“God moves in a mysterious way” –from Cowper’s hymn, “Light Shining Out of Darkness”
Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”), a popular eighteenth century poet, was one of Jane Austen’s favorite authors. She mentions him in Sense and Sensibility as one of Marianne Dashwood’s favorites, and quotes him in Mansfield Park, Emma, Sanditon, and her own letters.
Cowper suffered from chronic depression. Early losses, his personality, and his family history all contributed to his illness. Four times he broke down completely for a long period. Once he was hospitalized in a mental institution, and in later episodes friends cared for him around the clock for months.
In his poem “The Castaway,” Cowper describes himself as drowning in the sea; yet he holds himself up for a time. Amazingly, in between his breakdowns, Cowper did have moments of joy (his own word) and productivity. He valiantly swam against the current. How did he keep swimming when he felt sad and overwhelmed?
(Important Note: If you are suffering from severe depression or suicidal thoughts, PLEASE see a doctor or seek other professional help, and share your struggles with a trusted friend; don’t try to do it alone. The “keys” below are things that helped Cowper during periods of mild depression, NOT severe depression, and he was always aided by friends who came alongside him. I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice.)
Cowper’s Keys for Finding Glimmers of Joy in the Darkness
Cowper was brought out of his first breakdown when he “believed, and received the gospel.” His letters during the following years reflect his faith and his joy in it. After his second breakdown, he continued to be “an advocate for evangelical truth” and to believe the Bible. Yet sadly he experienced many doubts about his own salvation. He may have believed his mental suffering indicated God’s wrath. Depression was little understood at the time, and Cowper describes it as the malady that “claims most compassion, and receives the least.”
Cowper tried to work as a lawyer to please his father, but, painfully shy, he failed. Later his dear friend John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” tried to make Cowper into a minister like himself, but this also did not fit. Cowper finally realized that he needed to live a very quiet, simple life in the country, and he became much more stable. (He was mostly supported by friends and relatives, and later received income from his writing.) Mike Mason says in Champagne for the Soul, “To accept and live within my limitations is freeing. . . . A life of joy rests upon the discovery of what I, and I alone, am meant to do, and then doing it with all my heart.”
While he didn’t socialize, Cowper was very close to a few friends. He lived for many years with the widowed Mrs. Unwin, who was a mother to him, substituting for Cowper’s mother who died when he was six. Other friends who regularly encouraged him were Newton and his wife, the Unwins’ son, and several of his relatives. His friend and neighbour Lady Ann Austen (no relation to Jane, as far as I know) inspired one of his greatest poems, “The Task,” by challenging him to write something about a sofa! He found much joy in these relationships and in writing letters to friends.
Regular Routines of Exercise and Work
Cowper went for daily walks, sometimes as long as four miles. He gardened, built a tiny greenhouse, did carpentry projects, learned to draw, and cared for animals, including three baby hares, rescued from the hunters. Doctors today tell us that regular exercise, sunshine, and active work are crucial for those suffering from depression.
Cowper loved the beauties of nature: “I can look at the same rivulet, or at a handsome tree, every day of my life with new pleasure.” In his poetry, nature reflects God’s creation and provision.
Cowper and Newton wrote a book of hymns together. Evangelical Anglicans were just beginning to introduce hymns into their Psalm-singing churches. Cowper believed that music should be used to help us worship God, not just to appeal to the senses.
He often referred to poetry as music. I think in his time popular poetry functioned somewhat like popular music does in our modern world, and of course songs are generally poetry set to music! Educated people, including Jane Austen, were very familiar with popular poems, though they were often book-length. They could quote lines or phrases which others would recognize and know their context and emotional impact, much as we might quote popular songs.
Creative expression can help relieve sadness. Cowper’s true gifting was writing poetry. He said it suppressed the negative thoughts that tortured him. He mostly wrote in winter; the darkness dragged him down (we might call that Seasonal Affective Disorder), but writing helped him cope and be happy.
Cowper wrote both to entertain himself and others, and to do good. His books of poetry began with entertainment to get people’s attention so they would listen to the following, more serious, topics.
Once when he was feeling low, his friend Lady Austen told him a funny story to cheer him up. He stayed awake most of the night laughing and writing his funniest poem, “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.” He wrote his best humorous poetry when he felt the worst emotionally; he made himself write at those times and it cheered him.
Cowper wanted people to think more “seriously,” meaning from a religious standpoint. (Jane Austen also sometimes uses “serious” to mean “religious.”) His poems satirized and confronted his society in areas such as slavery, cruelty to animals, the vices and failures of the clergy, and foolish, fashionable, London pastimes. Austen also satirized the issues she saw in her society, in a lighter way, in her novels a few years later. The sense that through his work Cowper was contributing something to society, making a difference in the world, also, I believe, brought him joy.
Cowper participated in many acts of charity. He did not have his own money, but others would send him money for the poor, and he distributed it to those most in need; another means of making a difference.
Cowper’s letters show that he made daily, constant choices—not to deny his negative feelings, because he always recognized them, but to focus on and express positive thoughts more than negative ones.
Perhaps in our day medications and doctors could have helped Cowper lead a stable life. Sadly, he died in his last bout of severe depression and mental illness. He did, however, live to the age of 68, and left a legacy of poetry and letters. He taught that some good could come from suffering. Cowper wrote in his most famous hymn:
Light Shining Out of Darkness
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.
Do you agree? I’m encouraged that it is possible to find glimmers of joy in the midst of sadness, or at other times, if we are able (and of course sometimes people are not able) to actively seek it: through faith, knowing ourselves, friendship, exercise and work, nature, worship music, creative work such as writing or art, making a difference, and daily choices. There can be light shining through the darkness.
May you have a joy-filled New Year, whatever your circumstances may be!
Which of these sources of joy help you most in times of struggle?
A Portrait of William Cowper: His Own Interpreter in Letters and Poems, by Louise B. Risk. Glen Echo, MD: Bent Branch, 2004.
The Works of William Cowper, edited by T.S. Grimshawe, London: William Tegg, 1849.
Olney Hymns, by John Newton and William Cowper. London: Johnson, 1797.
For Further Exploration
The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd by John Piper gives a briefer but powerful view of Cowper’s life.
The Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, in southern England, is a fascinating place to visit if you ever get a chance.
“But I Beneath a Rougher Sea” by Barbara Rich explains the history and context of Cowper’s “The Castaway.” (However, the second part of the post deals with other issues of more recent history and politics.)
This video on “Cowper and Landscape” is part of a great series on Cowper presented by Chawton House; you can find the rest of the series also on youtube.
“Cowper’s Influence on Jane Austen” is an excellent article, mostly on how Cowper relates to Fanny Price and Mansfield Park.
“Sir Walter Elliott’s Looking Glass . . .” explores Cowper and Persuasion.
“I Sing of the Sofa . . . Or, Why Fanny Price is a Cucumber” is another intriguing article about Cowper and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.