Merry Christmas LEADER&TIMES
The entire staff at Billy’s Blue Duck BBQ wishes you a safe and
SERVING THE HOME OF MARY DOWNS
December 25, 2012 Vol . 1 2 6 • I s s . 2 1 5 • 1 2 Pa g e s
This stained glass window is at the eastern end of the St. Peter and St. Paul Parish Church in Olney, England. It is approximately 30-feet tall and depicts numerous events in the life of Jesus – from his birth, bottom right, to his crucifixion, upper left.The church was completed in 1325, but this stained glass work wasn’t installed until five centuries later. Olney became Liberal’s sister-city in 1950, when both towns started competing in the Pancake Day Race. L&T file photo/Larry Phillips
© 2012 SEWARD COUNTY PUBLISHING LLC
Christmas Moon in Liberal’s sister city, 1775 By RACHEL COLEMAN • Leader &Times
William Cowper sits in the summer house, watching frost form on the pale lawn between Orchard Hill House and the gnarled rows of apple trees behind the small, stone shed. Murky sky looms above, though a full-moon glow illuminates a patch of cloud. Christmas Eve, and the dreaded melancholy has found its way into the corners of his mind. Could he not have stayed by the fire when Mary Newton offered him refreshment? Was it so impossible to join in the geniality, the fellowship of kindred souls?
◆ See CHRISTMAS MOON/Page 4A
Tuesday, December 25, 2012 LEADER&TIMES
Christmas moon ... ❖ Continued from Page 1A “I shall take my leave now,” he’d said. The abruptness edged his voice with a rudeness he did not mean. “The carolers have yet to sing,” Mrs. Newton said in dismay, “and we have sweets to offer them, which I know you will enjoy. You are fond of puddings —” “— a good night to you, dear lady.” And before his hostess had finished her question, he was out the door, quick as a wild thing spooked by firelight. Cowper takes a shivery breath, the air’s sharp edge shuddering through his lungs, arms, legs. Even so, he stills his limbs, measures his breath. ■■■ Dark. He’s acquainted with this time of night, when moonlight seems nearly too bright for sleep. Those years at Dr. Pitman’s School on Market Street, the boys slipped between too-thin sheets on their cot-beds, lined up like chess pieces in a case, and no one dared whisper, even when the prefect seemed to snore. The snoring could be put on, William knew, and it was entirely possible to walk between the beds with measured steps too quiet to anticipate. That first year, after his own dear mother died, he hardly slept. There was sorrow. And fear, whenever Henley glowered his way. And questions. Why couldn’t he stay at home with his father? Why should baby John be kept close to Mother’s memory when he, William, was to be banished? Was there no escape from Henley’s fist, his authority, his threats? What was the point of the long prayers at mealtime and chapel and before bed? Would he ever taste a morning biscuit with plum confection again? Fingers aching with chillblains and stomach clenched in hunger, William squeezed his eyes tightshut and tried again: could he bring her face to mind once more? Mother, whose dark curls always smelt like sugar and roses, the best things in a boy’s catalogue of pleasures? It was her usual way to pull the covers close to his chin, and tuck them tightly. Even at the end, when she moved slowly with the baby coming, Mother kissed him each night and said a prayer before she snuffed out the candle. “Crying for your mother?” the whisper hissed, just inches from his ear. Next came the jab through the thin covers, and a prod to the bed’s edge. “Fancy boy, you had better get to the chamber pot before you soak the bed.” It was Henley, again, and as William took in the spotty, heavy face so easy to see in the moonlight, he knew with a sick lurch that the tear streaks on his face were just as easily seen. ■■■ “William!” the resonant voice reaches the summer house’s tiny porch before Cowper sights his friend crackling heavy boot-prints across the pale, glittering grass. Vicar John Newton stops in the clearing, turns his face to the blurry sky. “What a moon! Nothing like the star of Christmas, but still — such light!” He tramps to the narrow bench where Cowper has retreated into shadow. “How is it with you, my friend?” Newton asks. “Mrs. Newton said you left our gathering in haste.” “It’s unsupportable,” Cowper says, “that this dreaded cloud comes over me once more, so soon after I thought it banished.” The words tumble out, faster now: “Should I not be able to recover myself out of the snare of the devil as Paul instructed Timothy? Must I be taken captive by him at his will? I dread this melancholy, I avoid it, and yet it looms.” Newton sighs. “— and at times, it seems that perhaps I’ve learned nothing, nothing of sanctification and good works. I wonder if I am one of those who is ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of truth and life — ” Newton sighs again. “ — or if it is truly a defect of my character, the evidence that I cannot be a good sort of man. What is the hope of being perfect, unashamed —” “ — and what,” Newton interrupts, “do you recall of grace? You speak of perfection, but we know the pollution of this world will never permit perfection. So we are in need of grace.”
