Tony Vagneur: Words of 18th century poet Cowper still ring true today; we should take a listen
If you’ve been through Virginia City, Nevada, there’s a good chance you stopped at the Bucket of Blood Saloon. With a name like that, who could resist. Legend has it, and there are several legends according to the lady bartender, there were so many bloody fights in the old days, what else could it be named? It doesn’t really matter, I reckon, for it’s not the only American saloon with that name.
However, it is interesting to note that in 1997, when doing some remodeling of the building, it was discovered that underneath an asphalt parking lot out back, sits the remains of the Boston Saloon, gone mostly to ashes in the huge fire of 1875. Archeologists have been working the site since, perhaps the most interesting note of fact being that the Boston Saloon was one of a very few Black-owned saloons in the days of the “old” West.
Which is a dropping off point for the rest of this column, as there is another “bucket of blood,” written by the hand of 18th century English poet, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), the most popular poet of his time. Cowper wrote the famous hymn, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”, 1st stanza to wit: “There is a fountain filled with blood/Drawn from Immanuels veins;/And sinners plunged beneath that flood,/Lose all their guilty stains.”
Fairly deep, and more or less unrelated to Virginia City’s Bucket of Blood, unless the clarion sound of the Black-owned Boston Saloon rings loud in your mind. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted William Cowper on several occasions, perhaps the most famous being in 1967 in Cleveland when he took the following words from Cowper’s 1788 poem, “The Negroes Complaint”:
“Fleecy locks and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim, Skin may differ but affection dwells in black and white the same. If I were so tall as to reach the pole or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul, the mind is the standard of the man.”
Cowper was a staunch slavery abolitionist, and he wrote about it frequently, but he also was a man tortured by what he considered his failings at religion, prone to deep depressions, and of an overly sensitive nature.
When he was 6, his mother died, a traumatic turn of events from which Cowper never really recovered. He had a brilliant mind and in the way of many of the well-heeled back then, was sent to study law. Very capable, he was appointed the clerkship of the House of Lords, a highly sought-after position, by his uncle. When his appointment was challenged by a rival faction and he was called to appear before the committee to demonstrate his knowledge and suitability, he fell into a deep despair and disappeared from polite society, so severe was his depression.
Coming out of this hopelessness, he went to live with Reverend Morley Unwin and his wife. Upon the tragic death of the Reverend in a horse accident, Cowper soon found himself in love with, and in cohabitation with the Reverend’s widow, Mary. She was the older woman, perhaps a mother surrogate of sorts, something which may require expansive postulation on the reader’s part. She nursed him through his relationships with depression and insanity, until her death in 1796.
During this time, Cowper took up a friendship with the Reverend John Newton, the one-time slave trader who had found religion and eventually wrote the ever-popular hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton and Cowper collaborated on an expansive hymnal, “The Olney Hymns,” to which Cowper contributed 67 original pieces.
William Cowper didn’t seem to make the reading list when I was an English Literature major at Northern Colorado, but quotations from his 18th century poems and hymns resonate with us today.
“God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.” Or in a backhand to politicians, “No wild enthusiast could rest, till half the world like him was possessed.” And to young people everywhere, “No one was ever scolded out of their sins.”
This writer could quote Cowper all day long, perhaps because many of his metaphors and allegories are rooted in nature and the English countryside. Cowper is often credited with being the first of the Romantic period authors.
In any case, after four suicide attempts and spending the last 27 years of his life believing that he had been irretrievably condemned to Hell by God, Cowper seemed to reach a tolerable level toward the end, eventually dying in 1800 of organ failure at 69. His last deathbed words may have shown a human recognition of impending salvation: “What does this signify?”
Perhaps he was washed in the blood?
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.