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It is remarkable that English literary criticism has given so little attention to a form of literature that holds so large a place in the attention of the people as does the hymn. For the hymn is the most popular kind of English poetry. If this appear to be an immoderate statement, let the objector find and bring forward another type of poetry that is read so frequently by so many people and, at least apparently, with so much approval. If one should count the number of persons in any English-speaking town who had read epic poetry during the last week, or who had read dramatic poetry, or, excepting one book, who had read fifty lines of lyrical poetry, he would find the number relatively quite small. But last week in a small American city there were thirty-seven hundred persons who read or went over at least three hymns. That there were three times thirty-seven hundred readings of lyrical poetry by the people of a typical small community in the ordinary course of its affairs in one 4 week is a fact of real significance to the student of American life and literature.

To remember that this popular esteem accorded the hymn extends throughout all countries where the English language is spoken, is to be assured that verse is alive and powerful in the world to-day.

It is a fact that the largest single edition of any merchantable book in the United States up to 1912 was the first edition of a volume of lyrical verse, a hymn-book. And the enormous first edition of that book was followed in the same year by two other printings. Between July, 1905, and December, 1920, it had passed through thirty-two printings. The sale of this book, according to a statement by the publishers, has been something over two million copies. It should be remarked that this is but one book of but one branch of the Christian church in the United States. In England there is a single collection of hymns that has far out-distanced this; before the beginning of the World War it had reached an output of no fewer than sixty million copies. These two collections, the English “Hymns Ancient and Modern” and the American “Methodist Hymnal,” are of course by no means all of the hymn-books; they are but two among hundreds of similar collections. In this country the “Methodist Hymnal,” although it is the largest in point of numbers issued, has many great companions in the field. The Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Protestant Episcopal 5 hymn-books are notable for the extent of their circulation. There are many other hymnals issued by various branches of the church, as for example, the Friends and the Unitarians. The Roman Catholics have a number of good books of English hymns.

Besides these there are several standard hymnals issued by great publishing houses, which have wide circulation. The Anglican “Hymns Ancient and Modern,” vastly as it is distributed, is not an official hymn-book of the Church of England; there are scores of other Church of England hymn-books. In the British Isles, besides these, there are many great hymnals, great both in quality and in point of wide distribution, issued by the Irish, Scottish, Roman Catholic, and Non-Conforming churches. It is much the same in Canada, South Africa, and Australasia. The English hymn holds wide sway wherever the English language is spoken.

Of smaller general distribution than those just mentioned, yet mounting into enormous numbers, are the hymn-books of particular religious societies and minor independent organizations. One of the Mormon hymn-books, for example, is now in its twenty-fifth edition, the editions having been of ten thousand volumes each. There is a small religious body, made up originally from Swiss, German, and Dutch immigrants, called Mennonites. This comparatively minute branch of the church has issued, according to information received from its publishing house, about two hundred thousand copies. A collection of songs, mainly ephemeral and not always 6 innocuous, is printed endlessly; this type of book would hardly be mentioned here did it not almost invariably include a number of the worthy hymns without which it could not well stand alone. Astonishingly large numbers of hymn-books are brought out by standard publishing houses. One of these, “The American Hymnal,” containing 726 hymns, has had a sale of nearly one hundred thousand copies; another, “The Army and Navy Hymnal,” is in use in every camp, on every ship, and in every naval station of the United States. Another, “Hymns of Worship and Service,” has had an output of well over half a million copies. Another, “Hymnal for American Youth,” sells at the rate of fifty thousand copies a year. This last is a book designed for young persons, containing 342 lyrics; it is but one of the twenty-two hymn-books published by a single publishing house. It should be noted, too, that none of these are pamphlets or anything less than standard full-cloth octavo books selling at standard prices. Details like these indicate a wide popularity for the hymn-book.

By the term “hymn-book” as it is used throughout this volume is meant no particular compilation of hymns, but that corpus of religious lyrical verse selected by a remarkably distinct consensus of taste, and constituting, with slight variations, the body of every good collection.

The hymn itself may be defined as a lyrical composition expressive of religious aspiration, petition, 7 confession, communion, or praise; a song devoted to the fellowship of souls and the worship of God. In its broader sense the term includes canticles, psalms, carols, “spirituals,” and chants; in its more limited sense it includes only religious lyrics in rime and meter—in a style of very definite and narrow restrictions. The good hymn combines in quite remarkable effect the straitest simplicity, clarity, dignity, and melody, rich ideas about the basic matters of life and death, with strong emotion under sure control.

It seems safe to state without any reservations that this type, of all forms of English poetry to-day, stands first in popular favor. The hymn-book—the fairly uniform compilation of the standard hymns of the English language—is published and sold to an extent not approached by the publications of any other types of poetry.

And the hymn-book does not merely reach an enormous printing; it is actually opened and read more often than any other book of poetry. This fact becomes more apparent as one endeavors to call to mind other books of verse that begin to rival the hymn-book in this respect. Further, when verses from the hymn-books are being used it is not infrequent that two persons are reading the same page at the same time, while others may be repeating the lyric from memory without any book—as Lincoln and Roosevelt are said usually to have done. Of course many persons may read more often from Shakspere or Byron or Edgar Guest; 8 some may never open a hymn-book. The statement here is that among English-speaking people generally, the sum of times that the hymn-book is taken up and read is larger than the sum of times that any other book of poetry is read.

This sway of the religious song in the lives of American people is not a new thing; the hymn has maintained a lyrical regnancy continuously and from the very first. And the hymn, though essentially deep-moving and intimate, has nevertheless exerted its power at times in a quite regal and dramatic manner.

It is with an outburst of religious song that the curtain goes up on the whole drama of America. American history opens with the singing of a Christian hymn. On the evening of September 25, 1492, one of the companions of Columbus saw what he thought to be land lying dimly in the west. Though it was not America yet, still, over those strange waters rang out the first greeting to America. From all three of the ships, as Columbus himself gives the account in his diary, there rose the sound of the old “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Then later, on Friday night, October 12, when they saw a light glimmering on the shore of the New World, the cry went up, and “Salve Regina” swept out over the water. The Old World was greeting the New World with a hymn.

