From "A Living and a Dead Faith" by William Cowper (part of the "Olney Hymns"):

To walk as children of the day,
To mark the precepts' holy light,
To wage the warfare, watch, and pray,
Show who are pleasing in his sight.

I'm baffled a bit by this stanza. I vaguely understand the general meaning (although "wage the warfare" might be harder to explain).

But the main point is that I'm not sure where the subject(s) and the object(s) are.

Is this an inverted word order, with "who are pleasing in his sight" the subject?

"The people who are pleasing in the sight of God exhibit the following behaviours: they walk as children of the day, they mark the precepts' holy light, they 'wage the warfare' (maybe metaphorically, a war on sins)".

Am I right? My guess is that "show" could mean "exhibit (a behaviour)" here.

I struggle to imagine the to-infinitive phrases (to walk, to mark..) as the subjects of the sentence.

  • 3
    It's religious poetry, and it's over two centuries old, so you shouldn't assume much about current English from the "syntax". I think probably the "grammatical" equivalent today would be Walking as children, marking..., waging..., watching, praying, [are actions identifying those who really are are pleasing to God - as opposed to what the "loud professor says" which doesn't please Him]. Mar 1, 2016 at 15:27
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    I may be mistaken, but I think in order to be the "subject", we'd expect a "noun" form - and the (nouny) gerund wasn't used that often in such pre-Victorian English. But it's not actually "invalid" to use the infinitive forms like this today - To hate God is a sin, as opposed to Hating God is a sin. But to repeat - you won't be likely to learn much about current syntax by studying such texts. Mar 1, 2016 at 15:32
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    (I think it would be a big mistake to assume that Cowper himself had any kind of "omission" in mind - that's exactly why you should be careful about trying to "learn English" from the text). Mar 1, 2016 at 15:36
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    Well, you've got the meaning yourself. As to the precise rationale of the "syntax", I'm not really qualified to discuss that, despite having read hundreds of texts from that period and earlier. You'll note how your attempt to impose "simple modern syntax" on the other stanza completely misled you. Mar 1, 2016 at 15:39
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    We may have to start referring to him as CowperKettle :)
    – TimR
    Mar 1, 2016 at 18:55

2 Answers 2


Since this is religious poetry, a certain amount of liberties can be taken with the language. In this case, the verse is more straightforward if "these" or "these actions" is inserted at the beginning of the fourth line.

To do A, or to B or to do C: (these actions) show (those) who are pleasing in His sight.

  • I sort of agree with your elucidation "(those)" but would quibble with "(these actions)" as that changes the syntax.
    – TimR
    Mar 2, 2016 at 15:09
  • @TRomano - Yes, but making the replacement singular forces "show" to become "shows". Given the multiplicity of A, B and C, I figured to maintain the singular/plural choice of the original. Mar 2, 2016 at 15:17

This would be perfectly acceptable (if a little ponderous) syntax in 2016:

To take care in selecting the gift, to wrap it neatly, to attach a thoughtful note, show care for the person to whom the gift is given.

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