Cowper’s “Truth”

400b243d3301f6278b47302bf954df6cI love the poetry of William Cowper (d. 1800). He struggled with doubt, dealt with bouts of depression, and was even institutionalized (in the pictured asylum of St. Alban’s). His poetry is honest, insightful, and full of desire and longing for God. But he can be confrontational and prophetic as well. I’ve shared his poem about his mother. Here I’d like to share portions of his poem “Truth,” a lengthy but wonderful meditation that I come back to now and then. Portions memorized years ago remain clear in my mind today. Here are the opening and closing stanzas. Enjoy!

Man, on the dubious waves of error toss’d,
His ship half founder’d, and his compass lost,
Sees, far as human optics may command,
A sleeping fog, and fancies it dry land;
Spreads all his canvas, every sinew plies;
Pants for it, aims at it, enters it, and dies!
Then farewell all self-satisfying schemes,
His well-built systems, philosophic dreams;
Deceitful views of future bliss, farewell!
He reads his sentence at the flames of hell.
Hard lot of man—to toil for the reward
Of virtue, and yet lose it! Wherefore hard?—
He that would win the race must guide his horse
Obedient to the customs of the course;
Else, though unequall’d to the goal he flies,
A meaner than himself shall gain the prize.
Grace leads the right way: if you choose the wrong,
Take it and perish; but restrain your tongue;
Charge not, with light sufficient and left free,
Your willful suicide on God’s decree.

___________________________

Hark! Universal nature shook and groan’d,
‘Twas the last trumpet—see the Judge enthroned:
Rouse all your courage at your utmost need,
Now summon every virtue, stand and plead.
What! Silent? Is your boasting heard no more?
That self-renouncing wisdom, learn’d before,
Had shed immortal glories on your brow,
That all your virtues cannot purchase now.
All joy to the believer! He can speak—
Trembling yet happy, confident yet meek.
Since the dear hour that brought me to thy foot,
And cut up all my follies by the root,
I never trusted in an arm but thine,
Nor hoped, but in thy righteousness divine:
My prayers and alms, imperfect and defiled,
Were but the feeble efforts of a child;
Howe’er perform’d, it was their brightest part,
That they proceeded from a grateful heart:
Cleansed in thine own all-purifying blood,
Forgive their evil and accept their good:
I cast them at thy feet—my only plea
Is what it was, dependence upon thee:
While struggling in the vale of tears below,
That never fail’d, nor shall it fail me now.

Angelic gratulations rend the skies,
Pride fall unpitied, never more to rise,
Humility is crown’d, and Faith receives the prize.