William Cowper

Hymns Written

Heal Us Emmanuel
Love Constraining To Obedience

Sometimes A Light Surprises

There Is A Fountain


Son of John, rector of Berkhampstead. His mother died when he was six. He attended Westminster School from 1742 to 1749. Cowper was in love with his cousin, Theodora Jane Cowper, sister of Lady Heskith, and wanted to marry her. Her father, Ashley, objected on the grounds of the near relationship and William’s inadequate fortune. Neither William nor Theodora ever married. He was called to the bar as a member of the Middle Temple in 1754 and offered the clerkship of the journals of the House of Lords in 1763. Overwhelmed, he became seriously depressed. His cousin, Martin Madan, tried to give him some spiritual help before he was referred to Dr. Cotton’s asylum in St. Alban’s in December. While there, he became a Christian and deliberately stayed on longer than necessary in order to receive spiritual help from Dr. Cotton. When he left he moved to Huntingdon, where he met the Unwins and moved in with them. He considered entering the ministry in 1766. After Rev. Morley Unwin’s death he and Mary Unwin moved to Olney at the invitation of Newton.

Cowper and Newton were inseparable, Cowper becoming in effect “the Curate’s curate.” Newton recognized Cowper’s literary talents and had his individual poems published. He wrote the preface to the first edition of his collection, Poems. Cowper acknowledged, “The honor of your preface prefixed to my poems will be on my side; for surely to be known as the friend of a much-favored minister of God’s word is a more illustrious distinction, in reality, than to have the friendship of any poet in the world to boast of.”

When Cowper showed signs of returning depression Newton suggested they work together on providing hymns for the weekly meetings. This gesture of friendship resulted in many hymns grounded in prayer and scripture which still give much encouragement and incentive to worship today, two hundred years later, all over the world.

Cowper visited the sick and took a special interest in the welfare of the lace-makers. He sometimes led at the church prayer meetings. Samuel Teedon, the village schoolmaster, considered, “Of all the men I ever heard pray, no one equaled Mr. Cowper.” Newton s testimony to him in his Incomplete Memoirs was, “He loved the poor. He often visited them in their cottages, conversed with them in the most condescending [obliging] manner, sympathized with them, counseled and comforted them in their distresses; and those who were seriously disposed were often cheered and animated by his prayers!”

Cowper was fiercely defendant of Newton. His personal copy of An Apology for Protestant Dissenters shows his spontaneous reaction, in scribbled verse (p.427), to reading this written criticism of Newton:  “In reply to Mr. Newton’s fourth argument (in which in the usual cant of these Reformers, he pleads, that the Lord...)”.

These critics who to faith no quarter grant,
But call it mere hypocrisy and cant
To make a just acknowledgment of praise
And thanks to God for governing our ways,
Approve Confucius more and Zoroaster
Than Christ’s own servant or that servant’s Master.

After Cowper’s death, some unjustified blame was put on Newton for his depression. William Jay [who knew them both] comments on this, “Some have thought the divine was hurtful to the poet. How mistaken were they! He was the very man, of all others, I should have chosen for him. He was not rigid in his creed. His views of the Gospel were most free and encouraging. He had the tenderest disposition; and always judiciously regarded his friend’s depression and despondency as a physical effect, for the removal of which he prayed, but never reasoned or argued with him concerning it.”

When Cowper and Mary Unwin moved from Weston, Underwood in their final years to stay with his cousin Johnson, he wrote these lines in pencil on the window shutter of a bedroom overlooking the garden of the Lodge,

“Farewell, dear scenes, for ever closed to me,
Oh, for what sorrows must I now exchange ye!”

The shutter was closed up for twenty years to save paying the window tax. It is now kept at the Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. “Oh! with what a surprise of joy,” wrote Newton a few days after Cowper’s death, “would he find himself immediately before the throne, and in the presence of his Lord! All his sorrows left below, and earth exchanged for heaven."

