AUTHOR OF "THE WORLD BEFORE THE FLOOD," ETC.
AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY
LONDON AND GLASGOW
RICHARD GRIFFIN & Co.
SONGS and Hymns, in honour of their Gods, are found among all people who have either religion or verse. There is scarcely any pagan poetry, ancient or modern, in which allusions to the national mythology are not so frequent as to constitute the most copious materials, as well as the most brilliant embellishments. The poets of Persia and Arabia, in like manner, have adorned their gorgeous strains with the fables and words of the Koran. The relics of Jewish song which we possess, with few exceptions, are consecrated immediately to the glory of God, by whom indeed, they were inspired. The first Christians were wont to edify themselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs; and though we have no specimens of these left, except the occasional doxologies ascribed to the redeemed in the Book of Revelation, it cannot be doubted that they used not only the psalms of the Old Testament, literally, or accommodated to the circumstances of a new and rising Church, but that they had original lays of their own, in which they celebrated the praises of Christ, as the Saviour of the world.
In the middle ages, the Roman Catholic and Greek churches statedly adopted singing as an essential part of public worship; but this, like the reading of the Scriptures, was too frequently in an unknown tongue, by an affectation of wisdom, to excite the veneration of ignorance, when the learned, in their craftiness, taught that "Ignorance is the mother of devotion;" and Ignorance was very willing to believe it. At the era of the Reformation, psalms and hymns, in the vernacular tongue, were revived in Germany, England, and elsewhere, among the other means of grace, of which Christendom had been for centuries defrauded.
The translation of the Psalms by Sternhold, Hopkins, and others, in the reign of Edward VI. with some slight improvement, keeps its place to this day in many churches of the English Establishment. The merit of faithful adherence to the original has been claimed for this version, and need not be denied, but it is the resemblance which the dead bears to the living; and to hold such a version forth (which some learned men have lately done) as a model of standard psalmody for the use of Christian congregations in the nineteenth century, surely betrays an affectation of singularity, or a deplorable defect of taste. A few nervous or pathetic stanzas may be found here and there, for it was impossible, in so long an adventure, to escape falling into a better way now and then.
Nearly as inanimate, though a little more refined, are the Psalms of Tate and Brady, which, about a century ago, were honoured by the royal authority to be sung in those churches which chose to receive them. But they have only partially superseded their fore-runners; many people preferring the rude simplicity of the one, to the neutral propriety of the other. There are, however, even among these, several passages of considerable worth, such as one would wish that all the rest had been. The 139th Psalm has been deservedly commended.
A third version, by the Rev. James Merrick, of Oxford, was published at a later period, for which the king's license to introduce it into the churches could not be obtained. It is only wonderful that the privilege should ever have been sought, on the recommendation of men of learning and taste, in behalf of a work of such immesurable verbiage, as these paraphrases exhibit. Take a specimen from Psalm 85th: "Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other:"
- "With mutual step advancing there,
- Shall Peace and Justice, heavenly pair,
- To lasting compact onward move,
- Seal'd by the kiss of sacred love."
Here it must be evident, that the four words in italics, express the whole essence of the text, and that all the rest is garniture. Yet Merrick was an elegant scholar, and no mean poet. His version of Simeon's song, (page 107 in this collection,) and the hymn, "Behold yon new-born infant grieved," (page 286,) are creditable. There is a compactness and economy both of matter and words in some stanzas of the latter, which Pope himself never exceeded. An Abridgement, or rather a series of extracts from Merrick's volume, might be made a truly valuable help to public devotion, as may be seen by reference to the 139th Psalm, given in the present selection (page 69) where five stanzas, culled from seventeen, form a most affecting funeral meditation.
Of modern imitations of the Psalms, it is not necessary to give an opinion here. Without disparagement to the living or the dead, -- and to borrow the idea of an Italian poet1, in reference to the lyre of Virgil, -- it may be said, that the harp of David yet hangs upon the willow, disdaining the touch of any hand less skilful than his own.
But turning more directly to the subject of these remarks, in connection with the contents of this volume -- though our elder poets, down even to the Revolution, often chose to exercise their vein on religious topics; since that time there has been but one who bears a great name among them, who has condescended to compose hymns, in the commonly accepted sense of the word. Addison, who has left several which may be noticed hereafter, though he ranks in the first class of prose writers, must take a place many degrees lower in verse. Cowper, therefore, stands alone among "the mighty masters" of the lyre, as having contributed a considerable number of approved and popular hymns, for the purpose of public or private devotion.