Cowper falls silent. “It is grace that preserves us and guides us,” Newton says quietly. “Grace is what brought you here, out of the worst bout of mania so long ago, and grace that preserved you in recent years. You must not forget that.” “Nor should I forget your kindness,” Cowper says. His words are not merely automatic, though his voice has dropped: He recalls the anxious expression on Mrs. Newton’s face as he pushed his way to the front door of the Vicarage. It is Christmas, after all, and he has repaid the keeper of his refuge, a sanctuary from the most recent siege of madness, with ill manners and gloom. “Grace more than kindness is what you must remember,” Newton said. A heavy man, his bulk warms the space around the bench even as his rough voice hums with feeling. “You have encountered unkindness, even cruelty, throughout your life, but the work of God as well. Your eyesight. Your experience of sublime music. Your brother’s arrival at the lowest moment.” ■■■ Vision. William thought it was so many tears, a shameful weakness, that accounted for the blurriness that softened the harsh edges of the everyday. The four years he endured at the Rev. Dr. Pitman’s School in the country had worn away the keenest edges of interior pain. Henley continued his depradations in secret, but William no longer succumbed to terror. “I will not be afraid of what man can do unto me,” he whispered one day. That snippet of a Psalm came out fiercely, unexpectedly, and in the shock of the moment William realized it was true. The fear had melted like snow, leaving a bare resolve to endure. He set his face and looked down, willing away the tears that seemed to feed Henley’s taunting. By the time he earned admittance to Westminster School, he could recall every scratch and scuff on Henley’s buckled shoes. His mother’s face, not so clearly. As for his actual eyesight, “You’ve got a scabby nastiness in those eyes, haven’t you?” Mrs. Disney diagnosed, her leathery face drawn into a grimace. “Good for you the master knows his ocular sciences.” The Disney home, perhaps owing to the impaired vision of its clientele, lacked considerably in cheer and comfort. William boarded, accepted the tonics applied to his eyes, and squeaked out the door to Westminster school early each day with relief. Though they’d never admit the existence of unexpected miracles, the Disneys grudgingly declared William’s eyesight restored after the household weathered smallpox. “It knocked the stuffing out of you, eh,” Mrs. Disney declared, “but you’ve got your sight and a mercy that is.” She pinched at William’s arm, as stringy as the butcher’s cheapest chicken, and sniffed meaningfully. “Some as lived through the pox comes out ugly and blind.” William nodded and inched toward the door. Mr. Handel had asked him to turn pages in the organ loft, and he didn’t fancy arriving late. Mr. Handel was preoccupied with his oratorio, something he said was destined for greatness, and consequently, he snapped at the choir boys about small matters. At the last rehearsal, Mr. Handel practiced the aria, “Who may abide the day of his coming?” and the words had stuck in William’s mind: “He is like a refiner’s fire, and who shall stand when he appeareth?” He wondered, sometimes, whether the Disneys would be called to account for their meager meals and stingy housekeeping — or whether anyone would ever catch Henley out, back at Pitman’s. When he finished at Westminster, William left the Disney household without a backward glance; from his fully functional eyes; he would not be there to stand and watch when the Lord appeared to dispense justice. ■■■ “You are right about the pox,” Cowper says. “I might have been blind, yet I see as well as any man.” As if to test the durability of his salvaged vision, he glances
