William Cowper, the New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, and Worship

Possibly the most famous lines of the Christian poet and hymnwriter William Cowper (1731-1800) are “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform.” Or you may prefer “Satan trembles when he sees/ The weakest saint upon his knees.”

But he also wrote the following:

Sometimes a light surprises/The Christian while he sings;/It is the Lord who rises/With healing on his wings./When comforts are declining/He grants the soul again/A season of clear shining/To cheer it after rain.”

I don’t remember singing this hymn in church myself, but you can find it on Youtube. A nice thought, isn’t it?

I’ve just finished the slow process of rereading “The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse”(1981) edited by Donald Davie, one poem at a time. It includes this poem/hymn, and much else by Cowper.

Working through anthologies is an excellent way to feel well-educated and smug, but I digress.

There are lots of great works in Davie’s anthology, reflecting many different types and stages of Christian belief over the ages, and introducing me to authors I would not otherwise have come across. My only peeve when I read it that so much space is given to Emily Dickinson, a poet many people love but I never feel I quite “get”, and so comparatively little to my personal favourites, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti.

But what I really love about this book is Davie’s fantastic introduction, which he starts by saying that of course the so-called category of “Christian verse” does not make sense, since the vast majority of writers in English between say 1000 and 1850 would have called themselves Christians.

And “Moreover most of those Christians did not suppose that their Christianity stopped when they came out through the church-door, or got up off their knees after praying… If they were cruel and faithless in their politics, or lecherous and faithless in their loves, they knew this about themselves, and they thought they knew that the name for such behaviour was not for instance ‘maladjustment’, but sin. They knew this even when they knew that they would go on ‘sinning’, and even when they declared with a certain bravado that they meant to go on doing so.”

(I love this trenchant analysis. I’m sure it’s built into the people of Ragaris.)

So from one perspective, since Christianity claims all of life, almost all English poetry is Christian poetry.

However, Davie does of necessity narrow his category somewhat. He goes on to point out that many hymns are poetry, and pretty widely-read poetry at that. (I have previously commented (here)on the Poet Laureate Nathan Tate’s real claim to fame being as the author of the paraphrase “While Shepherds Watched”, which is in this book.)

This brings us back to Cowper, a rare example, according to Davie, of a distinguished hymn-writer who wrote from the vantage point of the pew rather than that of the pulpit (or nowadays of the music group.)

And back to the hymn we started with.  “Sometimes a light surpriseth”… Davie says, “the crucial word in it is the first. ‘Sometimes’ – only sometimes, not always, not even very often!” Unforced joy in worship “is not presented as the normal condition of the Believer. Above all therefore it is not the pay-off, the guaranteed reward for going to church and trying to behave well.”

Cowper suffered from intermittent periods of suicidal depression.

All of which makes me wonder if we demand too much happy feeling from our songs and services. The value of worship is not ultimately in how it makes me feel, still less whether I enjoy it.

One can of course take such thoughts too far. We ought at any rate to try to make our worship enjoyable for God.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS Cowper was Jane Austen’s favourite poet, of course. In the film of “Sense and Sensibility”, it is his poem “The Castaway” that Hugh Grant tries in vain to read to the satisfaction of Kate Winslet. Although Alan Rickman later woos her with Edmund Spenser.


  • Judith Leader

    23rd February 2018 at 7:04 pm Reply

    Cowper was a Calvinist who believed that God had not chosen him, this may have been in his extreme state of depression and melancholy (he attempted his own life and spent time in an asylum). I have known the hymn for years and have even got it in one of my old hymn books. I think that we need a variety of hymns and songs so that we avoid the danger that we can fall into by focusing on us and our relationship to God which is very important but avoids the hymns that focus on God and his holiness. That said you will never please everyone and it must be hard to put a service together. To complain about the fact that Cowper said ‘sometimes’ and not ‘all the time’ ((can’t remember your exact phrase is ludicrous, why on earth would he need to write a hymn it God surprising us was an everyday occurrence.
    I learnt something new from your blog (I learnt a lot new but this stands out) someone actually likes Christina Rossetti.

    • Penelope Wallace

      24th February 2018 at 11:00 am Reply

      Your comment made me laugh out loud. I love her poem “none other Lamb, none other Name”, especially the second verse.
      I don’t think Davie is complaining about Cowper’s “sometimes”: just pointing it out.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    23rd February 2018 at 10:27 pm Reply

    Thank you Penelope for this wise insight. Although not a person of faith myself (I lapsed rapidly as a Catholic in my youth), I think there is probably too much focus on happiness and there should be more on reflection and understanding. The poetry I have always found closest to breaking me out of my agnosticism is John Donne’s work, whose later spiritual poems seem so much stronger to me from some who celebrated the physical in his youthful verses. For me a sense of the spiritual should be profound, but may only rarely be happy. The deepest realisations in life can be very painful, even while being liberating.

    • Penelope Wallace

      24th February 2018 at 11:13 am Reply

      Thank you for this, Stephen. I should probably go back to Donne.

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