Hymns, looking at the multitude and mass of them, appear to have been written by all kinds of persons, except poets; and why the latter have not delighted in this department of their own art, is obvious. Just in proportion as the religion of Christ is understood and taught in primitive purity, those who either believe not in its spirituality, or have not proved its converting influence, are careful to avoid meddling with it; so that, if its sacred mysteries have been less frequently and ostentatiously honoured by the homage of our poets within the last hundred and fifty years than formerly, they have been less disgraced and violated by absurd and impious associations. The offence of the cross has not ceased; nay, it exists, perhaps, most inveterately, though less apparently, in those countries where the religion of the state has been refined from the gross superstitions of its dark ages; for there the humbling doctrines of the Gospel are, as of old, a stumbling-block to the self-righteous, and foolishness to the wise in their own esteem. Many of our eminent poets have belonged to one or other of these classes; it cannot be surprising, then, that they either knew not, or contemned "the truth as it is in Jesus."
There is an idle prejudice, founded upon the misapprehension of a passage in Dr Johnson's life of Waller, and a hint of the like nature in his life of Watts -- that sacred subjects are unfit for poetry, nay, incapable of being combined with it. That their native majesty and grace cannot be heightened by any human art of embellishment, is most freely admitted; but that verse, as well as prose, may be advantageously associated with whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, in religion, we have the evidence of the Scriptures themselves, "in the law of Moses, and the Prophets, and in the Psalms," where they testify concerning Christ and his sufferings, in strains the most exalted that poetry can boast. We have evidence to the same effect in many of the most perfect and exquisite compositions of uninspired poets, both in our own and in other countries.
The Editor of "THE CHRISTIAN PSALMIST" hopes to have an early opportunity of showing that Dr Johnson's assertion respecting the incompatibility of poetry with devotion, is not nearly so comprehensive as it has been ignorantly assumed to be; and that what he has actually asserted on this head, is invalidated by matter of fact, the only satisfactory test of the truth of such positions. At present it will be sufficient to affirm, in despite of this oracle of criticism, -- which, when examined closely, will be found as ambiguous, and as capable of being explained to nothing, as other oracles were wont to be, -- that, had our greatest poets possessed the religious knowledge of our humblest writers of hymns, they might have been the authors of similar compositions, not less superior to the ordinary run of these, than their own best poems are above the incorrigible mediocrity of their contemporaries.
But, in their default, we are not without abundant proof, that hymns may be as splendid in poetry as they are fervent in devotion; and in this volume will be found many popular pieces, the untaught workmanship of men who had no names in literature, but whose piety inspired them to write in verse, and sometimes with a felicity which the most practised masters of song might envy, but, unless the "Spirit gave them utterance," could not compass with their utmost art.
Let us give an example from each of these three favourite poets of the last generation, who, had they consecrated their talents to the services of the sanctuary, would have been of all others the most likely to have originated hymns, uniting the charms of poesy with the beauties of holiness: --
- "See the wretch, that long has tost
- On the thorny bed of pain,
- At length repair the vigour lost,
- And breathe and walk again:
- The meanest floweret of the vale,
- The simplest note that swells the gale,
- The common sun, the air, the skies,
- To him are opening Paradise."
Gray's Fragment on Vicissitude.
It cannot be questioned that this is genuine poetry; and the most beautiful, but not obvious thought, in the last couplet, elevates it far above all common-place. Yet there is nothing in the style, nor the cast of sentiment, which might not be employed with corresponding effect on a sacred theme, and in the texture of a hymn. Indeed, the form of the stanza, and the tone that tells of personal experience in the fact which the writer mentions, remind one strongly of the vivid feeling and fluent versification of Charles Wesley, in some of his happiest moods; while the concluding idea is precisely the same with that of Dr Watts, in a hymn which would not have discredited Gray himself: --
- "The opening heavens around me shine,
- With beams of sacred bliss,
- Where Jesus shows his mercy mine,
- And whispers, 'I am his.'"
The following stanzas are almost unrivalled in the combination of poetry with painting, pathos with fancy, grandeur with simplicity, and romance with reality: --
- "How sleep the brave, who sink to rest,
- By all their country's wishes blest!
- When Spring, with dewy fingers cold,
- Returns to deck their hallowed mould,
- She there shall dress a sweeter sod
- Than Fancy's feet have ever trod.
- "By fairy-hands their knell is rung,
- By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
- There Honour comes, a pilgrim gray,
- To bless the turf that wraps their clay;
- And Freedom shall a while repair,
- To dwell a weeping hermit there."
The unfortunate author of these inimitable lines, a little while before his death, -- in a lucid interval of that madness to which "a wounded spirit" had driven him, -- was found by a visitor, with the Bible in his hand. "You see," said the poor sufferer, "I have only one book left; but it is the best!" Oh! had he found that one, that best book, earlier, and learned to derive from it those comforts which it was sent from heaven to convey to the afflicted, could not he have sung "the death of the righteous," in numbers as sweet, as tender, and sublime, as these on "the death of the brave?" Christian views and scriptural images, might here have been quite as harmoniously blended with human regrets and blessed remembrances.
