William Cowper (November 26, 1731 – April 25, 1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”, while William Wordsworth particularly admired his poem Yardley-Oak. He was a nephew of the poet Judith Madan.
While Cowper found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and feared that he was doomed to eternal damnation. His religious sentiment and association with John Newton (who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”) led to much of the poetry for which he is best remembered. His poem “Light Shining out of Darkness” gave the English language the idiom “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform.”
Newton invited Cowper to contribute to a hymnbook that he was compiling. The resulting volume known as Olney Hymns was not published until 1779 but includes hymns such as “Praise for the Fountain Opened” (beginning “There is a fountain fill’d with blood”) and “Light Shining out of Darkness” (beginning “God moves in a mysterious way”) which remain some of Cowper’s most familiar verses. Several of Cowper’s hymns, as well as others originally published in the “Olney Hymns,” are today preserved in the Sacred Harp
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