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William Cowper’s Letters

When I was in Nashville for Dan’s funeral I stumbled across an old copy of William’s Cowper’s letters, which I’ve been reading a bit since. Cowper lived a very complex and tragic life. He went insane four times, attempted suicide on several occasions, and was debilitated by depression for long periods of time, including his final ten years of life. He was also a profound Christian and extremely gifted poet and writer. His “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is one of my favorite hymns. It was fascinating to get to know Cowper through his personal letters and learn about his daily life in 18th century England, as well as his friendships with people like John Newton, his views of the Revolutionary War in America, the Slave Trade, marriage, wealth, literature, God’s sovereignty, his own eccentricity, and a variety of other things. He kind of reminds of Kierkegaard, but as a poet rather than philosopher.

Reading about his descriptions of his depression produced an effect in me which is difficult to describe. I don’t really have a category for what Cowper endured. I found myself looking for a hidden happy ending, a ray of sunshine amidst the darkness and gloom, or at least some kind of lesson to be learned from it all – some theological brackets which could wrap around his experience and interpret it. Nothing like that emerged. The final pages of the book indicate an increasingly dismal spiral downwards into despondency as Cowper became more and more consumed with thoughts of guilt, despair, and judgment.

Here is an excerpt from a letter late in his life:

My nocturnal experiences are all of the most terrible kind. Death, churchyards, and carcases, or else thunder storms and lightnings, God angry, and myself wishing I had never been born. Such are my dreams; and when I wake it is only to hear something terrible …. Who can hope for peace amidst such trouble? I cannot. I live a life of terror. My prospects respecting this life as well as another seem all intercepted.

A bit later:

It is with great unwillingness that I write, knowing that I can say nothing but what will distress you. I despair of everything, and my despair is perfect, because it is founded on a persuasion, that there is no effectual help for me, even in God. From four this morning till after seven I lay meditating terrors, such terrors as no language can express, and as no heart I am sure but mine ever knew. My very finger-ends tingled with it.

And a few pages after that:

Obliged to write, but more disqualified for it than ever, I once again address you in the style of misery and the deepest despair. One thing and one only is left to me, the wish that I had never existed.

Cowper’s life compels me to interpret life differently than I previously have. Two things emerge in my mind as I struggle with it. First, there are wounds, there are trials, there are agonies in this fallen world that cannot be described with words or contained within concepts. They stretch and bend and even break our ability to understand. They draw us into the realm of extremity, to the utter brink. But second, and without at all downplaying the reality of the first point, God can heal the deepest wounds and redeem the most broken life. I don’t believe that Cowper’s despair is the sum and total of his life. In his letters, and much more in his poetry and hymns, another strand of thought emerges, one of hope, patience, and faith.

I don’t know why God permits a life like Cowper’s. But there is beauty there, there is redemption, there is a message spoken to the world through that life that could not be spoken without its grief and sadness. Somehow in its tragedy and brokenness, the gospel becomes visible. As I reflect upon Cowper’s life, I am reminded that there are no earthly wounds too great for the healing and mending and stitching together of heaven. As deep as grief goes, redemption goes deeper.

I give Cowper himself the last words, which apply to his own life as well as anything else:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

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22 Responses

  1. Thanks, Gav.

    Psalm 88 provides a biblical category. Uniquely in the Psalms, there is no word of hope in Psalm 88. But, significantly, it is addressed to the Lord. That is the sign of redemption.

  2. I believe 2 Corinthians 1:4 answers your question as to why God permits a life like this…”who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” His poems and songs communicate the comfort he received from God. His letters reveal the darkness of the landscape he was walking through, but the songs are full of the gospel and encouragement to his own soul…”There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuels veigns. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains!” Glory be to God!

  3. My husband and I considered the words of that hymn while we were in the throes of despair the first six months we lived out here. That songs of God’s providential love could pour forth from a soul that was so troubled brought us such hope.

  4. Thanks for posting about this. I had a good friend who shared a similar life experience as Cowper. So many of things in his life went absolutely horribly wrong, and he often struggled with dark thoughts convinced that God hated him. He finally died last May at the age of 37. Such experiences are very hard to classify theologically. Grateful for the hope of eternity when God rectifies all things.

    1. I was thinking about that too Anon!

      Maybe it points out a danger in taking Calvinism too far. On the other hand, reading that hymn, it seems to be Calvinism that gives him something (or rather Someone) to trust in as well. The hymn speaks of how God’s ultimate sovereignty and control (that’s the Calvinism) gives him security and courage.

      Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
      The clouds ye so much dread
      Are big with mercy and shall break
      In blessings on your head.

      Blind unbelief is sure to err
      And scan His work in vain;
      God is His own interpreter,
      And He will make it plain.

      GK Chesterton is one of my most favourite authors, but he did have a thing about Calvinists. Probably partly justified, partly not. :)


  5. Great Post. His 13 yr friendship with John Newton help pull him through, he said of Newton ” a sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had”.

    But more than that, God’s Word and his promises did as well. Commenting on Rom. 3:25, he said “Immediately, I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood…”

  6. I think I can relate to Cowper in my own personal experience. It’s been about 9 years since I lived in a similar state of mind. The nightmare visions during both sleeping and waking hours, the never ending dread, the deep sense of hopelessness, the strong desire to have never existed because the emotional pain was so tangible…it sometimes seemed like I was drowning in darkness, barely able to breath…like something stronger than me was trying to pull me into death itself…and I was only able to come to the surface every so often…

    The Lord saved me from that at the same time he saved me from my unbelief.

    If you know of anyone battling deep depression of this magnitude, pray for them like you’ve never prayed before. They are likely experiencing the closest thing to hell as anyone here on earth can…the weeping and perpetual darkness and gnashing of teeth are real. They need the Lord to rescue them.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Gavin.

    I first read about Cowper’s life in the book Genius, Grief and Grace by Dr. Gaius Davies. Excellent book on the lives of Christian saints who struggled with depression and other issues.

  8. I have the same life as cowper bc i have had unforgivable sin phobia for 15 years. It is very hard to live with. I go thru despair over wethe god will bestow his grace on me and have terrors over election…if im not elect not even christ can help and how can i be elect if i have no comfort or assurance. My life is good but for these spiritual terrors but cowperesque.

  9. Dear Fellow Cowper Lover,
    You have said many fine and true things about Cowper but are rather lop-sided on his biography. Now eighty-one years of age, I have studied Cowper as my great mentor since my school days, published four books on his work and faith, did a doctorial degree on his poetic methods and published some seven or eight long essays on him.
    Cowper’s final ten years were certainly not spent in constant despair but did witness many ups and downs each of which he clearly describes. His age has been called the Age of Melancholy because most poets were interested in their deep thoughts and fears then such as we find in Milton, Hervey, Thompson, Newton and many other ‘grave yard’ poets.
    Cowper’s depressions came every ten years or so but none lasted ten years without a break as you suggest. So, too, Cowper often expressed depressive thoughts with a fine humour and understanding of other poets such as Dwight and Herbert.
    If you compare Cowper’s hymns with those of Newton, you will find that Newton expresses doubts even deeper than Cowper does and Cowper often had to cheer up Newton when he was down in the dumps.
    So, too, Cowper’s half -hearted suicide thoughts were never implemented and these were all before his conversion. Sadly most commentators on Cowper have practiced amateur psychology and not Christian acumen.

    Yours in our precious Saviour’s name,
    George Ella

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