I feel like writing something, for whatever reason, so I guess I’ll write about William Cowper, since I’m giving a presentation on him tomorrow. Of course, the time I spend writing about him here would probably be better spent working on my handout and stuff, but hey. I’ve got like seven hours tomorrow to do that.
William Cowper was a familiar name to me as the author of some of the hymns we sing in church: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “Sometimes a Light Surprises” in particular. But in terms of a poet to be studied in a European Romanticism class, not as familiar. Over the last three days I’ve read two biographies, skimmed two books of criticism, and flipped through his poems, letters, and spiritual autobiography. (This is what we do in grad school, you see. Or this is what I do in grad school, meaning, wait until the last few days and then cram. So really, not much different than undergrad, just MORE OF IT.) And his life is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.
He was a witty, intelligent young man, but always given to shyness and depression. The biographies try to psychoanalyze him, and it’s hard to avoid it, really…he seems to have been greatly affected by the death of his mother when he was six (and perhaps the fact that of the seven children born in his family, he was one of only two who survived infancy), and the patterns of his later bouts with severe depression and despair seem to indicate an inability to deal with the loss of loved ones, exhibiting itself in paranoia and fear of abandonment. The thing is, he mapped all of this into a religious model, wherein God had turned his back on William and abandoned him. He vascillated between thinking of himself as a fallen archangel, deserving God’s punishment and unworthy of His forgiveness, and as an innocent Job, tormented by Satan and not saved by God. In either case, he felt abandoned by God.
But what about all the hymns? During his stay in a mental hospital from 1763 to 1765, he was converted from Anglicanism to Evangelicalism, following a cousin enamoured of John Wesley’s preaching. In 1765, he felt that God had rescued him from depression, and redeemed him. He met John Newton and wrote a hymnbook with him. Everything was sailing along fairly well, except his religious zeal started to fade (his reserved personality couldn’t keep anything at the high level of intensity that his religiousity was in 1765), and his sense of losing a second mother figure increased (ironically because he nearly married the woman in question, who he saw as a mother figure, but was only about seven years older than himself), he again fell into paranoia and depression. This time, evangelicalism didn’t help–it had failed to keep him out of depression, and his depression showed (to him) that once again God had deserted him.
He had happy times after that…in fact, virtually all of his poetry was written between 1779 and 1790…but he never again felt that God could or would accept him and forgive him for all sorts of perceived sins, and he lived out his days at varying levels of despair and indifference, just waiting for what he perceived as his inevitable damnation. The letters from the last four years of his life are absolutely heartbreaking. And really, he never seems to have abandoned his belief in God’s existence or even in the doctrines of Calvinism. He was just convinced that in the predestination process, God had predestined him for destruction instead of salvation. And he had even read George Herbert, the 17th century poet for whom the doctrine of predestination was a glorious comfort. Reading about his life made me really get a new perspective on people who suffer from depression…how difficult it must be at times to continue believing in God’s love when the whole world seems against you.
Interestingly, I like his poetry more than a lot of poetry I’ve read (you’ll remember, I’m not a huge fan of poetry). Most of it isn’t depressing at all; a lot of it is delightfully comic and even the poems he wrote recalling his depression are beautiful. Certainly he was an important prefigure to the Romantic movement, in his love for nature and attention to everyday, common subjects, and his use of natural language. He’s said to have been one of the most popular English poets throughout the 19th century, though his reputation with critics has gone up and down. Yet again proof that I fall into the “popular” class of readers rather than the “critical” class. See, I am in the wrong business.