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THE PERIOD OF THE WESLEYS
Charles Wesley may be said to have taken up the tradition of English hymnody where Watts gave over his labor. Wesley was born in 1707, the year of the publication of Watts’s first hymn-book, and lived till 1788. A large part of the eighty-one years of his life he devoted to the writing of hymns; he wrote more than six thousand. He was the poet, par excellence, of the great religious revival, which, hand and hand with the romantic movement in literature and the democratic movement in politics, swept through Europe and America and left a new world for men to live in. It became a common saying then, as in the time of Chrysostom, of Augustine, and of Luther, that more converts were made through hymns than through any other means.
Hymnody was a part of the new springtime of popular enlightenment and self-realization that was stirring through the world. In America Thomas Jefferson had said that he had rather have no government at all, with newspapers for the people to read, than to have any sort of government with no newspapers. Edmund Burke remarked significantly the prodigious sale of Blackstone’s Commentary in 162 this country. Much the same service that Jefferson and Burke saw the newspapers and popular law-books rendering in the field of politics, Wesley’s hymns rendered in the field of religion. And the office of the hymns was that of popular information as well as inspiration; they were as Wesley planned them to be, “a body of divinity.”
These hymns came as if at a time appointed, the lyric call of a new dawn. Markedly individual, subjective, and, to use a word over-worn but particularly descriptive of their spirit, “democratic,” they are a voice of the age. They ring out enthusiastically in the first person singular. To them the Divine Personality is not the distant king on his awful throne so much as a spirit dwelling in the believer’s heart, the immediate present helper, guide, and friend. Their qualities of individuality, social warmth, and joyful belief appealed to the changing England.
A high place among the makers of the world’s art must be given to those who have brought into common possession great vital ideas and emotions by way of song. Probably none will say that the art of Robert Burns has been less powerful than that of Joshua Reynolds or Christopher Wren, or that the gift to the world from the Acropolis or even from Parnassus has proved more genuine and vital art than the art of a book of songs from the hill called Zion. This book of hymns has lived not merely because men called it sacred but because it has embodied and inspired lofty ideas, just feelings, and pure motives; its influence has permeated general 163 human consciousness and colored human thought as no other single work of art has ever done. The maker of any people’s song, if it is good song, deserves to be and will be numbered high among the people’s great and beneficent souls.
The artists have found great opportunity and great satisfactions in the service of religion, witness the Taj Mahal, the temple of Neptune at Tarentum, the cathedrals of the thirteenth century, the paintings of the masters, and the religious drama of various ages. But the church generally and the Protestant side in particular has laid much stress on the idea that all other forms of art are insignificant compared with the inclusive artistry of well ordered and harmonious living. Architecture is patently one form of art constantly called into the service of the church; yet for two hundred years there have not been any very original contributions made to the glory of God and the edification of man in the form of architecture. But in the form of the popular lyric a good deal has been achieved. With the great temples and cathedrals in mind, or with some lovely small church in rural England before one’s eyes, one might say that architecture has done more for religion than the other arts; but considering religious songs heard in the world clear back to the dawn of civilization, or hearing majestic hymns rolling out from great choirs and congregations or holy lays from simple folk at close of day, one might make the claim for song. A single song is very small and intangible compared to a mighty temple, but the 164 temple is stone, and anchored to one place. The song may be as intimate as breath and volant as the wind to go anywhere. The temple of Solomon has vanished, but the psalms of David are still with us. As masters of the church lyric, Watts and Wesley and Heber are very important figures in the history of English religious art and of English life.
Charles Wesley, if he had not done so, ought to have written great hymns. With his undoubted gift, he had before him the example of Watts and the newly discovered treasury of German hymnody. Besides this there was an insistent public demand for new hymns with which to express the newly aroused religious emotions of an age awakening, politically and socially, industrially, artistically, religiously. He lived in the stirring morning of the day that brought the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the new freedom for English and French peasantry, the steam-engine, the poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, the political philosophy and practice of Edmund Burke, and the religious renaissance led by John Wesley.
A strong influence upon Wesley besides the work of Watts and the other earlier hymn-writers was that of German hymnody. On their trip to America the Wesleys had met a party of Moravian emigrants and had heard their hymns on board the ship. Later in London the Wesleys again were much influenced by another group of devout Moravians. It was through these associations that the hymns which had sounded so powerfully through the German people’s 165 history since the Reformation, and which had been known and loved long before the Reformation, now reached England. Nor was the deep personal stirring of spirit, necessary for the production of hymns, lacking with Charles Wesley. The sensitive scholar of Christ Church, Oxford, soon came to know what it was to be hailed and blessed by one eager throng and cursed and stoned by another. A High Church Anglican, by nature and training conservative and aristocratic, he was yet charged with the broad democratic spirit of the time, and by his deep poetic impulse, to be the singer of new freedom and new life for individual and common mankind.
Another good reason for his writing hymns was that he was a member of the Wesley family. His mother, Susannah Annesley Wesley, was a product of the best Puritan culture and tradition. Remarkable for her learning, her common sense, her piety, and the great force and beauty of her character, she was one of the noblest and best of England’s famous women. His grandfather, John Wesley, was a poet and divine of note in his day. His father, Samuel Wesley, a great-nephew of the author of “Religio Medici,” was also a clergyman and the author of six volumes of poetry besides a number of prose works. The father and three sons, Samuel, John, and Charles, are represented in the English hymn-book to-day. Mehitabel, whose sad story has been retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,1515“Hetty Wesley,” London, 1907. was remarkable for her classical learning and for unusual 166 poetical gift. Charles Wesley’s sons, Samuel and Charles, both became eminent men; the latter at the age of eight had written an oratorio, “Ruth,” described by his biographer in the “Dictionary of National Biography” as “not a child’s performance, but a musicianly work.” Samuel became a leading musician of England. Samuel Sebastian Wesley, a grandson, was a musician of high rank, known over the world as one of the foremost English composers of church music. Thus seven of Charles Wesley’s family from four generations have contributed directly to the making of the English hymn-book.
Yet another influence was that exerted by his publisher, who was none other than that tremendous character, John Wesley. Surely no verse-writer ever had a more enthusiastic and energetic Mæcenas than he.
With all his inherited genius and with all the inspiration that came to him from without, Charles Wesley had the gift of a rich and generous nature. More vital still was his mystic’s experience of the deep realities of religion.
