10 Feb

How hymnody produced an important English poet

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/21

Christopher N. Phillips on William Cowper’s suffering and (artistic) triumphs

On Volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Christopher N. Phillips about his book, The Hymnal: A Reading History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). One of the things we talked about was the question of what distinguishes hymns from other forms of poetry.

Phillips points out in his book (and in our conversation) that Dr. Johnson, among others, established “something of a wall between hymn and poem.” In Samuel Johnson’s view, the “sublimity and perfection of religion and particularly the God it worshiped, could only defeat attempts to dress it” in any imaginative form. In Johnson’s words, “The topicks [sic] of devotion are few, and being few are universally known; but few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. . . . Omnipotence cannot be exalted; Infinity cannot be amplified; Perfection cannot be improved.”

This view captures something of the impersonal austerity of eighteenth-century notions of the relationship between knowing and feeling, notions that the Romantic movement would challenge. Phillips notes that “even as Johnson developed his views [on this matter] . . . a new poet was emerging whose work would challenge Johnson’s assumptions.” That poet was William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”), whose work was discussed back on Volume 52 by English professor Daniel Ritchie, author of The Fullness of Knowing: Modernity and Postmodernity from Defoe to Gadamer (Baylor University Press, 2010).

Here is Phillips’s summary of how Cowper broke down the wall (allegedly) separating hymnody and poetry.

“A London barrister by profession, Cowper had written little poetry and published none by the time he met John Newton. Given to bouts of severe depression that would drive him to several suicide attempts, Cowper left his work to convalesce in the rural Buckinghamshire parish of Olney, where the already-famous Newton was curate. The slaver-turned-priest quickly formed a close friendship with Cowper, counseling him through the aftermath of a nervous breakdown and discovering a poetic gift in his ailing parishioner. Newton had for some time been composing hymns as meditations on Scripture to accompany his sermons; his church was a poor one, and many of his parishioners could not read, so the hymns gave them something to take home, reinforcing his weekly messages. He proposed that Cowper join him in producing a collection of hymns for the use of the parish, though Newton’s considerable fame owing to his popular memoirs made it likely that the collection would gain a wider audience. Cowper agreed. While the original plan was for both men to contribute an equal number of hymns, Cowper suffered another breakdown, limiting his contribution to sixty-seven texts compared to Newton’s 219 in Olney Hymns (1779). The collection included Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ and texts such as ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,’ which was much more popular than ‘Amazing Grace’ in the nineteenth century. Cowper’s texts were interspersed throughout, marked simply with a C to indicate his authorship.

“As James Montgomery asserted in an introduction first published in an 1829 reprint of Olney Hymns, hymnody produced Cowper the poet. Hymn writing was initially Cowper’s means to psychological recovery. Following the depression that disrupted his hymn writing at Olney, Cowper again turned to poetry at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen to aid his recovery. The results of this new wave of writing amounted to a literary sensation. Cowper’s two-volume Poems appeared in handsomely printed London octavos in 1782 and 1785, the first mainly consisting of rhapsodic odes, the second nearly filled by his multicanto poem, The Task, still considered his most important work. New editions of Cowper’s works were frequent, especially after his death in 1800, and continued for decades, yet by far his most-read works were not The Task or his odes, but rather his hymns. ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way,’ ’O for a Closer Walk with God,’ ‘There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood’ — these hymns anticipated the individuality of the Romantic lyric as much as poems like Cowper’s ‘The Castaway,’ but their directness and relevance to Christian spirituality made them favorites in Anglican churches and Baptist revival meetings alike. For the first time, a writer at the poetic forefront of his day was also contributing substantially to churches’ sung repertoire across the Anglophone Atlantic.”

Book 3 of Olney Hymns — originally published as On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life — includes the text of a six-stanza hymn by William Cowper called simply “Retirement.” It is not about the life of leisure following a long career of labor, but about the retirement enjoyed by those, for example, on spiritual retreat. The few hymnals that include this hymn identify it by its first line: “Far from the world, O Lord, I flee.” Cowper also wrote an 800-line poem called “Retirement,” in which he explored in great detail what his friend John Newton described as “the worldliness pleasure.” You can read the hymn and part of the poem here.