Some Lines by William Cowper

William Cowper
William Cowper

We’re going back to the 18th century today, just briefly.

As I sat reading a selection of William Cowper’s poetry this morning I wondered how many people still read him. He is not a difficult poet and may be unfairly overlooked these days because he is overtly Christian.

The Poetry Foundation’s main article on him states, ‘William Cowper was the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth and for several decades had probably the largest readership of any English poet.’[i]

Cowper was a contemporary of William Wilberforce and a friend of John Newton. He was too young to have seen much of the early years of Whitefield and Wesley’s preaching but was certainly impacted by the gospel message they preached.

His huge popularity as a poet existed not only because his Christian hymns were popular in the churches, but because of his notable skill as a poet.

I am reprinting here a section of his beautiful poem To Mary.

In their later years Mary Unwin and Cowper had been engaged and the love between them was very tender although they never married. He was at her side as her health declined in her final illness.

These verses take us right to her bedside. We see his devotion to her even though she can no longer communicate verbally, we share the thrill of her minute but definite responses to his love. No wonder Tennyson said that this poem was too touching, too moving, to be read out loud.

To Mary

Thy indistinct expressions seem
Like language utter’d in a dream;
Yet me they charm, whate’er the theme,
My Mary!

Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden beams of orient light,
My Mary!

For could I view nor them nor thee,
What sight worth seeing could I see?
The sun would rise in vain for me,
My Mary!

Partakers of the sad decline,
Thy hands their little force resign;
Yet gently prest, press gently mine,
My Mary!

And then I feel that still I hold
A richer store ten thousandfold
Than misers fancy in their gold,
My Mary!

I suppose the ‘wow’ moment for me was the intensely touching lines, as Cowper sits by the bedside of his dying love.

‘Partakers of the sad decline,
Thy hands their little force resign;
Yet gently prest, press gently mine…’

It reminds me of a comment Billy Graham made about his wife Ruth when she was bedridden, how they could experience such ecstatic romance by simply staring into each other’s eyes for long periods of time and know their love was as complete and fulfilling as it could ever be.

Read Cowper’s lines again.

And maybe grab hold of some of his poetry from your local bookstore.

©2015 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

 

[i] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-cowper

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Review of ‘Betjeman’ by A.N. Wilson

A.N. Wilson's biography of John Betjeman
A.N. Wilson's biography of John Betjeman

John Betjeman was a much loved modern poet whose unashamed ‘Englishness’ and chummy loyalty to the Church of England won him a place in many English hearts. His light and amusing poetry made him a popular hit giving him access (and sales) where other more serious poets stayed on the fringes of popular culture. He was tutored briefly by CS Lewis, was a keen lover of church architecture (including Edward Irving’s London church buildings) and a muddle of emotions and guilt when it came to relationships.

Read the full review here