[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Poor William [Cowper]. His life reminds you of the stories you hear today of kids suffering from ADD, depression or one of the other psychologically debilitating illnesses we just didn’t hear all that much about even 25 years ago. A brief account of his miserable life is in Abide with Me.

Right here, though, I’ll comment about the sad-sweet sense I get when I go to the little garden hut where he wrote. It’s at the back of the home of the widow Mary Unwin in Olney, where Cowper came to live in 1764. He’d just been released from an asylum where he had been sent after attempts at suicide. (He first prepared to go with poison or by stabbing himself with a pen knife but couldn’t muster up the nerve to follow through; then he tried hanging himself with a garter, but it broke.) So he came here to Olney to continue receiving the charity of the Unwin family.

The house is now the Cowper-Newton Museum. It backs up on the vicarage where Newton lived. In the rear there’s a very nice flower garden, and in the center (see the book) is this odd little hut with one room and three large windows above benches.

I’m sure William treasured his friendship with the great preacher, but being something of a recluse myself, I can relate to his sitting for hours in this shelter, even a shelter from the garden, I guess. He could look out on the orchard toward Newton’s house, or on the flowers that I assume grew there then, and, especially, on the sky. Like Poe, another depressed and brilliant soul, William sought release and the sky must have been a draw for him.

We know William principally for two songs, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” He wrote the first one in 1774, ten years after moving to Olney, to this garden, and to this little hut. I couldn’t prove that he wrote it sitting on one of the three benches, but it surely is easy to picture him there. Burdened by failure in love, in health, and in career, he must have longed for a “mysterious way” that would deliver him, release that could come from a source “Deep in unfathomable mines.”

I don’t know how much relief William got from sitting out here. Things didn’t get much better in his life. But enclosure in the little hut probably gave him some kind of psychological shelter. He knew a lot about how “the bud may have a bitter taste;” I’m sure he looked forward to the time with “sweet will be the flow’r.”

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[Today’s post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor of English John Parker. The book and its CD with 20 classic hymns, will be released in April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

The Lake District of England is one of the world’s most scenic places. Thousands come each summer to walk the trails, view the low ranges of mountains, and ponder the sky as it changes from blue to misty grey.

Tucked in a nook of this idyllic setting a few miles from the town of Ambleside, and down a quiet winding road is the community of Brathay. The center of activity here for a century and a half, or so, has been Holy Trinity Church. A tall, ivy-covered tower houses the entrance, and inside an especially fine arched wooden ceiling assures beautiful acoustics for church music.

It happened in the winter of 1883, when Miss Katherine Blomfield and her family from London were visiting Ambleside at Howsley Cottage and planning her wedding to prominent Brathay surgeon Hugh Redmayne just three weeks away. The bride-to-be was still needing a song for her wedding and was a tad nervous, but she was attracted by a hymn entitled, “Strength and Stay.”

The original lyrics of the hymn were written in Latin in the fourth century by St. Ambrose, but had recently been translated by into English by John Ellerton and F.J.A. Hunt. Although not a song intended for a wedding, it was the tune that Katherine really wanted, and now wanted rather badly.

The frustrated bride-to-be turned to her older sister, Dorothy, who was known for her poetry and said, “What’s the use of a sister who composes poetry if she cannot write new words to a favorite tune? I would like to use this tune at my wedding.

What happened next is one of Britain’s favorite hymn stories. Dorothy replied if everyone would leave her alone, she would see what she could do. She then picked up the song and retired to the cottage librarry. Thirty minutes later (some say fifteen) she emerged with the words now famous.

Like those of St. Ambrose, Dorothy’s words constitute a prayer, this one for a young couple. God is addressed with the names of “perfect Love” and “perfect Life” and asked to grant the couple love (verse 1); faith, hope, endurance, and trust (verse 2); and joy, peace, and a final place in heaven (verse 3).

Six years later, Dorothy’s hastily written song soared in popularity. First, it was placed in the popular hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern. Then it enjoyed the best fortune a British wedding hymn could have: Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princes Louise of Wales, daughter of King Edward VII and sister of King George V, chose “O Perfect Love” for her wedding to Alexander George Duff, first Duke of Fife, at Buckingham Palace. She also asked famous composer Joseph Barnaby for a fresh tune, and he wrote, “Sandringham,” named after the palace where the princess had been brought up. “O Perfect Love” soon became the choice of brides-to-be in Britain and America and held its place for the next half century.

Dorothy never exercised copyright for the hymn, though it might have brought her considerable returns. She later married Gerald Gurney, and later they were received into the Roman Catholic Church. She died in 1932 and enjoys the reputation of having remained the cheerful, helpful lady she was to her sister. In 1986 one of her descendents, Judith Gurney, was married at Brathay church. The guests sang “O Perfect Love.”

[The newest book from New Leaf Press, Abide With Me, is focused on ‘place.’ It’s about the places and songwriters in England and Wales where the greatest British hymns were written, and where the stories of the men and women who wrote them unfolded. ]

On the north coast of England, for instance, silhouetted against the grey sky and dark sea, stand the ruins of Whitby Abbey. There in the sixth century a common sheepherder named Caedmon wrote the earliest surviving hymn penned in English. During the following centuries – Middle Ages, Renaissance, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century – men and women devoted to Christ and blessed with the gift of poetry composed the words of English hymns sung in Britain, America, and around the globe. Generation after generation, these beautiful songs were sung in times of happiness, grief, joy, fear and wonder. Here are the places those writers lived and their life stories.

Stroll through the quaint Cotswolds, the beautiful Lake District, bustling London, and the glorious poppy-bedecked English countryside as you meet the great minds whose works have inspired, uplifted, and carried us through the tragedies and triumphs of our lives. This is a journey of the heart and soul – a meandering through your own spirituality.

“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Ephesians 5:19.

[Abide With Me will be released by New Leaf Press in April 2009. Order online and save 20%.]