Wesley, like Watts, wrote very freely and spontaneously, as the thousands of lyrics he wrote bear witness. Not all of them are good; much of the verse reminds one of a painter’s tentative sketches and drawings. But had he not freely written so many he might not have written the smaller number so consummately well. This spontaneous hymnody 167 of the time belongs to the spirit of freedom and wing testing that was abroad; Watts, tired of the labored formality in poetry, had said in the preface to his volume of 1837, “Many a line needs the file to polish the roughness of it, and many a thought wants richer language to adorn and make it shine . . . but I have at present neither inclination nor leisure to correct and I hope I never shall.” And the tradition of English hymnody set by Watts was carried on by Wesley. Watts praised Wesley generously, saying that Wesley’s “Come Thou Traveller Unknown” was worth all the verse that he himself had ever written; this was of course too lavish praise.
The two poets are alike, in general spirit and purpose, yet very different in style. Wesley came from the old heart-of-England stock, from generations of strong and cultivated people: his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Oxford men; his mother’s father, Doctor Annesley, was a Puritan scholar and divine of national reputation; Charles Wesley was an Oxford master of arts, a Tory, and a strict Anglican. Watts, on the other hand, was by descent half French, of ardent Non-Conformist tradition and education, a doctor of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, a stanch Independent.
But their differences are such as to make their work complementary. They stand unrivaled in the field of English hymnody except as each may rival the other. The style of Watts is austere, objective, 168 and formal; the style of Wesley is warm, subjective, intimate. Watts, born in 1674, the year that Milton died, was nearer to the time of Addison and Dryden; Wesley was nearer to the romantic period. A stanza from a hymn by each on the same theme will indicate the difference:
Come, sound his praise abroad
And hymns of glory sing;
Jehovah is the sovereign God,
The universal king.
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My dear Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
Even in these four-line stanzas one can see not only clear distinctions between the two writers, but clear signs of the differing times and schools of thought. The first has the air of the Age of Reason; the logical traits are predominant; Deity is envisioned from the Calvinistic point of view—“Jehovah,” “Sovereign Lord,” “Universal King.” The second stanza has the air of the later period—spontaneous, enthusiastic, personal. Compare again Watts’s grand hymn “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne” with Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Love Excelling.”
The best known hymn by Charles Wesley is “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” published in “Psalms and Spiritual Hymns,” in 1740, soon after his return from America:169
Jesu, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high!
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.
Other refuge have I none;
Hangs my helpless soul on thee:
Leave, O leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me:
All my trust on thee is stayed,
All my help from thee I bring;
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of thy wing.
Wilt thou not regard my call?
Wilt thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—
Lo, on thee I cast my care:
Reach me out thy gracious hand!
While I of thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and behold, I live!
Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick and lead the blind.
Just and holy is thy name,
I am all unrighteousness:
False and full of sin I am,
Thou art full of truth and grace.
Plenteous grace in thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin:
Let the healing streams abound;
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me give of thee:
Spring thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.
This is one of the supreme hymns of the world. It has gone to the corners of the earth with the English language and had been translated into virtually every language there is. The song has become a treasury of spiritual wealth. A thousand legends cluster about it as about some ancient shrine or about the memory of some gentle and famous saint. Countless children through successive generations have learned and kept its lines by heart; countless men and women have found in it deep refreshment of spirit as from a cool spring and shade by the road when tired and thirsty; and uncounted ones have passed out of this life with its words on their lips.
As English poetry, it is characterized by the brevity, melody, intensity, and completeness of the pure lyric. George Saintsbury says, “The mere word-music of it is fingered throughout in the most absolutely adequate manner.”1616“A History of English Prosody,” Vol. II, p. 531. London, 1908. If one reads it without thought of the tune he is still compelled by its inherent melody. And its effects are attained by the simplest and most direct means; of 171 the 236 words of the poem all but thirty-seven are monosyllables. The images are vivid and quickly drawn, the movement is swift and harmonious, the lines glow with life and warmth. In it the hymn-book has found a perfect and immortal song.
It stands to-day as Wesley wrote it except that a single word, the subjunctive “be” in the sixth line, is changed to “is”; and the original third stanza is omitted. The change of verb-form is merely to accord with the trend of the language to drop subjunctives. The stanza omitted is as good lyric poetry as the rest, but it is a shade too fervent for the steady hymn-book. The title Wesley gave the hymn was “In Time of Prayer and Temptation,” later “In Temptation.” Like most hymns, however, it is known by its first line. The Latin vocative in the opening line, “Jesu, Lover,” is usually printed in the English form. Of all hymns in the hymn-book this one has been revised and amended probably more than any other; this in spite of John Wesley’s exhortation in the preface of his hymn-book to all publishers who use these hymns not to alter them. “Hymn-cobblers,” he says, “should not try to mend them. I really do not think they are able.” Yet in some cases amendment did better even Charles Wesley’s hymns. For example, Wesley wrote:
Hark how all the welkin rings,
Glory to the King of kings.
This line was altered to:172
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King!
The changes were made by Martin Madan in 1760, and later accepted by Wesley. But the hymn, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” though it has more than thirty variations of the first stanza, has not been improved. In the first line “refuge” has been supplied for “lover.” The same word “refuge,” has been supplied for “bosom” in the second line. The first personal pronoun has been changed to the plural, “lover of our souls; Hide us, O our Saviour, hide.” Not one of these changes fails to injure the hymn. There has been some difficulty among hymn editors with the third line,
While the nearer waters roll.
It has been changed in various books to read
While the billows near me roll,
While the threat’ning billows roll,
While the waters round us roll.
Even “Hymns Ancient and Modern,” usually conservative in altering hymns, has made the quite dull emendation,
While the gathering waters roll.
There is no point here in trying to visualize waters gathering somewhere and rolling. Wesley knew the sea and knew what he was saying. There is in the figure some reminiscence, doubtless, of the desperate storm he came through on his American voyage. 173 But even the great hymnologist, Dr. Julian, raises objection to “nearer” as an adjective descriptive of waves breaking on a reef or on the shore, the ship of course being at sea. This meaning can be got from the line, though it seems that if Wesley had meant “breakers” he would have used that word. But the poet’s figure is accurate and graphic—while the nearer waters roll—“nearer” being an adverb modifying “roll”; that is, while waters—either as a rising flood, or as waves in a storm—roll nearer the deck of the ship. Since “tempest” is mentioned in the next line, Wesley evidently had the latter figure in mind.
The changing of a word or the shading of a plural by the poet sometimes makes all the difference between mediocrity and supremacy, between life and death for his poem. Of course no amount of mere word-manipulation can give the breath of life; many attempts at hymnody published in the books are sad and flat because they are merely pious clichés artificially joined together—mechanical construction, not warm and breathing poetry. In the preface of his hymn-book of 1780 John Wesley says:
I desire men of taste to judge whether there is not in some of the following verses the true Spirit of Poetry; such as cannot be acquired by art and labour; but must be the gift of nature. By labour a man may become a tolerable imitator of Spenser or Shakespear or Milton and may heap together pretty compound epithets, as “pale eyed,” “weak-eyed” and the like. But unless he is born a poet he will never attain to genuine Spirit of Poetry.
