How things began

     In the nineteen fifties it was customary for young undergraduates to share rooms, go on hiking holidays together and plan their future careers together. I am thinking of my own experience at college. No one challenged this social cooperation and display of friendship in any way. It was healthy and good in itself. Nowadays, owing to what is now called ‘queer-bashing’ fingers of suspicion are pointed to any two men or two women who share digs or plan holidays together. Just as MacCarthy feared there were Reds under all beds, we now are to suspect homosexuals or lesbians taking their imaginary place. During the sixties, the tabloids began to write of sexual confusion amongst people as if it were the norm. Usual words like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ were robbed of their traditional meanings and then used to portray what came to be called ‘gender-confusion’. At first, this was all treated as some form of below-the-belt public house joke. Then, sadly, the colleges and universities took up the tabloid mentality and even faculties and chairs were created for studies in what is now called Queer Theory, robbing yet another word of its original meaning and attempting to give the tabloid mentality a respectable image. So great was the homo-bashing zeal of this new movement that one by one great male and female heroes of the past, especially those engaged in youth and children’s work, the army, the arts, church life, politics and education were scanned and scrutinised for any possible sign of what are now called cross-gender activities, homophobia, same-sex relationships, sexual disorientation, and what previously was called sodomy all of which, by NewSpeak definitions are now classified as ‘normal’. The homophobic vocabulary of several of my boyhood heroes have come under severe fire in the last few decades, though no proof of their being anything but upright, manly citizens in the old, Christian sense of the words has been forthcoming. Nowadays it is clear that what were once seen as harmful sexual deviations are now propagated by Academia and politics as being patterns to be recommended, irrespective of the damage they cause.

     Nowhere has this become more evident than in modern studies regarding William Cowper, the great campaigner in poetry and prose for the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. What is especially disturbing in the attitude of many of Cowper’s modern critics is that little original research has been done on his life and work but seedy, obscene criticism has been based on new interpretations of old secondary literature, which are then back-projected onto the life of Cowper to the ruining of his fine Christian manly testimony.

The queer theories of Elfenbein and Brunström

     Most popular in this down-grading of literary criticism and the attempt to boil all spiritual problems down to below-the-belt factors are the works of Andrew Elfenbein and Conrad Brunström. Though Cowper is their subject, the great Christian poet is merely used as an ill-chosen excuse to propagate the basest sexually confused thinking that this author has ever read in the name of Academia in professional magazines and university sponsored articles and books. Thus speculation as to the gender-mindedness of Cowper in whom they see a typical example of a modern cross-sexual man, has driven such writers to concoct obsessive paranoiac studies which leave them wallowing in a miry slough of sexual speculations which has quite bogged them down and separated them from the reality of Cowper’s life. As they go ‘queering through literature’ as the sport is now called, they pounce on literary giants of the past like malaria flies to suck out any details they might poison to harm their victims’ reputation. These maligned people are then presented to their readers as sex-torn ‘queers’ and not improvers of mankind and moral life. Indeed, the political incorrect term ‘queer’, which has no clinical, medical or literary value whatsoever, has intruded itself so deeply into the sciolistic literary criticism of Cowper’s poetry that it has quite blighted honest, objective, academic study. The only ‘queer’ thing here is the oddity that men and women, who take their findings and writing style from the tabloid press, pretend to be scholars working scientifically on known evidence. Sadly, this ‘known evidence’ is exactly what they never reveal or, more probably, have never found outside their own limited bent. One television ‘revival’ preacher idolised by thousands of Americans said recently that unless he put the word ‘sex’ into his announced sermon title, no one would come to hear him. This, it appears has been taken up by our teachers and professors of literature, too, adopting the very attitude that Cowper warned against in correcting his contemporaries who lived according to the adage ‘Tickle and entertain me or I die’.

     This writer believes as Cowper that such titivation ushers in the death of true, edifying, learning. Thus the key words in literary criticism for these queer-hunters are, besides ‘queer’, ‘homophobic’, homosexual, lesbian, and ‘gay’ and they fill pages with their drivelling talk of ‘cross-gender’ and ‘cross-dressing’ in order to earn their keep and make their students randy. A peep into the lives of these two scholars will illustrate the danger caused by deviations in modern literary criticism and the dumbing down of the works of great thinkers and blocking out a Christian understanding of them.

Andrew Elfenbein

     Elfenbein is on the staff of ‘The Centre for Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies’ where he specialises in British Literature, Queer Theory, and Empirical Psychology and Literary Study. Previous to this appointment, he lectured at Minnesota University. His online CV states that he has a PhD and MA and a BA. I have not been able to find out if Elfenbein has teaching qualifications as they are nowhere listed. His PhD was on the role of homosexuality in history, which warns us what to expect.

Cowper’s alleged unacceptable behaviour

     The particular work I am evaluating at present as a step in updating my 1987 dissertation on Cowper for publication is Andrew Elfenbein’s Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role and especially his chapter entitled ‘The domestication of genius: Cowper and the rise of the suburban man,’ This lecturer bases his sexual analysis of Cowper on the misinformed opinion that the poet was a suburban unemployed person who had plenty of time for sexual fantasies. Elfenbein concludes from this that Cowper was bound to step over the line into unacceptable behaviour.1 This is sadly the kind of fancy that delights critics who misuse their academic position to project their own confused views of male sexuality onto heroes of the past. I can hardly imagine that this makes them feel they are now heroes themselves but my old Psychology professor taught us at Uppsala that this behaviour could develop into a psychoneurosis.

