Friday, October 11, 2013

Cowper

The words of several of my favorite hymns were by William Cowper. Barton Swaim thinks it regrettable that Cowper isn't taken more seriously as a poet:
.... Cowper ought to be better known, but he won’t be. For one thing, his biography doesn’t hold one’s attention easily. Apart from his conversion to evangelical Christianity, friendship with John Newton, and three major bouts with depression and madness, his life passed without event; he lived in quiet seclusion for the bulk of it; indeed, apart from the hymns he wrote in 1771 and 1772, he didn’t even begin writing poetry in a serious way until he had reached his fifties. ....

.... It was Newton who concluded that Cowper needed something to do, and he urged him to write hymns. The result was a collection of sixty-seven hymns—the Olney Hymns, named for the village where Cowper lived at the time—that are among the best in English. Hymns are no longer taken seriously by literary scholars. (I once asked a highly regarded academic why the great hymn writers are ignored by scholars of English literature; his answer was that hymns are “committed,” as if a poem’s commitment to anything invalidates it.) But hymns have just as much right to be treated as poetry as the works of Shelley or Yeats. They are, for one thing, harder to write well than other forms because the poet doesn’t have the luxury of veering from the meter even by a syllable.

Cowper’s hymns, like those of Watts and Wesley, have a natural, fluid sound despite the confinement of the form—and often despite the presence of highly conceptual language. From “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will [...]

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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