T h e 1 8 6 - f e e t t a l l s p i r e o f S t. P e te r a n d S t. P a u l P a r i s h C h u r ch p i e r ce s a cl o u d y d a y w i th s p l o t c h e s o f b l u e b r e a k i n g t h r o u g h i n F eb r uar y 20 12 whi l e wa te r f r om t he Gr ea t Riv er Ou se st i ll flo ws t hr o ug h pa r t o f t he o ld g r i st mi l l whi c h si ts j us t s out h o f t he an ci ent c hur c h o n the r iv er ’ s no r t h bank . L&T photo/Larry Phillips
P o r t r a i t o f J o h n H e n r y N e w to n , J r . ( 1 7 2 5 -1 8 0 7 ) b y an u n k n ow n a r t i s t; p a i n t e d a r o u n d 1 7 8 0 , a n d i t f a s t e n e d to t h e o l d s t o n e w a l l i n the r e ar of t he c hur c h. L&T photo/Larry Phillips
thought as a child, and you felt your education to be rejection. As a believer, you may see it as an intimation of the way of God.” “How?” Cowper’s voice turns acid. “I suppose we are to call it a mystery once more, to reconcile the loss that led to so much pain with some great good that will be revealed in time.” “We may puzzle ourselves about the origin of evil, and I must own that there is evil abundantly displayed in the world,” Newton says. “Most important, though, is that there is a way to escape from it. With this, I begin and end.”
Por tr a it of W il lia m C ow p e r ( 1 7 3 1 - 1 8 0 0 ) b y L e m u e l Fr a n c i s A b b o t t; p a i n t e d i n o i l o n c a n v a s , 1792, and di splay ed i n t he N a t i o n a l P o r t ra i t G a l l e r y, L o n d on .
T h e St . P e t e r a n d S t . P a u l P a r i s h C h u r c h s p i r e i s s e e n i n t h e b a ck g r ou n d d u r i n g t h e e v e n i n g . T h e c h u r c h s t e e p le h a s b e e n t h e c ent er pei c e of Oln ey f o r s ev en c ent ur i es. Photo courtesy Tony Lamming across the field and catches a moonlit flash of white, followed by another. His hares have left off grazing the windfall apples to search for grass. “Is it Tiney?” Newton asks with a chuckle. “I cannot tell them apart.” “Yes, and Bess and Puss are there as well,” Cowper says. “Do you think it strange, how much affection I find in myself for three wild creatures, when I have never settled on a wife?” “Not at all,” Newton says. “I believe it is part of the survivor’s life. When I returned from my voyages, battered by the hardships of slavery and corrupted in my soul by the knowledge that I had condemned so many to the same fate, I had little room for domestic joy. It seemed inconceivable.” An amused snort, and he adds, “I soon learned that marriage would press in where there had seemed only space for a single berth. And I am glad of it. But you — you have done well to resume a quiet life at Orchard Side. The hares do you good, and the garden, and there is no need to wonder whether marriage might have served you better.” “I fear it was a painful matter for Mrs. Unwin,” Cowper says. “She has been a faithful friend to me these 10 years past, ever since Mr. Unwin’s death. With my proposal of marriage, I merely wished to avoid scandal when Miss Unwin left the household.” “Posh,” Newton says. “The match was a poor one and unnecessary to boot. What folk say is of no importance. When you retreated from public service, you understood that is not necessary to please the public. Experience is the Lord’s school, and you must learn from your mistakes. Could it be that your melancholy is a measurement of unsuitable endeavors? Better to attend to correct thinking and truth than to manners.” Cowper exhales. He does not know if he feels resignation or relief at this easy forgiveness of his broken engagement and the breakdown that followed. There had really ever been only one glimpse of poetic love, real love — and that, he thinks wistfully, is now decades removed. He sits without speaking as the hares nibble, stop, stare about the grounds, vigilant, silent.
