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CHAPTER III
THE NATIVE ENGLISH HYMN

With the coming of the Renaissance, Latin hymnody became one of the old things that must pass away. Its heavy surges, sounding so powerfully through the age that created it, now began to recede and to become an echo. Its art had finally overdone itself and had become an empty exercise, the expression not of aspiring faith but rather of ingenuity in making words tumble like jugglers’ balls in astonishing feats of rhythm and rime. The new classical taste, moreover, rejected its Gothic exuberance of form. The church, under order of the pope, made a sweeping reformation of the words and music of its song. “Hymnody then,” says Clement Blume, S. J., co-editor of the monumental “Analecta Hymnica Medii Ævi,” “received its death blow, as under the revision of the breviary under Pope Urban VIII the medieval rhythmical hymns were forced into more classical forms by means of so-called corrections. The hymnody of the Middle Ages is now only an historical monument which bears witness to the artistic skill, the joyful singing, and the deep religious life of our forefathers.”

But the Christian hymn was not to pass away; 91 Christianity is a singing religion sprung out of another singing religion whose ancient admonitions said, “Let all the people praise thee,” “Praise the Lord with a harp,” “Sing unto him a new song,” “Enter into his courts with song,” “Sing ye praises with understanding,” “Praise him all ye people.” The early church rose with singing and made its progress westward with ever increasing sweep of song. And when the mighty harmonies of the Middle Ages died away there was still singing.

Native vernacular hymns had always existed in England along with the Latin. The Latin hymns which the first missionary band sang as they landed and marched up the shore of Britain were not long in finding echoes in the language of the island. The first song of her first poet was a hymn. The uppermost spring of the stream of England’s literature is a clear-flowing lyric, a hymn of praise to God. This poem of the first known writer of English gives forecast of a sturdy quality of the literature to consider duty and decorum of life, and “to assert eternal Providence.” The legend of the shy lad, Cædmon, is not likely to be too often called to mind.

As he slept in the hay in the stable at Whitby, one stood by him and said, “Cædmon, sing me something.”

Cædmon said, “I do not know how to sing; that is why I left the feast and came out here.”

“Still, you might sing.”

“What shall I sing?”

“Sing the beginnings of all created things.”

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And Cædmon began to sing:

Nu scylun hergan Heofonriches Uard—

“Now shall we praise the heaven-kingdom’s Keeper.” Professor Cook’s translation is as follows:

Now must we hymn the Master of heaven,

The might of the Maker, the deeds of the Father,

The thought of his heart. He, Lord everlasting,

Stablished of old the source of all wonders:

Creator all-holy, hung the bright heaven,

A roof high upreared, o’er the children of men;

The king of mankind then created for mortals

The world in its beauty, the earth spread beneath them,

He, Lord everlasting, omnipotent God.

The Venerable Bede (673-735), who was probably a child when Cædmon was an old man, tells in his “Ecclesiastical History” of a good deal of hymn singing; he composed a book of hymns, and himself died singing. St. Patrick and St. Colomba and their followers had cheered their own hearts with psalms and hymns and had charmed many savage hearts with them. King Alfred so loved his hymn-book that he carried it in his bosom and sang as he went to war or traveled among his people or even when he went hunting.

Native English hymns flourished along with the Latin hymns. There were many hymns of Latin and English lines alternating and of English verses with Latin refrains. The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, 93 the ancient Latin hymns, the Psalms, and even the Catechism were turned into popular rimes and generally sung. Professor Carleton F. Brown’s “Catalogue of Old and Middle English Religious Verse,” in two large volumes, gives an idea of the extent of this kind of poetry. A considerable part of the verse listed is lyrical.

Some of the songs are quaint and lovely; some are plodding, earnest, well-intentioned, and dull. Ideas of the Deity are frequently startling in their naïveté. One pious rimer concludes that “God is a clever wight,” since he did all his work of creation by word of mouth rather than by hard labor. Here are some examples of the native religious song:

Suete iesu, myn huerte gleem

Brytore then the sonne beem.

