Tag Archives: Evangelicalism

William Cowper, Evangelicalism and “The Castaway”

4 Mar

          British poet William Cowper grew up in England, with an Anglican reverend of a father. Thus, he was highly influenced by religion, particularly evangelicalism, from an early age. After the death of his mother, Cowper was sent to boarding school, where he was consistently bullied.  He was then determined to get a law degree and ended up falling in love with his cousin. Following the engagement, by 1763, signs of insanity started to emerge in Cowper. By that time, he had experienced a lot of loss and growing obsessed with the idea of determinism, that he was predetermined to be damned by God. Consequently, he attempted suicide three times, but they were failed attempts. 

        During this time period, Evangelicalism was prominent in English society, but it was not until Cowper moved to another town (Onley, Buckinghamshire) that he became influenced by this religious movement. It was in Onley where he met an evangelical clergyman and ex-seafarer, John Newton, who encouraged his path upon Cowper. He also had an influence on his writing, in terms of his sailing experiences, as Cowper started to include nautical imagery to present his religious ideas.  By 1773, however, it appeared that this new paradigm was too much for Cowper, as he started suffering attacks of insanity again. It is ironic how he preached gospel to others yet firmly believed he himself was condemned by God.  

        Newton’s influence over Cowper’s writing is especially evident in his work of The Castaway, a narrative representing the abandonment and drowning of a character (the castaway). This poem consists of various pronouns, which refer to about three or four people. One of these characters would be the Captain of the ship he embarked upon with, which I believe represents John Newton. This captain is described as brave and “expert to swim” when the ship is wrecked, which could be symbolic of the fact that in actuality, Newton was able to handle the evangelicalism, while Cowper, the ‘castaway’ was not able to, so he ‘drowned’. Also, several pronouns refer to the other shipmates or “comrades” who apparently abandoned the castaway in his time of need. This could be representing the Cowper’s abandonment by God (in his mind). Thus, Cowper sees himself as a “Castaway”,(which has ambiguous connotations), shunned by God, and uses the metaphor of a castaway from a shipwreck.