he fell in love with his cousin Theodora, whom he wished to marry. the desire was mutual. His uncle Ashley Cowper, her father, refused to give his blessing, sighting that  "union of persons so nearly related was improper"  This refusal left Cowper distraught.

In 1763 he was offered a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords, but under the strain of the approaching examination experienced a period of insanity. He tried three times to commit suicide and was sent to Nathaniel Cotton's asylum at St. Albans for recovery. His poem beginning "Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portions" (sometimes referred to as "Sapphics") was written in the aftermath of his suicide attempt.

After recovering, he settled at Huntington and befriend a retired clergyman named Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. Cowper grew to be on such good terms with the Unwin family that he went to live in their house, and moved with them to Olney. Not long afterwards, Morley Unwin was killed in a fall from his horse, but Cowper continued to live in the Unwin home and became extremely attached to Mary Unwin.

At Olney, John Newton, a former slave trader and then curate invited Cowper to contribute to a hymnbook that Newton was compiling. The resulting volume Olney Hymns was published in 1779. It includes hymns such as "Praise for the Fountain Opened" (beginning "There is a fountain fill'd with blood") and "Light Shining out of Darkness" (beginning "God moves in a mysterious way") which remain some of Cowper's most familiar verses. Several of Cowper's hymns, as well as others originally published in the "Olney Hymns," are today preserved in the Sacred Harp. He composed a whole series if hymns using the names of God.

In 1773, Cowper, now engaged to marry Mrs. Unwin, experienced a new attack of insanity. at times imagining not only that he was condemned to hell eternally, but that God was commanding him to make a sacrifice of his own life. At this point the engagement was broken off. Through this season with great devotion Mary continued to take  care of him and after a year he began again to recover. In 1779, Newton left Olney to go to London, Cowper started to write further poetry. Mary Unwin, wanting to keep Cowper's mind occupied, continually encouraged him to write. In 1782 all His poems were published under the title Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq..

In 1795 Cowper moved with Mary to Norfolk. She died in 1796. This plunged Cowper into a gloom from which he never fully recovered. He did, however,continue to write and translate. During this time he translated  the verse of Madame Guyon into English. His poem Mary in my mind is one of the most beautiful love poems in the English language

Cowper was seized with dropsy in the spring of 1800 and died. He is buried in the chapel of  St Thomas Church, East Dereham. A window in Westminster Abbey honours him.

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