Decorated initial I

have chosen to speak on the Victorian Hymn for a number of reasons, although I am aware that for a Professor of English there are many greater things on which he might usefully be employed. Victorian hymnody is a by-way of literature, and a curious one at that: it includes some of the worst results of putting pen to paper that have ever been produced by man, although I should say at this point that I intend to speak about the better Victorian hymns and ignore the really bad ones. I shall also be concerned with the words of hymns, and not with their tunes: I recognise that the two are inseparable in practice, but critical writing on hymns has for too long been escaping into talk about tunes and ignoring two matters which are the principal subjects of this lecture. These are the way in which the words of a hymn behave under the particular conditions of the form, and the relationship of the hymn form to poetry. I hope to explore some theoretical literary questions in relation to these subjects, and I shall not be attempting any kind of survey, chronological or otherwise, of Victorian hymnody.

There is something other than a love of lost causes which impels me to choose this subject. In the first place, I have always been curious about the popularity of certain kinds of verse among people for whom poetry is normally an irrelevance. It is clear from the ‘In Memoriam’ and the Deaths columns in newspapers that many people find comfort in some inexplicable way through a kind of primitive verse, finding that somehow the words of others express something of the feelings which they are unable to utter. The same thing can happen with joy: Hardy’s Tess, as she enters the Valley of the Great Dairies for the first time, involuntarily gives expression to her joy at its beauty through an ancient hymn -

And thus her spirits, and her thankfulness, and her hopes, rose higher and higher. She tried several ballads, but found them inadequate; till, recollecting the psalter that her eyes had so often wandered over of a Sunday morning before she had eaten of the tree of knowledge, she chanted: ‘O ye Sun and Moon ... O ye Stars... ye Green Things upon the Earth ... ye Fowls of the Air . . . Beasts and Cattle . . . Children of Men . . . bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever’. [Tess of the D’Urbervilles, chapter XVI]

— and my first reason for choosing this subject is that I should like to find out more about a form which, for many people, allows the expression of emotions which we should respect, such as grief, or hope, or joy.

My second reason for choosing this subject is that it has a certain appropriateness to this occasion and this place. I am thinking particularly of the early years of the University of Durham, when it numbered among its early M.A.’s (I presume by election) John Keble, John Henry Newman, and William Walsham How. The earliest teaching of English here was done by a ‘Reader in History and Polite Literature’, Thomas Greenwood; later the foundations of modern Hopkins scholarship were laid by C. C. Abbott, who was a friend of Robert Bridges, a fine hymn writer and editor (with H. C. Beeching) of the Yattendon Hymnal; and my own immediate predecessor, Professor John Bradley, was a distinguished scholar in this period and an authority on John Ruskin. He would have known, no doubt, the scattered references to hymns in Ruskin’s work, including the sharp comments on Victorian hymnody, which Ruskin described as ‘half paralytic, half profane . . . consisting partly of the expression of what the singers never in their lives felt, or attempted to feel; and partly in the address of prayers to God, which nothing could more disagreeably astonish them than His attending to” (36.116).

Ruskin gives an example:

Thus, in my own parish church, only the Sunday before last, the whole congregation, and especially the children, sang, in great glee and contentment, a hymn which declared their extreme eagerness to die, and be immediately with God: but if, in the course of the tune, the smallest bit of plaster had fallen from the ceiling, implying any degree of instability in the rafters thereof, very certainly the whole symphonious company would have scuttled out as fast as they could; . . . [36.115]

The kind of falsehood which Ruskin detects, the deep untruth of certain hymns, is one of the factors which has hitherto prevented the serious literary study of hymnody. For just as one of the fascinating characteristics of certain hymns is their popular appeal, so too there is another kind of hymn which repels the reader by its sentimentality, its wishful thinking, or its preference for doctrine over humanity. Hymns written exclusively for believers are often profoundly unevangelical, for they separate those believers from the common humanity which we all share. To be invited to sing ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine’, for example, is to be invited into a state of complacency and presumption which is indicated in the language by the use of the possessive pronoun: the hymn’s language of vulgar and emotional rapture, its childish rhythms, are examples of the falseness which can affect some hymns, a falseness to our natural and appropriate responses to life and death. It encourages the mind that would take a short cut to heaven, as in the same author’s ‘To God be the glory’, which simplifies the doctrine of Grace into

The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a Pardon receives.