Elfenbein’s paranoiac ‘fixed idea’

     Actually, there is no basis in Cowper for Elfenbein’s sexual fantasies at all, apart from the bogus figure named Cowper whom he invents. The truth is that Cowper was never suburban as a poet. He went to school in the heart of London, and lived as an apprentice and trainee lawyer in the busier part of central London for many years. He then moved to the industrial town of Olney where he took up residence in the busiest and noisiest part and spent his last years at East Dereham where he lived on a busy road in a terraced non-descript house close to the centre. Furthermore, Cowper can hardly be called unemployed as he trained and worked as a lawyer for a number of years before becoming a professional writer. He was a nigh professional gardener who traded his fruit and vegetables and had also property to manage and let from which he gained a small but regular income. He was also engaged in many social activities such as visiting the poor and providing them with food and blankets. He was a keen, practising sportsman who regularly swam across the Ouse in most inclement weather and went for long walks, especially in winter. He was a great campaigner and pioneered industrial, social, educational and political reforms, besides becoming a leader and spokesman for evangelical Christianity. There was scarcely a leading magazine to which Cowper did not contribute and he was employed by several magazines as a literary critic and by city authorities as a kind of hack writer. He was then very pleased at the end of a busy day to make a cup of tea and ‘let peaceful evening in’. Though he had a couple of servants, for a long time he cooked for them himself. To write off Cowper as one of the ‘idle rich’ is bad enough but then to titivate the below-the-stomach appetite of people who have seemingly nothing else to do by verbally assaulting Cowper with most un-Christian behaviour is scandalous indeed. Cowper’s life, work and calling distinguished him from people of his station at the time, a number of whom did indeed tend to join the ‘idle rich’, but certainly not Cowper. But Elfenbein is playing with us. After angering lovers of Cowper in this way, and goading those who like this kind of thing on, he tells us that the modern system of suburbs did not arise until Cowper was long dead. So was all this Cowper-bashing a joke? No, Elfenbein now unashamedly tells us that Cowper had obviously a secret he kept hidden and says, ‘If Cowper’s secrecy anticipated romantic subjectivity, it also anticipated the homosexual closet in ways that had important effects for the suburban man’s relation to homoeroticism.’ Once established in his psyche, he cannot rid himself of the suburban Cowper although his head tells him it is false. Elfenbein is proof enough that when one has a fixed idea it is difficult to get rid of. This pathological disorder can also become a psychosis.

Cowper’s alleged secrets

     Now, Elfenbein proves to himself by repeating another obsession until he believes it, that Cowper had a sexual secret. This leads him to state, ‘Cowper’s secrets in The Task surrounded him with many silences, not solely ones about his sexuality. Yet certain aspects of his self-representation provided clues for later readers about his possible sexual deviance.’ Elfenbein is arguing here that though Cowper was praised universally as a manly hero soon after his death, we can now correct that reputation by making intelligent guesses about his sex life. So Elfenbein continues, ‘He (Cowper) is a bachelor markedly uninterested in the possibilities of woman as objects of erotic sympathy,’ and thus concludes that ‘Cowper’s link between secrecy and distinction could be read as one between secrecy and sexual deviance in ways that made the violent repudiation of homosexuality necessary for the suburban man to maintain his masculine authority.’ Elfenbein seems to be ignorant of Cowper’s most romantic but most chaste love poems, which were written for his sweetheart whom he hoped to marry and not men. He is also arguing, like Brunström, that Cowper must be suspected of homosexuality because he abhorred men in society who wore make-up and used perfume. Dear readers, never say you object to such pansies because people like Elfenbein will then accuse you of being one!

Elfenbein teases his readers

     After describing the manliness of Cowper, Elfenbein takes another track and speaks at length of his alleged effeminate side, merely taking his evidence from quite twisted versions of what later writers never said. It is all another cruel bluff from Elfenbein’s pen as he knows very well that there is nothing in the stories he is telling. In his deception, Elfenbein, following Robert Southey, picks on John Newton who, he says, had proof that Cowper was a hermaphrodite. So now Elfenbein appears to be sure that Cowper was sexually mixed up in his erotic tastes. Elfenbein then cools the matter down a little by saying that the term when applied to a male hermaphrodite ‘might mean that he was a man who had sex with other men, but did not necessarily mean so. Again, Elfenbein is goading his readers and playing with their feelings. However, leaning on a comment from Charles Grenville, Elfenbein says that in Cowper’s case Cowper had had ‘same-sex passion’ in his early life. He does not tell us exactly when so that we can test the evidence. But then comes another of Elfenbein’s backtracks. After causing admirers of Cowper’s Christian stand much anxiety here to see their hero condemned for his sexual problems, Elfenbein has the cheek to tell us that Southey had erred and it was a kinsman of the same name as William who was suspected of being an hermaphrodite. Then he tells us that concerning the rumour that our William Cowper was bi-sexual, there is ‘No evidence existed for it whatsoever.’ Nevertheless, Southey, according to Elfenbein continued to accuse Cowper of sexual deviations and so does Elfenbein, taking his cue from Southey.

