Friday, January 18, 2013

The Demons of William Cowper

George Romney (1734-1802), 
Portrait of William Cowper 1792
22 1/2 in. x 18 1/2 in. (572 mm x 470 mm)
The National Portrait Gallery, London

A sign of success in Eighteenth century England was to have one`s portrait painted by one of the most distinguished of London portrait painters

Romeny`s only rival was Joshua Reynolds

The portrait of the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800), (above) was executed at the house of the poet William Hayley, who was a friend of the artist Romney. Hayley later went on to write a posthumous biography of Cowper

His talent as a poet was recognised by his contemporaries. He is said to be the pre-cursor of the English Romantics. He is said to have pioneered a new movement in the history of English poetry

A sensitive soul, he became an Evangelical Christian which led to the writing of many hymns still popular today

It was not always so. Success was not easy. He had to overcome a melancholy temperament and cast of mind. 

Driven by despair he made at least four serious attempts at suicide.

In a review of amongst others, Paul Seaver et al, editors  THE HISTORY OF SUICIDE IN ENGLAND, 1650–1850  Eight volumes, 1,584pp. Pickering and Chatto. £350, Freya Johnston of St Anne’s College, Oxford in the Times Literary Supplement describes the dreadful situation of Cowper: (in a review of remarkable perspicacity and sensitivity on a whole range of matters attaching to the subject of suicide)
"Human beings are created by and dependent on a non-human maker.  
The Christian virtue of prudence therefore involves guarding the life that does not belong to you, and cannot be yours to dispose of.  
Voluntarily severing the bond that joins soul with body is to sever a tie with God.  
As for oysters, 
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10.29–31)
Numerous believers have made themselves desperate by nursing a sense of their own unique culpability.  
This kind of suicidal despair – convincing oneself that one is permanently cast out from the possibility of forgiveness – is terrible to read about.  
Take William Cowper.  
He was destined for the law, a profession for which, due to his morbid fear of public speaking, he was wholly unsuited.  
The prospect of being examined in 1763 at the bar of the House of Lords drove him to a series of frantic measures.  
About a week before the examination he bought a half-ounce of laudanum. Unable to consume the fatal dose, he thought of escaping to France. He resolved to drown himself, then tried to stab himself with his penknife, and finally hanged himself with a scarlet garter which broke just as he lost consciousness. On coming to, he heard the sound of his own groans and assumed he was in hell. A period of bitter misery ensued; Cowper attempted suicide on at least one further occasion.  
But conversations with his brother and chance readings in the Bible began to chip away at his certainty that he was the helpless prey of a furious, vengeful God.  
On July 26, 1764 he picked up a Bible and opened it, randomly, at Romans 3.25:  
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God”. 
In an instant, Cowper found strength to believe in the redeeming power of Christ, and was lost in tears of grateful ecstasy.  
Cowper regretted his birth “in a country where melancholy is the national characteristic”, and admitted he had often wished himself a Frenchman.  
The French themselves apparently referred to suicide as death “à l’Anglaise – according to the English fashion”. The World’s John Tristman was one of many writers at home and abroad to link the English temperament with suicidal tendencies. ... 
Where, then, can we find comfort?  
What can we do to escape ourselves?  
Robert Burton recommended in the closing lines of his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) that we should “Be not solitary; be not idle”, advice which Samuel Johnson carefully adapted for “disordered” men such as James Boswell: 
“If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle”. 
The end of the Samaritans’ information page on self-harm urgently communicates the same message as that of the first full-length treatise on suicide published in English, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637), and it can’t be said often enough:
 “There is always hope. There is always help”. ”.