(excerpted from "The Life Of John Newton By Richard Cecil" edited by Marylynn Rouse, published by Christian Focus, 2000)

George Ella On The Death Of Cowper’s Mother

William’s happiness, however, was to come to a swift and abrupt end. Ann [his mother] had given birth to another child, Theadora Judith, a year after William, but the little girl died at two years of age. In 1734 a son, Thomas, was born, but he died after a short life of only two weeks. Finally, much weakened, Ann Cowper gave birth to another boy, John, on November 7, 1737. The baby survived but Anne was so frail that she was unable to recover from the birth and died six days later. She was only thirty-four. Later on, looking back on this sad day [when he received from his cousin a picture of his mother, William], now the foremost poet in the kingdom, was to write:

My mother! when I learned that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hovered thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun?
Perhaps thou gav’st me, though unfelt, a kiss:
Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss
— Ah, that maternal smile! it answers— Yes.

Ann’s foolish but well-intentioned maids tried to keep the news from William and told the poor boy that his mother had gone on a journey and would soon be back. William, however, had understood more than the maids realized. Looking back on those unhappy days Cowper wrote,

I heard the bell tolled on thy burial day,
I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away,
And turning from my nursery window, drew
A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu.’

The maids, however, persisted in telling William tales of his mother’s impending return, so that the child began to believe that he had misunderstood death and to hope against hope that he would see his mother again in this life. When he was finally forced to accept reality and see that the maids had been talking foolish nonsense, his grief was all the greater.

(excerpted from “William Cowper: Poet Of Paradise” by George Ella, published by Evangelical Press 1993)

From Cowper’s Works, Here Is The First Section Of The Full Poem Written Upon His Receipt Of His Mother’s Picture (Which Some Have Called The Saddest Poem Written In The English Language!)


 Oh that those lips had language! Life has pass’d
With me but roughly since I heard thee last.
Those lips are thine—thy own sweet smiles I see,
The same that oft in childhood solaced me
Voice only fails, else, how distinct they say,
“Grieve not, my child, chase all thy fears away!”
The meek intelligence of those dear eyes
(Blest be the art that can immortalize,
The art that baffles time’s tyrannic claim
To quench it) here shines on me still the same.
Faithful remembrancer of one so dear,
Oh welcome guest, though unexpected, here!
Who bidd’st me honor with an artless song,
Affectionate, a mother lost so long,
I will obey, not willingly alone,
But gladly, as the precept were her own;
And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief—
Shall steep me in Elysian reverie,
A momentary dream, that thou art she.
My mother! when I learn’d that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hover’d thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun?
Perhaps thou gav’st me, though unseen, a kiss;
Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss—
Ah that maternal smile! it answers—Yes.
I heard the bell toll’d on thy burial day,
I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away,
And, turning from my nurs’ry window, drew
A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu!
But was it such ?—It was, —Where thou art gone
Adieus and farewells are a sound unknown.
May I but meet thee on that peaceful shore,
The parting sound shall pass my lips no more!
Thy maidens griev’d themselves at my concern,
Oft gave me promise of a quick return.
What ardently I wished I long believ’d,
And, disappointed still, was still deceiv’d;
By disappointment every day beguil’d,               
Dupe of to-morrow even from a child.
Thus many a sad to-morrow came and went,
Till, all my stock of infant sorrow spent,
I learn’d at last submission to my lot;
But, though I less deplor’d thee, ne’er forgot.
Where once we dwelt our name is heard no more,
Children not thine have trod my nurs’ry floor;
And where the gard’ner Robin, day by day,
Drew me to school along the public way,
Delighted with my bauble coach, and wrapt
In scarlet mantle warm, and velvet capt,
‘Tis now become a history little known,
That once we called the past’ral house our own.
Short-lived possession! but the record fair
That mem’ry keeps of all thy kindness there,
Still outlives many a storm that has effac’d
A thousand other themes less deeply trac’d.
Thy nightly visits to my chamber made,
That thou might’st know me safe and warmly laid;
Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,
The biscuit, or confectionary plum;
The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestow’d
By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glow’d;
All this, and more endearing still than all,
Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall,
Ne’er roughen’d by those cataracts and brakes
That humour interpos’d too often makes;
All this still legible in mem’ry’s page,
And still to be so, to my latest age,
Adds joy to duty, makes me glad to pay
Such honors to thee as my numbers may;
Perhaps a frail memorial, but sincere,
Not scorned in Heav’n, though little noticed here.