This is instant salvation, convenience food, of the kind carried by Ignorance in The Pilgrim’s Progress, who discovered that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of the celestial city. Nor is this repelling effect confined to hymns with what George Eliot called ‘the stamp of slimy evangelicalism’ about them (Letters 5.443) when Newman writes in his hymn ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ he is nobler, but in the verse —

And I hold in veneration
      For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church as His creation.
      And her teachings as His own

— he cuts himself adrift from most readers because he is speaking doctrinally and not from the shared humanity which I would claim as my subject. To a Professor of Church History he may have something to say at this point; as a Professor of English he ceases to interest me.

For the subject of this lecture is the hymn as literature, as an expression of hope and despair, joy and sorrow, as one opportunity which many people have to express their loves and fears in image and idea. For some, the hymn is a rare chance to open the magic casements of the imagination to apprehend a kind of unexpected truth and beauty; and here I must declare an interest, and say that a third reason for choosing this subject is personal. It stands at a point where two of my recent preoccupations — a study of religious ideas in romantic poetry, and a study of Victorian poetry - converge; but, more importantly, it is an acknowledgment of a debt that I have carried for so long that I cannot judge when it began. For hymns were, I believe, my first acquaintance with poetry, and certainly my first introduction to figurative language. At harvesttime we would sing a hymn of William Chatterton Dix, which ends its first verse:

Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,

      The hills with joy are ringing,
The valleys stand so thick with corn
      That even they are singing.

Dix is drawing upon Psalm 65 here; I found his kind of simple nature imagery deeply affecting, especially when it was transformed, later in the hymn, by association with images from the Book of Revelation:

O blessed is that land of God
Where saints abide for ever,
Where golden fields spread far and broad,
Where flows the crystal river.

And the assertion which follows, that ‘The strains of all its holy throng/With ours to-day are blending’ was for me a foretaste of the interaction of the timeless with time which I was to find expressed more profoundly in Langland and T. S. Eliot.

The debt which I am trying to describe and acknowledge has been described most movingly by D. H. Lawrence, in his essay ‘Hymns in a Man’s Life’. Citing a number of very great poems, he says, ‘all these lovely poems woven deep into a man’s consciousness, are still not woven so deep in me as the rather banal Nonconformist hymns that penetrated through and through my childhood.’ He quotes:

O Galilee, sweet Galilee
Come sing thy songs again to me!

‘To me’, he writes, ‘the word Galilee has a wonderful sound. The Lake of Galilee! I don’t want to know .where it is. I never want to go to Palestine. Galilee is one of those lovely, glamorous worlds, not places, that exist in the golden haze of a child’s half-formed imagination’(6).

This is a recollection that might have been written by anyone who had attended a chapel in his childhood. Perhaps only Lawrence would have continued:

And in my man’s imagination it is just the same. It has been left untouched. With regard to the hymns which have had such a profound influence on my childish consciousness, there has been no crystallising out, no dwindling into actuality, no hardening into the commonplace. They are the same to my man’s experience as they were to me nearly forty years ago.

Not only does Lawrence testify to this enduring power; he also discriminates between it and what he calls ‘dogmatic religion’. After attacking a science without wonder — ‘Science in its true condition of wonder is as religious as any religion’ — he dismisses the whole business of Christian dogma:

Salvation, heaven, Virgin birth, miracles, even the Christian dogmas of right and wrong — one soon got them adjusted. I never could really worry about them. Heaven is one of the instinctive dreams. Right and wrong is something you can’t dogmatise about; it’s not so easy. As for my soul, I simply don’t and never did understand how I could ‘save’ it. One can save one’s pennies. But how can one save one’s soul? One can only live one’s soul. The business is to live, really alive. And this needs wonder.