Re-interpreting Cowper’s conversion story

     Now Elfenbein turns to Cowper’s story of his conversion in his poem The Stricken Deer which David Cecil had misinterpreted so badly. Elfenbein now suggests, beating Cecil in his fantasy, the use of the metaphor is a poetic method Cowper might have used to explain what was happening sexually to him, that is to describe his inner homosexuality.

     Much is made of the ‘stricken deer’ image as describing a man torn and tortured by contact with the evil human world who went into retreat ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ to lick his wounds in peace. Thus David Cecil entitles his entire Cowper biography The Stricken Deer and even evangelical authors use the caption to describe the sufferings Cowper experienced throughout his Olney and Weston life.2 Nowadays, we are simply told by critics such as Elfenbein, who seems unaware of Cowper’s true background that the poet rather than describing his conversion in the Stricken Deer passage, is complaining about the sexual confusion which the arrow in his side depicts. So let us look at this passage in its correct contextualisation:

‘I was a Stricken Deer that left the herd

Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt

My panting side was charged when I withdrew

To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.’3

    Most commentators think that here Cowper is saying that he had enough of town life so fled to the country-side, so they call this ‘the fugitive theory’. However, Cowper appears to be relating an incident which happened many years before he wrote this poem around 1784-5. Furthermore, it cannot mean a removal to Olney as the town was on a busy coach road and stopping place along the Bedford-London route with a tavern on every corner and well over a thousand lace-workers and a prison nearby and could only be called a country retreat by a great stretch of the imagination. If Elfenbein’s theory were correct, why did not Cowper flee to the Scottish Highlands? But the poet continues with words which are less frequently quoted and which put an end to the fugitive theory:

‘There was I found by one who had himself

Been hurt by th’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.’4

     Here we see that the context is not about any anti-society feelings Cowper may have had, but it is a vivid, figurative description of the poet’s own conversion to Christ. Here we do not find Cowper lost and moaning but extolling in his gentle Saviour who healed his wounds. Cowper is the ‘panting hart’ referred to in Psalm 42, v.1, with the dart of the enemy in its bones (v.10). This is the Biblical imagery for a soul, marred by sin, longing for its God, whom Cowper claims had found and healed him. If we are to press biography into every detail of this passage then the ‘distant shades’ must clearly mean Dr Cotton’s asylum to which he fled before his conversion rather than Olney and the date must be then 1764, before Cowper went to live in Olney. As Cowper stresses the fact that he was ‘healed’ at that time, it cannot be argued that even in 1785, over twenty years after the event described, Cowper still regarded himself as a ‘stricken deer’.

Cowper explains the Christology of the passage

    Perhaps Cowper’s numerous critics can hardly be scolded for not understanding this passage Christologically. Even Cowper’s contemporaries had difficulties with it. When The Task was being reviewed in the Gentleman’s Magazine, the reviewer came up with the rather bizarre notion that Cowper was referring to his former landlord, the Rev. M. Unwin5 in the passage. Cowper’s own comment on this was:

‘The mistake that has occasioned the mention of Unwin’s name in the margin would be ludicrous if it were not, inadvertently indeed, and innocently on their part, profane. I should have thought it impossible that when I spoke of One who had been wounded in the hands and in the side, any reader in a Christian land could have been for a moment at a loss for the person intended.’6

     In spite of Cowper’s surprise, however, that ‘any reader in a Christian land could have been for a moment at a loss for the person intended’, few commentators have been able to accept Cowper’s own testimony at its face value. They cannot see his reference as being to the Christ of the Scriptures, nor to His atoning work on the cross. Elfenbein has certainly not seen this and so goes into speculations appropriate according to his ‘Queer Theory, which becomes less and less acceptable as his arguments become more and more speculative and detrimental to Cowper’s and his own reputation.

     Morris Golden, taking another course, finds this passage ‘biographically curious,’7 but sees no soteriological conversion sense in it at all. When Cowper writes of Christ being afflicted he sees no vicarious suffering here in the ‘by his stripes we were healed imagery’ of Isaiah. He merely believes it is a ‘fact’ that Cowper is gaining comfort for his own constitutional pains by knowing that ‘sinful men’ afflicted Christ. Thus Golden turns one of the clearest testimonies to Cowper’s Christian faith, and one of the most beautiful pieces of verse in Cowper’s works, to nothing but the selfish groans of a sick mind.

     Cowper’s imagery is highly Biblical and highly soteriological. It appears that this is a case of ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’. The reference to arrows is from Genesis 49, vv 23, where the tribe of Joseph has been afflicted but will be made strong by the mighty God of Jacob. There is a direct Messianic link in these verses with ‘the shepherd, the stone of Israel’. The fact that Christ is depicted with wounds in his side and hands and feet can only be a reference to the crucified Lord. Golden overlooks the fact that Christ is shown as healing Cowper and bidding him live. Cowper’s lines:

‘I see that all are wand’rers, gone astray

Each in his own delusions; they are lost,’8

is but an echo of Isaiah’s words:

‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;’9

     It is significant that Isaiah uses these words immediately after describing the Suffering Servant’s vicarious afflictions. Yet so blind is fallen man that he interprets sublime pictures of salvation in Christ as the moans of a man inflicted by sexual dysfunctions, finding no healing.