But we proceed to exhibit a third specimen of an English lyric, very different from either of the former:
- "The wretch, condemn'd with life to part,
- Still, still on hope relies;
- And every pang that rends his heart,
- Bids expectation rise.
- Hope, like the glimmering taper's light,
- Adorns and cheers the way;
- And still, as darker grows the night,
- Emits a brighter ray."
Is this poetry? Every reader feels that it is. Yet, if the same ideas were to be given in prose, they could not well be more humbly arrayed. Nothing can be more simple, nothing more exquisite; and hymns, in the same pure and natural manner, might be adapted to every subject in alliance with religion. But by whom? Not by one who had only the delicate ear, the choice expression, the melodious measures, and the fine conceptions of Goldsmith; but by him who, to all these, should add the piety of Watts, the ardour of Wesley, and the tenderness of Doddridge. Had Goldsmith possessed these latter qualifications, (and they were all within his reach,) would he not have left hymns as captivating in their degree, as any of those few, but estimable productions, which have rendered him the most delightful of our poets, to the greatest number of readers.
It may be superciliously answered, that all this is mere speculation; and it may be reasonably demanded, that some examples of hymns of merit should be adduced, to establish beyond dispute the possible union of poetry with devotion. This shall be done in the sequel; at present, we will only offer a small extract from one of the best known hymns of the only great poet of our country who has written such things; and we offer it as worthy of being classed with the foregoing quotations from Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith, and as showing, that a heart, filled with the peace of God, has language suitable to its enjoyments, and capable of communicating a sense of them to every other heart not dead to sympathy. --
- "The calm retreat, the silent shade,
- With prayer and praise agree,
- And seem by thy sweet bounty made
- For those that follow Thee.
- "There, if thy Spirit touch the soul,
- And grace her mean abode,
- Oh, with what peace, and joy, and love,
- She communes with her God:
- "There, like the nightingale, she pours
- Her solitary lays;
- Nor asks a witness to her song,
- Nor sighs for human praise."
Now, if this be not poetry, the one-and-twenty enormous and unreadable volumes of Chalmers' English Poets, containing some four or five millions of lines, must be burnt down to the size of "THE CHRISTIAN PSALMIST," before they will yield a residuum of finer standard. Yet will a profane world never be "smit with the love of Sacred Song." The language of devotion, whether in prose or rhyme, cannot be relished, because it is not understood, by any but those who have experienced the power of the Gospel, as bringing salvation to them that believe; for the same reason that the Bible itself is neither acceptable nor intelligible to those who are not taught by the Spirit of God. To such, though "I speak with the tongues of men and of angels" about divine things, "I am as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." To those, on the other hand, who have "tasted the good word of God, and felt the powers of the world to come," it will be easy to comprehend, that poetry and piety may be as surely united on earth, as they are in heaven before the throne, in the songs of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect.
A hymn ought to be as regular in its structure as any other poem; it should have a distinct subject, and that subject should be simple, not complicated, so that whatever skill or labour might be required in the author to develope his plan, there should be little or none required on the part of the reader to understand it. Consequently, a hymn should have a beginning, middle, and end. There should be a manifest gradation in the thoughts, and their mutual dependence should be so perceptible, that they could not be transposed without injuring the unity of the piece; every line carrying forward the connection and every verse adding a well-proportioned limb to a symmetrical body. The reader should know when the strain is complete, and be satisfied, as at the close of an air in music; while defects and superfluities should be felt by him as annoyances, in whatsoever part they might occur.
The practice of many good men, in framing hymns, has been quite the contrary. They have begun apparently with the only idea in their mind at the time; another, with little relationship to the former, has been forced upon them by a refractory rhyme; a third became necessary to eke out a verse, a fourth to begin one; and so on, till, having compiled a sufficient number of stanzas of so many lines, and lines of so many syllables, the operation has been suspended; whereas it might, with equal consistency, have been continued to any imaginable length, and the tenth or ten thousandth link might have been struck out, without the slightest infraction of the chain; the whole being a series of independent verses, collocated as they came, and the burden a cento of phrases, figures, and ideas, the common property of every writer who had none of his own, and therefore found in the works of each, unimproved, if not unimpaired, from generation to generation. --
Such rhapsodies may be sung from time to time, and keep alive devotion already kindled; but they leave no trace in the memory, make no impression on the heart, and fall through the mind as sounds glide through the ear -- pleasant, it may be, in their passage, but never returning to haunt the imagination in retirement, or, in the multitude of the thoughts, to refresh the soul.
