Cowper and Newton Museum

The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney: October 13th 2021

Why is William Cowper associated with hares? And why does Samuel Taylor Coleridge like his poetry? The Museum in Olney would have the answers. It’s in a gracious Georgian house on Olney market place, the market in full swing on a Thursday morning, selling gloves from South America at £12 a pair, pet food, calendars, potatoes. Inside the house I was taken to what is known as the Viper Barn, because that’s where Cowper chased the viper that was threatening a basket of kittens – really! – where there’s an introductory video. I’m not good at sitting still for long but the Georgian language, coats, boots and horses and carriages began to place things in time.

Suddenly in the glass case by my feet I noticed two huge exhibits – Auroch tusks!  Fabulous olympic sized things found nearby at Emberton. What I also discovered was that John Newton was a church man living nearby who collaborated with Cowper on a little book for their church services, the now-famous Olney Hymns. The Museum consistently attributes the lyrics of Amazing Grace to Newton. Individual creativity almost always draws on close influences, so in this case discussion with a poet who knew how to express feelings must have contributed.

There are many images and models of hares around the museum. Who doesn’t like hares? The museum’s leaflet tells us that Cowper brought visitors to his house in through the kitchen rather than the front door ‘to stop his pet hares escaping’; intriguing.

Newton (1725 – 1807) had a hard start to life. His mother died when he was seven. He went to sea with his father, aged 10, no doubt in horrendous conditions, eventually enlisting with a merchant ship in the Mediterranean where he was captured and pressed into naval service. That is a very hard existence. When he tried to desert, he was captured and flogged. With his vessel Harwich heading for India, he was transferred to a ship going to collect people from Africa and trade them as slaves in the West Indies. There is more in this vein – unbelievable hardship, a stint as an abused slave to a wealthy woman, a near shipwreck off the coast of Ireland resulting in his spiritual awakening. Then he made three voyages as Captain of a slave ship.

The Museum shows you a model of the inside of such a vessel, which you may try to make sense of for a long time; it’s incomprehensible. Surely no-one would organise ships like this. An appalling arrangement of low decks, no light, leg irons, holding spaces of 18 inches by 4 foot 6, manacles, rows and rows of young people immobilised and taken across the ocean into captivity. But that is what happened to 11 million people. A third of them died on the voyage. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool has accounts of what happened. The Cowper and Newton Museum is somehow more shocking; I was there to find out about hares and poetic depictions of nature and instead I was confronted with the shame of how much British wealth and influence was acquired.  

Upstairs, little wooden stairs, having reflected on Cowper’s room, I glanced out of the window to find myself in the eighteenth century – the three storey houses, bow window shops, the sky, the slow old soul with a loaf of bread. It was just a second, but a museum that can take you back in time like that is definitely a powerful place. I especially liked Cowper’s coat. The portraits on the walls are of those kind of florid gentlemen in wigs that you see in old paintings, but his coat would come up as Extra Small on a size chart. Cowper, like Newton, lost his mother as a child. She was Anne Donne, a relative of John. William was bright and studious; his childhood and youth were spent in that traditional English way of being horribly bullied at school. After studying law and being thwarted in his wish to marry his cousin Theodora, he became so ill that he was committed to an asylum for what was referred to as ‘melancholy’, that is, depression or mental illness. A definition of melancholy appears in a medical exhibit; ‘the state of alienation or weakness of mind which renders people incapable of enjoyment of pleasures’. Such afflictions also time travel.

Fortunately Cowper was befriended by some pleasant people, Morley and Mary Unwin and when he moved to Olney, on Newton’s invitation, Mary came with him, Morley having fallen from his horse and died. She cared for him for the rest of her life, and he never got over her death. At Olney, Newton and Cowper jointly created their hymns; some of the words are very familiar to me, having sung them every day in school assembly – I invite anyone over 50 to readily recall whole verses of ‘God moves in a mysterious way’; ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds’; ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’.