Watts, the Wesleys, and Cowper had this spirit without which they could not have written the vigorously living hymns that enrich English literature.
Stanzas from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Before Work,” are indicative of what may be considered about the level of his work. There is a suggestion in these lines of the gentle and saintly George Herbert and, looking forward, a suggestion of the poetic theory and manner of William Wordsworth:
Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go
My daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolved to know
In all I think, or speak, or do.
The task thy wisdom hath assigned,
O let me cheerfully fulfil;
In all thy works thy presence find,
And prove thy good and perfect will. . . .
For thee delightfully employ
Whate’er thy bounteous grace hath given,
And run my course with even joy
And closely walk with thee to heaven.
The lines achieve a difficult thing; they speak of the most profound matters with colloquial simpleness and ease, yet with perfect dignity. The poem has a tonic sweetness that comes of strength. It has the humility of faith in God, but no cringing; the trustfulness of the child and the serene assurance of the upright man whose faith is in what he knows to be true and faithful: it is the whole-hearted 175 service of religion where service is perfect freedom. It is full of a sort of Christian independence. How much more the man and gentleman do these lines show the author to be, and how much more worthiness of trust and worship do they attribute to God than do many of the medieval hymns such as “Day of Wrath” as well as many of those current to-day.
For although the hymns are the very flower of all theological writing for breadth of conception and for poise of manner, still there are hymns that have crept into favor for a while that are ferocious—really of the disposition and manner of wild beasts—or else maudlin or plainly silly. For instance a popular hymn begins with the climax of unmanliness and absurdity:
O to be nothing, nothing
Only to lie at his feet,
A broken and emptied vessel
For the Master’s use made meet.
Give this stanza what it hardly deserves—a moment’s analysis—and picture the pain and surprise of an earthly master whose beloved servant suddenly becomes nothing, nothing, and yet manages to serve the table with empty vessels that are also broken, ending it all with the plain remark the master has got what he deserved. Coventry Patmore perhaps thought of this kind of praise in his poem, “The Child’s Purchase,” where he conceives the Virgin Mary seeking to shield the Almighty from uncouth 176 worship by hotly berating those who neglect her own mediary offices, calling them
The unwashed boors who hail God to His face.
Beyond the unconscious humor and slight irreverence of Patmore’s conception one must appreciate the self-sacrificing disposition shown by the intermediary in the act of listening to and intercepting such poetry of praise as the above. But let it be said in soberness, the more one truly venerates the Mother the more he might know her as giving glad assent to the words of the Son, “When ye pray, say, Our Father.” Wesley’s poem and true hymn shows the longing of the good man to walk with God, striving always to elevate his soul to that high plane. There is no mawkishness nor groveling in the great, manly hymns of Wesley.
Another hymn of Wesley more stately than the one above, yet none the less fervent, embodies likewise his great tenet, the immediate access of the human soul to the Infinite. The power of the idea is heightened by its simplicity and severity of expression:
Love divine, all love excelling,
Joy of Heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown. . . .
Breathe, O breathe thy loving spirit
Into every troubled breast,
Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find the promised rest.
There is for him no bar to the true seeker after God. The following lines, though not good hymnody, emphasize the same article of faith, relying more upon the “inner witness” than upon any outward agency. The idea is characteristic of the author no less than of his age just freeing itself from many bonds of mind and spirit, from the “rule of the Syllogism, the Scaffold, and the Epigram.”
. . . No such frigid laws we fear
Who to the king of kings draw near,
Boldly approach his gracious throne,
And freely our requests make known.
Beyond the inner courts we press,
Enter into the holy place,
Sure to obtain the peace of God,
And all we ask through Jesus’ blood.
Full of animation and color of style and rapt abandon of worship are the lines beginning:
The Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” joined with the Mendelssohn tune, is a glorious song. “Soldiers of Christ Arise” is vibrant with melodious energy and zeal for God. The morning hymn, “Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies,” and the great hymn for Easter, “Christ the Lord Is Risen To-day,” are the other hymns that are not likely to die as long as the language lives.
With all the vigor of his conviction and the force 178 and splendor of his expression, Wesley is characterized by great gentleness, tolerance, and humility. His lyrics flame high with love of God, and glow with human charity. Through his less known songs there is a constant tone of tolerance and of nobility.
In mercy then to me impart,
The largeness of a loving heart,
A heart to no one sect confined.
Love is his favorite theme; the words “light,” “joy,” “sweetness,” “grace,” recur very often, and are themselves descriptive of the spirit that animates the man. Below is a list of representative hymn-hooks, giving the number of hymns by Charles Wesley:
|“Hymns Ancient and Modern”||25|
|“The American Hymnal” (The Century Co.)||17|
|“The Baptist Hymnal”||44|
|“The Common Service Book” (Lutheran)||21|
|“The English Hymnal”||20|
|“The Hymn and Tune Book” (Unitarian)||11|
|“The Hymnal” (Presbyterian)||24|
|“The Hymnal” (Protestant Episcopal)||18|
|“The Methodist Hymnal”||121|
|“The Oxford [University] Hymn Book”||29|
|Palgrave’s “Treasury of Sacred Song”||12|
|The Earl of Selbourne’s “Book of Praise”||27|
|“The Westminster Abbey Hymn Book”||25|
|“Hymns of the Living Church” (New York, 1923)||12|
John Wesley, it seems, was too busy a man to write many hymns, though it was he who made the translations contained in the Wesley books from the German, Latin, and Spanish. He was an exceptional linguist, and was himself the author of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French grammars. He also compiled and published an English dictionary.
He was a prodigiously energetic and powerful man. Before the age of steam, he traveled two hundred and fifty thousand miles, mostly on horseback, though he was a vigorous walker. He was a great reader. In his “Journal” there are many casual references to his reading, done on horseback, on shipboard, and wherever he could find time. The reading done on his journeys included Homer, Virgil, Anacreon, Lucian, Voltaire, Machiavelli, Milton, Pope, Laurence Sterne, Ossian. Among his favorite books was Law’s “Serious Call to a Devout and Godly Life.” He was author of more than a hundred works, and editor of a magazine; he was a proponent of animal evolution—of course before Charles Darwin was born. “Leisure and I,” he had once written from college, “have parted company.”
Dr. Johnson complained that Wesley would never stay to talk when he came to see him, though Wesley’s “Journal” for February 18, 1774, says, “I spent two hours with that great man, Dr. Johnson.” Sitting for a picture by Romney, Wesley praised the painter mainly for his despatch. “Mr. Romney is a painter indeed. He struck off an exact likeness at once, and did more in an hour than Sir Joshua 180 did in ten.”1717From a letter of Wesley. Quoted by D. Baines-Griffeth in “Wesley the Anglican.” London, 1919. George III listened to Wesley with respect, and followed his advice in important matters relating to the Church of England. Wesley was one of those present in the robing-chamber at the coronation.