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Mr. Newton’s Account of Mr. (William) Cowper in a Funeral Sermon
Preached in St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street , May 1800

Exodus Chapter 3 verses 2,3:
And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

 The Lord has given me many friends but with none have I had so great an intimacy, as with my friend Mr. Cowper. But he is gone. I was glad when I heard it. I know of no text in the whole book of God’s word more suited to the case of my dear friend than that I have read. He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed. And why? Because the Lord was there. I think it probable there is hardly a person in the church who ever saw him yet there is few but know him in his writings. I can think of no motto more suitable than that of the apostle as unknown yet well known particularly in his poems, 2nd volume, called The Task by which he being dead yet speaketh — speaks to the glory of God and the good of mankind and which I think will not be forgotten as long as the English language is current.

Mr. Cowper was afflicted with what is called a nervous complaint to such a degree as might justly be called insanity. He had an attack very early in life which did not continue long. He was afterward at the Temple, being designed for the Law. He became acquainted with Mr. Coleman and a Mr. & Lord Thurlow. He assisted them in writing a book [periodical] called the Connoisseur. Those four men were very gay and men of great abilities but the Lord had designs of mercy towards my friend. One night he had a remarkable dream or vision.

He thought a child, a very beautiful little boy, came and looked on him while he was asleep. When he awoke he felt his mind much affected by his dream, but as he was sitting at his breakfast the Lord shone in upon his soul and so enlightened his understanding and gave such a clear view of the gospel and his interest in it without his ever reading it or hearing a gospel sermon that for seven years afterwards I never in all my life saw a man walk — I want to say so honorably —but so closely with God and always set the Lord before him in all he did. I believe during that time we were not seven hours without being together.

 The last sermon he ever heard preached was on New Year’s Day 1773. He drank tea with me in the afternoon. The next morning a violent storm overtook him which caused a very great shyness. I used to visit him often but no argument could prevail with him to come to see me. He used to point with his finger to the church and say: you know the comfort I have had there and how I have seen the glory of the Lord in his house and until I can go there I’ll not go anywhere else. But after some time this shyness wore off. I remember one time we were walking together in a very deep snow. The weather was remarkably severe. He desired me to stop. I observed the sweat drop from his face occasioned by the agony of his mind. He said he knew the Lord was a Sovereign and had a right to do with and lay upon him what he pleased and if he [it?] was that by holding out a finger he could remove what he then felt, he would not do it unless he knew it were the will of God. He has often said he thought the Lord had not a child who loved him with a more simple heart than he did.

The first temptation the enemy assaulted him with was to offer up himself as Abraham his son. He verily thought he ought to do it. We were obliged to watch with him night and day. I, my dear wife and Mrs. Unwin with whom he lived left him not an hour for seven years. He was also tempted to think butcher’s meat was human flesh, therefore he would not take it. We found it very difficult to provide any sustenance he would take. He had various temptations which would be very improper for me to mention in this place. I was at that time obliged to leave Olney but the Lord did not leave him without friends but provided for him persons of abilities and respect who did that for love which no money could have procured.  I don’t know a person upon earth I consult upon a text of Scripture or any point of conscience so much to my satisfaction as Mr. Cowper. He could give comfort though he could not receive any himself. He was not only a comfort to me but a blessing to the affectionate poor people among whom I then lived. He used frequently to visit them and pray with them. I had the honor to be rector[?] over a set of poor plain people chiefly lace makers. Their great confinement caused in them great depression of spirits. They used to say, 0 Sir if I was right, sure I should not feel so. But they well knew Mr. Cowper: they knew he was right, and from him they could take comfort.

 I have had hopes the Lord would remove his malady a little time before his death but it continued. The last twelve hours of his life he did not speak nor seem to take notice of anything but lay in a state of apparent insensibility. But I seem to think that while the curtains were taking down in the tabernacle removing, glory broke in upon his soul. The Lord had set his seal upon him and though he had not seen him he had grace to love him. He was one of those who came out of great tribulation. He suffered much here for twenty-seven years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all. For what is all he endured in this life, when compared with that rest which remaineth for the children of God?

(excerpted from “The Life Of John Newton By Richard Cecil” edited by Marylynn Rouse, published by Christian Focus, 2000)