Again, the first English book printed in the Western hemisphere was the old English hymnal, “The Bay Psalm Book.” Spanish Roman Catholic 9 sailors had come singing hymns; and Anglo-Saxon Puritan settlers sent back a hymn-book, the first literary offering of the New World to the Old. It is worth noting that the offering was well received. It afterward went through many English editions. Of course the hymns sung on Columbus’s ships were in Latin, and the songs of the New England book were rough-hewn translations of the Psalms into English verse, but they were all, in the broader sense of the word, true hymns.

The great Northwest was opened to civilization and claimed for France with the singing of hymns. And La Salle, discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River, stood on the bank and claimed all the vast region for France in a ceremony marked by the singing of three hymns.

By the New Englanders’ firesides, at their social gatherings, and on their austere Sabbaths, the hymns, or metrical psalms, held a large place; and the emotions and ideals which these lyrics bore could not but enter into the fiber of the people’s lives.

Along the Atlantic coast the Indians could hear from the clearings of the white men, mingled with sounds of cattle and barn-yard fowl and busy ax, here and there from women at their work, from families in their cabins at night, from gatherings in groves and log meeting-houses, the sound of hymns. And there were Indians who learned to sing them. A letter, for example, to Sir William Ashurst from New England describes the Indians’ “excellent 10 singing the Psalms with most ravishing melody.” It did not take the Southern slaves long to learn their masters’ hymns and to make sweet and plaintive ones of their own. No one can guess how much the American negro’s hymns have meant to him in making for consolation and piety and virtue. They have played, and still play, a large part in his life.

Scattered details here and there in the records of past American life indicate even to the casual reader how intimately religious lyrical verse entered into that life. “The Bay Psalm Book” was printed in the modest dwelling of the first president of Harvard. President Dwight of Yale, chaplain-general of the Revolutionary Army, edited and partly wrote what was for years the leading hymn- and psalm-book in the country. President Davies of Princeton was in his day a leading American hymn-writer.

In 1737, at Charlestown, South Carolina, a young Oxford graduate, John Wesley, Anglican priest, chaplain to Oglethorpe, and missionary to the Indians, published the first real hymn-book—as distinguished from the metrical psalm-book—of the Church of England. Thus in America began the sequence of great English hymn-books.

Among the earliest extant writing in the hand of George Washington is the transcription of a hymn.11Jared Sparks, “Life and Writings of Washington,” Vol. XII, p. 299. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1855. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were warmly interested in hymns. In their correspondence, 11 after they had retired from Washington, the two old chieftains carried on a discussion of hymnody. They seemed to agree upon the Psalms as the greatest of all lyrical poetry. In a letter of advice to young Isaac Englebrecht, Jefferson transcribed Tate and Brady’s version of the fifteenth Psalm, “knowing,” he says, “nothing more moral, more sublime, more worthy of your preservation.”

Benjamin Franklin was particularly fond of the lyrics of Isaac Watts. The first book issued from Franklin’s press in Philadelphia was an edition of Watts’s “Psalms and Hymns.” To a friend, Mrs. Newsom, when she visited him during his last hours, he quoted several of the lyrics of Watts, “discoursing at length upon their sublimity.” Joel Barlow, poet of the Revolution, and later minister to France, was a writer of hymns and editor of a notable American hymn-book. John Quincy Adams translated the whole Book of Psalms into English verse, besides writing the large number of hymns in his “Poems of Religion and Society.”

The hymn is so much interwoven in the fabric of our past and present that it seems gratuitous to mention instances of the use of hymnody in familiar life. One must leave to the imagination, and to intimate recollections, evaluation of the worth of the hymn as a force in strengthening ties of fellowship and of sanctity, in giving voice to the otherwise unuttered grief or desire, and in bearing to those in need of it consolation and hope and courage.

One might go on with innumerable details indicating 12 the influence of these lyrics in American life. For example, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written in a dark hour of the Civil War, and spreading through the camps and marches like fire, was worth to the Northern cause possibly more than train-loads of corn and ammunition could have been in its place. Lincoln was so moved by it that he broke into tears at the public singing of it. Lee, on the other side, was finding in the old hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” something of strength and comfort to help him. When Abraham Lincoln died, the people throughout the North sang the hymns that he had found helpful in his life. Nor is it without significance that many thousands of persons sang together all over the land as memorials to Garfield and McKinley, and later to Roosevelt, and to Harding, the hymns that these men had loved.

Such glimpses as the foregoing indicate that the small type of lyrical poetry called the hymn has had a good deal to do, first and last, with the ideas and emotions of the people of the continent.

The same may be said of the hymns in English life. The first literature written on English soil is, so far as we know, a religious lyric, Cædmon’s Hymn. The missionaries who went to England with St. Augustine marched in a procession, singing hymns, up the strand to where King Ethelbert sat waiting to receive them. The king gave them a home in Canterbury, which town they entered, according to Bede, singing a litany. St. Patrick and his followers approached the old druids and hostile chiefs 13 singing hymns. Among the works of Bede was “A Book of Hymns in Divers Sorts of Meter and Rhythm.” There are throngs of incidents in early English lore indicating the part of hymnody in the life of the people. Bede tells, for example, of the famous “Halleluiah victory” of Germanicus over the Saxons and Picts wherein by a “universal shouting of Halleluiah” they put the enemy to rout. King Alfred was so attached to his hymn-book that he would go nowhere, not even hunting, without it. Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, and James I were authors of hymns. So we may glance down over the hymns of the Wesleys and the hymns of the Oxford Movement and on down to the singing of “O God Our Help in Ages Past” by the English at the burial of their Unknown Soldier at the close of the World War.

An indication of the influence of the hymn in Scottish life may be found in Burns’s portrayal in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”; and Robert Burns knew the heart of Scotland.

They chant their artless notes in simple guise;

They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim;

Perhaps “Dundee’s” wild warbling measures rise,

Or Plaintive “Martyrs,” worthy of the name;

Or noble “Elgin” beets the heavenward flame,

The sweetest far of Scotia’s holy lays. . . .

From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs

That makes her loved at home, revered abroad.