Elfenbein has picked the wrong man for his queer tale

     Towards the end of his chapter on Cowper, Elfenbein discusses attacks on homosexuals, picking out one AIDS victim in particular whom he names and calls ‘a latter-day Cowperian stricken deer’. Here, we must ask, why did Elfenbein not use the AIDS victim, whom he names, as the subject for his study and depicts as a known homosexual rather than a man like William Cowper whose Christian life defies all the rumours that Elfenbein invents and assaults Cowper with them? Here, homosexuality is not the point but sheer slander. There is an old law called ‘Cowper’s Law’ after a relation of the poet’s. This law specifies that people can be put on trial for slandering the dead. Perhaps this very idea might play on Elfenbein’s conscience.

Conrad Brunström

     Conrad Brunström is a lecturer in English and international student coordinator at Maynooth University, Eire. He holds a BA and Ph.D.. His dissertation was entitled William Cowper’s Religious Didacticism: the failure of mediation. He appears to have commenced his doctoral studies without obtaining an MA first which is quite unusual but was perhaps because of his writings being accepted as an equivalent. I find no details in Brunström’s CV suggesting that he has been trained to teach. Brunström seems closely attached to the Cowper and Olney Museum to whom I dedicated my Dr. Phil. thesis Paradise and Poetry: An In-Depth Study of William Cowper’s Poetic Mind in 1987 and donated 250 copies, printed at my expense, to be sold at their full profit. Brunström professes not to agree with Elfenbein but goes through the same hypothetical discussion as does Elfenbein though viewing Cowper’s sexual conflicts in a more positive light. His written works are exemplified by an article asking ‘How Queer was Cowper?’ and one on ‘sex and shopping’ within the Cowper circle. He has written on other poets and writers with the catchword ‘queer’ in their titles. Brunström relates that he has put the word ‘sex’ in his title in his work on Francis Burnley so as not to shock his readers by using a more explicit word, but then goes on without a guilty blush, to substitute the word, ‘sex’ which would be inappropriate enough in the context, by an obscene four-letter word in order to insult grossly a great pioneer of a new genre in literature. Reading this essay, one notes that it is sheer harmful speculation, revealing much about Brunström and little about Francis Burnley.

Brunström’s psychopathological analysis of Cowper

     We find Brunström’s sexual analysis of Cowper in his William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society. Here he claims that ‘the recurrent urgency of Cowper’s homophobia and his fear of effeminacy and/or any expression of sexual ambiguity obviously lends itself to psychopathological analysis.’10 Homophobia is a non-clinical term created by practicing homosexuals to describe their irrational hatred or fear of those who are often called ‘straight’, whatever that means. It is a mere setting up of hypothetical sides and preferences and has no use as a technical term whatsoever as it might well refer to both sides who are all homo-sapiens, though homosexual men often tell us we are not normal and thus sub-homos. Much is said from their quarter that they are faithful to their ‘partners’. Those who organise themselves into charities and state financed institutions do not appear so as at this time, there are giant posters put up throughout our town by state-registered homosexual organisations featuring a large preventative with the caption on it ‘New lover, new cover.’

     Thus, Brunström’s accusation of Cowper’s alleged homophobia can equally mean Brunström’s own homophobia against Cowper, making the term ridiculous and inapplicable to all as both alleged sides are enclosed within the term and do not necessarily have an irrational hatred and fear of themselves. Furthermore, in accusing Cowper of homophobia, Brunström has not established the right to use such a word based on Cowper’s behaviour at all. Cowper was a lover of all people and the made-up and perfumed pansies he deplored were not homosexuals at all but the dandies and fops of his day who felt their appearance would appeal to the ladies of society. We have the same periwigged, perfumed beaux today and even ‘revival-preachers’ and university lecturers now don their wigs, or dye their hair and powder their noses to appear more manly than they are in the pulpits. Brunström, the self-styled expert on depressions, sexual dysfunction, gender-destruction and inner-orientation disturbance takes it for granted that we should accept both his un-professional diagnosis of Cowper’s clinical condition and also accept his verdict which is a mere weird but threadbare guess that Cowper’s alleged homophobia was most likely Cowper’s attempt to keep up with the Joneses in his pretending to be ‘straight’, leaving us to infer that Cowper was really sexually abnormal himself and ‘gender-confused’.

Cowper’s Contrite Heart ridiculed by Brunström

     In his Introduction to his analysis of Cowper’s mind and behaviour, Brunström refers to Cowper’s poem The Contrite Heart which was not originally written as a hymn. One of the comment’s I made on Cowper’s words here, moved Brunström to denounce me sternly as a ‘conservative evangelical’ and as such prevented me from practicing literary appreciation at his academic height. The poem is well-known but is always worthy of minute study:

‘The Lord will happiness divine

On contrite hearts bestow:

Then tell me, gracious God, is mine

A contrite heart, or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,

Insensible as steel;

If ought is felt, ‘tis only pain,

To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined

To love thee if I could;

But often feel another mind,

Averse to all that’s good.

My best desires are faint and few;

I fain would strive for more;

But when I cry, ‘My strength renew,’

Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted, I know,

And love the house of pray’r;

I therefore go where others go,

But find no comfort there.