■■■ Approval. It was not a quality William had cultivated in his adventures as a young barrister, yet he relished the admiration that shone from the eyes of his favorite cousin, Theadora. “Theadora, you really must give way and flatter William less,” laughed Harriet, the practical sister. “He is already quite full of his accomplishments, you know, and needs no reminders.” It was true that William had made a distinguished entrance into the world of the courts. At Chapman’s, he had made friends of influence and wit. His clever satirical articles had been well received, and there was reason to suppose an appointment to the Inns of Court in London would be forthcoming. “Perhaps this is not the right time to measure praise in small portions,” said Theadora with a toss of her head and a bright smile directed toward William. “Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat. We are all preparing to make merry without reprieve. I see no reason to practice stinginess in conversation.” “Well put, Theadora,” William said. “It is a shame women may not pursue the bar. Your eloquence would serve your constituents well.” Theadora widened her eyes, shocked and pleased. “Climb in the whiskum snivel,” Harriet said impatiently as they approached the gig. “We’ve just enough time for a drive before dark. Father will not be pleased if we return late for dinner.” William knew she was right. Uncle Ashley, while tolerant of his ever-more-frequent visits, frowned disapproval at late hours and capering from one party to the next. Theadora and Harriet were sometimes kept at home while William traveled the sparkling circuits of London social gatherings. For his part, he preferred Theadora saucy rather than sedate. When they were wed, he anticipated dazzling forays into society, his clever wife at his side. Yet, “it would be untoward,” Uncle Ashley said with flat finality later that evening. He stroked his pipe as though the decision issued from an oracular source. William surveyed his uncle’s study, the
walls lined with shelves that seemed to close tightly around the two men. Surely he was imagining this conversation. “But, Uncle,” he began, “I have courted Theadora for three years now, with no indication from you that a marriage would not be forthcoming. She is dearer to me than anyone I could imagine, and —” “You are cousins —” “— and have been all our lives. Never a word from you forbade my pursuit of Theadora!” “Yet, as you surely know— and as I assumed you would remember — which is now manifestly clear you did not — Scripture forbids it,” Uncle Ashley said. He paused to puff. “Wisdom forbids it. There is always the question of issue to consider. You must put aside such foolish aspirations and turn your attention elsewhere. That is all.” And so the romance halted, leaving Theadora in a quite unreformed, purgatorial state that continued throughout her life. William turned to drink and debauchery, a period that finally drew to an end with the advent of true madness and a thirst for death. ■■■ “I was certain the melancholy was conquered, save for the dream,” Cowper says at last. He does not have to describe it; Newton knows. What irony that the Lord God chose to address him in Latin, the language of Westminster, where Cowper was continually challenged to lay aside the simplistic reasoning of Scripture, and hew to more enlightened ideas. Frozen air does not prevent Cowper’s mind from reentering his vision: vast blackness spirals away from his dream-feet, shod in Henley’s square-toed shoes. He teeters, dizzy, filled with dread when a whispery, chill voice speaks directly to his mind. “Actum est de te, periisti,” the Voice announces in flat, final tones. It is all over with thee, thou has perished. Cowper tugs at his dream-feet, tries to step out of the alien shoes. Nothing moves. He is somehow fixed to the edge, yet filled with certainty that in a snick of time, he will fall.