But Wesley’s heart was in the places where he spent the most of his life, preaching the Gospel to the poor and unchurched and ignorant, and such as had no helper. He was too busy to devote much time to writing poetry, though Samuel Bradburn, a friend of Wesley, said of him, “He had a fine taste for poetry and composed himself many of our hymns; but he told me that he and his brother agreed not to distinguish their hymns from each other.”1818Quoted by David Craemer, in “Methodist Hymnody,” New York, 1848.
It is certain that Charles Wesley wrote most of the hymns, and that John Wesley made the various translations. There is no way of proving that the elder brother is not the author of some of the hymns ascribed to Charles. Dr. Nutter and Dr. Tillett think that John Wesley wrote the following hymn, because it has only the second and fourth stanzas riming. No known stanza of Charles Wesley is thus constructed; some of the elder brother’s translations have this arrangement of rime. The hymn seems to have also a logical tone more characteristic of John Wesley:181
We lift our hearts to thee,
O Day-Star from on high!
The sun itself is but thy shade,
Yet cheers both earth and sky.
O let thy orient beams
The night of sin disperse,
The mists of error and of vice
Which shade the universe!
How beauteous nature now!
How dark and sad before!
With joy we view the pleasing change,
And nature’s God adore.
May we this life improve,
To mourn for errors past;
And live this short revolving day
As if it were our last.
To God, the Father, Son,
And Spirit,—One in Three—
Be glory; as it was, is now,
And shall forever be.
A stanza from one of his translations, Gerhard Tersteegen’s “Verborgne Gottes Liebe Du!” indicates the quality of his work:
Whose depth unfathomed no man knows,
I see from far thy beauteous light,
Inly I sigh for thy repose:
My heart is pained, nor can it be
At rest till it finds rest in thee.
John Wesley possessed what has been called the “hymn sense” to an admirable degree. In the precarious business of amending and revising hymns, he changed many of those he published, usually to their sure improvement. The hymns both of Watts and his brother Charles he altered with a bold hand and with a delicate judgment. One of the fine hymns of the hymn-book to-day is that of Watts beginning,
But as Watts wrote it,
the hymn lacked the eye-charming first line that has saved the life of many a good poem.
Wesley’s exuberant conviction of the human spirit’s right and power, under God, to transcend material circumstances is well expressed in the sturdy lyric beginning,
That is a notable triumph of imagination and of poetic expression in the last line:
Let this earth dissolve and blend
In dust the wicked and the just;
Let those ponderous orbs descend
And grind us into dust:—
Rests secure the righteous man
At his Redeemer’s beck,
Sure to merge and rise again,
And mount above the wreck.
Lo the heavenly spirit towers
Like flame o’er nature’s funeral pyre
Triumphs in immortal powers
And claps his wings of fire.
John Wesley’s “Journal” and letters comprise some rich human history as well as throwing light on the upspringing Wesleyan hymnody. The immaculate, wiry little man whose quick firm step and ruddy cheeks and flashing eyes belied his ninety years could write, “I never lost a night’s sleep in my life, nor spent as much as a quarter of an hour at any one time in low spirits.” Yet night after night for weeks he had slept on the floor with a great-coat or Barket’s “Notes on the New Testament” for a pillow, and long had found it a “good tonic” to preach at five in the morning. Arriving somewhere at the end of the day, “extremely weary,” he found the people “so glad to see me that they never once thought of asking me to eat or drink”; yet he adds, “My weariness vanished when I began to speak.”
Stones might be hurled at his head; subtler and more wounding missiles might be hurled from those of his own class, even from his old familiar friends, yet he is calm and reasonably careless. “I never fret. . . . I see God sitting upon his throne and ruling 184 all things well.” Such vigor of life, such rich and ample culture, such comeliness of spirit, such bold and joyful faith finding most varied expression in his parish which was the world, found expression, too, in verse which will live. Lines from his translation of Paul Gerhardt’s “Befiehl Du Deine Wege” show the quality of his soul and the source of his faith:
And griefs into his hands . . .
Who points the clouds their course,
Whom winds and seas obey;
He shall direct thy wandering feet,
He shall prepare thy way.
Give to the winds thy fears;
Hope and be undismayed;
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves of cloud and storm
He gently clears the way . . .
What though thou rulest not?
Yet heaven and earth and hell
Proclaim God sitting on his throne
And ruling all things well.
Besides the hymnals of the Wesleys, which did not at first gain acceptance among the other religious bodies, there were published in rapid succession, 185 especially through the latter half of the century, large numbers of collections and original volumes. Foremost among these was always the “Psalms and Hymns” of Isaac Watts. Other notable books of hymns were those of Philip Doddridge, John Cennick, Anne Steele, Martin Madan, John Newton, and William Cowper, the Countess of Huntingdon, Augustus Toplady, John Rippon, and William Williams from Wales, Thomas Kelley from Ireland, and James Stewart from Scotland.
Philip Doddridge (1704-59) wrote many good hymns, among which are “O Happy Day That Fixed My Choice”; “Awake My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve”; “Do I Not Love Thee, O My Lord?” “Eternal Source of Every Joy”; “Triumphant Zion, Lift Thy Head”; “How Gentle God’s Commands.”
Doddridge was a man of learning, of fluctuating poetical gift, and of saintly character. Some ideas of his style may be gained from the following hymn, based upon the sublime passage in the fourth chapter of Luke, which in turn is taken from Isaiah 61:1-3:
Hark the glad sound! the Saviour comes,
The Saviour promised long;
Let every heart prepare a throne,
And every voice a song.
He comes the prisoner to release,
In Satan’s bondage held;
The gates of brass before him burst,
The iron fetters yield.
He comes from thickest films of vice
To clear the mental ray;
And on the eyes oppressed by night
To pour celestial day.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
The wounded soul to cure,
And with the treasures of his grace,
To enrich the humble poor.
Our glad hozannas, Prince of Peace,
Thy welcome shall proclaim,
Till heaven’s eternal arches ring,
With thy beloved name.
But this is not quite the hymn that Doddridge wrote; John Wesley and others revised it. The original second stanza beginning,
In him the Spirit, largely poured,
Exerts his sacred fire,
was dropped, to the obvious improvement of the poem. What is now the third stanza originally closed with the lines,
And on the eyeballs of the blind
To pour celestial day.
