William Cowper: Finding God in a Psychiatric Hospital

Photo by Niklas Weiss on Unsplash

William Cowper’s hymns are still sung around the world. Indelible Grace and Norton Hall Band have also set his words to modern tunes. But the life experiences inspiring songs like “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” are less well known:

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

William Cowper

Leading poet of the 18th century

William Cowper was the most famous poet of his time on both sides of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin published a positive review of Cowper’s work. He was William Wilberforce’s favourite poet. Jane Austen cited him in many of her novels, including Emma and Sense and Sensibility. For her character, Marianne Dashwood, appreciating Cowper’s writing was essential for a romantic suitor!

Why Cowper’s life encourages me

William Cowper’s life and writings resonate with me for a few reasons. First, he struggled with mental health problems throughout his life. He even appears as a case study in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

In the entire annals of mental disease, there is no case so widely known, or which has excited so deep an interest, as the insanity of William Cowper, nor can we wonder at this. As a poet, he is known to all who speak the English tongue.

(1858; 14:215–240)

Second, Cowper’s story is the very opposite of that of a Hollywood hero.
As CS Lewis argues, real life is often more interesting:

It is a very consoling fact that so many books about real lives give one such an impression of happiness, in spite of all the tragedies they contain. What can be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb’s or Cowper’s lives? But as soon as you open the letters of either… and see what relish they get out of it, you almost begin to envy them.

(quoted in Gaius Davies, Genius, Grief and Grace; p93)

Attempting suicide and finding God

Cowper was from a wealthy family. He trained to be a lawyer but had no love for the profession and was often short of money.

To fund Cowper’s expensive lifestyle, his father arranged for a prestigious job at the House of Lords — the unelected upper house of parliament in the UK. However, a rival faction demanded that he receive a public interrogation. Cowper spent the next 10 months dreading this:

All the horrors of my fears and perplexities now returned. A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this . . . Those whose spirits are formed like mine — to whom a public exhibition of themselves, on any occasion, is mortal poison — may have some idea of the horror of my situation; others can have none.

William Cowper

Suicide felt like the only way out. He made several attempts at taking his life before ending up in an asylum for the mentally ill.

It was in this asylum in St Albans, outside London, that Cowper became a Christian. Like Augustine and Luther before him, reading the book of Romans was the turning point.

Recurring mental health problems

After his conversion, Cowper experienced four further episodes of depression about 10 years apart. He again attempted suicide during these times of darkness.

A year before his death he wrote “The Castaway,” which sums up the feelings of hopelessness depression can often bring:

No voice divine the storm allay’d,

No light propitious shone;

When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,

We perish’d, each alone:

But I beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

William Cowper

But we should not overstate the bleakness of Cowper’s life. As Dr Gauis Davies (a psychiatrist) observed:

There is no darkness or shade without light and sunshine. There was much quiet joy, laughter, and real pleasure in William Cowper, as well as tragic and sometimes unbearable sadness.

(ibid, p94)

Cowper’s faith and “that dream”

In 1773, Cowper had a dream that would plague him for the rest of his life. He heard the words: “It is all over with you, you have perished.”

There are no signs Cowper turned away from the faith, but he spent the rest of his life believing God had condemned him.

Churches have sung his hymns for almost 250 years. Yet, for the last 27 years of his life, Cowper never attended a place of worship. He lived in isolation, with the exception of a handful of faithful friends.

But his most famous poem, “The Task,” written 12 years after that fateful dream, still witnesses to the healing power of Christ’s death:

I was a stricken deer, that left the herd

Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt…

There was I found by One who had Himself been hurt by th’ archers.

In His side He bore, and in His hands and feet, the cruel scars.

With gentle force soliciting the darts,

He drew them forth, and heal’d, and bade me live.

William Cowper

Causes of his depression?

Biographers and psychiatrists have long speculated over the causes of Cowper’s depression.

William Cowper lost his mother when he was just six years old. Experiencing bereavement at an early age can increase the risk of suicide and mental health problems. Cowper reflects on this in a line from a poem about his mother’s death: “Dupe of tomorrow, even from a child. “

The distant relationship with his father made the impact of bereavement greater. As Cowper quipped:

He intended to beget a chancellor, and he begat, instead, a translator of Homer. It is impossible for the effect to differ more from the intention

(quoted in Davies, ibid, p99).

When he was six years old, soon after his mother’s death, his father sent him off to boarding school. It was a terrible trial. In his first two years, Cowper was bullied mercilessly by a 15 year old, which led to the older boy being expelled.

In contrast to the warm words he writes of his mother, he says very little about his father:

He never wrote a tribute to his father that we know of. He says almost nothing about him. But this is a powerful plea for fathers to love their sons and give them special attention in their education. This is what he missed from the age of six onward.

(John Piper)

When God doesn’t heal

God, mighty in power and love, can turn our lives around in miraculous ways. Yet, Cowper never saw healing from mental illness this side of heaven. As Gaius Davies notes:

In a special sense, he shows what grace can do to a man’s personality, and also what it sometimes appears not to be able to do…his experience points to a need for an honest explanation of non-healing, and the suffering that can go on and on.

(ibid, p94)

The developments in mental health care we have experienced would have been unfathomable to sufferers in the 18th century. In our times, many more experience recovery from mental health conditions.

But, even now, many people grapple with mental illness throughout their lives.
Sometimes God does not deliver us from affliction:

I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

(2 Corinthians 12:7–9, NIV)

Not only success stories

To focus on the positives, we sometimes miss the bittersweet lessons of affliction. I found this an interesting reflection from John Piper on Cowper’s life:

The first version of this lecture was given in an evening service at Bethlehem Baptist Church. It proved to be one of the most encouraging things I have done in a long time. This bleak life was felt by many as hope-giving… the lesson is surely that those of us who teach and preach and want to encourage our people to press on in hope and faith must not limit ourselves to success stories.

John Piper

Friendship

Although William Cowper lived a reclusive life, he enjoyed deep friendships. Soon after leaving the psychiatric hospital, Cowper settled in the Hertfordshire countryside (just north of London). It was there he met John Newton, the pastor of the village church. It was a friendship that lasted a lifetime.

Newton was a constant encouragement through his struggles. He spotted Cowper’s poetic talents, encouraging him to collaborate on Olney Hymns— a hymn book that included “Amazing Grace,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and other classics.
Maintaining friendship and encouraging people with depression is difficult. But, for people who belong to Christ, it’s a wonderful way to imitate him.

Christ sought those who struggle — people who were often discarded by the world around them. For example, the self-harming demon-possessed man (Mark 5:1–17), the woman with chronic bleeding (Mark 5:25–34), and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1–26).

A man of contrasts

William Cowper is an enigma. From a wealthy family, he lived much of his life in poverty. He was a recluse, and also the most famous poet of his day.

For all Cowper’s struggles, and faltering faith, his poems and hymns express the grace of God with a beauty matched by few in the history of the Church.

His life is a powerful testimony to God’s strength manifested in weakness.

Originally posted on Medium

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