English poet William Cowper (pronounced cooper) lived a dark life. His mother died when he was six, after giving birth to his brother. Little William was then sent away to boarding school and was cruelly abused. His father was a distant figure. After various episodes of instability, Cowper became a recluse and struggled with depression throughout his life, often suffering extended periods of despair and attempting suicide. Today, we sing his eloquent hymns “There Is A Fountain” and “God Moves In A Mysterious Way,” among others. He died in 1800.

John Piper in Tested By Fire probes Cowper’s dark years and draws some insightful reflections from his struggle, including one of his works, “Tirocinium.” This is Cowper’s plea to a father to engage in educating his young sons, instead of delegating the task to a boarding school (“Tirocinium” is Latin for new student or inexperienced recruit).

No doubt, Cowper wrote from his own haunted experience in the past. But his words echo to today’s parents, especially those who “outsource” their children’s moral training to school. In these excerpts, Cowper could well be describing many public schools and nominally Christian schools today.

Our children need more education than what they receive at school. It’s up to us to nurture them in the Lord.

Would you your son should be a sot or dunce,
Lascivious, headstrong, or all these at once;
That in good time the stripling’s finish’d taste
For loose expense and fashionable waste
Should prove your ruin, and his own at last;
Train him in public with a mob of boys,
Childish in mischief only and in noise,
Else of a mannish growth, and five in ten
In infidelity and lewdness men.

There shall he learn, ere sixteen winters old,
That authors are most useful, pawned or sold,
That pedantry is all that schools impart,
But taverns teach the knowledge of the heart.

No nourishment to feed his growing mind,
But conjugated verbs and nouns declined?
For such is all the mental food purvey’d
By public hackneys in the schooling trade;
Who feed a pupil’s intellect with store
Of syntax truly, but with little more;
Dismiss their cares when they dismiss their flock,
Machines themselves, and govern’d by a clock.
Perhaps a father, blest with any brains,
Would deem it no abuse, or waste of pains,
To improve this diet, at no great expense,
With savoury truth and wholesome common sense;
To lead his son, for prospects of delight,
To some not steep, though philosophic, height,

To show him in an insect or a flower
Such microscopic proof of skill and power
As, hid from ages past, God now displays
To combat atheists with in modern days;
To spread the earth before him, and commend,
With designation of the finger’s end,
Its various parts to his attentive note,
Thus bringing home to him the most remote;
To teach his heart to glow with generous flame,
Caught from the deeds of men of ancient fame;
And, more than all, with commendation due,
To set some living worthy in his view,
Whose fair example may at once inspire
A wish to copy what he must admire.

share this article

About Ben Kwok

Ben is part of a church plant team establishing the Rouse Hill Church. He holds a Master of Divinity degree. Ben and his wife Diahanna live in Sydney, Australia with their four young children.


  1. Robert 26 February, 2011 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    I have a definited biography on Cowper called George Ella. A great read where he quotes Cowper’s poems at length.

    your post reminded me of the hours I enjoyed reading about this unique saint.Cowper had enormous influence across Britain and beyond in his day. people who would never go to church read Cowper’s gospel focused poetry.

    • George M. Ella 19 November, 2014 at 3:39 am

      Dear Robert,

      I am so pleased my Cowper biography was helpful to you. Sadly, my Poet of Paradise is now out of print though my ‘William Cowper: The Man of God’s Stamp’, published by Joshua Press is still to be had. I am now working on a new edition of my Dr. Phil. thesis entitled ‘Paradise and Poetry: An in-depth study of William Cowper’s poetic mind’ which will be enlarged by some 200 pages bringing it up to date on Cowper scholarship but also adding more devotional material from my Poet of Paradise. This will be most likely published in Germany.

      Every blessing from Mülheim,

      George Melvyn Ella

  2. George M. Ella 19 November, 2014 at 3:45 am - Reply

    Dear Ben,

    I had an essay published by an English educational journal on Tirocinium and Cowper’s helpful views on home-schooling. Would you like me to send you a copy per e-mail?

    G. M. Ella

Leave A Comment