Suete iesu loverde myn

My lyfe, myn huerte, al is thin.

Undo myn herte, out lyht ther yn,

And wite me from fendes engyn.77Harleian MS. No. 2253. Edited by the Early English Text Society.

Mary flowr of flowrs all,

Hath born a chyld in an ox stall,—

That lord and prynce is over all:

Puer natus est nobis.

By an apull of a tre

Bound men all made were we,

That chyld was born to make us fre:

Puer natus est nobis.

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The chyld was don on the rode

With hys flesshe & with hys blood,

For our helpe & for our gud:

Puer natus est nobis.

The IIIde day he rose & to hevyn went,

Wytt & wysedom us he sent

For to keep hys commaundment:

Puer natus est nobis.

He shall cum down at domys day,

With blody woundis I you say,

As he dyed on Gud Fryday:

Puer natus est nobis.

Now pray we to that hevyn kyng

To send us all his dere blessyng,

Shryft & hosyll at our endyng:

Puer natus est nobis.88From the MS. of Richard Hill, 1508-1836. Edited by Roman Dyboski, Ph.D. Publication of the Early English Text Society. Extra series 101. London, 1907.

Another, long and doleful, ends each stanza with the refrain,

Alas my hart will brek in thre,

Terribilis mors conturbat me.

One feels that the anonymous author of the following verse was an earnest soul if he was no poet:

Lord, my God al merciable,

I the bi-seche with herte stable

That I mouwe wilne that thing

That most may beo to thy lyking.

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Now, as earnestness of purpose and freedom of spirit are outstanding traits of Christian hymnody, they are outstanding traits, too, of the English people. It might have been expected, therefore, that freedom-loving and earnest England would be the land where the hymn would greatly flourish. And it has flourished. There has been a lively English hymnody as long as there has been an English language. And it has been a great thing that the rhythm of this song joined in with the rhythm of English scythe and oar and spinning-wheel and cradle to lighten the burden of toil and lift up the hearts of the people.

But as vigorous and variegated and prevalent as this union of popular poetry and popular music was in England, it strangely weakened and paled at the one time in English history when it might have been expected most to flourish. The Reformation, born of that new freedom of thought and worship which produces the best hymnody, did not in England, as it gloriously did in Germany, speak out richly in the native vernacular hymn.

The Elizabethans did not write hymns as we understand the term. There was rich popular music and abundant religious poetry; hardly a poet from Wyatt on down did not bring forth his “Divine Poems.” But the distinctive hymn was in disfavor and neglect. The Puritans said: We will tolerate nothing in our worship which is not plainly scriptural. We will sing only those religious songs that are in the Bible: the poets may turn the Bible 96 literally into rime and meter for us; we will sing that, but we will not tolerate in our public worship of God any hymn of mere “human composure.” The other and complementary party likewise banned all contemporary and recent hymnody, not, however, because it was outside the Bible canon, but because it lacked the sanction of ancient ecclesiastical usage.

So it was that the age of Elizabeth, which might perhaps have produced for England poetry as rich and beautiful in the smaller scope of hymnody as it produced in the large province of drama, and which gave us lyric poems that are still the glory of the language—some of them religious lyrics, too—gave to the English hymn-book hardly a single stanza that may be called hymnic. It is true that the poem containing, “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” and “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem” were written then; but these hymns are stanzas selected from a long anonymous poem signed “F. B. P.,” and they did not become hymns till the close of the eighteenth century.

It was not, of course, because of any lack of religious feeling or of the lyric spirit that there were no Elizabethan hymns. There was much religious singing and sacred music. It was the age of Tallis and William Byrd and of other great and many minor church musicians. Whole chapters, for example, of the Acts were turned into rime and meter, set to music, and sung in the Chapel Royal. Whole books, including the chronological lists of names, were versified and sung, seemingly with fervor. The Psalms were sung to the tunes common in the 97 streets and the shops of barbers, and in the taverns. They were sung in the cathedrals and in the cultivated homes such as that in which John Milton was nurtured. But from these golden days of English life and literature there have come down to us no great hymns; there was, as we have seen, no popular demand, no social feeling, to inspire the rich native hymnody.