The figure was, until Wesley revised it, too violent; it suggested glare and pain rather than restoration of sight or the break of dawn. The line,
The bleeding soul to cure,
disturbed the balance of the lyric. The stronger of two ideas, that of “cure” here, should not be expressed by the weaker and less vivid word. If the poet used “bleeding” he should find a word like “stanch” to balance it. The original last stanza,
The silver trumpets publish loud
The jubilee of the Lord;
Our debts are all remitted now,
Our heritage restored,
did not keep the main idea of the hymn, and fell away in poetic quality.
In any hymn where there is a seriously faulty stanza, one of three consequences is possible: the stanza may be revised, it may be dropped out, or it may remain to drag the whole hymn into the place of forgotten songs.
As to the right of the hymn-book to revise or in any way to change an author’s work there is a difference of opinion. Surely no editor has a right to twist a poem out of its original meaning or to add foreign ideas to it, holding the author responsible.
But the hymnal is a book of religious worship and not primarily an anthology of various poets’ work; the individuality of the author tends to merge itself in the common expression. And it seems most natural and right to save a good hymn by judicious omission or alteration meant only to make the poem conform to the type. Many of the best hymns have thus been made eligible. When alteration has been 188 made it should be acknowledged with the notice of authorship. In the standard books to-day notice is carefully given if any substantial alteration has been made. The permanent changes are made naturally; if assembled folk accept an expression as their own it must he their expression. The folk-mind has thus often changed a saying or proverb to make it more quotable and more comprehensible, as for example changing “apples of gold and pictures of silver” to “apples of gold and peaches of silver”; or with more art and reason the lines of Bulwer-Lytton,
In the lexicon of youth which fate reserves
For a bright manhood there is no such word as fail
In the bright lexicon of youth there’s no such work as fail.
Of the thousand hymnals containing Doddridge’s hymn to-day there is not one that has not helped to save it by adopting the revision pointed out.
Now let us take this hymn as an average fair specimen of English hymnody. Let us examine it in detail, somewhat technically at first.
As a lyrical poem it obeys the twofold essential law of unity in that it is single and complete; it has but one theme, and it develops that theme in a composition of definite beginning, middle, and end. It has further the essential glow of emotion: it is warm, earnest, intense to the extent of being a harmoniously controlled outcry. Its theme is a contemplation 189 of the beneficent advent of Christ. Its complete movement of thought is apparent: (1) He comes; (2) He comes to free and bless mankind; (3) mankind will acknowledge and acclaim Him. The words, phrases, and figures of speech of the composition are in harmony with one another and with the central idea and emotion. It shows an admirable lyric brevity of statement:
Let every heart prepare a throne
And every voice a song.
Its phrasing is elevated and felicitous.
The gates of brass before him burst,
The iron fetters yield.
Till heaven’s eternal arches ring.
The thought moves unswervingly and swiftly, as it should move, toward its climax.
As a religious song it has a breadth about it that is characteristic of the greater hymns. It states its truth broadly as for many minds; it speaks from no corner point of view, and insists on no particular angle of opinion. Its assertion is the Advent of Christ. The Adventist can sing the words as expressive of his own peculiar belief that one day suddenly the clouds will take their places in set order, a trumpet will sound, and Christ will appear with an army of angels out of the heavens and set up a perfect régime of justice, love, and happiness in the world. The strict ritualist may regard it as a calendar hymn for the feast in celebration of the 190 birth of Christ. The strict Evangelical may sing it with particular application to his own “heart experience.” The Liberal may sing it as a fervent expression of his belief that the human race is moving forward, by evolutionary processes toward a fuller and richer realization of knowledge, power, good will, and happiness. He may understand by “gates of brass” and “iron fetters” all evil restrictions of the freedom of the mind, whether it be of external tyranny or of internal weakness and ignorance. Binding the broken heart, curing the wounded soul, and the like may mean to some minds deliverance from individual distress or evil; to others, better education, better social justice, even better medical science, and general welfare through universal practice of the principles of Christianity.
Still, however many things the hymn may be to many people, there is nothing wishy-washy or doubtful about it. It is an assertion of faith that through Jesus Christ—however one may understand it—the will of God, which is the greatest good and happiness for all men, is to prevail on the earth. We may say that this is a good lyrical poem; and the great body of people who sing hymns say that it is a good hymn.
Doddridge wrote the hymn in 1735. If he had written it thirty years later when there was a clearer idea of what the hymn-type demands, the revisions would probably not have been left to other hands. A more nearly perfect hymn of his is the following:191
How gentle God’s commands,
How kind his precepts are!
Come cast your burden on the Lord,
And trust his constant care.
Beneath his watchful eye,
His saints securely dwell;
The hand that bears all nature up
Shall guard his children well.
Why should this anxious load
Press down your weary mind?
Haste to your Heavenly Father’s throne,
And sweet refreshment find.
His goodness stands approved,
Unchanged from day to day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet
And bear a song away.
The second stanza began originally,
While Providence supports
Let saints securely dwell.
One does not have to search long for the reason why the hymn sense accepted the change. If the idea of the stanza is the guardianship of Providence, “watchful eye” is more appropriate, as it is more specific and concrete.
This hymn is simple in expression; swift, animated, sincere. There are few songs with a finer climax than that in the last stanza. One feels that the poem is an artistic expression of honest, true religion. 192 It has a mildness of spirit that contrasts with the controversial time in which it was published, 1755. That may be why many of the collections of the eighteenth century omitted it.
One of Whitfield’s Methodist converts, John Fawcett, became minister of a small Baptist church at Waingate, in Yorkshire. When he had become a distinguished preacher there came repeated calls for him to go up to London. But like Chaucer’s and Goldsmith’s poor parsons he chose to stay with his country charge. At last, however, when under urgent pressure he had decided that it was his duty to go, and his goods were on the wagon and he was ready to start, he saw that many of his humble flock were weeping. He ordered the wagons to turn back, the story goes; and he went into his house and wrote what was to become one of the famous hymns of the language, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” He stayed in Yorkshire till his death in 1817 at the age of seventy-eight. Though he was a considerable writer in his day, and though he wrote as many as 169 hymns, none of them matches this one:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our father’s throne,
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
A sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
It is easy to believe that this gentle and neighborly hymn, sung year in and year out over the English-speaking world, has had influence in making for charity, harmony, and happiness of life at more than one time and in more than one community. One can imagine many a person, under a weight of grief and other kinds of trouble, taking heart at the latter verses of the hymn. And it is practically useful for man to have his hope renewed. “Sweet hope is his companion,” says Plato in the first book of the “Republic,” “cheering his heart, the nurse of his age—hope which more than aught else steers the 194 capricious will of mortal man.” There is a good deal of faith, hope, and charity to be found in these simple verses.