Hymnody constitutes a part, not only of English literature, but of all literature. Rich as the English 14 language is in hymns, it can claim no preëminence or priority in the devotional lyric. There were hymns before there were hieroglyphics. Historically, the human race was up and singing before sunrise. Literature itself first appears coming up out of the old forests with priestly chants. Practically every literature seems to have had its beginning in hymnic song and chant. The first piece of French writing extant, except for a bit of tabulation, the “Sentiments de Strasbourg,” is a hymn. Charlemagne, like Ambrose and Gregory and Alfred the Great, established schools for the teaching of hymn singing. The first trace of Greek literature is hymnic. The story of Tyrtæus, whether one reads it as myth or fact, gives a glimpse of the early Grecian hymn, and its lyric power to awaken and transfigure popular sentiment. The Athenians, bidden by the oracle to send a leader to the Spartans, sent in guile, as the one man of Athens likely to be of least service to the rival city, Tyrtæus, a crippled school-teacher. But their guile misled them: the crippled school-teacher taught the Spartans and their children hymns of the gods and songs of human duty and destiny which so filled their minds with just ideas and fired their souls with brave and noble purpose as to reform the state of Sparta.

The type reached a marvelous state of perfection early in the life of the Hebrew people. Their greatest artistic expression was their lyrics of religion. And they sang them with a will. The hymn singing of Mount Zion could be heard twelve miles away. 15 Their collections of psalms, begun in their early recorded life, enjoy to-day an enormous popular favor even translated into modern languages, and they have been an incalculably powerful influence in forming the taste and ideals of the Western nations. “With a psalm,” says Prothero, in his “Psalms in Human Life,” “we are baptized, married, and buried.” In this connection he quotes Heine as saying that in the Book of Psalms are collected the “sunrise and sunset, birth and death, promise and fulfillment—the whole drama of humanity.” These early hymns have strangely permeated European civilized life since Christianity brought them into Europe. To-day the English-speaking school-boy who does not know by heart some of this ancient hymnic poetry is rightly considered ignorant and neglected.

The early Christian centuries echo with Greek and Latin hymns. Medieval literature comes to its flower in its religious songs. Some of them are vigorously alive to-day. The “Dies Iræ” is an example; Philip Schaff thought it beyond doubt the greatest song in the world. Lockhart says that Sir Walter Scott was murmuring its lines as he lay dying. Dr. Samuel Johnson could never repeat it, Mrs. Thrale says, without tears. This medieval hymn has been published, up to 1910, in more than 137 modern English translations. Few other productions of the Latin language have seen so many published English renderings.

If hymnody flourished in medieval Latin, it has 16 found even more genial and fertile soil in the Teutonic languages. The German hymn is a form of poetry deeply rooted in popular favor, noble in its aim, and soundly artistic within its scope.

It is true that only in late years has the indigenous religious lyric reached the established place in English poetry that it holds in the German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew literatures. It had to struggle against the strongly intrenched “Psalms in Meter” and to overcome some very strong and peculiar prejudices before it came fully to its own. Yet from the time that English literature, like most other literatures, opens its story with a hymn, the type of poem has held its place and performed its incalculably useful service in English life and literature.

A book of hymns issued in 1549, and revised and added to, saw by 1828 more than six hundred editions. This book, entitled originally “Certayne Psalms chosen out of the Ebrewe by Thomas Sternhold,” later known as “Sternhold and Hopkins,” far surpassed in circulation all other English books except the Bible and the Prayer-Book. The translation, made conjointly by thirty American scholars, of the Psalms from Hebrew into verse—“The Bay Psalm Book,” Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1640—was reprinted in 1647 and saw at least twenty printings in England and six in Scotland. These hymns, however, were translations. As has been said, English literature was late in producing its own indigenous hymnody. The English people were long content with Latin hymns and the various 17 translations of the Hebrew hymnody. But since the eighteenth century the writing and appreciation of hymns has grown till the type has become more and more an element of our poetic wealth. Its recognition as a province of the great poetry of the language was for natural reasons slow in coming; but it has come.

Yet to call the hymn poetry is to many minds a new and bold assumption. That this expression of the human spirit has no right to the name of literature is a judgment not confined entirely to persons of a light way of thinking. Certain graver critics, even as they point out that the crowning glory of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was their great, surging hymns, seem to be unaware of the rich strain of religious lyrical poetry in our literature to-day. There is an inclination to fence in what is called “literary lyrics” as if to fence out “singing lyrics.” Now there is, of course, a distinction between poems meant to be sung and poems written in the pattern of lyrical poetry but never meant to be sung; but the terminology which classes one kind as literary, thereby implying that the other kind is not of the realm of literature, is inaccurate and unhappy. There may be no objection to saying that lyric poetry not meant to be sung is literature, but objection there is to saying that verses meant to be sung—the true lyrics of the language—are not literature. The religious lyric belongs to the province of poetry none the less because it sets itself to music and is taken up and sung by most of the people. 18 The literature of the people is not an alien thing, apart from them; it is of course expressed at first by a few elect spokesmen, but after all it is of and for the many. It cannot be deemed estranged and aloof. If to be literary is to be cabined, cribbed, apart from the common mind and heart of the age, the hymn is not literary. But literature is not thus penned up away from the people. It springs forth from the general consciousness as a spring of water issues from the hillside. And it is assigned to its place by the social mind. A single wave of popular favor will not and should not establish any form of expression as literature; but a general and continuous acceptance will establish it. A general and continuous acceptance the hymn has had. True, the fact may indicate to some persons nothing more than an innate religiosity in the Anglo-Saxon mind. However that may be, and however we may limit the term “literature,” the English-speaking people do produce largely, read widely, and love profoundly a form of expression called the hymn. If the form does in one way or another sing itself into the consciousness of most people, it may justly be termed lyrical. And if, expressing grave and noble sentiment in a style of marked chasteness and decorum, it is gratifying to the people generally at their more earnest and most elevated moments, there is little gain in arguing that it is not literature.

Still there remains something of a critical tradition that while the hymn in Greek, Latin, and German is excellent poetry, it is in English a poor and 19 stunted thing. This judgment was virtually true when Addison stated it and himself wrote three good hymns as his contribution to modern English hymnody. It was less true when Johnson repeated the statement. Addison and Johnson themselves differed diametrically in their opinions as to hymnody. Devoted as Addison was to the literature and lore of Greece and Rome, he nevertheless held, in “The Spectator,” that the greatest lyrical poetry of ancient times was that of the Psalms. He urged that English poets should turn their efforts more to hymnody. He says:

Most of the works of the pagan poets were either direct hymns to their deities or tended indirectly to the celebration of their respective attributes and perfections. Those who are acquainted with the works of Greek and Latin poets which are still extant will upon reflection find this observation so true that I shall not enlarge upon it. One would wonder that more of our Christian poets have not turned their thoughts this way, especially if we consider that our idea of the Supreme Being is not only infinitely more great and noble than what could possibly enter into the heart of a heathen, but filled with everything that can raise the imagination and give an opportunity for the sublimest thoughts and conceptions.

Johnson, to the contrary, held that it was impossible to write good hymnody. He says in his “Life of Waller”:

It has been the frequent lamentation of good men that verse has been too little applied to the purposes of worship, and many attempts have been made to animate devotion 20 by pious poetry; that they have very seldom attained their end is sufficiently known, and it may not be improper to inquire why they have miscarried. Let no pious ear be offended if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. The doctrines of religion may indeed be defined in a didactic poem; and he who has the happy power of arguing in verse, will not lose it because his subject is sacred. A poet may describe the beauty and grandeur of nature, the flowers of the spring, and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide, and the revolutions of the sky, and praise his Maker in lines which no reader shall lay aside. The subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety; that of the description is not God, but the works of God. Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.

The true path lies somewhere between these extremes. We know that Addison was out of the path if he meant that Poetry must sit in a pew or wear a cowl in order to be in the service and praise of God. All good verses following after truth and beauty are in the service and honor of God. Addison seems to imply that hymns exclusively are “sacred” and the rest of poetry “profane.” The world knows better now than to say that all outside the temple gate is profane. Who will say that “Rescue the Perishing” is more to the glory of God than “Lycidas”? But however Addison may 21 argue over this point, he proves very splendidly part of his contention, that the English language has not enough hymns; he wrote two hymns which still supply an insistent want. He shows that Johnson is wrong, by the best of proof, by doing eminently well what Johnson argued could not be done at all. In the hymn beginning, “The spacious firmament on high,” he does “make contemplative piety poetical.” And in the hymn, “When All Thy Mercies, O My God,” he illustrates how that “poetical” and that “thanksgiving” may be even best in the form of poetry. The Psalms are devoted to “faith, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication,” and they are poetical. It is possible to write good hymns; though it is difficult, and comparatively few have done it.

“Scarcely any one of us ever judges our hymns fairly,” said Matthew Arnold in his Oxford lectures on Celtic literature. And in the same paragraph, as if to exemplify this saying, he goes on to say that “so far as poetry is concerned, while ‘The Golden Treasury’ is a monument of a nation’s poetic strength, the ‘Book of Praise’ [Sir Roundell Palmer’s collection of hymns] is a monument to a nation’s weakness.”

Arnold was here speaking at the climax of his thesis that the Anglo-Saxon spirit is unlawfully married to the Semitic spirit, being divorced from the Indo-European, and specifically, the poetic Celtic spirit.


And [he says] if—whereas the Semitic genius places its highest spiritual life in the religious sentiment, and makes that the basis of its poetry—the Indo-European genius places its highest spiritual life in the imaginative reason, and makes that the basis of its poetry, we are none the better for wanting the perception to discern a natural law, which is, after all, like every natural law, irresistible; we are none the better for trying to make ourselves Semitic, when nature has made us Indo-European, and to shift the basis of our poetry. We may mean well; all manner of good may follow us on the way we go; but we are not on our right road, the road we must in the end follow.

That, he says, is why our hymns betray a false tendency and “poetry deserts us in our hymns.” The great Latin hymns but show that when Indo-Europeans do make religious sentiment the basis of their poetry they must do it in the language that is not alive. “The moment it [poetry] speaks in a living language, and makes itself the organ of the religious sentiment only, as in the German and English hymns, it betrays weakness;—the weakness of false tendency.”

The dictum of Arnold about the monuments of strength has been received with more seriousness than it ever deserved. Is it true that all English poetry which has the religious sentiment as its basis is outworn Hebraism into which the English genius has fallen? There is no more reason for saying that English poetry based on the religious sentiment is alien than for saying that English poetry based on 23 any other profound emotion of the heart is alien. Furthermore, is the Celtic genius alien to lyrics expressive of the religious sentiment? Among all modern hymn-singers the Welsh seem to be the most enthusiastic; and there are no other such inveterate psalm-singers as the Scotch. The old Irish helped to civilize Germany and England with their hymns.

As for the Latin hymns of the Middle Ages, those of Bernard of Cluny and Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, and the others were surely not written in a dead language. Latin was not a dead language in Milton’s time. Hymnody is alien to no language and no people except to those lacking religious sentiment and poetic impulse.

Despite the growing richness and varied excellence of the hymn-book, the old critical estimates of it, made long ago when the hymn as native English poetry had not come into its own, are still repeated by many critics. “The Cambridge History of American Literature,” for example, contains a chapter by Professor Percy H. Boynton headed “Patriotic Songs and Hymns.” The reader cannot be sure from the title whether or not the discussion of hymns is limited merely to patriotic hymns. He would suppose that it is so limited when he finds that nearly as much space is given to “Yankee Doodle” alone as to the whole subject of American hymns. But he finds less than three pages devoted to hymnody. And as he reads on he is likely to feel that it would have been as well if even less had been said. 24 For the discussion is uncritical and unfair. One could hardly write three pages and call it, without straining the meaning of words, “history” of American hymnody; the hymn is too prevalent and too important. It is as Edmund Clarence Stedman said, in his “Poets of America,” the “kind of verse which is, of all, most common and indispensable.” But even the historian’s three pages are not devoted to hymnody; they are given over to a strident discussion of what is not hymnody at all, but doggerel about which few persons would need instruction, or about which thoughtful persons would hardly need to argue. Scattered through the pages are such terms as “bathos,” “mortuary muse,” “banalities of evangelistic song,” “sentimental ornateness,” “tawdry sentimentalism.” This is indeed fair invective against the tawdry sentimentalism and the like which disfigure many compositions that pass as hymns, but beside the point entirely as regards the true hymn. The things attacked are not American hymnody.

We do not condemn all love-songs because there are inane and silly ones. There are good and beautiful love-songs quite different from current trash. There are plenty of medieval religious songs unspeakably maudlin and ridiculous. But that does not condemn medieval hymnody. One must distinguish. These lines from an anonymous hymn of the Middle Ages,

O esca vermorum! O missa pulveris!

O ros! O vanitas! Cur extolleris?


are not gracious and elevating poetry; nor are the following lines from old English times:

Matthew, Mark, and Luke and John, I beg,

The devil has tied up a knot in my leg,

Crosses three we make to ease us,

Two for the robbers and one for Christ Jesus.

The famous Latin hymn “Gloria, Laus et Honor” has a stanza translated by John Mason Neale:

Be thou, Lord, the rider,

And we the little ass;

That to God’s holy city

Together we may pass.

It would hardly be fair to condemn the hymnody of the past by setting up these as fair examples of the hymnody, and hurling indiscriminate expletives at the whole.

One must of course admit that there has been published very solemnly much weak and ridiculous hymnic verse; the appeal of a great hymn is so general, and its clarity and simplicity make it appear so easy to do, that many persons attempt to write hymns who cannot write well at all, much less write in this very difficult form. The failures are so many and so obvious that these critics forget the splendidly successful efforts that make up the hymn-book.

There is to be distinguished from all banalities a volume of true elect American hymns—poems of impeccable taste and undeniable power. The standard set by such hymnists as Timothy Dwight, John 26 Quincy Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Phoebe Cary, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sidney Lanier, Phillips Brooks, Richard Watson Gilder, and John Hay is high. And though the standard is high, it is reached by a sufficient number to make a book of rich and beautiful religious song.

In his “English Lyrical Poetry,”22Yale University Press, New Haven, 1912; p. 369. for further example of thoughtless criticisms, Professor Edward Bliss Reed adopts a sportive attitude when he comes to consider the hymn—if it may be called considering this important province of poetry merely to poke irrelevant fun at Isaac Watts by quoting Dr. Johnson’s remark about Watts’s innocence of life.

Isaac Watts was in fact a courageous, noble man, a classical scholar, and a lyrical poet of frequent loftiness and delicacy. Dr. Johnson says in his short “Life of Watts,” “Happy will be the reader whose mind is disposed by his verse or his prose to imitate him in all but his Non-Conformity.” And further—these are the Great Lexicographer’s words for the modern critic—“Every man acquainted with the common principles of human action will look with veneration on the man.” Isaac Watts’s hymns have stood severer tests than that of light ridicule. Watts displays at the same time the gentleness of a saint with the rugged strength of a trail-blazing pioneer. In the age of conformity he asserted 27 a stanch intellectual and religious independence. Professor Saintsbury calls him “a belated metaphysical.” But rather, instead of being a drowsy follower to bed of Donne and Herrick, he was up early in a new morning, kindling fires for Cowper and Wesley, Burke and Adams, Burns and Wordsworth. Watts is an important figure in English literary history. He helped to make possible the political, social, and religious advance of the age following his, and the romantic movement in English literature owes him no uncertain debt.

In his volume, “The English Lyric,” Professor Felix E. Schelling virtually disposes of the hymn with the remark that we may or may not “accept” certain hymns, but we do not have to read them. That is readily granted—unless of course one wishes to know them or to write just criticism about them. If, however, more people do read them and value them than read any other kind of poetry; if noble thinking in seemly diction and ringing cadence finds a lasting and general favor, so much so that, for whatever reason they may have, people get it by heart and sing it from one generation to another; it would seem to be literature.

Although the hymn, of all forms of verse, comes most readily to the apprehension and affection of people, it seems in the main to come most reluctantly from the pen of poets. Even the genius of William Cowper—his deep religious fervor, his exquisite good taste, his patience, and his extraordinary poetical 28 gift—did not avail to bring forth more than fifty lines of what the hymn-book to-day pronounces great hymnody.

One is especially impressed with the difficulty of writing good hymns when one considers that Charles Wesley, whom Julian in his great Dictionary calls “perhaps the greatest hymnist of all ages,” and who wrote about sixty-five hundred hymns, is represented in the hymn-book by an average of only twenty songs. Time and the hymn-books seem to be lessening this figure to about ten, including “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”; “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”; “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne”; “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”; “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies”; “Love Divine, All Love Excelling”; “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”; and “Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown.” To have written ten hymns, or even two, that are borne near to the heart of English-speaking peoples throughout the world is of course to be still a power; yet for the greatest hymn-writer of the world to have reached the standard, say, only fifty times out of sixty-five hundred, indicates an exacting test.

Isaac Watts, if only as the author of “O God Our Help in Ages Past” alone, would be no inglorious poet; yet the hymn-book seems very severe in choosing but eight or ten of the more than six hundred published by “the great Doctor Watts.”

Samuel Medley is remembered by “O Could I Speak the Matchless Worth,” though he published 229 other hymns; George Matheson, by “O Love 29 That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” though he wrote a whole volume of hymns. The author of “Fight the Good Fight” wrote three hundred other hymns. Ray Palmer, author of “My Faith Looks up to Thee,” wrote two volumes of hymns. The hymn-book has chosen four out of the 127 hymns published by Bishop Wordsworth; this is a large percentage. William Wordsworth wrote and published a single hymn, “The Laborer’s Noonday Hymn.” But it was not successful; few of the books have included it. John Newton wrote many hymns for the Olney book; but the really great hymnody called forth by his extraordinary vigor, patience, and religious fervor is comprised in some threescore lines of the hymn-book.

Rudyard Kipling is the author of but one good hymn, one, however, which seems to belong among the fifty best of the language. The present laureate of England, who is a distinguished hymnologist, being an editor and in part author of a hymn-book, the “Yattendon Hymnal,” has two or three lyrics which the hymnal may or may not accept as passably good. Still, of the many hymns written so far by Mr. Bridges, not one possesses that surging force and grace of life which bespeaks a sure survival among the elect lyrics.

“A good hymn,” said Alfred Tennyson, “is the most difficult thing in the world to write.” It was not until his eighty-first year that he himself achieved his single great hymn. He handed to his son, on their return one afternoon from a sail across 30 the bay, a piece of paper containing a lyric of sixteen lines.

“That,” said the son when he read it, “is the crown of your life’s work!”

The old poet gave explicit directions that it should be put at the end of all editions of his poems; and this stately and tender lyric, “Crossing the Bar,” was sung a little later at the laureate’s funeral in Westminster Abbey. Since that time it has taken its place, for the present day at least, among the small group of English hymns commonly sung at the burial of the dead. In some of the hymn-books Tennyson is represented also by certain stanzas from “In Memoriam,” which, however, while being included in more and more of the books, do not approach his calmly triumphant death-song.

It is true that Spenser, Shakspere, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning are, except for one piece by Milton, one by Wordsworth, and two by Tennyson, not in the hymn-book. But it does not follow, as some are quick to assume, that all good poetry is otherwise shut out. That at the funeral of Robert Browning in Westminster Abbey England went back to Isaac Watts for a fitting hymn to sing does not argue either that Browning was not a glorious poet or that Watts’s hymn was not both majestic and lovely enough to sing for any poet dead. “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” as a lyrical poem, seems to have about it a finality that any perfect piece of art must have. It is no matter that Shakspere did not write it. If Shakspere and Browning 31 were not inclined or gifted to write hymns, or if Byron and Shelley and Tennyson were not sonneteers, the fact is not disquieting; they merely did not, for reasons easily ascertained, labor within this narrow scope. For the scope is narrow. The hymn is subject to all the limitations of other lyric poetry and to peculiarly rigid restrictions of its own. And one must admit that glowing perfection is rare here as elsewhere. All this being so, it is still a sober assertion that some of the English hymnic verse reaches a poetic height not often reached in our literature at all.

There are clear reasons why but little that the few major poets wrote is admitted into the hymn-book. Why they did not write good hymns is another question. Milton, having the supreme gift of poetry and a profoundly religious nature, and being, perhaps, as Professor William P. Trent says, the best single character of the English race, might have been expected to write the greatest hymns. He had a warm interest in hymns as had his father before him, who of himself has a dim immortality in the hymn-book as the author of the tunes “Norwich” and “York.” John Milton did try his hand at hymns; but he is remembered in the hymn-book by but five stanzas, the psalm paraphrase, “Let Us with a Gladsome Mind.” The morning hymn in the fifth book of “Paradise Lost,” beginning with line 138, is not strictly hymnal; the blank verse, the long periodic structure, the elaboration of figure, and the localization all put it beyond the pale of the hymn-book.


The hymn is a quite definite and distinct type of poetry. Its boundaries as regards both form and content are plainly and narrowly laid down. It is of all types of literature perhaps the most rigorously limited. Merely as a lyric it would of course have narrow limitations; as a religious lyric its limitations are multiplied; but in that it must be the medium of concerted social thought and feeling on the gravest matters, and yet simple enough in form to be sung chorally by an assemblage not assumed to have any special choral practice or skill, it is very much more limited. The hymn must be a lyrical poem, simple of form, easy and smooth of movement; its ideas must be direct, unified, immediately apparent; its manner must have the decorum and gravity befitting public worship.

The intricate form, for example, of Milton’s “Hymn on the Nativity” would bar it from the book were it acceptable in every other respect. For its stanzas are long and complex. The hymn stanza must be short enough to fit a simple musical setting, and invariably regular. A sonnet, were it ideal otherwise, could hardly find its way into the hymn-book; it cannot be divided into four-, or three-, or five-line stanzas. Even if it had twelve or sixteen lines so that it could be divided into quatrains to fit a simple musical scheme, its pentameter line would still be a difficulty. Of the scores of superb religious sonnets there is none in any hymn-book.

The severity of the demand for simple form is apparent at a glance through the hymnal. The simplest 33 of all poetic forms, the form most easily read and retained in the memory, is the ballad stanza, or what the hymn-book calls common meter. It is the form of “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Robin Hood.” Wordsworth and Coleridge went back to it in “Lucy Gray” and “The Ancient Mariner.” It is a four-line stanza, the first and third lines, tetrameter, usually riming; the second and fourth, trimeter, always riming. An example is Cowper’s

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

There are more hymns in common meter than in any other measure. As this is the simplest stanza form, so is its tetrameter the simplest line measure for sustained and dignified verse. There are more four-measure lines in the hymn-book than all other lines combined.

Next to common meter the favorite stanza form is long meter, four tetrameter lines. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s hymn beginning,

Lord of all being, throned afar,

Thy glory flames from sun and star;

Center and source of every sphere,

Yet to each loving heart how near,

is in long meter. Short meter is a stanza of four lines, the third tetrameter, the others trimeter.


A few more storms shall beat

On this wild rocky shore;

And we shall be where tempests cease,

And surges swell no more.

The first and third lines may rime; the second and last must rime. The third line, running out longer than the others, does not demand the rime sound, but the final line of the stanza does require a closing rime. Stanzas made up of trimeter lines alone are rarely found. The trimeter verse is too short and monotonous. Pentameter, on the other hand, which is by far the favorite line in English poetry generally, is rare in the hymn. Hexameter is exceptionally rare. It seems that practically the line longer than four feet is too much for the eye, reading at a glance—since it must watch the music-notes also—to catch at once. And even the few hymns written in lines longer than four feet tend to fall into easy rhythmic division, and are usually made into conventional hymn length by the music. The pentameter “Abide with Me” is thus subdivided by its familiar musical setting, “Eventide.” On the other hand, if the poet has made the line too short, the music lengthens it. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” is written in dimeter and trimeter, but the tune really lengthens the verse into common meter. The iambic is far the most prevalent foot in the hymnal verse as in English verse generally.

Conformity to simple measure is but one of the restraints that the hymn-book places upon the poet; 35 it enjoins a sure simplicity of ideas, as well as of form. The good hymn is arrow-like in moving to its mark; its images, however brilliantly they may flash and gleam, must not—any more than the point and feather of an arrow—retard or deflect the movement. A stanza of Sarah Fowler Adams’s famous hymn will illustrate this. It suited the purpose of the poem to tell—as a lyric may tell—the story in Genesis 28:10-19, of Jacob at Beth-el.

After the successful conspiracy to deceive his dying father who was blind, and to cheat his brother Esau out of his rightful property, Jacob fled for his life into a strange country.

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. . . . And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el.

This passage furnishes a splendid theme for hymnody, and a number of good hymns are based upon 36 it, such, for example, as that of Madame Guyon, translated from the French by William Cowper. It begins:

My Lord, how full of sweet content,

I pass my years of banishment!

Where’er I dwell, I dwell with thee,

In Heaven, in earth, or on the sea.

To me remains nor place nor time;

My country is in every clime:

I can be calm and free from care

On any shore, since God is there.

But notice with what vividness of detail “Nearer, My God, to Thee” gives the picture as Madame Guyon’s hymn does not. Still Mrs. Adams maintains a true lyric economy of words. Much might have been said about Jacob’s homesickness, his guilty conscience, his fear of night and enemies, his hunger and cold, and so on through the story, the ladder, the angels, and all. But notice the swiftness and directness of the hymn narrative, and the sweep of its style:

Nearer, my God, to thee!