It takes more than a devout and wise poet to make a hymn; it requires a people to call forth poetry of any kind. Especially is this true of that most social type of poem, the hymn. The history of poetry and especially of hymnody shows that it requires social thinking and communal feeling as well as individual gift to make poetry. “Paradise Lost” was a poem of Puritan England no less than of John Milton.

It is not by chance that poets stand in groups. The poetic movements and the poetic notions which group poets together from time to time are not entirely of the poets. Wordsworth and Coleridge needed each other and needed the social thinking and feeling of their time to make them the poets they were. The poetry of Keats and Shelley and Byron is the poetry of the age of spiritual awakening and revolt, of a wave of communal feeling and thinking, as well as of the three individuals. The New England transcendentalists were poets not merely of and for themselves, but of and for the common mind and spirit of transcendental New England. Shakspere was the voice of William Shakspere; but he was even more the voice of Elizabethan 98 England. If the poet spoke merely of himself, and were not the voice of a deeper social mind, we might have a Longfellow singing with Pope, and a Dryden singing heroic couplets of seventeenth-century wisdom in Alaska or Arizona. If Charles Wesley had been living in the time of Donne and Herrick he would probably have written no hymns at all; the type had not been developed in the minds of the people and the poets. And had he lived then, and had he conceived independently of the type, he would not have written many hymns, there being no demand for them and no response to them. Ken and Watts and the religious revival of the eighteenth century together with Charles Wesley produced “Jesus Lover of My Soul” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” When Herrick and Donne wrote, if the people had been singing religious lyrics of our poets in their worship, the poets would have responded with lyrics to sing. And the people in turn would have learned and set up a higher standard. It required Ken, Watts, and Wesley to develop the hymn, but it took a hymn-minded England to develop Ken, Watts, and Wesley.

Tethered poets could not write great hymns. There was a prodigious amount of metrical psalmody, some of it good, so far as second-hand poetry can be good, but the blighting effect of this kind of repression upon poetic form and spirit is evident as one reads over the metrical versions of Psalms made by some of the best English poets, including Milton.

And thus it came about that while Germany was 99 making so splendid a hymnody, the Elizabethan age produced no great hymns. Michael Drayton expressed this idea of limitation well enough in the preface to his “Harmonie of the Church containing the spiritual Songs and Holy Hymns of Godly men, Patriarchs, and Prophets; all sweetly sounding to the praise and glory of the highest. Now (newly) introduced into sundry kinds of English Meeter; meets to be sung or read for the solace and comfort of the godly” (London, 1591):

Gentle reader, my meaning is not with the variety of verse to feed any vain humor, neither to trouble thee with devices of my own invention, as carrying an overweening of my own wit; but here I present thee these Psalms or Songs of Praise so exactly translated as the prose would permit, or sense would in any way suffer me; which (if thou be the same in heart as thou art in name, I mean Christian) I doubt not but thou wilt take as great delight in these as in any poetical fiction.

It is a tragedy of literary history that Drayton did not express more “devices of his own invention,” not only so far as religious lyrics go but in the broader field of literature as well. His opinion about originality in religious song was all but a universal opinion, and consequently the native hymn of modern English had little inspiration and response such as the great hymnists had had. It is hard to imagine what the Elizabethans might have done with the hymn.

The sweeping corporate fervor for singing, such 100 as had called forth the Psalms themselves in their time, was lacking to the Elizabethans; their ears never quite caught the hymnal note. Wyatt and Surrey, blazing the way for modern English poetry, had written hymn verse; but it was verse patterned slavishly upon the models of the Psalms. In sonnets and other lyrics they wrote freely and brilliantly for their early time, but in this province.

William Drummond of Hawthornden published in his “Flowers of Zion” (Edinburgh, 1620) some religious verse of high quality. But not one of these poems falls exactly into the hymn type; he did not attain to the making of a single good hymn. His “Ascension Hymn” will serve as well as any to show this, and will give a hint why:

Bright Portalles of the Skie

Embossed with sparkling Starres,

Doors of Eternitie

With diamantine barres.

