How could William Cowper write hymns extolling the goodness of God while on the edge of suicide?
Christians everywhere sing the words he wrote—“O for a closer walk with God’ and “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings”—but few know that the author of those words suffered deep depressions and even periods of stark-staring madness. The British poet William Cowper, one of the principal writers for the evangelical revival during the eighteenth century, produced works extolling the mercy and forgiveness of God while laboring under the certain conviction that he himself was damned. He wrote the hymn “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform” on the eve of his second suicide attempt.
I first became acquainted with Cowper’s poetry as a graduate student in English literature. I paid little attention then either to his religion or his mental state. Only years later, when I was considering using a phrase from one of his hymns for a book title, did I learn about the poet’s madness. Cowper’s predicament intrigued me. None of his friends doubted his religious conversion. All were appalled by his psychosis. Both seemed genuine. I found myself unsettled by a dark question: What does it profit a man if he gain the kingdom of God but lose his own mind?
The dilemma of William Cowper has been difficult to sort out because our secular age shies away from that part of human experience we call religious. Whereas in the sixteenth century Philip Melanchthon, the Reformation theologian, used psychologia to mean the study of the human soul, we now translate the Greek root psyche as mind. For us, psychology is the study of mental states with emotional overtones. For even though mind (as distinct from brain) eludes definition, it is a word we feel more confident using than soul, which is not a recognized category in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Trends in Christian culture have made Cowper’s case a disturbing enigma. Prior ages have used metaphors like ransom, redemption, rescue, and rest as metaphors for salvation. Today healing and therapeutic metaphors dominate our religious vocabulary. And the healing we expect, the wounds we want bound are, for the most part, psychological. The proof of the religious pudding for many is improved self-esteem and manageable connections with other people. We feel cheered, for example, by the work of a University of Nebraska researcher showing “a spiritual commitment” as one of six characteristics shared by the 3,000 strong families he studied. After all, the link between health and holiness is one of the few pieces of empirical evidence we can use in the vindicating of our faith.
Given our therapeutic expectations, William Cowper becomes a stumbling block, for Cowper did not get better emotionally—or, at any rate, he did not stay better after his conversion. Nor, though he remained an orthodox believer, did he die believing he had sure and certain hope of salvation.
Cowper’s mother, who numbered English poet John Donne among her ancestors, died when he was six, and he was sent away to an uncongenial boarding school. As a young man, he fell in love with his cousin Theodora, though, for unknown reasons, the romance was broken off. Afterward he went into a period of dejection from which he was suddenly released one day while contemplating the ocean at Southampton. His heart, he wrote, “became light and joyful in an instant.”
His first suicide attempt came in his early thirties, days before he was to have been publicly examined for a minor government post. Cowper bought half a pound of laudanum, an opium solution, but “paralysis” of his hands kept him from drinking it. He then tried a penknife, which broke, and finally he attached a garter to the ceiling and hanged himself. He woke up on the floor still alive, the garter having given way. Describing the incident later in his Memoirs, he wrote, “Though I had failed in my design, yet I had all the guilt of that crime to answer for: a sense of God’s wrath, and a deep despair of escaping it, instantly succeeded.” Convinced that he had committed “the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit,” within a few weeks he suffered what today we would call a psychotic break. In a poem titled “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” he claimed to be “Damn’d below Judas,” having received “a sentence Worse than Abiram’s.”
Cowper described the onset of this first episode of insanity this way:
While I traversed the apartment in the most horrible dismay of soul … a strange and horrible darkness fell upon me. If it were possible that a heavy blow could light upon my brain, without touching the skull, such was the sensation I felt. I clapped my hand to my forehead, and cried aloud through the pain it gave me. At every stroke my thoughts and expressions became more wild and incoherent; all that remained to me clear was the sense of sin, and the expectation of punishment.
Cowper was taken by his brother to Saint Albans, an asylum run by the Reverend Nathaniel Cotton, a moderate evangelical clergyman who had studied medicine. Considering that the legendary Bedlam was a typical eighteenth-century hospital for lunatics, Saint Albans was a fortunate choice. For the next six months, Cowper suffered terrible visions and voices but finally grew calmer under Dr. Cotton’s mild ministrations. During the summer, his brother visited him and assured him that he could be saved as well as anyone. Though this was certainly not the first time this counsel had been offered, something clicked, and Cowper made an almost instantaneous recovery, having “sweet dreams” that night and waking with delight.