O make this heart rejoice, or ache;

Decide this doubt for me;

And if it be not broken, break,

And heal it, if it be.’

Cowper’s alleged prison cell of his over-determined self

     Brunström uses this poem as an introduction to Cowper’s mind, writing, ‘His is the paradigmatic story of a contradictory individual, unable to admit and to cherish the complexity of his own emotions’.11 He thus refers to ‘the irresolvable agony; ‘horrible expressions of faint hope and suffocating finality’ of Cowper’s position and claims that ‘the indeterminability of individual feeling has all but banished metaphor from this hymn because the poet’s feelings have no communicable physical analogues.’ Not realising that the entire poem is couched in metaphorical terms dealing with the symptoms of the heart, and not striving to come to terms with Cowper’s faith which he claims here is non-existent, Brunström tells us that with his own interpretation of the Contrite Heart:

‘I am interested in the ethos of autoluxuriant interiority that guarantees the sentimental moment, an ethos that admit of no mediatory mechanism of contextual identity that can release Cowper’s life and writing from what becomes the prison cell of the over-determined self.’

     We note the Freudian term which Brunström quite misapplies which does not make his utterance any clearer. Young students in Germany call such mouthfuls merrily ‘Pseudo-Bla-Bla’. As Brunström says he is writing about religion, satire and society in his book but denies here that Cowper has any contact with religion and Christian society, we must conclude that Brunström is writing satirically. In this author’s Introduction to his 688 page detailed biography of Cowper written in 1993,12 he mentioned the fact to his evangelical readership that few biographers have shown a detailed understanding of Cowper’s faith, with which this author could identify himself but he explained that this was no bed of roses for Cowper, ending the section with the words:

‘This biography will show that Cowper was a strong, manly figure who practiced a number of manly sports all his life. He was thoroughly Reformed in doctrine, loved company and believed he had a solution to all the world’s problems. Cowper’s feelings, however, were always of a most extreme kind. When he was happy, he jumped for joy. When he was down in the dumps he felt that the whole world – including God – had turned against him.’13

    I also wrote, concerning the Olney Hymns of Cowper and Newton:

‘Most of the criticism levelled at the Olney hymns decries the lack of beauty in them. How can one, however, depict sin in a beautiful way? It would be ridiculous to try. The ‘Olney Hymns’ were written as expressions of experience and thus portray the life of a sinner through all the stages up to being convicted, converted and enjoying a life in Christ. Thus we see both authors (Cowper and Newton) portraying the highest of mountain top experiences but also depicting the despairs of doubt and fears of Hell. What shocks most unreformed critics is that both Cowper and Newton are so open in portraying the doubts of Christians and the dissatisfaction Christians have of themselves.’14

   Concerning Cowper’s cooperation with Newton, I wrote:

‘In outlining his view of the aim and scope of Christian poetry Cowper was basing his ideas on beliefs he held common with Newton on the various means of revelation through which God spoke to man. Newton and his circle of friends called these methods ‘God’s library’ of four Books. Book One was ‘The Word’, God’s supreme revelation in the Bible which outlined the way of salvation. Book Two was ‘Creation’, called ‘God‘s works’ by Cowper, which taught unregenerate man the existence of God and made him aware of his conscience. Book Three was ‘Divine Providence’, termed ‘God’s ways’ by Cowper, which showed man how God planned and ruled the world, and Book Four was ‘The Heart’, i.e experience and observations which taught regenerate man dependency on God through every-day contact with Him15. Cowper referred to the latter book by speaking of ‘sharing in the divine delight’ of Christian experience. Cowper also based his views on a strong belief that God would in some measure put an end to the groaning and travailing of Nature because of man’s sin and restore Nature before the Second Advent of Christ.’16

    I also included a chapter entitled ‘The Child of God Walking in Darkness’ in which I discussed Cowper’s deep sorrows. Here, I wish my readers to note that the quotes from pages 207 and 209 are the only instances where I mention the two words ‘unreformed’ and ‘unregenerate’ and that I wrote at length on Cowper’s sorrows, yet Brunström writes on page 189 at the very end of his William Cowper: Religion, Satire and Society:

‘I should like to distinguish my position from Cowper’s most recent biographer, George Melvyn Ella, author of William Cowper: Poet of Paradise (London: Evangelical Press, 1993). Ella claims to possess a divine commission to reclaim Cowper as a happy evangelical, arguing that subsequent to his conversion “Cowper . . . did not write a single poem that was not the sanest of works” (22). His working assumption – that only a conservative evangelical is qualified to comment on Cowper’s work with his sweeping condemnation of the poet’s “unreformed” and “unregenerate” critics, make it hard to engage with this author on an academic level.’17

Taking Brunström from his high horse and setting him gently on terra firma

     In the page Brunström gives there is no ‘working assumption’ aired, nor ‘sweeping condemnation’ made, nor are the ‘unreformed’ and ‘unregenerate’ condemned in any such way as Brunström would have it as my above quotes show and to which Brunström must refer as the words which offended Brunström were both only mentioned once in my book. So, too, the ‘divine commission’ to which he refers is pure supposition on his part. I stand, as he does, as a scholar doing text criticism. I would not deny him this freedom, though he would deny that I should be given it.

