The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IV. William Cowper

§ 3. Olney Hymns

The collection entitled Olney Hymns was published in London in 1779. Cowper’s contributions to the volume were initialled “C.,” and among them occur several hymns still in use, together with three or four which are among the best known of English hymns, to whatever extent people may differ as to their morality. Oh for a closer walk with God; There is a fountain filled with blood; Hark, my soul! it is the Lord; Jesus! where’er thy people meet; God moves in a mysterious way—these are among the hymns by Cowper in this collection. The salient quality of them all is their sincerity and directness. The poet’s actual experiences in the spiritual life are expressed with the simplicity generally characteristic of his work. Their weakness is a lack of profundity, and the absence of that suggestion of the infinite and the awful, which, as in Crashaw or Newman, sometimes informs religious poetry less carefully dogmatic than Cowper’s. His mind, indeed, was too precisely made up on matters of doctrine to be fruitful either of lofty religious passion or of religious mystery; and, instead of being great sacred poetry, his hymns are a stay and comfort to souls experiencing what might be called the practical difficulties of certain phases of spiritual life. Most of them are hopeful in tone; for, though the book was not published till 1779, the hymns were written by Cowper before 1773. In that year, he had another outbreak of mania. He imagined himself not only condemned to hell, but bidden by God to make a sacrifice of his own life. Mrs. Unwin nursed him devotedly; but, more than a year passed before he began to recover. By 1776, he had resumed, in part, his correspondence with his friends. In 1779, Newton left Olney for a London living; and, the influence of his overbearing friend being withdrawn, Cowper entered upon what was probably the happiest period of his life. Carpentering, gardening, horse exercise, walking and other simple pleasures kept him cheerful; and he began again to write poetry. His kinsman Martin Madan having published a book advocating polygamy, Cowper, in 1781, printed anonymously a reply to it in the form of a fantastic tale. Anti-Thelyphthora is not among Cowper’s best works; but it has a pointed neatness of diction and a descriptive touch which foretell The Task. Mrs. Unwin, always anxious to keep him occupied and to make the best of him, set him to work on a long poem. She gave him the not very promising subject of the progress of error; and, going eagerly to work, he wrote eight satires: Table Talk, The Progress of Error, Truth, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, Conversation and Retirement.