Of how contrary a character, how transcendently superior in value as well as in influence, are those hymns, which, once heard, are remembered without effort, remembered involuntarily, yet remembered with renewed and increasing delight at every revival. It may safely be affirmed, that the permanent favourites in every collection are those, which, in the requisites before-mentioned, or for some other peculiar excellence, are distinguished above the rest. This is so remarkably the case with the compositions of Watts, Wesley, and Newton, the most prolific writers of this class, that no farther illustration is needful than a recurrence to their pages, when it will be found, that the most neglected are generally inferior in literary merit to the most hackneyed ones, which are in every body's mouth, and every body's heart.
It may be added, that authors, who devote their talents to the glory of God, and the salvation of men, ought surely to take as much pains to polish and perfect their offerings of this kind, as secular and profane poets bestow upon their works. Of these, the subjects are too often of the baser sort, and the workmanship as frequently exceeds the material; while, on the other hand, the inestimable materials of hymns, -- the truths of the everlasting Gospel, the very thoughts of God, the very sayings of Christ, the very inspirations of the Holy Ghost, are dishonoured by the meanness of the workmanship employed upon them; wood, hay, straw, and stubble, being built on the foundations which ought only to support gold, silver, and precious stones; work that will bear the fire, and be purified by it.
The faults in ordinary hymns are vulgar phrases, low words, hard words, technical terms, inverted construction, broken syntax, barbarous abbreviations, that make our beautiful English horrid even to the eye, bad rhymes, or no rhymes where rhymes are expected, but above all, numbers without cadence. A line is no more metre because it contains a certain concatenation of syllables, than so many crotchets and quavers, pricked at random, would constitute a bar of music. The syllables in every division ought to "ripple like a rivulet," one producing another as its natural effect, while the rhythm of each line, falling into the general stream at its proper place, should cause the verse to flow in progrssive melody, deepening and expanding like a river to the close; or, to change the figure, each stanza should be a poetical tune, played down to the last note. Such subservience of every part to the harmony of the whole, is required in all other legitimate poetry, and why it should not be observed in that which is worthiest of all possible pre-eminence, it would be difficult to say; why it is so rarely found in hymns, may be accounted for from the circumstance already stated, that few accomplished poets have enriched their mother tongue with strains of this description.
From the foregoing remarks, (if correct,) it may be gathered, that though we have hymns without number, few of them lay claim to great literary merit. There are, however, unequivocal examples of every species of excellence desirable or attainable. In the present collection, among the older specimens, No.131, page 139, "In Thee I live, and move, and am," &c. is nervous and full of thought, though there are some homely phrases. Two stanzas may be quoted: --
- "The daily favours of my God
- I cannot sing at large:
- Yet let me make this holy boast,
- I am the' Almighty's charge.
- * * * *
- "O let my house a temple be,
- That I and mine may sing
- Hosannas to thy Majesty,
- And praise our heavenly King."
No.213, page 199, "Thousands of thousands stand around," &c. is of the same character, in a higher degree, -- more energetic, but more quaint and rugged: --
- "How great a being, Lord, is Thine,
- Which doth all beings keep?
- Thy knowledge is the only line
- To sound so vast a deep.
- * * * *
- "Thine upper and thy nether springs
- Make both thy worlds to thrive;
- Under thy warm and sheltering wings
- Thou keep'st two broods alive.
- "The arm of might, most mighty King,
- Both rocks and hearts doth break;
- My God, Thou canst do any thing,
- But what should prove Thee weak."
Bishop Kenn has laid the Church of Christ under abiding obligations by his three hymns, Morning, Evening, and Midnight. Had he endowed three hospitals, he might have been less a benefactor to posterity. There is exemplary plainness of speech, manly vigour of thought, and consecration of heart, in these pieces. The well-known doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," is a masterpiece at once of amplification and compression: -- amplification on the burthen, "Praise God," repeated in each line, -- compression, by exhibiting God as the object of praise in every view in which we can imagine praise due to Him; -- praise, for all his blessings, yea, for "all blessings," none coming from any other source, -- praise, by every creature, specifically invoked, "here below," and in heaven "above," -- praise, to Him in each of the characters wherein He has revealed Himself in his word -- "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." Yet this comprehensive verse is sufficiently simple, that by it "out of the mouth of babes and sucklings praise might be perfected;" and it appears so easy, that one is tempted to think hundreds of the sort might be made without trouble. The reader has only to try, and he will quickly be undeceived, though the longer he tries, the more difficult he will find the task to be.
There are two volumes of Bishop Kenn's works in prose and verse, which the writer of these strictures has never seen. It is probable that they contain at least three more hymns like those which we have; if so, it is lamentable that such lights should remain hid under a bushel.