Your Arras rich uphold,

Loose all your bolts and Springs,

Ope wide your leaves of gold;

That in your Roofes may come the King of kings.

To fitting music this poem, so far, would be a rather gorgeous hymn. Except for its slight antiqueness, I do not see that it is much inferior to Pope’s “Rise, Crowned with Light, Imperial Salem, Rise,” or Addison’s “The Spacious Firmament on High,” both of which it resembles in combined fervor and splendor. 101 But in the following stanza it loses the hymn quality of restraint from gaudy decoration:

Scarfed in a rosy cloud

Hee doth ascend the Aire,

Straight doth the Moone him shrowde

With her resplendent Haire.

The figure of the moon’s hair, while it may be pretty fancy, is a patent violation of that churchly dignity which slight practice in hymnody would have shown Drummond that the hymn demands.

A hymn of Phineas Fletcher, published in 1670, twenty years after his death, beginning,

Great fount of light, whose overflowing streams,

Lend stars their dimmer sparks, suns brighter beams,

shows another departure from the hymn standard: the lines are too subtle. One has to pause in reading them to see what they mean. If Fletcher had been a contemporary of Keble he would have found out that the meaning, or least some meaning, must be instantly evident. Neither the music nor the momentum of corporate vocal expression will allow any pause for studying out subtle meanings.

Cease, then, my tongue, and lend unto my mind

Leave to bethink,

says Spenser in his “Hymn of Heavenly Beauty” (l. 106). This poem—itself of course not a hymn—makes a clearly impossible demand upon the singing hymn; one can not at the same time sing and stop 102 singing to think. Thinking must go along with the expression.

Ben Jonson’s “Hymn to God the Father” lacks a quality which the hymn type very definitely demands, and which yet is hard to describe critically. James Montgomery calls the quality in his own case “mediocrity of mind” and with his rare candor thanks God that he has it.

Hear me, O God!

A broken heart

Is my best part.

Use still thy rod

That I may prove

Therein, my love.

If thou hadst not

Been stern to me,

And left me free,

I had forgot

Myself and thee. . . .

Who more can crave

Than thou hast done?

Thou gav’st a son

To free a slave

First made of naught,

With all since bought.

Sin, death and hell

His glorious name

Quite overcame

Yet I rebel

And slight the same.

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But I’ll come in

Before thy loss

Me further toss

As sure to win

Under his cross.

The hymn is too much the expression of the rare Ben Jonson, and not enough the expression of the ordinary folk, to be a good hymn. It is devout, musical, and mainly simple and honest. But if we or Ben Jonson’s contemporaries were to sing it, we should need to pause to see what he meant by

First made of naught

With all since bought.

“Use still thy rod” would cause many to pause if they thought what they were saying. The last two lines are not immediately clear. Again, the poem has stanzas of irregular length; and that would bring confusion in the musical setting.

An injunction by Queen Elizabeth in June, 1559, provides that

For the comforting of such as delight in music it may be permitted that in the beginning of Common Prayer either at morning or evening there may be sung an hymn or such like song to the praise of Almighty God, in the best melody and music that may be devised, having respect that the sentence of the hymn may be rendered and perceived.

But the fact that the law permitted it did not mean that the right was to any extent exercised. 104 Even Isaac Watts, as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, while protesting violently for lyrical freedom, was careful to state in the headings that most of his hymns were based on some part of the Scriptures. Poets had never been limited entirely to the Psalms for models. Various poems and other passages of the Bible were turned into verse; witness the fact that Christopher Tye, tutor of Edward VI and Mary, felt impelled to turn the entire Book of Acts into common-meter stanzas—the Acts! But the Psalms held the central place.

If the following lines of Crashaw, “A Song of Divine Love,” had been written to supply the need of “a hymn or such-like song” one sees how it is not an expression of worship to be used by a public assembly:

Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace

Sends up my soul to seek thy face

Thy blessed eyes breathe such desire

I die in love’s delicious fire.

However devout its aim, its style is too fulsome for a hymn. In the following lines, “To the Name above Every Name; a Hymn,”

Awake, my glory, soul (if such thou be,

And that fair word at all refers to thee),

Awake and sing,

is shown an example of personal particularization the like of which is not possible in a good hymn. 105 The poet here becomes a peculiar person, so that a company of persons could not sing his lines as the expression of their common mind. Probably not one other person would either feel or have any interest in the doubt as to whether one might address his soul by the name of soul.

It seems a sort of misrepresentation of Jeremy Taylor to quote him as a hymn poet; but he wrote a volume, “Festival Hymns” (1665). Not one of them is even a moderately good hymn. A master of English prose, a man distinguished for sense, and a saint for piety and goodness, he never attained to true hymnody. The first lines of his “Hymn for Christmas Day” show how a verse may be devout lyrical poetry and still not be a hymn; it is a “reading lyric,” not a singing one:

Awake my soul and come away!

Put on thy best array:

Lest if thou longer stay

Thou lose some minutes of so blest a day.

Go run

And bid good morrow to the sun.

The use here of the first person singular mars the lines, not that there is the slightest objection to the first person per se, but the very fact that the holiday assemblage can say with the poet personally that they have on their best clothes destroys the figure in literalness. They have on their best clothes, and the fact is too personal and obvious to serve as a figure typifying spiritual elevation.

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Death, the old serpent’s son,

Thou hadst a sting, once, like thy sire,

Thou carried hell, and ever-burning fire,

But those black days are done.

Why is this expression of the idea impossible for good hymnody, while the following expression of it is matchless?

O Death, where is thy sting,

Where, grave, thy victory?

Isaac Watts clothes the idea thus poetically halfway between very good and very poor hymnody:

Say, “Live forever wondrous King!

Born to redeem the strong to save.”

They ask the monster, “Where’s thy sting?”

“And where thy victory, boasting grave?”

The first lacks the essential dignity. It carried a hint of the mischief and humor of a school-boy’s taunt. The last two lines of the stanza are too violent. The line in the second instance is a pure lyrical cry of triumph, in ultimate words.

In 1623 George Wither had brought out, under a patent from King James, the first approach to a real hymn-book of the Church of England. The patent reads:

James by the Grace of God. . . . To all and singular printers, booksellers, whereas, our well beloved subject, George Wither, gentleman, by his great industry and diligent study hath gathered and composed a book, entitled 107 Hymns and Songs of the Church, by him faithfully and briefly translated into lyric verse, which said book being esteemed worthy and profitable to be inserted in convenient manner and due place into every English Psalm book in meter. We give and grant full and free license power and privilege unto the said George Wither, his executors and assigns to imprint or cause to be imprinted for the term of fifty and one years, etc. Witness by ourselves at Westminster the 17th day of February. Reg. 20-1622-3.

Wither’s hymn-book, while it was made up partly of “canonical” poems riming about as well as they could be rimed, was made up partly, too, of his own original compositions; and as he was now living in an age of “Psalms in meeter” for religious song exclusively, he had small success with the hymn-book. The people were not ready for the free hymns, and he was not himself ready to write successful ones. Not that Wither did not write good verses. He did write good religious poetry; and his book might have been sold to the reading public had not the Stationers’ Company resented his having a patent and practically blocked the sale of the book. But Wither’s poems are not quite hymns.

Of no small significance, however, is Wither as a hymnist. He had the taste to see that the metrical Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins were poor poetry, and he knew that something better was possible. He says in his “Scholar’s Purgatory”:

No man of understanding can sing many of these Psalms but with trouble to his devotion. . . . They are full of absurdities, 108 solecisms, improprieties, nonsense. . . . I do not disparage the pious endeavors of those who took pains in that translation, but rather commending their laborious and Christian intention, do acknowledge that, considering the times they lived in, and what quality they were, they made so worthy an attempt as justly to shame us, who came after to see it no better seconded during the flourishing times which have followed their troublesome age.

