When I was in Nashville for Dan’s funeral I stumbled across an old copy of William’s Cowper’s letters, which I’ve been reading a bit since. Cowper lived a very complex and tragic life. He went insane four times, attempted suicide on several occasions, and was debilitated by depression for long periods of time, including his final ten years of life. He was also a profound Christian and extremely gifted poet and writer. His “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is one of my favorite hymns. It was fascinating to get to know Cowper through his personal letters and learn about his daily life in 18th century England, as well as his friendships with people like John Newton, his views of the Revolutionary War in America, the Slave Trade, marriage, wealth, literature, God’s sovereignty, his own eccentricity, and a variety of other things. He kind of reminds of Kierkegaard, but as a poet rather than philosopher.
Reading about his descriptions of his depression produced an effect in me which is difficult to describe. I don’t really have a category for what Cowper endured. I found myself looking for a hidden happy ending, a ray of sunshine amidst the darkness and gloom, or at least some kind of lesson to be learned from it all – some theological brackets which could wrap around his experience and interpret it. Nothing like that emerged. The final pages of the book indicate an increasingly dismal spiral downwards into despondency as Cowper became more and more consumed with thoughts of guilt, despair, and judgment.
Here is an excerpt from a letter late in his life:
My nocturnal experiences are all of the most terrible kind. Death, churchyards, and carcases, or else thunder storms and lightnings, God angry, and myself wishing I had never been born. Such are my dreams; and when I wake it is only to hear something terrible …. Who can hope for peace amidst such trouble? I cannot. I live a life of terror. My prospects respecting this life as well as another seem all intercepted.
A bit later:
It is with great unwillingness that I write, knowing that I can say nothing but what will distress you. I despair of everything, and my despair is perfect, because it is founded on a persuasion, that there is no effectual help for me, even in God. From four this morning till after seven I lay meditating terrors, such terrors as no language can express, and as no heart I am sure but mine ever knew. My very finger-ends tingled with it.
And a few pages after that:
Obliged to write, but more disqualified for it than ever, I once again address you in the style of misery and the deepest despair. One thing and one only is left to me, the wish that I had never existed.
Cowper’s life compels me to interpret life differently than I previously have. Two things emerge in my mind as I struggle with it. First, there are wounds, there are trials, there are agonies in this fallen world that cannot be described with words or contained within concepts. They stretch and bend and even break our ability to understand. They draw us into the realm of extremity, to the utter brink. But second, and without at all downplaying the reality of the first point, God can heal the deepest wounds and redeem the most broken life. I don’t believe that Cowper’s despair is the sum and total of his life. In his letters, and much more in his poetry and hymns, another strand of thought emerges, one of hope, patience, and faith.
I don’t know why God permits a life like Cowper’s. But there is beauty there, there is redemption, there is a message spoken to the world through that life that could not be spoken without its grief and sadness. Somehow in its tragedy and brokenness – and in mine! – the gospel becomes visible. As I reflect upon Cowper’s life, I am reminded that there are no earthly wounds too great for the healing and mending and stitching together of heaven. As deep as grief goes, redemption goes deeper.
I give Cowper himself the last words, which apply to his own life as well as anything else:
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.