     Such literary criticism as Brunström’s is certainly foreign to the normal give and take of academic debate and literary decorum, so I accept Brunström’s resignation from such an engagement with me but would certainly like to converse with him on a more collegial level. Besides, Brunström, himself has very basic academic qualifications for the post he holds and perhaps does not realise that I hold academic titles from six international renowned universities including four Batchelor degrees, three post-graduate degrees and two doctorates besides several teaching certificates and Senior Civil Service post-graduate qualifications. I have taught poetry since the early sixties, was Chairman of a University Examination Board for graduate teachers of English, have written curricula for several different faculties, authored school and college literature and have published much more than Brunström. For a young whipsnapper to blow his trumpet into the ear of a senior, better-qualified colleague with more experience than he hardly speaks for Brunström, besides indicating that he has no idea what he is talking about when judging evangelical Christianity. Besides, no matter how Brunström mauls Cowper, his subject was also an evangelical Christian and though this was Brunström’s initial protest in disqualifying me as a serious partner in Cowper studies, like is often best understood by like. This perhaps explains Brunströms own incompetence in handling the poet instead of learning from those who know their way around in these matters. So, too, Brunström’s book of 200 or so pages includes several chapters of name-droppings with the absolute minimum of work shown on them, which, besides, have mostly nothing whatsoever to do with Cowper, Brunström cannot compete with a work of detail which sticks to its subject and is well over three times the size of his own effort. In his ‘Acknowledgments’ he says that he has been working on ‘argument and inquiry’, I take it he means regarding Cowper, for a decade, whereas I have been writing on Cowper since 1980 and knew him well decades before that.

     In denouncing my stand in the strongest terms, Brunström claims I believe things which I have never believed and have written things which never came from my pen. Symptomatic of Brunström’s stand is that though he speaks repeatedly of synthesising Cowper’s thoughts, he shuts out Cowper’s main doctrine of ‘the restoration of all things’ that sin has marred and his strong belief that God is working all things to a glorious end. Picking bits and bats that suit him out of Cowper’s great, all-round, comprehensive repertoire, Brunström will thus never obtain a synthesised, synergised picture of Cowper’s poetic mind.

Cowper’s doctrines are not isolated from reality

     Brunström presents the Contrite Heart in isolation, seemingly wanting to depict Cowper’s feelings as also experienced in isolation. It cannot have escaped one familiar with religious poetry, Christian hymnology and literary criticism that the Contrite Heart expresses that kind of Christian faith about which thousands of church-goers of all denominations have sung since well before Cowper’s days. It is a Gattung that is a typical expression of the plea ‘Lord I believe: help my unbelief’. Indeed, one of the terms I expressed when arguing that Cowper’s poem touched the nerves of every worshipping Christian, was uttered in the context of the universality of Cowper’s words, a point Brunström has failed to take up.

     James King, commenting on the Olney Hymns, mistakenly sees Cowper as a ‘vastly different kind of hymn-writer’ to Newton. As ‘proof’ of this he also quotes Cowper’s Contrite Heart to show how ‘open-ended’ the hymn is, and ‘lacking in resolution.’18 This is contrasted with the more active hymns of Newton, Watts and Wesley. Newton, ever fated to be described as having a block-bustering, if not mountain-moving faith in contrast to Cowper, in spite of being the less strong-willed of the two, writes, not at all surprisingly to a devote hymn-singer, on the same lines. In his Hymn CXIX, Bk. I.:

‘‘Tis a point I long to know,

Oft it causes anxious thought;

Do I love the Lord or no?

Am I his, or am I not?

If I love, why am I thus?

Why this dull and lifeless frame?

Hardly, sure can they be worse,

Who have never heard his name!’

     This apparent doubt and pessimism is expressed even stronger in Newton’s hymn None upon earth I desire besides thee where the hymn-writer moans:

‘Dear Lord, if indeed I am thine,

If thou art my sun and my song;

Say, why do I languish and pine,

And why are my winters so long?’

     The answer to this problem is, of course, that neither Cowper nor Newton produced the Olney Hymns primarily to express their personal feelings and experiences. Their wish was to use the hymns as expositions of certain Biblical texts and the wise Biblical knowledge concerning the soul of man. The hymns were to express Scriptural truths known and experienced by all believers and were intended as a didactic and spiritual help to others. Thus in The Contrite Heart Cowper is illustrating Isaiah 57:15 and showing the kind of humility that makes a soul cast itself on God’s mercy. Patricia Spacks, at first glance, appears to come to Cowper’s defence here and says, ‘The Donnean appeal of the final stanza is fully justified by the exposition that precedes it.’19 Yet Spacks does not accept the view that Cowper is speaking here on behalf of all those who seek ‘happiness divine’. She argues that this hymn is an example of Cowper’s own very personal thought concerning an all-powerful God who is ‘strangely unwilling to use His power’ and ‘of man as forced by his own divided state into a condition of helpless passivity’.