Passing by Mrs Rowe, and the mystical rhymers of her age, we come to the greatest name among hymn-writers, -- for we hesitate not to give that praise to Dr Isaac Watts, since it has pleased God to confer upon him, though one of the least of the poets of his country, more glory than upon the greatest either of that or any other, by making his "Divine Songs" a more abundant and universal blessing, than the verses of any uninspired penman that ever lived. In his "Psalms and Hymns," (for they must be classed together,) he has embraced a compass and variety of subjects, which include and illustrate every truth of revelation, throw light upon every secret movement of the human heart, whether of sin, nature, or grace, and describe every kind of trial, temptation, conflict, doubt, fear, and grief; as well as the faith, hope, charity, the love, joy, peace, labout and patience of the Christian, in all stages of his course on earth; together with the terrors of the Lord, the glories of the Redeemer, and the comforts of the Holy Spirit, to urge, allure, and strengthen him by the way.
There is in the pages of this evangelist, a word in season for every one who needs it, in whatever circumstances he may require counsel, consolation, reproof, or instruction. We say this, without reserve, of the materials of his hymns: had their execution always been correspondent with the preciousness of these, we should have had a "Christian Psalmist" in England, next (and that only in date, not in dignity) to the "Sweet Singer of Israel." Nor is this so bold a word as it may seem. Dr Watts's hymns are full of "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God;" his themes, therefore, are as much more illustrious than those of the son of Jesse, -- who only knew "the power and glory" of Jehovah as he had "seen them in the sanctuary," which was but the shadow of the New Testament church, -- as the face of Moses, holding communion with God, was brighter than the veil which he cast over it when conversing with his countrymen.
Dr Watts may almost be called the inventor of hymns in our language; for he so far departed from all precedent, that few of his compositions resemble those of his forerunners, -- while he so far established a precedent to all his successors, that none have departed from it, otherwise than according to the peculiar turn of mind in the writer, and the style of expressing Christian truths employed by the denomination to which he belonged. Dr Watts himself, though a conscientious dissenter, is so entirely catholic in his hymns, that it cannot be discovered from any of these, (so far as we recollect,) that he belonged to any particular sect; hence, happily for his fame, or rather, it ought to be said, happily for the Church of Christ, portions of psalms and hymns have been adopted in most places of worship where congregational singing prevails. Every Sabbath, in every region of the earth where his native tongue is spoken, thousands and tens of thousands of voices are sending the sacrifices of prayer and praise to God, in the strains which he prepared for them a century ago; yea, every day, "he being dead yet speaketh," by the lips of posterity, in these sacred lays, some of which may not cease to be sung by the ransomed on their journey to Zion, so long as the language of Britain endures -- a language now spreading through all lands whither commerce, civilization, or the Gospel, are carried by merchants, colonists, and missionaries.
It might be expected, however, that in the first models of a new species of poetry, there would be many flaws and imperfections, which later practitioners would discern and avoid. Such, indeed, are too abundant in Dr Watts's psalms and Hymns; and worst of all is, that his authority stands so high with many of his imitators, that, while his faults and defects are most faithfully adopted, his merits are unapproachable by them. The faults are principally prosaic phraseology, rhymes worse than none, and none where good ones are absolutely wanted to raise the verse upoon its feet, and make it go, according to the saying, "on all-fours;" though, to do the Doctor justice, the metre is generally free and natural, when his lines want every other qualification of poetry. Under this charge, much allowance must be made for the author, on recollection that these blemishes were far less offensive when he flourished, than they are in the present more fastidious age, which requires exacter versification, with pure, perfect rhymes; not to gratify a craving ear with an idle jingle, -- for bad rhymes are much more obtrusive than good ones, -- but to form a running harmony through the verse, which is felt without being remarked, and yet so essential to the music of the whole, that the occasional flatness or absence of one is instantly recognised, and produces a sense of wrong; though, while the rhymes are true to their tone and their place, the frequent recurrence of them is no more noticed than the perpetual repetition of particles in every sentence that can be constructed; yet any omission or superfluity of these is immediately perceived and resented by correct taste.
It is a great temptation to the indolence of hymn-writers, that the quatrain measures have been so often used by Dr Watts, without rhyme in the first and third lines. He himself confessed that this was a defect; and, though some of the most beautiful hymns are upon this model, if the thing itself be not a fault, it is the cause of half the faults that may be found in inferior compositions, -- negligence, feebleness, and prosing. -- In the following miscellany are given many of Dr Watts's best performances, exemplifying that versatility of talent which could accommodate itself to every change of subject, style, and character, within his boundless range of sacred enterprise.
