Cowper’s Grave

A very powerful poem on the cross of Christ written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The last stanza is perhaps the most powerful. Read and absorb.


It is a place where poets crowned may feel the heart’s decaying.

It is a place where happy saints may weep amid their praying.

Yet let the grief and humbleness, as low as silence, languish.

Earth surely now may give her calm to whom she gave her anguish.[1]


O poets, from a maniac’s tongue was poured the deathless singing!              5

O Christians, at your cross of hope, a hopeless hand was clinging!

O men, this man in brotherhood your weary paths beguiling,

Groaned inly[2] while he taught you peace, and died while ye were smiling!


And now, what time ye all may read through dimming tears his story,

How discord on the music fell, and darkness on the glory,                           10

And how when, one by one, sweet sounds and wandering lights departed,[3]

He wore no less a loving face because so broken-hearted,


He shall be strong to sanctify the poet’s high vocation,

And bow the meekest Christian down in meeker adoration.

Nor ever shall he be, in praise, by wise or good forsaken,                             15

Named softly as the household name of one whom God hath taken.[4]


With quiet sadness and no gloom I learn to think upon him,–

With meekness that is gratefulness to God whose heaven hath won him,

Who suffered once the madness-cloud to His own love to blind him,

But gently led the blind along where breath and bird could find him,          20


And wrought within his shattered brain such quick poetic senses

As hills have language for, and stars, harmonious influences.[5]

The pulse of dew upon the grass, kept his within its number, [6]

And silent shadows from the trees refreshed him like a slumber.


Wild timid hares were drawn from woods to share his home-caresses,           25

Uplooking to his human eyes with sylvan[8] tendernesses.

The very world, by God’s constraint, from falsehood’s ways removing,

Its women and its men[9] became, beside him, true and loving.


And though, in blindness, he remained unconscious of that guiding,

And things provided came without the sweet sense of providing,                   30

He testified this solemn truth, while phrenzy[10] desolated,

–Nor man nor nature satisfy, whom only God created.


Like a sick child that knoweth not his mother while she blesses

And drops upon his burning brow the coolness of her kisses,–

That turns his fevered eyes around—“My mother! where’s my mother?”–       35

As if such tender words and deeds could come from any other!–[11]


The fever gone, with leaps of heart he sees her bending o’er him,

Her face all pale from watchful love, the unweary love she bore him!–

Thus, woke the poet from the dream his life’s long fever gave him,

Beneath those deep pathetic Eyes,[12] which closed in death to save him.            40


Thus? oh, not thus! no type of earth can image that awaking,

Wherein he scarcely heard the chant of seraphs,[13] round him breaking,

Or felt the new immortal throb of soul from body parted,

But felt those eyes alone, and knew,–“My Saviour! not deserted!”


Deserted! Who hath dreamt that when the cross in darkness rested,                  45

Upon the Victim’s[14] hidden face, no love was manifested?

What frantic hands outstretched have e’er the atoning drops averted?

What tears have washed them from the soul, that one should be deserted?[15]


Deserted! God could separate from His own essence rather;

And Adam’s sins have swept between the righteous Son and Father.                50

Yea, once, Immanuel’s[16] orphaned cry his universe hath shaken–

It went up single, echoless, “My God, I am forsaken!”


It went up from the Holy’s lips amid his lost creation,

That, of the lost, no son should use those words of desolation!

That earth’s worst phrenzies, marring hope, should mar not hope’s fruition,        55

And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see his rapture in a vision.

Pub. 1838, The Seraphim, and Other Poems.  Text: Poems (1856)

[1] The real or fictitious visit to a poet’s grave is a conventional device in nineteenth-century memorial poetry, as “The Grave of a Poetess” in Felicia Hemans’s Records of Woman (1828) and “Haworth Churchyard” (1855), Matthew Arnold’s memorial to the Brontë sisters, indicates. In 1850 EBB altered the punctuation of this stanza to four full stops, syntactically bringing the reader to a stop in this evocation of the grave.

[2] inly] inwardly.

[3] departed] Cowper experienced his final breakdown in 1796, after the death of the woman who had cared for him, Mary Unwin.

[4] household name] nickname, like EBB’s own “pet-name” within her family, “Ba,” the subject of the last poem in her 1838 collection (“Cowper’s Grave” is the third from last).

[5] influences] here used in the older (and primary) astrological sense of emanations from the stars affecting the characters and destinies of human beings.

[6] The pulse . . . number,] the dew’s rhythmical recurrence or pulse helped to regulate the beat of his pulse.

[7] Stanza VII] in 1838, ll. 27-28 of this stanza preceded ll. 25-26.

[8] sylvan] belonging to or pertaining to the woods or forest.

[9] Its women and its men] this reversal of the conventional word order “men and women” may have been prompted by the meter. EBB does, however, in writing of religious believers sometimes make a point of including both genders; see, for example, her exchange with William Merry on doctrinal questions (BC 8:149)

[10] phrenzy] variant of “frenzy,” signifying mental delirium or derangement.

[11] Like . . . other!–] cf. the very similar images of divine love figured through maternal kisses in Stanza 5 of EBB’s “A Child’s Thought of God” (1850).

[12] Eyes] the eyes of Christ.

[13] seraphs] angels of the highest order; “seraphim” is the more usual plural form.

[14] Victim’s] Christ’s on the cross.

[15] See H. Buxton Forman’s transcription of a ms fragment that contains two variants on ll. 45-48, although Forman does not connect these to “Cowper’s Grave” (HUPS 2:195).

[16] Immanuel’s] Christ’s; Immanuel or Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God with us) is the name of the child foretold in Isaiah 7:14 and thus applied to Christ in the New Testament.

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: