William Cowper is an underappreciated poet, perhaps because for a long time 20th century literary criticism relegated him to the status of “pre-Romantic poet” so that he was read in the shadow of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and company. He was Jane Austen’s favorite poet, however, and I’ve come to love him a great deal, especially for his intimate voice and his nature imagery.
Cowper suffered severely from depression—at one point he tried to commit suicide—but he found some relief when he turned to God. Note how he describes himself as a stricken deer in the following passage from The Task. In a wonderful association, he imagines Jesus as a fellow wounded deer who, because he too has “been hurt by the archers,” knows how to administer to the poet’s wounds:
I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since: with many an arrow deep infix’d
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew,
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by One who had himself
Been hurt by the archers. In his side he bore,
And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and heal’d, and bade me live.
In a poem that is appropriate for this Pentecostal season, Cowper asks the Holy Spirit to fill an aching void within so that he may once again have a sense that he walks in God’s presence:
Walking with God
Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.
Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
Note on the artist: Christa Forest’s work can be found at www.forestwildlifeart.com/deer_gallery.html.