     Cowper is, in fact, expounding Isaiah 57:15-16 in a typical Evangelical manner. There is a paraphrase of the text, an examination of the key words such as ‘contrite’ and ‘heart’ and an application and admonition to the sinner as to how he should approach God. One could argue that Cowper does not stress the ‘Holy One’, dwelling in ‘the high and holy place’ as much as the original Biblical source. The poet has the sinner talking intimately to God almost in terms of normal conversation. There is certainly as little evidence in the hymn as in the Biblical text of a God unwilling to hear. The very point of the hymn is that sinners with contrite hearts can only find peace when they turn to God whose will it is to bestow happiness on those contrite heart. Here again it is obvious that Spacks approaches such hymns with a preconceived notion which cannot take Cowper’s words at their face value and so quite misses their deeper teaching. Brunström follows her. King goes even further in his criticism and argues that though Cowper claimed he had based his hymn on Isaiah 57, it is, in fact, ‘markedly different’. He then produces a translation which is ‘markedly different’ from the Authorised Version which Cowper used and also differs from most other Bible versions, placing the God who is holy on the Holy Place and not in it, where Cowper pleads before the Mercy Seat. King seeks to show that the text really speaks about contrite hearts who are already comforted, whereas Cowper’s heart is not.20 No matter what accurate translation is used, the whole context shows that Isaiah 57:15 is an invitation to the contrite with a future promise of grace (‘For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wrath’). It is also quite clear from the text that the ‘diagnosis’ and the ‘cure’ are completely in God’s hand. When Cowper asks the Lord whether his heart is contrite or not, he is thus speaking within the terms of the Biblical text.

     Spacks, on whom Brunström leans for much of his negative criticism, tend to generalise with no given sources that ‘The same ideas emerge frequently in his other hymns’. However, there are very many other ideas in Cowper’s hymns which Spacks fails to scrutinise as closely as she does those ideas she finds ‘pessimistic’. So, too, the ideas portrayed in Cowper’s hymns are echoed in the compositions of other poets and hymn-writers. Had Cowper used another literary device in The Contrite Heart and ended it with its first line, Spacks may have revised her view of the poem. However, in the ‘light’ of what she says about the last optimistic lines in Jehovah Our Righteousness, we may conclude that she would not be happy with this either and would have also deemed it ‘smug’. It is allowable for Cowper to express honest doubt but if he expresses trust in God, he is deemed ‘smug’. However, though severely restricted in her efforts to describe a believing Cowper, Spacks’ view of Cowper’s hymns is most positive in comparison with that of many other authors such as Fausset and Hantsche. The truth is that Cowper’s hymns express the whole range of human hopes and fears, dealing with all aspects of human and Christian experience. James Montgomery, himself a hymn-writer of no mean repute, tells us that though the hymns do obviously show us Cowper’s own heart and Christian experience:

‘As such they are frequently applicable to every believer’s feelings, and touch, unexpectedly, the most secret springs of joy and sorrow, faith, fear, hope, love, despondency, and triumph.’ 21

     Perhaps it takes a hymn-writer to understand a hymn-writer. Of the eight nouns of ‘feeling’ Montgomery uses to describe the impact of Cowper’s hymns, only two may be called ‘negative’. Montgomery’s description ends on the word ‘triumph’.

     In Newton’s hymn of doubt concerning God’s love, he is showing how easy it is to be like Peter and speak words of faith without really thinking about what they signify. In Newton’s exposition of Psalm 73, quoted above, he is showing how dreary the world is without the Lord. It is surely mere ‘eisegesis’ with no trace of exegesis to suggest that when Cowper writes in this vein he is being personal, whereas Newton is merely generalising. If critics were to use exactly the same criteria on Newton which they use on Cowper ‘proving’ that the poet was unbalanced, they would be compelled to pronounce Newton also as ‘insane’. The truth is that in the seven or more years that Cowper worked with Newton on the Olney Hymns, the poet had never been in better health. What the passages quoted do prove, apart from their testimony to a sturdy joint faith, is that Cowper and Newton must have worked together very closely indeed. They show also how neither Newton nor Cowper could have continued so long in such an intimate working relationship without each being influenced in language, style and subject matter by the other. This mutual influence did not end with the Olney Hymns. Newton, realising what great talents Cowper had, encouraged him to turn to didactic poetry. It was thus Newton’s decisive influence and encouragement which prompted Cowper to compose Antithelyphthora. This poem became the first in a chain of poems, each poem growing out of its predecessor, which led to the publication of Cowper’s first volume. It cannot possibly be argued that Newton’s influence on Cowper was retarding. Those who stress Newton’s supposed stern and serious nature will have difficulty accounting for the fact that Newton prompted Cowper to write his funniest and most flippant verse. It was to Newton that Cowper wrote his rhyming letters. The Newtons sparked off Cowper’s most humorous mock-heroic verse and many a joke was shared between the two friends. It was to Newton that Cowper wrote his famous riddle:

‘I am just Two and Two, I am Warm, I am Cold,

And the Parent of Numbers that cannot be told.

I am Lawful, Unlawful – a Duty, a Fault,

I am often Sold Dear, good for Nothing when Bought.

An extraordinary Boon, and a Matter of Course,

And yielded with Pleasure – when taken by Force.

Alike the Delight of the Poor and the Rich,

Tho’ the Vulgar is apt to Present me his Breech.’22

     When the Gentleman’s Magazine finally got round to publishing this poem in December, 1806, they ‘censored’ the final couplet. Cowper’s hearty humour was too earthly for them. One thing one is certain to do when reading Cowper is that one will be mortified at one’s own state, edified and filled with hope of becoming a New Man in Christ and one will have a good laugh with Cowper. These are three major pillars on which Cowper’s poetry rest, explained in most exquisite language which Elfenbein and Brunström only hear in weird and very queer warped tones of sexual abnormalities.