The dream is two years past. The Voice echoes still, and vertigo threatens. “I cannot pray. I do not desire worship. It seems an exercise in futility,” he admits to Newton. “God has made it plain, in his mysterious way.” Cowper pulls his coat a bit tighter, and adds, “I am familiar enough with dismissal to recognize the ring of finality. My father. My uncle. The very courts of London.” “You cannot make hatred and vengeance your eternal portion,” Newton points out. And pulls his own pipe from a fraying pocket. “You would quote my own poetry against me?” Cowper asks. “God is your portion,” Newton says. “God has brought you safe thus far. It will do you well to recall Dr. Cotton, and St. Albans, and the changed heart that ushered you out of the asylum.” “I am impatient,” Cowper bursts out, “with your certitude. You speak of grace and fidelity, yet you do not know the various pains that burn in me still. My mother was taken from me when I was but six. It seems to me a dupe that marked my life ever since.” “I lost my mother, as you did,” Newton says. “When I was six. I believe you were but a baby that year, still clinging to your own mother, while I mourned the loss of mine.” “Did it mark you? Did your life take a different turn?” “I went to family and boarding school but in five years’ time, I was at sea with my father, 11 years old,” Newton says, “and at sea ever after, until the Lord found me.” “At least you were by your father’s side.” Newton scoffs quietly. “I was with him, yes, but he observed an air of distance and severity that overawed my spirit. I was always in fear.” “But not alone,” Cowper insists. “I was alone, from the earliest days I can recall, while my younger brother occupied Father’s favor. His birth led to my mother’s death, yet he was embraced while I was exiled.” “There is many a thing which the world calls disappointment, but there is no such word in the dictionary of faith,” Newton says. “When you were a child, you
Escape. Was it possible? William had considered laudanum, but hadn’t the will to pour it down his throat. His hand was stayed as if by invisible cuffs, until he emptied the basin out his boardinghouse window. He made an effort at his own gallows, but the buckle on his trouser garter tore away at the last moment, and he fell from the rafters, facefirst and knocked insensible for a time. The point of the pen knife pressed to his heart broke. When his brother came from Cambridge, he had reached a state of near-delirium. If life could not be cut short, he would cut the line of sense and retreat to his mind’s eye. So it was off to St. Albans, and the asylum care of Dr. Cotton. Taking such a cure would be more restorative than the waters of Bath, his brother assured him, and “there is no point your trying to navigate the hearings and interviews your vocation demands.” Rest was what he needed, and revelation. “You must hear the voice of the Lord,” Dr. Cotton advised. “There is more to it all than ritual and rule. There is redemption and a changed heart. Salvation, you know, is a personal matter.” William considered. The account of Lazarus, the dead man raised to life by Christ, spoke to his sense of despair. The words of holy scripture spoke to his heart. He no longer avoided the Bible, but read through the long accounts of the Hebrew people, stories of war and love and captivity. The Psalms consumed his attention for months. He pored over David’s laments of aching bones and lost loyalties and loneliness, marveling at the poetry of stars and stones and glory. Even the vengeful passages that wished a scalding death on enemies, crushed, dried like snails in the sun, stirred William’s spirit. “Give me a manly, rough line with a deal of meaning in it, rather than a whole poem full of musical periods, that have nothing but their oily smoothness to recommend them!” he wrote in a letter to his brother, back at Cambridge. He worked through Isaiah, heard echoes of Mr. Handel, and wondered at the desolation of the weeping prophet. Then he began the New Testament gospels with a tentative hope. Perhaps, like Lazarus, he would find resurrection.