Next to Dr Watts as a hymn-writer, undoubtedly stands the Rev. Charles Wesley. He was probably the author of a greater number of compositions of this kind, with less variety of matter or manner, than any other man of genius that can be named. Excepting his "Short Hymns on Passages of Scripture," which of course make the whole tour of Bible literature, and are of very unequal merit, -- Christian experiences from the deeps of affliction, through all the gradations of doubt, fear, desire, faith, hope, expectation, to the transports of perfect love, in the very beams of the beatific vision, -- Christian experience furnishes him with everlasting and inexhaustible themes; and it must be confessed, that he has celebrated them with an affluence of diction, and a splendour of colouring, rarely surpassed. At the same time, he has invested them with a power of truth, and endeared them both to the imagination and the affections, with a pathos which makes feeling conviction, and leaves the understanding little to do but to acquiesce in the decision of the heart. As the Poet of Methodism, he has sung the doctrines of the Gospel, as they are expounded among that people, dwelling especially on the personal appropriation of the words of eternal life to the sinner, or the saint, as the test of his actual state before God, and admitting nothing less than the full assurance of faith as the privilege of believers.
- "Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
- Relies on that alone,
- Laughs at impossibilities,
- And says -- 'It shall be done.'
- "Faith lends her realizing light,
- The clouds disperse, the shadows fly,
- The Invisible appears in sight,
- And God is seen by mortal eye."
These are glimpses of our author's manner, -- broad indeed, and awful, but signally illustrative, like lightning out of darkness, revealing for a moment the whole hemisphere. Among C. Wesley's highest achievements may be recorded, "Come, O Thou traveller unknown," &c. page 55, in which, with consummate art, he has carried on the action of a lyrical drama; every turn in the conflict with the mysterious Being against whom he wrestles all night, being marked with precision by the varying language of the speaker, accompanied by intense, increasing interest, till the rapturous moment of discovery, when he prevails, and exclaims, "I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art," &c. --
The hymn, page 375, "Come on, my partners in distress," &c. anticipates the strains, and is written almost in the spirit, of the Church triumphant. -- "Thou wretched man of sorrow," &c. and its companion-piece, "Great Author of my being," &c. page 289-90, are composed with equal strength and fervency of feeling, -- feeling, congenial yet perfectly contrasted with that in the former instance; for here, instead of the society of saints and angels, he indulges lonely anguish, desiring "to live and die alone" with God, as if creature-communion had ceased with him for ever. -- "Thou God of glorious majesty!" &c. page 169, is a sublime contemplation in another vein; -- solemn, collected, unimpassioned thought, but thought occupied with that which is of everlasting import to a dying man, standing on the lapse of a moment between "two eternities." The hymn on the Day of Judgment, "Stand the omnipotent decree," begins with a note, abrupt and awakening like the sound of the last trumpet. This is altogether one of the most daring and victorious flights of our author.
Such pieces prove, that if Charles Wesley's hymns are less varied than might have been desired for general purposes, it was from choice, and predilection for certain views of the Gospel in its effects upon human minds, and not from want of diversity of gifts. It is probable that the severer tastes of his brother, the Rev. John Wesley, greatly tempered the extravagance of Charles, pruned his luxuriances, and restrained his impetuosity, in those hymns of his, which form a large proportion of the Methodist collection; the few which are understood to be John's in that book, being of a more intellectual character than what are known to be Charles's, while the latter are wonderfully improved by abridgement and compression, in comparison with the originals, as they were first given to the public.
Our further notices must be brief. The four hymns attributed to Addison are very pleasing. It is only to be regretted that they are not more in number, and that the God of Grace, as well as the God of Providence, is not more distinctly recognised in them.
All that can be imagined deficient in Addison's hymns, will be found to constitute the glory of Doddridge's. They shine in the beauty of holiness; those offsprings of his mind are arranged in "the fine linen, pure and white, which is the righteousness of saints;" and, like the saints, they are lovely and acceptable, not for their human merit, (for in poetry and eloquence they are frequently deficient,) but for that fervent unaffected love to God, his service, and his people, which distinguishes them. Blessed is the man who can take the words of this devoted servant of Christ, and say, from similar experience,
- "O happy day, that fix'd my choice
- On Thee, my Saviour and my God," &c. -- Page 235
Or who, sitting down to commemorate the dying love of his Redeemer, can exclaim, "The King of heaven his table spreads," &c. page 232; or sing in higher mood, "Lord of the Sabbath, hear us pray," &c. page 227. And how dwelleth the love of God in that heart, which can hear unmoved, and without praying to be made a partaker of the same spirit, that sweet and humble appeal, "Do I not love Thee, O my Lord?" page 187. The fourth verse presents the touchstone of Christian profession, experience, and practice: --
- "Hast Thou a lamb in all thy flock
- I would disdain to feed?
- Hast Thou a foe, before whose face
- I fear thy cause to plead?"