Let me cite this hymn further as evidence that there is such a thing as the practical ministry of poetry in ordinary life. I speak in the first person because that is the best way to give the evidence. In the negro section of the old graveyard at Chapel Hill one afternoon I saw a group of village negroes holding the funeral of an old man who had been among them a sage and a shoemaker and good neighbor. These humble folk closed their service of burial standing around the grave and singing the verses of Dr. John Fawcett, written in Yorkshire in 1772. I can remember yet the peculiar richness of their voices in the phrase “this glorious hope revives,” and the plaintive peacefulness and the light in their faces as they sang “and hope to meet again.” I am entirely sure that the combination of the words and music was worth a great deal to those negroes in the practical service of making them happier and better men and women.
Edward Perronet (1726-92), a descendant of French Protestant refugees, son of an Anglican priest, supporter of John Wesley—later a friendly opponent, a chaplain to the Countess of Huntington, issued a volume, “Occasional Verses, Moral and Sacred, Published for the Instruction and Amusement of the Candidly Serious and Religious,”1919London, 1785. which contains one of the most popular hymns:195
All hail the power of Jesus’ name,
Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown him Lord of all.
Every stanza of the hymn, except the fourth,
Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget
The wormwood and the gall,
Go spread your trophies at his feet,
And crown him Lord of all,
has been altered. The last stanza was written by another hand, probably that of Rippon. Some of the alterations are inconsequential; most of them make toward betterment of the poem as a hymn. For example, the stanza,
Let every kindred, every tribe,
On this terrestrial ball,
To him all majesty ascribe,
And crown him Lord of all,
Let ev’ry tribe and ev’ry tongue,
Throughout this earthly ball,
Unite in one harmonious song,
And crown him Lord of all.
Artistic omission was exercised in the case of these two stanzas:
Let high-born seraphs tune the lyre,
And as they tune it, fall196
Before his face who tunes their choir,
And crown him Lord of all.
Hail him, ye heirs of David’s line,
Whom David Lord did call;
The God incarnate, man Divine,
And crown him Lord of all.
John Wesley had a stout theological opponent in Augustus Toplady. Since the time when St. Peter and St. Paul disagreed so hotly, Christian leaders have found it necessary not only to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, but sometimes to fight one another. A stubborn controversy between these brother priests of the Church of England over the doctrine of election, in which they disputed with remarkable heat, seems partly to have fired the emotion that blazed out in one of the greatest hymns of the world, “Rock of Ages.” Toplady had published a hymn beginning with these words:
My name from the palm of his hand
Eternity cannot erase.
Impressed on his heart it remains
In marks of indelible grace:
Yes! I to the end shall endure
As sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure
The glorified spirits of heaven.
Wesley called him “a vain boaster,” and the two exchanged a good deal of argument peppered with invective. In his “Gospel Magazine,” March, 1776, 197 Toplady published an essay against the Arminians. Comparing the “debt of sin” to the national debt, he showed how that “at ten years old, each of us is chargeable with 315 millions, and 36 thousand sins—, at twenty with 630 millions, and 720 thousand . . . At eighty with 2522 millions and 880 thousand.” “When,” continues the writer, “shall We be able to pay off this debt? Never.” Then follows a heated passage, at the end of which is a poem entitled “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the world”:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.
In my hand no price I bring;
Simply to the cross I cling.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes are closed in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold thee on thy throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
It is a grand hymn; there are few poems more generally familiar and more treasured in the affections of the people than this. For example, ten thousand people and more according to press accounts gathered lately on the wild hillside where tradition says the poem was written, to celebrate the memory of the author. The fact that the Prince Consort Albert repeated the hymn as he died helped of course to spread its fame over the British Empire; but that is only a detail of its history, a symbol of its hold upon the world.
It is notable, and yet, as one considers it, not strange, that among the very few hymns that take rank with this one, three others, namely, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Lead Kindly Light,” and “Nearer My God to Thee,” have precisely the same theme, and are built on the same pattern and in the same poetic mood. Each opens with the cry of the soul for divine help; each reiterates the idea of human insufficiency; and each closes with a gleam of exaltation. Wesley’s hymn closes:
Spring thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.
That of Mrs. Adams:
Or if on joyful wing,
Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon and stars forgot,
Upwards I fly,
Still all my songs shall be199
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
And that of Newman:
And with the morn, those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
It is illuminating in the study of poetry to read “Rock of Ages” in its original setting and to see how the cold and storm of Toplady’s hard disputation changes to lyric fair weather with the first line of the hymn; the title with its ironic thrust at theological antagonists, even though its fervor almost raises it to the plane of poetry, is bitter, and does not accord with the lyric sweetness of the hymn. It belongs clearly to the prose discourse, and has therefore been dropped.
It may be noted here that most of the titles given hymns by their authors have been dropped as not belonging to the lyric; the hymns are almost invariably known by the first line, or part of the first line. Wesley’s “Depths of Mercy” was entitled “After a Relapse into Sin”; “Jesu the Name High over All” was headed “After Preaching in a Church”; “Come O Thou Traveller Unknown” was “Wrestling Jacob”; “Lo on a Narrow Neck of Land” was “An Hymn for Seriousness.” Addison’s title for “The Spacious Firmament on High” was “The Right Means to Strengthen Faith.” None of the three titles remain which Newman gave in succession to “Lead Kindly Light.” Toplady’s “If on a Quiet 200 Sea,” the only other hymn by which he is remembered, he called “Weak Believers Encouraged”; he later modified the title of his great hymn to “A Living and Dying Prayer.”
“Rock of Ages” has been subject to a great many alterations. The text was rearranged with several changes of phrase by Thomas Cotterill, for his “Selection of Psalms and Hymns,” 1815. One obviously necessary change was that of the second line:
When my eye-strings break in death.
The best emendation is:
When mine eyes shall close in death.
When my eyelids close in death,
When my heart-strings break in death,
When my eyelids sink in death.
Rock of Ages, rent for me.
The hymn did not become widely known for fifty years after its publication. Now there are few hymnals or collections of representative songs that do not give it a place.201
As a lyrical poem “Rock of Ages” will hold its own compared with great lyrics of other types. Its energy and color, its forceful and vivid figures, its rhythm, its unity of thought and structure, sincerity, harmony—all this reveals good art, that is, powerful impulse under strict, wise discipline. Notice its balance of austerity and fervor, of dignity and tenderness. The images implying the immanence, the permanence, and the majesty of God over the stretches of time and place mingle in the same tense lines with the most intimate personal appeal:
When I soar through worlds unknown—
See thee on thy judgment throne—
Rock of Ages, cleft for me;
Let me hide myself in thee.
With all this, it is, to revert to the title, a living prayer for the humblest sinner as well as for the holiest believer.