His joy, in fact, was almost frenzied, and, recognizing that the danger of mania was perhaps as great as the melancholia, Dr. Cotton kept him at Saint Albans for another year. Cowper then settled in a village on the banks of the Ouse River (the same stream in which Virginia Woolf was to drown herself almost 200 years later).
In Huntington, he lodged with the Unwins, a family who shared his religious convictions. When Mr. Unwin was killed in a fall from a horse, Cowper remained in the household, creating a scandal that caused the family to move further up the river to the village of Olney. Though he at first described himself as “a sort of adopted son of the family”—Mrs. Unwin was seven years his senior—after five years together, Cowper and the motherly woman began making plans to marry.
As the date for the wedding drew closer, however, Cowper’s mental condition grew worse. He had been experiencing bouts of depression for a year, but on New Year’s Day (winter was always a bad time for him), he suffered his second attack of full-blown insanity. His hallucinations returned, and his friends described him as “almost an infant.” Escaping from Mrs. Unwin’s house, he fled to the vicarage and his friend the Reverend John Newton, with whom he had been collaborating on a collection of hymns. There he stayed for the next 13 months—though, paradoxically, it was only Mrs. Unwin whom he would allow to care for him.
Cowper wrote later:
I did not indeed lose my senses but I lost the power to exercise them. I could return a rational answer even to a difficult question, but a question was necessary, or I never spoke at all. This state of mind was accompanied … with misapprehension of things and persons that made me a very intractable patient. I believed that everyone hated me, and that Mrs. Unwin hated me most of all; was convinced that all my food was poisoned.
He must have been an exceedingly trying patient. His conviction that the meat the butcher delivered was human flesh made it difficult to feed him. Worst of all, Cowper made several more suicide attempts. He claimed to have heard God commanding him to sacrifice his own life, just as Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. When his friends prevented his attempts to kill himself, Cowper heard God’s voice condemning him to eternal punishment for his failure. His psychotic delusions gradually abated, but his sense of exclusion from God’s mercy never left him after that. There was no sudden recovery as there had been at Saint Albans. And William Cowper never entered a church again.
His friend Newton, a leader of the Calvinist branch of the evangelical revival in England, was a generous and hardy soul whose sins never lost him any sleep, despite the fact that he had been a sea captain running slaves to the colonies from Africa. We know him best today as the author of “Amazing Grace,” and though he may have described himself as a wretch in the hymn, in his conversion narrative he says, “During the time I was engaged in the slave-trade I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness.”
Though Newton tried to reason Cowper out of his despair, his efforts were fruitless. He could only wonder that the poet’s faculties, so fine and adroit in every other area, “should be clouded on one point only, and that a point so obvious and strikingly clear to everybody who knows you!”
But Cowper had obviously constructed watertight reasoning to counteract any comfort offered him by his friends; “I suppose no one would despair,” he wrote to Newton, “if he did not apprehend something singular in the circumstances of his own story, something that discriminates it from that of every other man, and that induces despair as an inevitable consequence.… Every such individual accounts himself an exception to all rules, and therefore the blessed reverse that others have experienced affords not ground of comfortable expectation to him.”
Cowper’s anguish might actually have diminished had he lost all belief in God. Then there would have been no one to damn him. Or he might have suffered less if he had shifted his belief to the coolly remote Supreme Being of the eighteenth-century rationalists. But, strangely enough, it was after Cowper’s 1773 episode that he became the great poet and propagandist for the evangelical movement in England. Olney Hymns, a collaborative effort with John Newton, was published in 1779. Cowper’s first-volume of verse, didactic and strongly evangelical, appeared in 1782, the second volume in 1786.
Then, in January of 1787, he had another and even more violent period of derangement during which he had to be kept in a straitjacket to prevent his suicide. James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, reported that Cowper “now is sometimes so ill that they take away his shoebuckles, that he may have nothing within his reach with which he can hurt himself.” According to his own account, Cowper “emerged suddenly” from this bout of madness, though he persisted in believing he had been damned by a special decree of Providence.
Despite this, he continued to wield his pen in the service of the evangelical cause and in the same year wrote four quite popular ballads for use in William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery. The plight of African slaves, in fact, brought him nearer to doubting evangelical doctrines than had his own suffering. “All these things will be accounted for and explained hereafter,” he quoted apologists for slavery. “An answer like this would have satisfied me once, when I was myself happy;—for I have frequently thought that the happy are easily reconciled to the woes of the miserable. But in the school of affliction I have learned to cavil and question.” He wrote no more hymns, however, after his last period of insanity. “I could not sing the Lord’s song were it to save my life,” he wrote to a friend, “banished as I am, not to a strange land, but to a remoteness from his presence.” Nevertheless, Cowper still clung to the hope that God might one day relent and suspend his sentence.