At last, “I have received the strength to believe,” he told Dr. Cotton. “I feel the sun of righteousness shining on my heart.” “That is good news,” the physician responded, “yet we must take care that this sudden transition from despair to joy not set off a fatal frenzy.” “The Lord is my strength and my song,” William insisted. “I shall not die, but live.” That radiance endured through the long winter and a full 12 months beyond. When early summer arrived, Dr. Cotton became satisfied with the cure. “Take care,” he warned as William prepared to depart with his brother. “Before your conversion, sensual gratification was the means of your undoing. Now it is the passion of anger that you must watch and guard against. I have seen it over and again, and it will conquer you if you are not able to put the past to rest.” ■■■ “Ten years I’ve found refuge in Olney,” Cowper says, “sometimes sepulcher, sometimes a blessed seclusion from a jarring world. Yet always there are times when I wonder if the days at St. Albans were real at all — the assurance of salvation and the changed heart. I long for that first flush of happiness upon my salvation. It appears as remote as Clive’s India.” “Perhaps you should credit your doubts with equal weight to the moments of glory you recall,” Newton suggests. “A selfcondemning spirit is a symptom of a nature spiritually removed. Were you not attuned to the new life of
the redeemed, you would not notice the troughs that plague you. You would not know what you wish for at present.” “I am a spiritual imbecile,” Cowper says, and quotes his own verse: “Saints are comforted, I know and love the house of pray’r; I therefore go where others go, but find no comfort there.” “You will manage, if you will only take each day’s burden,” Newton rejoins. “The load is too heavy if you carry yesterday’s burden. It is the same for our joys. We must content ourselves with the present moment.” “And the present place?” Cowper asks. The hares have returned to their pens, and the moon peeks coyly from behind the clouds again. “Yes,” Newton says. “Here we sit in Northampton, near the Great River Ouse. It’s a fine, cold winter that will water the land with snow, if I have a half-sense of the weather. The lacemakers have worked their fingers raw to make time for a holiday celebration. The children are finished at lacemaking school, and relish the thought of a party at the Vicarage. Some of them have no mothers, and who better than we two to offer them sweets! Punch! Carols and song! Will you not join us, for a bit of merriment in their workaday lives?” Cowper nods, reluctantly. How can he deny his friend a favor? They have labored together to assemble the hymnal for the simple folk of the parish, and Newton never fails to praise Cowper’s skill with language. His break from soundness has delayed publication of their work, yet Newton has not uttered a word of reproach. When the children arrive to sing and frolic, the songwriters ought to be on hand. “Come, then,” Newton rises. “Mary is waiting, and the guests have begun to arrive. A Mrs. Bodham was most anxious to make your acquaintance.” The Vicarage windows gleam amber in the cold blue night, and the men see a swirl of color and heat through the panes. “Well done, John!” Mary says as they press into the heat. “William, will you have punch?” “I shall,” he replies, “if you will excuse my rudeness beforehand. I cannot say —” “William. All is forgiven,” she says. “Here, now, Mrs. Bodham has awaited your return.” A cushiony woman beams at Cowper and nods her head. “I have waited to see you, Mr. Cowper, for many years, and read your poetry with delight,” she says. “Anne and I might have shared conversation about your success, were she alive.” Cowper raises his eyebrows. “You are — were — an intimate —” “— of Anne Donne, yes,” Mrs. Bodham says. “As girls, we shared confidences, dance cards, daisy chains, days in the country. Our families did not hold with much education for young ladies, but the finer arts were encouraged, and we had common chaperones and a governess on occasion. Such fun!” “But here,” she opens a reticule with a decisive tug of the cords,
Tuesday, December 25, 2012 LEADER&TIMES
“here is a memento from those times. A miniature.” Cowper takes the tiny oval as if in a dream. The face that smiles up from the case is young yet familiar, dark curls delicately framing the face he has longed to see for four decades. “Mother,” he whispers. “It is my own dear Mother.” ■■■ Delight. He didn’t experience it often, but when it came it was always in his mother’s company. “Good morning, my own Will,” she would call out as he came to breakfast each day. “Let me rub the sleep from your handsome face.” A warm, damp cloth would descend on his cheeks, before a steaming bowl of porridge and a bit of honey appeared on the table. Some days, there was biscuit and jam. “Now let’s begin on your lessons,” Mother annnounced. “In Adam’s fall — ” “— we sinned all,” William