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Light Shining Out of Darkness
A Poem by William Cowper (1731-1800)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Summary
Text of the Poem
Theme
End Rhyme
Meter
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Cowper
Cowper Quotations
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."Light Shining Out of Darkness," by William Cowper (pronounced KOO per), is a lyric poem and a hymn centering on God as mysterious but benevolent. Cowper wrote the poem in 1773 and first published it in 1774 as a hymn in a book by his pastor, John Newton, entitled Twenty-Six Letters on Religious Subjects; to Which Are Added Hymns. It was republished in 1779 in Olney Hymns, a book on which Cowper collaborated with Newton.

Summary

.......God carries out his plans in a mysterious way, the speaker says. Even though you may not understand what He does, He fashions and executes His designs for humanity with "never failing skill" (line 6). Be not afraid of the celestial clouds, the speaker says; they rain with divine mercy. The speaker tells the reader to trust God, for "Behind a frowning providence/ He hides a smiling face (lines 15-16). 
.......God works fast, the speaker says, and if the bud of His work taste bitter, the flower will be sweet. 
.......Those who lack faith in Himthose who attempt to fathom his mindare certain to err, the speaker observes. Only God alone can interpret His ways, and He will make them plain.

Light Shining Out of Darkness

God moves in a mysterious way, 
His wonders to perform; 
He plants his footsteps in the sea, 
And rides upon the storm. 

Deep in unfathomable mines 
Of never-failing skill, 
He treasures up his bright designs, 
And works his sov'reign will. 

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, 
The clouds ye so much dread 
Are big with mercy, and shall break 
In blessings on your head. 

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,  
But trust him for his grace; 
Behind a frowning providence 
He hides a smiling face. 

His purposes will ripen fast, 
Unfolding ev'ry hour; 
The bud may have a bitter taste, 
But sweet will be the flow'r. 

Blind unbelief is sure to err, 
And scan his work in vain; 
God is his own interpreter, 
And he will make it plain. 

Theme

.......The theme of the poem is the mysterious way that the benevolent Almighty works on behalf of humanity. 

End Rhyme

.......Except for lines 1 and 3, the rhyme scheme of the poem is abab. The third stanza demonstrates the pattern.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break 
In blessings on your head


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Meter

.......The poem alternates between iambic tetrameter (four feet) and iambic trimeter (three feet). Line 3 and 4 demonstrate the pattern.

.........1...................2...............3...............4
He PLANTS..|..his FOOT..|..steps IN..|..the SEA,

.......1.................2................3
And RIDES..|..up ON..|..the STORM

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

God moves in a mysterious way (line 1)
And works his sov'reign will. (line 8)
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take (line 9)
Are big with mercy, and shall break (line 11)
The bud may have a bitter taste (line 19)
Anastrophe 

.......For poetic effect, Cowper uses Anastrophe (inversion of the normal word order) in the first and fifth stanzas.

God moves in a mysterious way, 
His wonders to perform (lines 1-2)
Normal Word Order: God moves in a mysterious way to perform His wonders.

The bud may have a bitter taste, 
But sweet will be the flow'r. (lines 19-20)
Normal Word Order: The bud may have a bitter taste, but the flower will be sweet.

Metaphor
Comparison of God's activity to footsteps in the sea (first stanza)

Comparison of God to a miner who digs up "bright designs" and stores them
as treasures that he uses when he carries out his will (second stanza)

Comparison of mercy and blessings to rain from a cloud (third stanza)

Oxymoron
frowning providence (line 15)
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write your own poem on a religious theme. 
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a narrative poem?
  • Write an informative essay that evaluates Cowper's influence on later poets. 
  • What are other examples of alliteration besides those listed above?

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