03 March 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/10

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 aught 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 Thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
     But find no comfort there.

Oh make this heart rejoice, or ache;
     Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break,
     And heal it, if it be.

William Cowper

Here is a hymn for a dark night of the soul. Cowper pellucidly lays out a complicated, chaotic inner state: he longs for a steady, graceful (read that grace-full) life, but finds his inner emptiness varied only by shifting, frustrating outbursts of the contrary and the sterile. He takes the very Protestant view that grace is dependent entirely on the will of God (as opposed to achieving grace through good works), which means there really is no action he can take to escape this mental and emotional trap other than throwing himself on God's mercy (or, in phrasing we might recognize more easily today, submitting to a higher power). The poem ends at a dramatic peak; the point is not the actual resolution of this crisis, but the speaker's ultimate denial of self as the way to escape his inner waste land.

I took this from The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, chosen and edited by Donald Davie.

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