Nearer to thee,

E’en though it be a cross

That raiseth me;

Still all my song shall be,

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!


Though like a wanderer,

The sun gone down,

Darkness be over me,

My rest a stone,

Yet in my dreams I’d be

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!

There let the way appear,

Steps unto heaven;

All that thou sendest me,

In mercy given;

Angels to beckon me

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!

Then, with my waking thoughts

Bright with thy praise,

Out of my stony griefs

Bethel I raise;

So by my woes to be

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!

Or, if on joyful wing,

Cleaving the sky,

Sun, moon, and stars forgot,

Upwards I fly,

Still all my song shall be,

Nearer, my God, to thee,

Nearer to thee!

These lines might, by the way, be held up as a touchstone of hymnody. When one begins to measure other poems by the qualities of this one—its brevity, 38 its simplicity, its vivid imagery, its strong feeling under perfect control, its general artistic integrity—one finds what a rare and fine thing a perfect hymn is.

The essential directness of style is evident in the hymnal attitude toward external nature. The hymn poet may pass through gardens and pleasant fields, but he must not loiter there. In the more open fields of poesy he may wander as he likes, but in the aisle of the hymn he must go straightly. The journeying soul may see

Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers,

but the end of the journey, not they, is the point. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, he may delight in scenes of natural beauty, but at the same time he must be on his way. The twenty-third Psalm deals with nature ideally from the hymnal point of view. The poem, as it is rendered in the King James version, is essentially, in manner, idea, and spirit, a model hymn, except for the fact that it has not rime and meter for the hymn music; translation as it is, unmetrical as it is, it is yet perhaps the single most popular English poem. It pictures vivid and unforgettable scenes of nature; but these scenes are not there merely because they are beautiful. The idea of the lyric does not wander after them; they accompany and serve the idea. The point of the poem is not green pastures, still water, and shadowed valley, but the care of the good Shepherd.

The frequent glimpses of natural scenery in the 39 hymn are often no less vivid and appealing because they are brief. Descriptions of one or two lines stamp themselves strangely on the memory. The curious critical notion that the hymn must be dun-colored and tame of spirit can be traced back to Dr. Johnson’s famous and false pronouncement about devotional poetry. “The paucity of its topics,” he said, “enforces perpetual repetition, and the sanctity of its matter rejects the ornaments of figurative diction.” The English hymn was not then so strong to refute this as it is now, but the Hebrew was, and the Latin. Still this charge was met by Watts, in the preface to his “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” 1707, long before Johnson made it. “Have they forgot, or were they never told that many parts of the Old Testament were verse? and the figures are stronger and the metaphors bolder and the images more surprising and strange than ever I read in any profane writer?”

Indeed the best hymns are boldest in figure. So far from being undesirable, poetic vigor and color are necessary to great hymns; only this liveliness must not be what Herrick called “unbaptized.” The hymn that figured night as

That Ethiop queen with jewels in her hair

did not long survive. A hymn might conceivably point a moral by a Cleopatra or more easily by a Queen of Sheba, but it may not ask the saints to celebrate her charms, or to give her more than passing note. The hymn-book is not unreasonable in 40 these restrictions. It merely makes the demand of good art that the figures be congruous. It is but true to good art and good sense in excluding ideas and modes of expression alien to its spirit and purpose. These restrictions, though reasonable, are severely narrow.

The popular nature of the hymn demands a peculiar simplicity of form; its artistic nature demands the proper harmony and intensity of lyric emotion; its religious nature demands of it, as an act of public worship, an inflexible directness and dignity of style. For example, Herrick’s “Litany to the Holy Spirit” ignores the last rule and thus fails to keep its opening promise of being an immortal hymn. The touching picture of the dying Christian is marred by the line,

When the house doth sigh and weep

in the wind. Aside from its “pathetic fallacy,” the line goes too far in particularization. The hymn has no interest in the peculiarities of a poet’s house, or in the sounds about it, unless by some means these rise into the range of general grave concern. But even if there were some relation that would draw the assembly to sing of Herrick’s house, there is yet a worse fault with the poem, which precludes any possibility of its being in the hymn-book.

In the houre of my distresse,

When temptations me oppresse,

And when I my sins confesse,

Sweet Spirit comfort me!


When I lie within my bed,

Sick in heart, and sick in head,

And with doubts discomforted,

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the house doth sigh and weep,

And the world is drown’d in sleep,

Yet mine eyes the watch do keep;

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the artlesse Doctor sees

No one hope but of his Fees,

And his skill runs on the lees,

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When his potion and his Pill,

Has, or none, or little skill,

Meet for nothing, but to kill,

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the passing-bell doth tole,

And the furies in a shole

Come to fright a parting soule,

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the tapers now burne blew,

And the comforters are few,

And the number more than true;

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the Priest his last hath praid,

And I nod to what is said,

’Cause my speech is now decaid;

Sweet Spirit comfort me!


When (God knows) I’m tost about,

Either with despair or doubt;

Yet before the glasse be out,

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the tempter me pursu’th

With the sins of all my youth,

And halfe damns me with untruth;

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the flames and hellish cries

Fright mine ears and fright mine eyes,

And all terrors me surprise;

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

When the judgment is reveal’d,

And that open’d which was seal’d,

When to thee I have appeal’d;

Sweet Spirit comfort me!

The very effective first three stanzas would doubtless have been accepted and Herrick forgiven, if they were not logically incomplete without the impossible fourth and following stanzas. Objection to a doctor’s potions would be no subject for the assembled faithful to incorporate into song. The hymn-book has no time for the incongruous or trifling. It is straightaway and brief in manner, for it must be about its earnest business.

“A truly spiritual taste,” said John Billinsby in his edition of D. Burgess’s “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs,” London, 1714, “will keep well disposed minds so intent upon the weight and seriousness 43 of the matter as not to leave them at Leisure for little Impertinences of Criticism upon the Phrase and Dress; or the exactness of Measure and Rhyme in these sacred composures.” True enough; but the poet or poetaster must not presume upon any self-imposed title of sacredness. The truly spiritual taste and the well disposed minds that after all decide what shall make up the hymn-book have no use for little impertinences of criticism; but this constant critical judgment knows, given time enough, precisely what is fitting in a hymn and what is not; and it will brook no departure from its standard. There is an Avernus for hymns, and the descent thereto is easy. The hymn-book has its standard and is very strict in upholding it. While there are notable differences of style and idea in the hymn-books of different periods, the variations from the standard are naturally much less than the variations of some other kinds of poetry from their standards.