said. “Thy life to mend —” “— this book attend,” his mother returned. “The cat doth play —” “ — and after slay,” William said. “A dog will bite a thief at night!” He liked to finish that line each time, glad to imagine justice served. They continued through the verses: An eagle a flight is out of sight. The idle fool is whipt at school. “Mama, will they whip me at school?” William asked, his blonde brows creased. “School is far away,” his mother said, “and your teachers will help you learn. You are not a fool, and I think you will do splendidly.” “Provided you are not idle.” His father had come into the room. “Anne, why have you not sent him to the pump to bring in the washwater?” “It’s so cold this morning, and —” “Go on, William.” His father was firm. “Idleness will not serve you well!” When William returned, his hands numb, a cold splotch of water on his breeches, he continued with the lesson: As runs the glass, man’s life doth pass. My book and heart shall never part. Job feels the rod and blesses God. “Thank you, Mama,” he whispered, as his mother tucked a warm lap rug around his legs. Proud Korah’s troops were swallowed up. The lion bold the lamb doth hold. “The moon shines bright,” William heard his mother say. “In time of night,” he said. “Remember that, William, when you are a proper schoolboy,” his mother said softly. “The moon is not as bright as the sun, but it is bright enough to help us find our way at night. If you ever find yourself in the dark, look for the moon, and walk carefully. The light will be enough to help you find your way.” What boy of six thinks to file away the many instructions mothers dispense? William did not
recall the conversation for years, nor did he imagine that day’s lesson would be their last. He was intent on licking the last bits of jam from the extra biscuit his mother had pressed into his hand. ■■■ The children have crowded into the Vicarage and Mrs. Newton’s face, rosier than ever, shines with a glorious luster. She is never happier than when her chicks have gathered round. The children, more thin and pale than any Cowper has seen in London, resemble the lace they tat. Cotton fiber clouds the workshop air and clogs their lungs and many die of consumption before they attain their majority. Newton nods with satisfaction as his youngest parishioners circle the refreshment table. “Savor it all,” he booms. “Taste and see that the Lord is good, and Christmas-time is here.” Cowper cannot decide where to look. The locket-size image of his mother sits warm in his hand; Mrs. Bodham smiles at him across the room; the children clamor in a way he almost remembers. But it is Newton who catches his eye. “Good friend,” he says, “a merry Christmas to you. Grace, and peace.” AUTHOR’S NOTE: This imaginary story honors the great friendship between two men connected to Olney, England, Liberal’s sister city. John Newton, onetime curate of the church that hosts the annual Pancake Race between our communities, was the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and mentor to the British abolitionist William Wilberforce. William Cowper, who made Olney his home for 18 years, was a writer who collaborated with Newton to create a hymnal of more than 200 songs. In literary circles, he is credited with the establishment of blank verse and the earliest
“confessional” style of poetry much admired by Jane Austen and the Romantic writers like Wordsworth. Without Cowper, much of what we think of as modern poetry would not have come to exist. I was able to access a treasure trove of primary documents through the Internet. Weather records attest that Dec. 25, 1775 was in fact a full-moon night. More important, it is possible to read online, works by both men, including “An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton,” “Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq.,” and “The Correspondence of William Cowper Arranged in Chronological Order.” Much of the dialogue is taken directly from these documents. The Cowper and Newton Museum, located in Cowper’s former home, “Orchard Side,” in Olney, offers an impressive array of resources — time lines of the lives of both men, with historical background, as well as photographs of personal possessions. These include John Newton’s cushiony armchair, and one of Cowper’s beloved pet hares, preserved through the art of taxidermy. I have tried to hold true to history, but took the liberty of returning the miniature painting of Cowper’s mother to him 15 years earlier than it was actually given to him by Mrs. Bodham. It is my Christmas gift to a man who struggled heroically with depression, the aftermath of abuse and trauma, and the hardest questions of faith that many of us prefer to avoid. Through his friendship with Newton, Cowper succeeded in holding on to his Christian convictions, his sanity, and his life work. Their relationship is a shining example of the human connection accomplishing redemptive work of eternal value.