The hymns of the Rev. Augustus Toplady form a striking contrast with the mild and human tone of Doddridge's. There is a peculiarly ethereal spirit in one of these; in which, whether mourning or rejoicing, praying or praising, the writer seems absorbed in the full triumph of faith, and, "whether in the body or out of the body, caught up into the third heaven," and beholding unutterable things. He evidently kindled his poetic torch at that of his contemporary, Charles Wesley; and, though inferior in breadth and volume of flame, yet the light which it sheds is not less vivid and sparkling, while it may be said to be more delicate to the eye, and refreshing to the spirits, than that prodigality of radiance which the rival luminary cast alike on everything it touched. Page 177, "Rock of Ages, cleft for me," &c. is well known and appreciated. "Deathless principle, arise," &c. page 262, is scarcely suitable to be sung; but it may be uttered by "the dying Christian to his soul," with a joy which he alone can feel, and feel only at the height, in the last moment of time, and the first of eternity. Had this poem appeared without name, it might have been confidently set down as the production of Charles Wesley, -- as one of Charles Wesley's loveliest progeny has been fathered upon Augustus Toplady: see page 167, "Christ, whose glory fills the skies," &c.
Another writer, less known than any of the preceding, yet worthy of honour both for the quantity and quality of his hymns, was the Rev. B. Beddome, a Baptist minister. His compositions are calculated to be far more useful than attractive, though, on closer acquaintance, they become very agreeable, as well as impressive, being for the most part brief and pithy. A single idea, always important, often striking, and sometimes ingeniously brought out, not with a mere point at the end, but with the terseness and simplicity of the Greek epigram, -- constitutes the basis of each piece. Many of these were composed as supplementary application of texts, or the main topics of his sermons; and they might supply pregnant hints both to ministers and people, who were disposed to turn them to profit in the same manner. His name would deserve to be held in everlasting remembrance, if he had left no other memorial of the excellent spirit which was in him, than the few humble verses, page 370.
- "Let party names no more
- The Christian world o'erspread:
- Gentile and Jew, and bond and free,
- Are one in Christ their Head," &c.
Of Cowper's hymns, the Editor of this volume has already spoken, in the Introductory Essay to his Poems, among the "SELECT CHRISTIAN AUTHORS;" and with respect to the Rev. J. Newton's, he expects to have a further opportunity of delivering his sentiments. He has, however, availed himself of both, to enrich the present collection with characteristic specimens.
Hymns of various degrees of merit, (but all in their measure truly valuable for devotional purposes,) by authors, whose names, so far as they could be traced, are attached to their respective compositions in the Index, and others by anonymous writers, will be found in the following pages. Among these, there are not a few which will amply refute the slander, that hymns are necessarily the least intellectual or poetical species of literature. That noble ode, page 376, "The God of Abraham praise," &c. though the essay of an unlettered man, claims special honour. There is not in our language a lyric of more majestic style, more elevated thought, or more glorious imagery; its structure, indeed, is unattractive; and, on account of the short lines, occasionally uncouth; but, like a stately pile of architecture, severe and simple in design, it strikes less on the first view, than after deliberate examination, when its proportions become more graceful, its dimensions expand, and the mind itself grows greater in comtemplating it. --
There is a delightful hymn, page 134, "Jerusalem, my happy home," &c. by an unknown hand; but the hymn itself ought never to be unknown, where there is a church on earth training up candidates for the church above. We must not violate the sanctity of this antepast of heaven, by quoting any fragment from it. Let the Christian himself, when his heart is most at home with God, when he is desiring "to depart and be with Christ, which is far better," -- let him then turn to this happy expression of his inmost feelings; for it is so meekly and unostentatiously adorned, that, in any other frame of mind, few readers would dwell long upon it.
From the Moravian hymn-book sundry extracts have been made. Every denomination of Christians has a language peculiar to itself, or rather a peculiar dialect of the mother-tongue of all Christians, in which the most intelligible and acceptable conveyance of evangelical truths may be made to its own members. Now, to a stranger, this is not only less touching and beautiful, but frequently awkward, and even offensive. Hymns, therefore, ought always to be judged with a proportionate allowance by persons of different communions; and it requires no great stretch of Christian charity to do this; it is only "allowing for the wind," in calculating the course of an arrow, shot directly at the right mark, but falling short of it, from the archer himself neglecting to make that allowance in taking aim. No hymns need this indulgence so much as those of the Moravian Brethren, and none deserve it better; for there are none in which the apostolic determination, to "know nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified," is more unremittingly realized. That hymn of this ancient church, page 276, "High on his everlasting throne," &c. though considerably abridged from the original, contains one of the most consistent allegories that can be found in verse, on the manner in which it has pleased God, by the ministry of the Gospel, to reclaim a lost world from the desolation which sin hath made. These few samples, out of many in this collection, are here cited to show, that hymns of the purest intrinsic worth, as well as high external embellishment, have been composed by humble men, whose names, though forgotten or cast out on earth, were written in heaven, where their glorified spirits may still be pursuing the occupation they loved below, in singing the new, the old, the everlasting "Song of Moses and the Lamb."
