Red Booth Notes: Remembering William Cowper
Most people know William Cowper today as the poet who penned the lines: “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform.” Still others remember him as the friend of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, or as the author of the children’s poem “The Diverting History of John Gilpin,” famously illustrated by Randolph Caldecott, for whom the Caldecott Medal is named.
But in 1739, all of this lay in the distant future. Yet it was at this time that this sensitive and gifted child was to experience for himself a promise imparted in scripture: “Thy word is lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
The world of eight-year-old William Cowper had been touched by great sadness. Two years before, his mother Anne had died shortly after giving birth to his youngest brother. There were seven children born to the Rev. John Cowper and his wife; but tragically, only William and his newborn brother, also named John, would survive childhood. William’s family had known the loss of his mother, three brothers and two sisters.
It wasn’t long after his mother’s death that William was sent away to boarding school. This might at first seem heartless and cruel, but the school at Market Street was only seven miles from the family home in Berkhamsted, England. John Cowper was in close proximity to his son as his formal education commenced.
Yet the Market Street School proved to be anything but what John Cowper had intended for his son—a good school environment close to home. Worse still, the trying experiences William was to know there were for a long time unknown to all but William himself.
Soon after his arrival in 1737, six-year-old William was “singled out from all the other boys by a lad about fifteen years of age as the proper object upon whom he might let loose the cruelty of his temper….he made it his business continually to persecute me….his savage treatment of me, impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift up my eyes upon him, higher than his knees…I knew him by his shoe-buckles better than any other part of his dress.”
We don’t know for how long a period William was tormented by this older boy, but it appears to have gone on for an extended period of time. We do not know the precise nature of the abuse Cowper endured. It was verbal in nature to be sure, and from what we know of common hazing practices of the time, it was physical abuse as well—probably taking the form of frequent and unpredictable beatings.
What made things so unbearable was that the cruelty to which he was subjected was done in “so secret a manner that no creature suspected it.” One can understand the fear of an eight-year-old of further torment should he have gone to the headmaster with his story. The older boy might have been punished, but then he might also have taken things out on William afterwards.
But it was here, at a point of great extremity, that young William learned in an unmistakable way that God is ever near to us.
One day he was sitting alone on a bench, troubled by his sufferings. On a sudden, with the gentle assurance of a whisper, a verse of Scripture came into his mind—“I will not be afraid of what man can do unto me” (Psalm 56:11).
Inexplicably, peace began to wash over him. There was, William remembered, a lifting of his spirits such as he had never experienced before. Many years later, he said this moment was the first religious impression upon his mind that he had ever known. It was an intimation of grace, and the memory of it never left him.
Shortly thereafter, William’s tormentor was discovered and expelled from the school. A wrong was put right, and a burden was lifted.
William himself was also soon removed from the school when he developed an eye ailment that required special treatment. After about two years in the care of his doctor, Mr. Disney, and his wife (also an able “oculist,” as they were then called), ten-year-old William returned home to his father.
From the perspective of history, this trying series of circumstances proved a turning point for William. Had he remained in the Market Street School, his life would have been very different what it became. The verse from Psalm 56 that had come into his mind had proven a herald of better days.
Now home with his father, William was “brought up,” as it was said by one biographer, “in an atmosphere of poetry.” His father was a fine writer of poetic ballads, and William, as was also said, “caught the contagion.” In time, he became one of the great poets of the 18th century.
He also began to know something, once more, of joy. He and his cousins, who lived in nearby Norfolk, “romped together in the rectory garden at Berkhamsted; or at Catfield among the Norfolk Broads,” the residence of his uncle, the Rev. Roger Donne.
During these holidays, he grew close to his cousins Harriet, Ann, Elizabeth and their brother, Castres. William now forged happy memories, which he fondly recalled throughout his life. Of Harriet he said: “She and I have been many a time merry at Catfield, and have made the parsonage ring with laughter.” Then there was Ann, whom he called Rose, “that used to sit smiling on my knee.” Smiles and laughter—so often longed for—for so long beyond his grasp.
Rose in time became Mrs. Bodham. Some years further into the future, when William was in his mid-fifties, Rose returned the kindness and love she and William had shared as children. Upon finding a picture of William’s mother, she sent it to him.
This act of kindness resulted in what Thomas Wright called “one of the most touching elegies in the language,” Cowper’s poem “On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk.”
Writing to Rose, William said: “I received it the night before last, and viewed it with a trepidation of nerves and spirits somewhat akin to what I should have felt had the dear original presented herself to my embraces. I kissed it, and hung it were it is the last object that I see at night, and of course the first on which I open my eyes in the morning.”
William Cowper’s life, before and after this time, was one marked by great sorrow. But his was also a life that knew the touch of grace. He wrote of this in another poem “Song of Mercy and Judgment,” part of which reads:
‘I,’ He said, ‘have seen thee grieving,
Lov’d thee as I passed thee by,
Be not faithless, but believing,
Look and live, and never die.’
Since that hour, in hope of glory,
With Thy followers I am found,
And relate the wondrous story
To Thy listening saints around.
Sweet the sound of grace divine,
Sweet the grace which makes me Thine.
How grace interweaves itself in the tapestry of our lives is something we often cannot see save for the passing of years and the perspective they bring. We can never see all of the threads and their purposes fully—only God can.
But what Cowper knew as an older man was this: he had begun to pass through a time of profound sadness to something better when he heard a still, small voice. Down through the ages, others have heard such a voice in similar circumstances—one thinks of the young Augustine—to cite but one other example.
Cowper was to return to and reflect upon the outworkings of grace in his life or the lives of God’s people again and again. Perhaps his best thoughts about it all found expression in four lines from his hymn, The Light Shining Out of Darkness:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).