In 1794 the devoted Mrs. Unwin suffered the first in a series of strokes. Cowper went into a depression from which he never recovered, spending the remaining six years of his life haunted by horrific dreams at night and sunk in speechless torpor when awake. Though still cared for by friends, he died under the apprehension that he had offended the Almighty irremediably.
How are we to understand a life such as Cowper’s? What sense can we make of it? Cowper’s own doctors diagnosed his problem as “melancholia.” Two German psychiatrists have recently diagnosed the poet as a “bipolar depressive.” Yet definitions are not explanations.
And what, after all, do we want explained about a life such as Cowper’s? We may speculate about the cause of Cowper’s problem—the loss of his mother at a young age, physiological malfunctions, seasonal affective disorder, or even too much leisure in the eighteenth-century upper classes—but the hunt for a cause only generates more questions. How much control do any of us have over such aberrant states? When do we cease to be responsible for our actions? The answer to the second question depends somewhat on the answer to the first.
Was Cowper perverse in clinging to his condemnation during his long periods of sanity? Were his many helpful friends “enabling” his behavior by supporting him throughout his life? Were Cowper and Mrs. Unwin “codependent”? Or was he exceptionally heroic in continuing to operate as an evangelical Christian, even under such a perceived sentence of eternal punishment? Abraham was saved from murdering Isaac by the hindering hand of the angel at the last minute. Job, who said in his suffering, “Though he slay me, yet will I praise him,” lived to see better days. But no good angel visited Cowper, and his last days were comfortless.
We don’t like the ending to this story. We like to think that, given enough of what some people call grit and others call faith, any obstacle can be overcome. Or we like to think that, had Cowper been born today, his brain chemistry could have been balanced with appropriate medication. Or we like to think that our late twentieth-century theological emphasis on a loving God would have circumvented his obsessive fear of eternal condemnation.
I don’t have the final answer. Maybe the study of the brain’s dysfunctions will finally put an end to such stories. Maybe the theological pendulum that swings between love and justice has finally been stabilized. Nevertheless, I still find myself left with two paradoxical responses to Cowper’s story that refuse to go away.
First, along with the sorrow and pity I feel for the man, I’m also angry with him. His insistence, even during his periods of sanity, upon his singularity, his claim to be a special case to which scriptural reassurances could not apply, are, strictly speaking, heretical. Appealing to private revelation that refuses the correction of Scripture has always run that risk. This was not just bad theology; this was a perverse will. Cowper’s withdrawal from the body of Christ, his refusal to attend church, or after a certain point to speak with friends about the matter, made it possible for him to entrench himself in terrible error.
At the same time, I stand in awe of Cowper’s faithfulness. One of his earliest hymns, “O for a Closer Walk with God,” foreshadows the fear that was never far from him the rest of his life:
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
Cowper not only kept working, but kept his work honest throughout his life. He never pretended a confidence he did not feel. Consequently, the articulation of his own doubts and weariness of spirit has spoken to and for countless other disheartened souls. And who more than Cowper has the right to affirm that “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform?”
I have stood in many a church service, often in the evening when the light casts deep shadows on the assembled faces, and watched as the congregation sang,
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
When they get to the refrain, their eyes close and their heads tilt upward. None seem put off by the grotesque imagery or their complicity in it. They have no trouble identifying with the “dying thief” of the second verse who “rejoiced to see” such an offensive sight. They sing the line about being as “vile as he” with confessional relish.
On the third verse, the voices make the last two lines an affirmation of embattled faith:
E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
Who knows how many hearts have been eased by expressing their misery in Cowper’s words? Would that comfort vanish if they knew they were singing words written by a madman? I hope not. Otherwise we might also have to give up biblical songs written by an adulterer and murderer. Our own best words and deeds must always be teased from our hearts’ tangled motives.
William Cowper’s poetry was the sanest thing about him. He groped toward “redeeming love” throughout his life, despairing in the darkness, but clinging to a fraying thread of hope. When he could not muster courage to enter a church during the last quarter of his life, his hymns were there. They are still there, giving a tongue to the pain of the doubter, the weak, and the sufferer. Every time I hear them now, I admire the man who kept on writing. And I trust his soul to God.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.