William Cowper, though he is the greatest of English poets who have, to any large degree, devoted their talent to writing hymns, is not the greatest hymn-poet. The tone of the “Olney Hymns,” which he and John Newton began in 1771 and published in 1779, is that of combined gloom, delicacy, and rapt devotion. Cowper’s “O for a Closer Walk with God”; “Sometimes a Light Surprises”; “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”; “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” are among his best hymns. “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”; “How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours”; “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound”; 202 “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”; “Safely through Another Week” are among Newton’s best. In writing these best hymns Newton allowed his poetic gift to overrule his poetic theory, which as stated in the preface was that “the imagery and coloring of poetry if admitted at all, should be admitted very sparingly.” His theory was nearer to the plodding rimes of Sternhold and Hopkins, his practice happily nearer to the Psalms so full of color and imagery.
The peculiar distrust of poetry by men like Newton was partly due to their grim, stern traits of character. But it was also partly due to perverse traits of poetry in their day. Poetry had fallen in with bad company; or rather bad company had fallen in with poetry. Edward Young, the author of “Night Thoughts,” in his last poem, “Resignation,” expresses the wish that poetry might find a new and better theme:
And in the age of gaudy guilt
Gay folly’s flood restrain.
He expresses a Wordsworthian idea that one office of poetry is to inspire ideas which shall
Amidst the storms of life support
A calm, unshaken mind.
Cowper in his “Table Talk” says that the poesy of his day, instead of calling men to share “divine delight,”203
Distorted from its use and just design,
To make the pitiful possessor shine,
To purchase at the fool-frequented fair,
Of vanity a wreath herself to wear
Is profanation of the basest kind. . . .
If flattery, folly, lust, employ the pen;
If acrimony, slander, and abuse
Give it a charge to blacken and traduce,
if this, says Cowper, is the office of poetry we might better cry:
Hail Sternhold, then, and Hopkins hail!
A man of the taste, culture, and rich imaginative nature of Cowper must have thought the state of England’s poetry then to be very low if he contemplated renouncing it to return to Sternhold and Hopkins for poetic example and theory.
Pity Religion has so seldom found
A skillful guide into poetic ground;
The flowers would spring where’er she deigned to stray,
And every muse attend her on her way;
Virtue indeed meets many a rhyming friend
And many a compliment politely penned;
But unattired in that becoming vest
Religion weaves for her, and half undrest,
Stands in the desert shivering and forlorn,
A wintry figure like a withered thorn.
Cowper is not asserting here that poetry should devote itself exclusively or chiefly to “sacred” themes, using the word in its narrow sense. One 204 might as well contend that all the masons and carpenters should build only “sacred” buildings. But he says:
Satire has long since done his best; and curst
And loathsome Ribaldry done his worst.
Fancy has sported all her powers away
In tales, in trifles, and in children’s play,
It is the sad complaint, and almost true,
Whate’er we write we bring forth nothing new.
’Twere new indeed to have a bard, on fire,
Touched with a coal from heaven, assume the lyre.
And tell the world still kindling as he sung,
With more than mortal music on his tongue,
That He who dies below, and reigns above
Inspires the song, and that his name is Love.
These lines are a definite plea for a kind of song that we call a hymn. It expresses a desire that had been stirring among the poets as well as among common people for a lively spontaneous lyrical expression of religious faith and aspiration. The greater poets had felt the stirring.
Even Dryden had turned the “Te Deum” into heroic couplets, thus bringing this and other Latin hymns into the poetic form of his day. Pope had placed at the end of his “Essay on Man” “A Universal Prayer,” which was almost a hymn.
The first stanza, for example, is hymnal:
Father of all, in every age
In every clime adored
By saint, by savage and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!
But the following stanza is not good hymnody, though it may be good poetry and is good Christianity:
Let not this weak unknowing hand
Presume thy bolts to throw
And deal damnation round the land
On each I judge thy foe.
If the last two lines of this stanza are lyric, they are not hymnologically lyric. “Damnation” is not quite a hymn word. It is hard to imagine any situation in which “deal damnation round the land” could be appropriately sung by a group of men, women, and children gathered for worship.
The following are good hymn lines, and show that Pope might have been a notable hymnist:
Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide that fault I see.
That mercy I to others show
That mercy show to me.
To thee whose temple is all space,
Whose altar, earth, sea, skies!
One chorus let all being raise,
All nature incense rise!
These lines show the stirring of English hymnody among these larger poets.
As Pope had ended his “Essay on Man” with a lyrical religious summary, James Thomson closed his “Seasons” with a “Hymn.” The first lines are:206
These as they change, Almighty Father! these
Are but the varied God. The rolling year
Is full of thee.
It is a noble poem, but it is not the type of poetry that the hymn-book contains.
Shenstone left no attempted hymns, but he found sweetness even in the rugged Sternhold. In “The Schoolmistress” he gives a picture of rural England piety:
Here oft the dame, on Sabbath’s decent eve
Hymnèd such psalms as Sternhold forth did mete;
If winter ’twere, she to her hearth did cleave,
But in her garden found a summer seat;
Sweet melody! to hear her then repeat
How Israel’s sons . . .
For she was just and friend to virtuous lore.
Robert Burns later in his poetry pictures the charm and force of hymns, though he never wrote a very good one. His vivid picture of the Scottish family gathered at the fireside singing the hymns of Scotland shows that he loved these hymns; he believed that
From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs.
The following quatrain, “On Taking Leave at a Place in the Highlands,” may indicate, better than pages of speculation about it, why he wrote no successful hymns:207
When death’s dark stream I ferry o’er,
A time that surely shall come,
In heaven itself, I’ll ask no more
Than just a highland welcome.
One refuses to believe that he did not find it; but one sees that this lyric hope is not exalted enough, or at any rate not highly enough expressed, for sober folk to sing at kirk on the Sabbath day. Burns was not a hymnist. His “Prayer on the Prospect of Death” is an expression for one person only, not for a group, as the first stanza will show:
O thou unknown, Almighty cause
Of all my hope and fear,
In whose dread presence ere an hour
Perhaps I must appear!
Burns’s rendering of the “Nineteenth Psalm” is far inferior to Watts’s; as far inferior one might say as Dr. Watts’s love poem, had he left one, would have been to Burns’s “O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose”:
O thou the first and greatest Friend
Of all the human race!
Whose strong right hand has ever been
Their stay and dwelling place.
Anne Steele, “Theodosia” (1716-79), is in point of time the first woman writer of English hymns. She was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. She was never married, and she lived quietly all her days in a quiet town. Her best hymn is:208
Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sovereign will denies,
Accepted at the throne of grace
Let this petition rise:
Give me a calm and thankful heart,
From every murmur free;
The blessings of thy grace impart
Which makes me live to thee.