The other promising thing about Wither was the strenuousness and storminess of his life. Wither was a Church of England zealot, a soldier—first for Charles, then for Cromwell—and a politician. At different periods he spent much time in prison on coarse bread and water; he was deprived of all his property, and narrowly escaped hanging. Through it all burned his fire of religious zeal. This is the kind of soil and season in which the hymn best thrives. The main reason why Wither in his two best books of hymns—the other was “Halleluiah: or Britain’s Second Remembrancer” (1641)—did not have one hymn such as Ambrose, the Bernards, Luther, or Wesley could write was that he lacked what may be termed the hymn sense. He had not quite the idea of what a good hymn is. He had no popular judgment to pass sympathetically upon his efforts and to furnish the communal feeling without which it seems impossible for a good hymn to be produced.

So the first hymn-book—not the psalm-book—of the Church of England failed, though it was approved and granted a patent by the king himself. 109 Although Elizabeth had authorized the singing of “hymns and such-like songs of worship” in the churches and cathedrals, it was not until the Restoration that there was any considerable singing of native hymns in modern England. All through this stretch of English history there was much singing of the measures of Sternhold and Hopkins and later of Tate and Brady. At the same time there were many religious songs written and set to music; but the singing of these songs in the churches was a rare occurrence. Many of the fine Elizabethan songs of piety were set to music; Sidney, Raleigh, Donne, and Herrick doubtless sang their quite lovely songs, but not in assemblages of public worship. Sir Thomas Browne gives one of his religious songs in “Religio Medici”:

The night has come like to the day;

Depart not thou, great God, away.

Let not my sins, black as the night,

Eclipse the lustre of the light. . . .

Guard me ’gainst those watchful foes

Whose eyes are open while mine close;

Let no dream my head infest

But such as Jacob’s temples blest. . . .

Sleep is a death; I make me try

By sleeping what it is to die!

And as gently lay my head

On my grave as on my bed.

Howe’er I rest, great God, let me

Awake again at last with thee.

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And thus assured, behold I lie

Securely, or to wake or die.

These are my drowsy days: in vain

I do not wake to sleep again:

O come that hour when I shall never

Sleep again, but wake forever.

This is the dormitive I take to bedward; I need no other laudanum than this to make me sleep; after which I close my eyes in security, contented to take my leave of the sun, and sleep unto the resurrection.

Bishop Ken composed three hymns—one for morning, one for evening, one for midnight—and made it a custom to sing them himself to the viol or spinet. In his “Manual of Prayers for the use of the Scholars of Winchester College” (London, 1674), he says, “Be sure to sing the Morning and Evening hymn in your chamber devoutly.” The two hymns were published in 1695, and have been growing in fame and power through these two centuries and a half. Compare them, “Awake My Soul, and with the Sun” and “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night,” with this anonymous song of the seventeenth century:

There was a king of old

That did in Jewry dwell,

Whether a God or man or both,

I’m sure I love him well.

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Love him, why, who would not?

Did ever any wight

Not goodness, beauty, sweetness, love,

Nor comfort, love and light? . . .

There are so many fair

He’s lost among the throng;

Yet they who seek him nowhere else

May find him in a song.

I love him while I live.

To those that be his foes

Though I them hate, I wish no more

Than his dear love to lose.

This song has a certain charm about it, but one sees immediately that it would not do for the hymn-book. It is not in the hymn-book key. The contractions “I’m” and “he’s” and the tinge of conversational argumentativeness in the use of “why” in the fifth line makes the piece too colloquial. The word “wight” even in the seventeenth century was beginning to be archaic and to carry a humorous connotation. The last stanza expressive of hatred of fellow-mortals is foreign to the spirit of the hymn-book of to-day. Hope for the damnation of other beings is not a Christian lyrical theme.

