William Cowper (1731-1800) was one of the most popular English poets of the 18th century. He wrote the words to hymns including ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ and ‘O for a closer walk with God’. He knew John Newton, who wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’ and wrote some poems to support the campaign to abolish slavery.
Cowper struggled with mental health problems for much of his life and found some solace by living in the countryside. Many of his poems, like this one, consider the role of different animals and elements of nature.
The Nightingale And Glow-Worm
A Nightingale that all day long
Had cheered the village with his song,
Nor yet at eve his note suspended,
Nor yet when eventide was ended,
Began to feel, as well he might,
The keen demands of appetite;
When looking eagerly around,
He spied, far off upon the ground,
A something shining in the dark,
And knew the glow-worm by his spark;
So stooping down from hawthorn top,
He thought to put him in his crop;
The worm, aware of his intent,
Harangued him thus right eloquent:
‘Did you admire my lamp,’ quoth he,
‘As much as I your minstrelsy,
You would abhor to do me wrong,
As much as I to spoil your song,
For ’twas the self-same power divine
Taught you to sing, and me to shine,
That you with music, I with light,
Might beautify and cheer the night.’
The songster heard his short oration,
And warbling out his approbation,
Released him, as my story tells,
And found a supper somewhere else.
Hence jarring sectaries may learn,
Their real interest to discern:
That brother should not war with brother,
And worry and devour each other,
But sing and shine by sweet consent,
Till life’s poor transient night is spent,
Respecting in each other’s case
The gifts of nature and of grace.
Those Christians best deserve the name,
Who studiously make peace their aim;
Peace, both the duty and the prize
Of him that creeps and him that flies.
Questions for reflection
- How does the glow worm convince the nightingale not to eat him?
- What is the lesson that Cowper intends us to learn from this poem?
- What “gifts of nature and of grace” do you think that God has given humanity?
- What kind of peace do you think humanity might need to come with nature?
Some further reading
Thomas Traherne, Eden
Henry Thoreau (1854), Walden