Let the sweet hope that thou art mine,
My life and death attend,
Thy presence through my journey shine
And crown my journey’s end.
The “Sacred Songs” of Thomas Moore, published in 1815, though they were written for hymns, each being provided with an appropriate air, are not hymns as the hymn-book understands the term. The galloping meters and peculiar fancies are not consonant with hymnody. There is among these poems, however, one exception, though it was largely revised before it could be said to fit the hymn type:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er you languish,
Come at God’s altar, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
“Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.”
Joy of the desolate, Light of the straying,
Hope when all others die, fadeless and pure,
Here speaks the comforter, in God’s name saying—
“Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”
Go ask the infidel what boon he brings us,
What charm for aching hearts he can reveal,
Sweet as that heavenly promise Hope sings us
“Earth hath no sorrow that God cannot heal.”
Now, the type of verse called the hymn is as strict as the sonnet in its requirements; only the requirements are different and less tangible. This poem of Moore’s as it stands does not meet them. Before consulting the hymn-book, one may glance over Moore’s original poem and mark certain changes that the hymn-book is sure to demand before the piece is admitted.
The first line is good, magnificently good hymnody, except for its grammatical discord. The hymn book will choose between the archaic “ye” and “you,” probably choosing the archaic form changing “has” in the last line of each stanza to “hath.” The first half of the second line scans too roughly; one measure is lacking. The first line of the third stanza is a challenge to an argument. And while the great hymners, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Watts, Wesley, Keble, and the rest, have usually been ready enough to debate, their hymns, being lyrical, have not been the vehicle of argument. Good hymns do not argue. Another fault with the last stanza—not so slight, either, as it would at first appear—is that there is no cesura readily apparent in the third line.
The composition as a genuine hymn was first published2121C. S. Nutter, “Hymns and Hymn-Writers,” New York, 1911. in 1832 in a book entitled “Spiritual Songs 210 for Social Worship,” with alterations, and with the last stanza supplanted by a new one, probably written by Thomas Hastings, who was one of the editors of the book. In the first line “you” was changed to “ye.” The second line now reads:
Come to the mercy seat; fervently kneel.
The second stanza was altered thus:
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure;
Here speaks the comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”
The hymn closes with the supplied stanza:
Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love; come ever knowing
Earth hath no sorrow but heaven can remove.
“Hymns Ancient and Modern” and “The English Hymnal,” both conservative about accepting “amendments,” do not include this hymn probably because it would, of course, not do without some kind of amendment. Most of the American hymn-books do include it, assigning its authorship jointly to Moore and Hastings. In this I think the American books are right. Hymns are, after all, partially folk-poetry, and of so impersonal a nature that the name of the author has not the significance that it has in other poetry. Indeed, for a long time it was not customary to indicate the names of authors in 211 the hymn-books. In some of the best hymnals to-day authors’ names are given only in indexes at the back. The hymn-books generally have not considered individual authorship so important as to prevent some natural growth in an immature hymn, or to cut away dead and crooked branches. “Come Ye Disconsolate” is an example of an immature poem growing by “folk-culture” into one of the first-rate hymns of the language.
In Byron’s book of songs, “Hebrew Melodies,” published in 1815, with music, there is no true hymn. “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold” was included in a few books of the middle of the last century; but it is a spirited song of war rather than of devotion. Neither of his renderings of the Psalms is a good hymn. The better one begins:
In the valley of waters we wept on that day
When the host of the stranger made Salem his prey.
And our heads on our bosoms droopingly lay,
And our hearts were so full of the land far away.
His most earnest and devout religious song contains a single word that led to “numerous attacks upon the noble author’s religion”2222“The Works of Lord Byron,” Vol. III, p. 383, note. Murray, London, 1900. and to a vigorous reply from the noble author. The troublesome monosyllable was “if” in
If that high world which lies beyond
Our own, surviving Love endears;212
If there the cherished heart be fond,
The eye the same, except in tears—
How welcome those untrodden spheres!
How sweet this very hour to die!
To soar from earth and find all fears,
Lost in thy light—Eternity!
It must be so; ’tis not for self
That we so tremble on the brink;
The striving to o’erleap the gulf,
Yet cling to being’s severing link.
O that in future let us think
To hold each heart the best that shares,
With them the immortal waters drink,
And soul in soul grow deathless theirs!
However fine music Byron and his collaborators might have set these lines to, and however many hymn-books might have included them, one does not have to know much about hymns to see that the involved statement of this idea—“If what we say we believe to be true is really so, how sweet it would be to die right now!”—would not be sung as part of the service of the church.
This evident stir of the hymn sentiment among the larger figures of the time was felt also among uncounted humbler ones. There was a true democracy in this realm of poetry. Any man under his own vine and fig-tree could have his own harp. Hundreds—thousands—of hymns found their way into print; many more thousands were perhaps mercifully not preserved. Most of the verses are of 213 course not poetry but honest rimes carrying right ideas and good sentiment. Among them all there are a few superb hymns. William Williams, a devout itinerant Welsh preacher, wrote many hymns; one of them, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” still lives as his great contribution to the hymn-book. Benjamin Beddome (1717-95), a leader of the Baptists of England, wrote many hymns, 830 of which were collected and published by his friends. “Did Christ o’er Sinners Weep?” is perhaps the best known of them. His song on reading the Bible may not have the sweep of lyric wings, but it carries, in noble and not inharmonious words, a most important truth. If one reads these lines gravely he may be surprised to see how rich in truth they grow as he regards them more closely, considering the meaning of the Bible in the history of civilization as well as of individual lives:
God, in the gospel of his Son,
Makes his eternal counsels known:
Where love in all its glory shines,
And truth is drawn in fairest lines.
Here sinners of the humbler frame
May taste his grace and learn his name;
May read in characters of blood
The wisdom, power, and grace of God.
The prisoner here may break his chain,
The weary rest from all his pain,
The captive feel his bondage cease,
The mourner find the way of peace.
Here faith reveals to mortal eyes
A brighter world beyond the skies,
Here shines the light which guides his way
From earth to realms of perfect day.
O grant us grace, Almighty Lord,
To read and mark thy holy word,
Its truth with meekness to receive,
And by its holy precepts live.
John Byrom, a fellow in Trinity College, Oxford, wrote a number of hymns, but one of which, “Christian, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn,” survives. In 1787 Dr. John Rippon published “A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors,” which contained a new hymn signed with the initial “K.”—“How Firm a Foundation.” This exultant song of faith, one of the great hymns of the eighteenth century, closes with these words:
The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
These lively songs of the latter half of the eighteenth century show a genuine hunger after righteousness; they are joyful in the sense of the soul’s freedom to reach toward heaven, and they are unshakably certain of the infinite power and goodness of God.
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