January 21, 2015

Bradley Craft Presents an Evening of William Cowper

William Cowper (26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet", whilst William Wordsworth particularly admired his poem Yardley-Oak. He was a nephew of the poet Judith Madan. 
After being institutionalised for insanity in the period 1763–65, Cowper found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns. He continued to suffer doubt and, after a dream in 1773, believed that he was doomed to eternal damnation. He recovered and wrote more religious hymns. 
His religious sentiment and association with curate John Newton (who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace") led to much of the poetry for which he is best remembered. His poem "Light Shining out of Darkness" gave English the phrase: "God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform."
Title: Bradley Craft Presents an Evening of William Cowper. Source: ubookstore. Date Published: November 4, 2014. Description:
One of the most popular English poets of his time and a forerunner of Romantic poetry, William Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing about everyday life and scenes in the English countryside. The author of many popular Evangelical Christian hymns, Cowper is also known for his verses of poetry and song rooted in reflections on religious sentiment. For a look into the varied work of the renowned poet and hymnodist, join our bookseller Bradley Craft as he reads and discusses a variety of hymns and poems from Cowper's vast life of writing.

An excerpt from, "Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint: Reflections on the Life of William Cowper" by John Piper, January 29, 1992:

"Why Cowper?

There are at least three reasons why I have chosen to tell the story of the 18th century poet William Cowper at this year's conference.

One is that ever since I was seventeen—maybe before—I have felt the power of poetry. I went to my file recently and found an old copy of Leaves of Grass, my High School Literary Magazine from 1964 and read the poems that I wrote for it almost 30 years ago. Then I looked at the Kodon from my Wheaton days, and remembered the poem, "One of Many Lands" that I wrote in one of my bleaker moments as a college freshman. Then I dug out The Opinion from Fuller Seminary and the Bethel Coeval from when I taught there. It hit me again what a long-time friend poetry-writing has been to me.

I think the reason for this is that I live with an almost constant awareness of the breach between the low intensity of my own passion and the staggering realities of the universe around me, heaven, hell, creation, eternity, life, God. Everybody (whether they know it or not) tries to close this breach—between the weakness of our emotions and the wonder of the World. Some of us do it with poetry.

William Cowper did it with poetry. I think I know what he means, for example, when he writes a poem about his mother's portrait long after her death and says,
And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief. 
There is a deep release and a relief that comes when we find a way of seeing and saying some precious or stunning reality that comes a little closer to closing the breach between what we've glimpsed with our mind and what we've grasped with our heart. It shouldn't be surprising that probably over 300 pages of the Bible was written as poetry. Because the aim of the Bible is to build a bridge between the deadness of the human heart and the living reality of God.

The second reason I am drawn to William Cowper is that I want to know the man behind the hymn, "God Moves In a Mysterious Way." Over the years it has become very precious to me and to many in our church.
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 sovereign 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 purpose will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
This hymn hangs over our mantle at home. It expresses the foundation of my theology and my life so well that I long to know the man who wrote it.

Finally, I want to know why this man struggled with depression and despair almost all his life. I want to try to come to terms with insanity and spiritual songs in the same heart of one whom I think was a saint." 

Title: Friend of the Friendless - William Cowper. Source: gewayou. Date Published: July 25, 2011. Description:
Words: William Cowper (1731 - 1800)
Music, vocals: Gerhard Wagner