Academic journal article
By Heller, Deborah
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 35, No. 3
In the summer of 1764, while a patient at St. Albans Asylum for the Insane, William Cowper underwent a conversion to Calvinist Evangelicalism. During an intense bout of paranoia and self-contempt, he found a faith to save him from despair, a revivalist brand of Calvinism which stressed the absolute efficacy of faith and the uselessness or "filthy rags" of human effort. The keynotes of this theology are sounded in the Memoir Cowper wrote several years later, in which he describes the precise moment of his conversion. He recalls searching the scriptures for "comfort and instruction" and discovering some apt verses in Romans: "Immediately I received strength to believe it. Immediately the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel."l In this episode Cowper emphasizes the miraculous and instantaneous nature of salvation by conversion - the only mode of salvation the Calvinists recognized and an event upon which they placed great importance because a sinner received his full pardon through Christ's blood at this moment. The faith that the sinner receives comes not from his own will or desire, but from outside agency. This faith ("strength to believe") brings the inner conviction of acceptance by God, which for Calvinists means conviction of election. As long as one maintains this felt conviction, election remains sure; but if the feeling of faith ever falters, the entire edifice of Calvinist salvation may come tumbling down.
In the case of William Cowper, it did indeed come tumbling down. We know from any number of good biographies - and from his letters themselves - that Cowper never renounced belief in the truth of Calvinism, but that he did lose faith in his own election. He had a "fateful dream" in 1773 during a second bout of madness, in which he heard God pronouncing his reprobation (actum est de te, periisti: "It is all over with thee, thou hast perished"). These Latin words may have been nothing more than an unconscious recollection of some Roman comedy Cowper had been reading or knew by heart.(2) Yet they were not at all amusing to him when he awoke into consciousness and pondered their meaning; indeed, he took them as his spiritual death sentence.(3)
Thus in 1773 Cowper had stripped from him the spiritual identity he had been given through his conversion some years earlier. Though once he had been saved by amazing grace, his salvation had been somehow revoked. And given the absolute dualism of the Calvinist system, which claims that one is either elected or reprobated, this loss of election amounted necessarily to proof of his reprobation - a state of permanent rejection by God that the tormented self can do nothing to redress. In letters written throughout his life, Cowper will persist in declaring himself a reprobate and in feebly lamenting the powerlessness and pathos of his fallen state. Cowper's Calvinist advisor, John Newton, could not help to free Cowper from the bondage in which Calvinism had tied him, for that would require rejecting Calvinism itself. As long as Cowper subscribed to Calvinism, he was bound inextricably in a psychic knot. He had been denied his Christian salvation, and he was powerless to bend the will of the Father who had withdrawn his blessing.
Yet the salvation that Cowper was not granted in life he seized for himself in his art. It is the thesis of this essay that The Task was Cowper's means to a poetic salvation, poetic in the sense that Cowper made or effected by artistic efforts at least an imaginary bestowal of God's gift of approval. Theologically it was impossible to force God's hand, but poetically Cowper was able to rewrite his life as a chosen "Servant of God," an Old Testament type which forms and transforms the poetic persona of The Task. The Task tells the story of Cowper's own experience of retirement at Olney, focusing on the development of the poet's employments during his rural seclusion. …