But it is interesting to find what a motley poetry has knocked at the door of the hymnal and once in a while, under the guise of “sacred composure,” has found admittance—though not for long. Here are some lines, little better or worse than many of the translations that gained admittance for a time, from “The Bay Psalm Book”:

For thence he shall come for to judge

All men both dead and quick

I, in the Holy Ghost believe,

In church that’s Catholicke.


Good Thomas Hopkins, of “Sternhold and Hopkins,” lived in stormy, perilous times. Like St. Peter, he sometimes showed the impatience which is characteristic of the military mind.

Why dost thou draw thy hand aback,

And hide it in thy Lappe?

O pluck it out, and be not slack

To give thy foes a rappe!

In Reeve’s “Spiritual Hymns” of the latter seventeenth century, No. 107 attributes to Deity a curious and surprising argument on the unity of the church.

I am no Bigamist,

I have no Concubines;

It’s only one Church I admit,

One child; I have no twins.

Hymn 111 of the same book is addressed to the church.

Our hearts are swifter than our Charets;

We’ll both conspire from our places:

Thou here, and I from lofty Garrets,

We’ll lift this world off its Basis.

There was a song in an old American hymn-book which was neighborly and frank, but a shade too peremptory. “Come go with us,” it says,

But if you will refuse us,

We bid you all farewell;

We’re on the road to Canaan,

You on the road to hell.


The best hymns, indeed, are notable for boldness and animation of style, and always of course under artistic control. The single composition that would probably be named by more people, high and low, urbane and rustic, religious and non-religious, as the best hymn in the language, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” may be taken as a pattern for good hymn verse. As for life and spirit, not Byron nor Shelley ever wrote more exultant lines than these:

Or, if on joyful wing,

Cleaving the sky,

Sun, moon and stars forgot,

Upwards I fly.

Many of the modern as well as medieval and ancient hymns are all but too bold. Persons of milder temperament object to some of the old favorites as being vigorous to the extent of violence. A few lines of a famous hymn of the eighteenth century, Cowper’s

There is a fountain filled with blood,

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;

And sinners plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains,

are enough to show that excessive mildness is not an inherent trait of the hymn as a literary type. One can hear the stalwart poetry of medieval hymns even without knowing Latin.

Dies iræ, dies illa,

Solvet sæclum in favilla,

Teste David cum Sibylla.


Tuba mirum spargens sonum

Per sepulchra regionum,

Coget omnes ante thronum.

A well known hymn of the Old Testament, the one hundred and thirty-seventh Psalm, closes:

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Whether the ancient pious sang this as fact or figure, modern taste may not at any rate tax it with lack of vigor. There is much of sweetness and gentleness in our hymnody, but there is tumultuous force in it also. There is no more reason for a hymn to be pallid and weak than for a person to be so. Within its scanty plot of ground the hymn can put forth as vivid purple and gold as grows in any field. These lines from Katherine Lee Bates’s hymn—one which bids fair to enter the company of the world’s great patriotic hymns—show that a hymn may be full of color:

Oh beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

A few passages further, based on the manifestations of nature we call the weather, show here that the hymn has force and color and variety to stir the heart and give flight to the imagination:


Ye winds of night, your force combine;

Without his high behest,

Ye shall not in the mountain pine

Disturb the sparrow’s nest.

Kirke White.

Still, still, with thee, when purple morning breaketh,

When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;

Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight

Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with thee.

O tell of his might, O sing of his grace

Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;

His chariots of wrath the deep thunder-clouds form,

And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Ye faithful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

The following lines are not untypical of the vivid imagery and the lyric intensity of the English hymn-book:

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood

Stand dressed in living green.

Must I be carried to the skies

On flowery beds of ease,

While others fought to win the prize

And sailed through bloody seas?


I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I have read his righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps,

His truth is marching on.

Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise;

Exalt thy towering head and lift thine eyes!

See heaven its sparkling portals wide display,

And break upon thee in a flood of day.

Our years are like the shadows

On sunny hills that lie,

Or grasses in the meadows,

That blossom but to die,

A sleep, a dream, a story,

By strangers quickly told,

An unremaining glory

Of things that soon are old.

Lord of all being, throned afar,

Thy glory flames from sun and star;

Center and soul of every sphere,

Yet to each loving heart how near.

Majestic sweetness sits enthroned

Upon the Saviour’s brow.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending.

Jerusalem, the golden,

With milk and honey blest.


How gentle God’s commands!

How kind his precepts are!

Hark! hark, my soul! angelic songs are swelling

O’er earth’s green fields, and ocean’s wave-beat shore.

There are many single lines of exquisite poetry which, because they are so familiar, fail immediately to arouse the imagination.

In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o’er the wrecks of time.

A startlingly magnificent lyrical summary of history is the second line.

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,” becomes a more strangely rich verse as one regards it longer. Its six words comprise a trope of the Eastern deserts of the wildly imaginative quality of the story of “Open, Sesame”; an epithet, “Rock of Ages,” traced by scholars at least three thousand years back; and a cry of fervent piety from the heart of rural England.

Following are other lines which may be considered illustrative of the imagery and feeling of the hymn-book. Some carry a feeling of elemental sadness, some of militant high resolve, some of sanguine praise and hope:

Time like an ever-rolling stream

Bears all her sons away.

The tumult and the shouting dies;

The captains and the kings depart;


Still stands thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

A few more years shall roll

O’er these dark hills of time.

From every stormy wind that blows,

From every swelling tide of woes,

There is a calm, a sure retreat.

As pants the hart for cooling streams

When heated in the chase.

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might,

Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight.

His are the thousand sparkling rills

That from a thousand fountains burst,

And fill with music all the hills,

And yet, he said, “I thirst.”

Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings.

Hell’s foundations tremble

At the shout of praise.

O, beautiful for patriot’s dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears.

These scattered lines from the hymn-book indicate how this type of lyric, though it uses few and simple 51 words and the simplest form of verse, and though it may appear excessively plain, can convey large ideas and stir deep emotions. And Poetry is to the discerning mind none the less gracious when, meetly clad, she moves as a ministering spirit among all sorts and conditions of men, bearing consolation and courage and amplitude of spirit, inspiring charity and rightness of life and faith in eternal Providence.

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