Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/03/2012

“an aching void the world can never fill”

William Cowper

William Cowper

What’s on your mind today? Permanently. Obstinately.

I’ve been reading poetry by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, William Cowper, Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale, and John Gould Fletcher. Their names are on a long list of poets sharing one distinction. I chose them somewhat randomly to determine if the list has validity. Teasdale and Lindsay I read in high school; Fletcher is the only one of the five I will bother to read again (imagist, poetry to challenge).

Fletcher may be the only one I will choose to read again, but poems by William Cowper are permanently etched in my mind, stuck there. Obstinate. Church hymnals include poems that most of us would not turn a page to read were they not set to memorable (if not well-crafted) tunes. One poem by Cowper is

O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill

As a kid playing the piano for Wednesday night prayer meetings in the Baptist Church, I memorized both tunes and words of hymns. We used The American Hymnal (2) for those services. This hymn is number 106. I have my mother’s well-worn copy from sixty years ago. To this day I can recite the first and third stanzas. That “aching void the world can never fill” has followed me around for sixty years.

The void has long since ceased to have any relationship to the divine, or even the “spiritual” in my mind, or to Cowper’s poetry. But those words had power to affect the thinking, the self-understanding, the feeling life of a junior high school kid earnestly trying to prove himself to his parents (his father, the preacher) and to the community to which they belonged.

John Gould Fletcher

John Gould Fletcher

Never fear, however. The path to filling the void is outlined in another Thomas Cowper hymn.

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave, lies silent in the grave;
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave (3).

I cannot begin to explain the monumental effect hymns like this had (have?) on the evolution of my self-understanding. My father usually avoided this sort of hymn, the most blatant expressions of the saving power of the blood of Jesus. For some reason, however, we did sing this one enough that I can play it from memory on the piano and sing these two of its six stanzas. I shouldn’t need to explain the effect of imagining myself being plunged beneath a fountain of blood because I was a sinner. Add to that the certainty that my “song” would never be noble or sweet until I lay silent in the grave.

Referring specifically to this hymn, Benjamin Pugh attempts to place the Christian doctrine of “the blood” in a historical context asserting that
. . . such hyperbolic language about the blood of Christ is largely a thing of the past. Hymns, testimonies and sermons about ‘the Blood’ are the legacy of some remarkable movements such as the Salvation Army and some equally remarkable individuals such as Andrew Murray (4).

My guess is that Pugh’s assertion may be somewhat premature (5— evidence of Pugh’s inaccurate commentary). I have no interest in discussing the theology of all of this. Frankly, my agnosticism finds the topic repulsive.

At this point my argument becomes dicey because it may seem I’m saying something I’m not. I will continue and then explain what I do not mean.

Sara Teasdale

Sara Teasdale

William Cowper wrote “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” shortly after a well-documented suicide attempt brought on by a devastating depression. When the hymn was first published in the US, the story of his suicide attempt was published.

. . .  he took his penknife and lay with his weight upon it, the point toward his heart. It was broken and would not penetrate. . .  he [tied a strong rope around his neck]. . .  on securing it to the door, he . . .  remained suspended till he had lost all consciousness of existence. . . [but the rope] broke and he fell to the floor, so that his life was saved; but the conflict had been greater than his reason could endure. He felt for himself a contempt not to be expressed or imagined. . . he felt as if he had offended God so deeply that. . .  his whole heart was filled with tumultuous pangs of despair. Madness was not far off, or rather madness was already come (6).

I do not mean to imply that people who believe in what Pugh calls “Blood Mysticism” are suicidal or dangerously depressed. Nor do I mean to imply that William Cowper is in any way responsible for others’ depression (including mine). The language of “Blood Mysticism” was part of the theology, teleology, and epistemology of the milieu in which he lived and I grew up.

What I mean to say is that Cowper had his poetry. My guess is that writing poetry, irrespective of what I think of its content, was a saving grace for him.

The list of poets I mentioned at the outset comes from an article by Professor Kay Jamison of Johns Hopkins University. It is a list of poets who suffer(ed) from bipolar disorder, some of whom committed suicide. Other than Cowper, those on my short list did (7). Aside from not being a poet or possessed of any other great creative power, I understand what little I know of each of these people. Anyone who has come to a place so dark that dying seems to be the only way out understands without question Cowper’s “aching void the world can never fill.” Why some poets survive and others don’t is a mystery.

At the risk of sounding self-contradictory (again? always?), I will finally assert my thesis. Some of us who know the despair of Cowper’s aching void, the darkness of bipolar disorder, are fortunate (and I am today eminently grateful) that the total of all of the ideas, experiences, creative impulses, and spiritual resources we are given—even those that we may eventually come to find distasteful—can work together to save us. I was not sure of that last Friday. Today I am.

Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay

Cowper had his poetry, I had the piano. Even though I was playing hymns with ghastly words when I was a kid, I was playing the piano. This past weekend music saved me again. I was in that “aching void the world can never fill,” but I had a job substituting at the organ for a church. Irrespective of the words the congregation sang, I was making music.
(1) Cowper, Thomas. “O for a Closer Walk with God.” The Hymnal 1940 (Episcopal Church). First published in Conyers’ Collection of Psalms and Hymns. London, 1772. The hymn is in the most recent hymnal of the Episcopal Church (1982), as well is in almost every American hymnal influenced by the hymns of the Anglican communion.
(2) The American Hymnal. Robert H. Coleman, ed. Dallas, Texas: Robert H. Coleman, 1933. Mr. Coleman must have made a bundle on this hymnal. It was, in the ‘50s, ubiquitous, the “American” hymnal.
(3) Cowper, Thomas. “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” The American Hymnal. Number 58.
(4) Pugh, Benjamin A. “A Brief History of The Blood: The Story of The Blood Of Christ in Transatlantic Evangelical Devotion.” Evangelical Review of Theology 31.3 (2007): 239-255.
(5) The Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: Convention Press, 1991, the current approved hymnal of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest non-Roman Catholic denomination in the US), has one following the other, hymns titled: “There Is Power in the Blood,” “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” (written in 1966), “Are You Washed in the Blood,” and “There Is a Fountain.”
(6) North American Review, January, 1834. Quoted at: “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” The Cyber Hymnal. 2012. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.
(7) Jamison, Kay Redfield. “Manic Depressive Illness and Creativity.” Scientific American Special Issue 7.1 (1997): 44.)


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