Of the following selection the Editor will only say, that he has endeavoured to present to the public, under four obvious and convenient heads, (though under each there are specimens which might be transferred to another division,) some of the best hymns of the best authors and collections within his knowledge. Nor can he doubt that, being grounded upon the Scriptures, which were written by the inspiration of God, these human imitations of the divine originals will be found "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." One of the most precious uses of the sacred oracles, is their infinite capability of personal application to the mind and heart, the circumstances and duties of the Christian, in every state of life, in every frame of spirit. Words of comfort, warning, counsel, or rebuke, unconsciously treasured up in the memory, often come home to the soul in unexpected moments, with all the demonstration of revealed truth; nay, sometimes with a power of reality, as though a voice from the excellent Glory had uttered them aloud in our hearing, or the still, small whisper of the Spirit had spoken them to our very selves. These, then, are inestimable means of grace, especially in times of trial and affliction. Now, in a smaller measure, yet in a measure most encouraging and edifying, the words, thoughts, images of hymns, are frequently remembered with delight, and spontaneously adopted, as though they were our own, for prayer, for meditation, thanksgiving, and every other purpose which, as Scripture auxiliaries, they are calculated to answer.
Next to the consecration of the greatest talents to the glory of God who gave them, their employment in the service of man, created in the image of God, fallen from it, and needing restoration by a Saviour, is surely the best and noblest use to which they can be dedicated. Kings are the fountains of honour, and bestow a portion of their own dignity, without lessening it to themselves, in granting offices, titles, and insignia of their favour. It is the prerogative of genius to confer a measure of itself upon inferior intelligences. In reading the works of Milton, Bacon, and Newton, thoughts greater than the growth of our own minds are transplanted into them, and feelings more profound, sublime, or comprehensive, are insinuated amidst our ordinary train; while, in the eloquence with which they are clothed, we learn a new language, worthy of the new ideas that are created in us.
Of how much pure and exalted enjoyment is he ignorant, who never entertained, as angels, the bright emanations of loftier intellects than his own? By habitual communion with superior spirits, we are not only enabled to think their thoughts, speak their dialects, feel their emotions, but our own thoughts are refined, our scanty language is enriched, our common feelings are elevated; and, though we may never attain their standard, yet, by keeping company with them, we shall rise above our own, as trees growing in the society of a forest, are said to draw each other up into shapely and stately proportion, while field and hedge-row stragglers, exposed to all weathers, never reach their full stature, luxuriance, or beauty. In the composition of hymns, men of wealthier imaginations, and happier utterance, may furnish to others of susceptible hearts, the means of bodying forth their own conceptions, which would otherwise be a burden to their minds, or die in the birth, without the joy of deliverance. The most illiterate person, who understands his Bible, will easily understand the most elegant or emphatic expression of all the feelings which are common to all; and, instead of being passive under them, when they are excited at particular seasons, he will avail himself of the songs put into his mouth, and sing them with gladness and refreshment, as if they were his own. Then, though, like Milton's, his genius can ascend to the heaven of heavens, or like Shakespeare's, search out the secrets of Nature, through all her living combinations, -- blessed is the bard who employs his resources thus; who, from the fulness of his own bosom, pours his divinest thoughts, in his selectest words, into the bosoms of his readers, and enables them to appropriate the rich communications to their personal exigencies, without robbing him, or hindering others from partaking of the same abundant fountain of human inspirations, -- a fountain flowing, like oil, at the command of the prophet, from one vessel into as many as could be borrowed, without exhausting the first, though the whole were filled.
If he who pens these sentiments known his own heart, -- though it has deceived him too often to be trusted without jealousy, -- he would rather be the anonymous author of a few hymns, which should thus become an imperishable inheritance to the people of God, than bequeath another epic to the world, which should rank his name with Homer, Virgil, and "our greater Milton."
After these strong words, but more especially after the freedom and severity which he has exercised in judging the performances of his predecessors, the Editor may offer, with many misgivings, the Hymns in the Fifth part of the following collection, as his own. Tried by the standard which he himself has set up, every one of them would be found wanting. He might, perhaps, be able to assign reasons for the failure of each, independent of positive incapacity in himself; but the judgment he leaves with his readers, to whom he humbly presents these gleanings, under the perfect conviction, that they will be throughly sifted, and the chaff burnt up, and the grain, if there be any, gathered into the garner of the true Church.
1Angelo da Costanzo
James Montgomery: The Christian Psalmist, 1825; Title-page and Introductory Essay transcribed from a copy of the 10th edition (pencilled date 1862) in Dr Williams's Library, London. (Some additional paragraph breaks have been inserted in the interest of screen readability.) Electronic text adapted from the Rejoice & Sing Enchiridion, an archive of bibliographic notes on hymnology created by David Goodall. Some formatting changes made, and a handful of palpable typos corrected.