It is not very difficult to say why some given verse is essentially unfit for the hymn-book; it is more difficult to say why another verse is suitable. We may cite here as eminently hymnic a stanza of Bishop 112 Ken’s. He himself evidently thought that this particular stanza was good hymnody, for he chose to end all three of his hymns with it. And his judgment has been confirmed by succeeding times. The stanza, often sung at the end of other hymns and often by itself, is beyond much doubt the most frequently sung of all English hymn stanzas:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;

Praise him all creatures here below;

Praise him above, ye heavenly host;

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Here at last, then, is an example of what the hymn-book of the Anglo-Saxon race designates as true hymnody—poetry appropriate to be sung in concert by men, women, and children of all classes and conditions, assembled for the solemn worship of God. Let us notice some of its qualities.

It expresses in the first place, simply, immediately, and harmoniously, the basic idea that assembles folk for public worship. To “praise God” is ostensibly what the people have met together for. The rest of the first line is a brief, straightforward, lyrical expression of the reason why people are called upon, and call upon one another, to worship God—“from whom all blessings flow.” It is a simple statement of deep faith that there is a supreme being, the source of all good, the benign omnipotent force of the universe. The line is not only a statement of belief, but an O Altitudo! of emotion. It has, further, that magic of poetry whereby the words are so 113 broadly meaningful as to be the expression for all the persons in common, yet at the same time of so specific a meaning that they are the expression of the particular idea of every separate person. Probably no two minds will be thinking of the same thing by the word “blessings.” It may mean to a farmer the warm sunlight on his crops; to a school-boy, a happy half-holiday; to some woman, that her boy has come safely home from sea; to some one else a more intangible kind of “blessing.” It is simple, immediately clear, and expressive of profound meaning.

The second line,

Praise him all creatures here below,

may express to one mind the idea of the unity of all believers. For another mind it bears the idea of religious propaganda, missionary zeal, some such notion as, Let it be brought to pass that all people will know the truth and will give honor only to what is praiseworthy. For another mind it may express the idea of unity of nature, i. e., Let us recognize the fact that clouds and hills, birds, flowers, rivers, and seas speak of the majesty of the Creator. To another mind it may balance the idea, “The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” To another it may be a call to acclaim a mystically known Supreme Being. To another the line is but a vague, grandly sounding succession of words that fit an undefined mood of elevation.

Praise him above, ye heavenly host,

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brings to one mind the idea of saints and angels in heaven; to another mind the physical wonders of the sky called to witness the might and wisdom of the Creator, the stars singing together. To another it brings thoughts of his own dead whom he believes to be part of the heavenly host. All these meanings and more may be quite legitimately understood in the words. Again, the whole passage is a musical combination of words connoting great good, and affording full artistic enjoyment. The words are simple, clear, rich, musical, warm with emotion, immediately apparent to the intellect, and highly provocative of the imagination.

With all this it is a lyric easily perceived by the eye, and easily retained in the memory. A child can sing it with understanding, while the most wise and prudent can think over it quite fixedly and long—as an infinitely profound expression of the human mind. Grant that often the words are rolled out merely because they afford the singer’s voice a smooth medium by which to float into harmony with other voices and the tones of the organ. Grant, too, that this or that one does not believe in any God or gods; the words still have something to engage his imagination if not his reason. To most of those who sing it it is true religion in the form of true poetry. It is lyrical in that it is an emotional outcry under harmonious control—control of measured cadence and rime. It is the outcry of one person so expressed as to be the cry of many. And, further, it is an individual cry so expressive of the 115 feelings of many that it becomes a corporate cry. Its terms are specific and at the same time general enough to incorporate a variety of shades of idea.

With the latter half of the seventeenth century there came a new form of lyrical poetry into the English tongue. All along through the centuries there had been much lyrical poetry written and sung, but it had not been of the peculiar type which is an individual lyrical expression of faith, hope, and charity, and is at the same time the corporate expression of assemblages of people. Soon England was to have a hymn-book, a collection of native upspringing lyrics, after the manner of the matchless Psalms, rich songs for choral expression, yet at the same time the expression of the deep feelings of individual hearts.


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