Brunström shows acute gender-dysfunction and gender confusion

     Brunström becomes quite confused in his writing in the same way as does Elfenbein as he scolds Cowper for praising manliness but finds it strange that Cowper hates effeminacy in men. Brunström just cannot accept that Cowper believed all men should behave themselves like gallant, Christian, gentlemen, especially concerning the fair sex and thus draw clear gender lines according to God’s creation. The alternative to Cowper’s view is, of course, that there are no gender lines at all, which explains the confusion in those who have revised the traditional idea of manhood and womanhood and try to explain their confusion in such works as Elfenbein and Brunström write. One would think that Cowper’s gender-consciousness is evidence enough that he enjoyed normal manhood, and his love poems show clearly his romantic attachment to the woman he had hoped to marry, but Brunström is far from pleased with this. Could it be that he is projecting his own psychological uncertainty and personality disorder as to his gender-role onto Cowper? This is sadly a common case.

     Brunström’s faulty diagnosis is made even clearer in his chapter entitled ‘Gardener’s Question Time’. Here, he speaks of Cowper’s lack of ability to synthesis moral and literary conflicts in a creative manner. So we are back to his promise that he wishes to synthesis Cowper’s teaching. Brunström, however, does not use Cowper’s principles as his guide but those of Hegel based on Near East folklore. Using Hegel’s principles of dialectics as his guide, Brunström strives to show that ‘Cowper’s work must be characterised by dialectic failure’. He thus scolds Cowper for not fitting into Hegel’s tight dialectical corset. This he describes as a ‘creative synthesis’ and ‘teleological process’ which renders conflict at once ‘creative and progressive’. A student of philosophy would recognise Hegel here as little as they would recognise Cowper after being reshaped by Brunström. Hegel’s never-ending triangular didactic has no teleological value whatsoever and merely creates dead-end theological problems to which Cowper, unlike Hegel and Brunström, had a sure solution. Cowper’s difficulties lay quite outside, above and beyond this sphere. Hegel’s theory of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis solves nothing but leaves his devotees observing him running around in circles within the closed magic circle of his own thinking without going anywhere. Hegel describes his ancient Babylonian thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis system in his Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Science as:

The thesis: ‘God is God only so far as he knows himself.

The anti-thesis: His self-knowledge is a self-consciousness in man and man’s knowledge of God.

The synthesis: This proceeds to man’s self-knowledge in God.

     This leaves us again where we started, still wondering what Hegel’s thesis means. We still must ask what God’s knowledge of Himself implies and how does man partake of it? True, this was one of Cowper’s questions but Hegel was the last man able to answer it. Hegel compares at best three parallels but does not give new information gained from any one of them. Each step is merely a thesis of its own and needs to be explained. Subsequent steps explain nothing so we are no wiser at the end of the triangle than at the beginning. So Hegel goes on like a dog chasing its tail setting up further never-ending triangles. This again, is the kabbalistic eternal logoic triangle of what was formerly described as eastern pagan thinking. But Hegel calls it ‘the eternal idea’ or ‘absolute mind’ based on ‘fundamental concepts of the particular sciences.’ Thus his ‘eternal idea’ was a mere collection of ethical, logoic and magical ideas on departmentalised cultic knowledge. Eric Voegelin thus rightly calls Hegel’s scientific mysticism a ‘grimoire’ or book of magic. Brunström is quite free to live according to his book of magic but we demand freedom to live, like Cowper, according to the Word of God. Which way is better, I leave to the experience of my readers. But watch it! If things darken further in the dumbing down of the sciences and the arts by people guided by gender confusion and sexual promiscuity alone, we shall not have this freedom much longer.

 


  1. Page 64.
  2. See Brian H. Edwards, Through Many Dangers, Eurobooks, Evangelical Press, pages 139-141.
  3. The Task, Book III, lines 108-111.
  4. Ibid, lines 112-116. This is very similar imagery to that used by John Newton. See, for instance, Newton’s Works, vol.2, page 572. Of course, here Job 16:13 is also reflected.
  5. The Rev. Morley Unwin (1724-1767). Mrs Mary Unwin was Morley Unwin’s widow.
  6. Letter to Lady Hesketh, 16 January 1786.
  7. See Golden’s In Search of Stability, page 42.
  8. The Task, Book III, lines 124-125.
  9. Isaiah, chapter 53:6.
  10. Page 44.
  11. William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society, p.13 ff.
  12. Brunström picks out page 22 for his special criticism.
  13. William Cowper: Poet of Paradise, p. 22.
  14. Ibid, p. 207.
  15. Newton’s Works, vol. 1, A Plan of a Compendius Christian Library, p. 236.
  16. William Cowper: Poet of Paradise, p. 292.
  17. Brunström. p. 189 n. 41.
  18. William Cowper, page 84.
  19. The Poet of Vision., page 167.
  20. William Cowper, page 84.
  21. Quoted from Taylor’s William Cowper, pages 102-103. Taylor gives as his source “Essay on Cowper’s Productions, by James Montgomery”, which I have been unable to trace.
  22. The answer, ‘a kiss’, was supplied by a reader of the Gentleman’s Magazine.