It did me no harm, in the troubled times of childhood, to feel that Jesus was on my side and had an overview. I wonder who or what contemporary children rest their minds on, seated in their desks labouring away at the National Curriculum under the baleful eye of Ofsted; with Mama and Papa working double shifts in the gig economy to get the rent money; Gran and Grandad off on a cruise or nodding in a care home; spiritual input reduced to the cartoonish mantra, ‘You can become whoever you want to be’. You can’t. ‘Stay strong’. We all need help.

Cowper had friends and his writing. He wrote successful poetry, ‘The Olney Hymns,’ ‘Task’, ‘John Gilpin’, he translated Homer’s Odyssey and The Illiad into blank verse, and wrote honest depictions of the land, people and creatures around him.  He wrote ‘Epitaph on a Hare’. At last – the hare! I didn’t find much about it in the Museum, just tantalising allusions like the little hare toys all around, the wirework statue of boxing hares in the garden, and the picture on his snuff box. Theodora gave him this little round box with a miniature painting of three hares on the lid. There it is as tribute to a robustly gentle man who said that he would not count amongst his friends, anyone who deliberately crushed a worm under foot.

His indoor hares were male or jack hares called Bess, Tiney and Puss, given to Cowper as leverets, and cared for by him with great respect for their health and temper – he liked the way they made him smile – and because he saw this as a way of keeping at least these three from the hunt. What would he say to the way that such barbarity continues, and that some people still insist on taking pleasure in death and cruelty?  Between 1782 and 1788 Cowper wrote informed and powerful poems in support of the abolition of the slave trade. The poem ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ is on display; ‘Skins may differ, but affection/Dwells in black and white the same’. Strikingly this poem goes on to hypothesise that severe weather events in the Caribbean, whirlwinds, shipwrecks in storms, tornadoes – are retribution for human wrongs. This can only be considered to be true, as we are still finding out.

The thoughtfulness of people like Cowper, Newton, Mary and Ann was at odds with the brutality of their lived experience, the slavery, poverty and child mortality, the huge contrasts between rich and poor. The slave trade was made illegal on 1st May 1807, with significant contributions from Newton and Cowper. Fortunately there are still such humane, philanthropic people amongst us, but in two hundred years the other sort have learned to camouflage themselves very cunningly to strengthen their grip on power and wealth.

There was more. Upstairs again, stairs and rooms getting smaller, is Lace Making. Huguenot people arriving in England in the late 1600’s brought this skill with them. For generations, local women around Olney made lace, beautiful frothy white ribbons, little delicate collars, complicated shawls.  Lace-making involves stuffing a pillow very hard with straw, and using this to hold a pattern down with tiny metal pins. Then nimble fingers manage up to a hundred beaded bobbins each with a thread of cotton, to create the lace. Its romantic image, its association with christening gowns and bridal veils did not brush off on the women and girls who carried out the task. Dealers and traders took much of any small profit. Desperate poverty was general amongst lace makers. Here I am in my warm room with my laptop and a mug of Earl Grey to hand. I know a very little of what poverty feels like. How did these women and children endure such endless exploitation, hunger, cold and hopeless deprivation? Why?

Downstairs, outside, in the tranquil garden with its aged apple trees full of fruit, sheaths of Michaelmas daisies and quiet paths, it seems that Cowper’s achievements in his writing have a firm basis in his recognition of the importance of the natural world. Coleridge admired his ideas and his use of language, saying Cowper ‘combined natural thoughts with natural diction; the first who reconciled the heart with the head’ (1817). Anything Coleridge says is of course worth listening to.

The wholesale exploitation of young African lives, the black holes of the slave ships which Newton regretted all the rest of his life, with the parallel starvation of the humble and powerless lace-makers, the brutish taking of beautiful things for profit with no care for individual humans, is what this Museum is about. Cowper’s life and work offer an unsentimental recognition of what goodness can do, and needs to do, for both people and the natural world.

The whole house is infused with the haunting song, Amazing Grace. It combines a tune thought to draw on songs sung by slaves, with lyrics reminding us of the startling effect that spiritual refreshment can have. It seems to me now a mix of black lives and lace. That it is performed over ten million times annually tells us what we have in common.

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