And so Lawrence fiercely discriminates between what he calls ‘didactic and sentimental’ religious teaching, and the religious experience which he associates with wonder. He quotes John Keble’s evening hymn as an example:

Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear
It is not night if Thou be near -

This was the last hymn at the board school. It did not mean to me any Christian dogma or any salvation. Just the words, ‘Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear’, penetrated me with wonder and the mystery of twilight (6011).

Lawrence’s clear separation of the hymns that he loved from the sentimental and didactic religious instruction which he received is one to which, as Dr. Johnson said of Gray’s Elegy, ‘every bosom returns an echo’. It is found again in Hardy, who is the other great modern writer who has not ignored or under-estimated hymns. For Hardy, who was an assiduous church attender in his youth, hymns were an important part of his cultural heritage, especially the Tate and Brady metrical versions of the psalms. Robert Gittings has shown how again and again these were associated in Hardy’s mind with tunes such as Wilton and Lydia, and has suggested that the feeling for words and music working together is what makes Hardy such a great lyric poet (78). And Hardy’s progression to atheism is accompanied by a nostalgia for a past simplicity, a nostalgia which forms a sad parallel with Lawrence’s buoyant intuition of wonder. In ‘Afternoon Service at Mellstock (circa 1850)’, the wry tone of the second verse gives way to a sad acknowledgment in the third; the whole poem is a recollection of a decade in which Hardy was in his ’teens, crystallised in the memory across a gulf which is deeper than the years:

On afternoons of drowsy calm
      We stood in the panelled pew,
Singing one-voiced a Tate-and-Brady psalm
      To the tune of‘Cambridge New’.

We watched the elms, we watched the rooks,
      The clouds upon the breeze.
Between the whiles of glancing at our books.
      And swaying like the trees.

So mindless were those outpourings! —
      Though I am not aware
That I have gained by subtle thought on things
      Since we stood psalming there.

The distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’, which is such a poignant feature of Hardy’s poetry, is often expressed through his memory of hymns and tunes. In ‘A Church Romance (Mellstock: circa 1835)’, he celebrates the church band which he was too young to remember: a young girl is captivated by the viol player in the gallery, and years later, ‘when Age had scared Romance’,

At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind.
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim,
Bowing ‘New Sabbath’ or ‘Mount Ephraim’.

The date of 1833 for this romance (five years before Hardy was born) indicates that for him it is part of a vanished way of life; and his use of hymns and their tunes in his work is part of the rich texture which he achieves in his presentation of country life. His poem, ‘The Chapel-Organist’, set in the 1830s, describes a woman whose first love is music and who becomes a prostitute, partly in order to be able to afford the fare to the chapel where she plays. She is dismissed by the deacons, and commits suicide; but during her last service she meditates —

Yet God knows, if aught he knows ever, I loved the Old-Hundredth, Saint Stephen’s,
Mount Zion, New Sabbath, Miles-Lane, Holy Rest, and Arabia, and Eaton,
Above all embraces of body by wooers who sought me and won!

These tunes come off the tongue like an incantation; apart from the Old Hundredth, they are mainly eighteenth-century tunes, which suggests that Hardy was familiar with the music that an organist of the 1850’s would have known. And the fact that he continued to write about hymns long after he had ceased to believe in Christianity indicates that, like Lawrence, he separated his aesthetic and nostalgic accounts from his rejection of dogma. So too George Eliot, whose early Evangelicalism turned to a finely articulated disbelief, begins Adam Bede with Adam in the village workshop singing Bishop Ken’s morning hymn.

I have invoked the names of these writers because their awareness of hymns is connected with their place in the great tradition of the English novel, and the kind of fiction and poetry which they write. A critic once described them as ‘our three great autodidacts’, a description rightly and contemptuously dismissed by Raymond Williams, who pointed out that this implied one particular kind of education; and the terms in which Williams describes them are useful here. ‘They belong’, he writes, ‘to a cultural tradition much older and more central in this country than the comparatively modern and deliberately exclusive circuit of the “public schools”’:

These are novelists all separated, in different degrees, from what was becoming and formally still stands as the dominant social and literary culture. Half a century later, we can perhaps more clearly recognise the disturbance through which they lived and of which they wrote, a disturbance which is still quite central. What others have seen as their awkwardness, their failures of tone, their persistent and now apologised-for concern with social history and ideas, can be seen, from where we are living, as their original, disturbing and yet finally convincing substance. [341-41]

In their grasp of the substance and texture of English life, and their awareness of a particular kind of culture, these novelists and poets use their knowledge of church and chapel as an important element of provincial life. It is noticeable, however, that both George Eliot and Hardy were thinking of pre-Victorian hymns, and only Lawrence makes use of nineteenth-century hymnody; even Lawrence describes ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ (which is pre-Victorian) and ‘Abide with me’ as ‘sentimental messes’.

The question of sentimentality is an interesting one, and one which has to be faced in any consideration of the Victorian hymn. Sentiment, as opposed to sentimentality, is an important characteristic of certain kinds of art. In some respects, especially in our response to it, it is akin to embarrassment, which has been so finely discussed by Christopher Ricks in Keats and Embarrassment. Embarrassment, like sentiment, is evidence of human feeling; and embarrassment is rendered unnecessary by love. Ricks, discussing the shame felt by some people at falling asleep in public, remarks:

Defencelessness, trust, the relinquishment of conscious control, the frankest physicality: it is this complex of feelings which makes it natural and invigorating that it should be love which, here as elsewhere, makes embarrassment needless, unthinkable. One reason why it is so lovely to watch your baby or child sleeping is that it is love which makes it feel altogether proper to watch somebody sleeping without any possibility of embarrassment on either side should he awake. [13]

What Ricks has to say here about embarrassment may also be applied to sentiment. Sentiment is a display of feeling which makes a person vulnerable, and if it is met by cynicism it cannot defend itself; if it is met by love, its frank display of emotion strengthens ‘the human heart by which we live’. The phrase is Wordsworth’s, and it is he of all poets who most asks to be read with love; while I think it is possible that among the major features of his work which the Victorians inherited was not just his attitude to nature but his open sensitivity to joy and sorrow, enthusiasm and indignation. Perhaps Wordsworth’s reputation has suffered in our own century, until recently, because the dominant literary mode has been a defensive irony. I. A. Richards pinpointed it in Practical Criticism (1929):

A widespread general inhibition of all the simpler expansive developments of emotion (not only of its expression) has to be recognized among our educated population. It is a new condition not easily paralleled in history, and though it is propagated through social convention its deeper causes are not easy to divine. [269]

Sentimentality is not sentiment carried to excess: in one respect it is the opposite of sentiment. It is not the open display of emotion so much as the exploitation of emotion for persuasive purposes: it is offensive to us because it attempts to shape our responses. So that (returning to the Victorian hymn) when we read Joseph Medlicott Scriven’s

What a friend we have in Jesus

we are right to object to the assumption of agreement, the shaping of the exclamation, and the vocabulary: all are endeavouring to put us into a position of some intimacy with Jesus Christ, into a posture of friendship which we may want to resist.

With this in mind, we may look at ‘Abide with me’ more closely. It begins with two heavily caesura’d lines:

Abide with me,       fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens,       Lord with me abide;

and we notice at once that the two lines have a chiasmic structure, in which ‘Abide with me’ (verb and object) becomes ‘with me abide’ (object and verb); while ‘the eventide’ connects with ‘The darkness’. We observe that ‘falls the eventide’ (verb and subject) is counterpointed by ‘the darkness deepens’ (subject and verb), and that the alliteration of‘fast falls’ is echoed by ‘darkness deepens’, to set up another connecting link. This leaves one free agent in the couplet: ‘Lord’. The freedom of God may be complementing the fixedness of man, which is implied by the repeated ‘abide with’ and ‘me’ — the ‘me’ sandwiched the second time between ‘with’ and ‘abide’. If there is a line-crossing to connect ‘Lord’ with anything, it must be through the inner chiasmus to ‘me’. The result is Henry Francis Lyte’s elaborate and beautiful variation on the connection which was to be so starkly and powerfully rendered by Gerard Manley Hopkins at the beginning of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’:

Thou mastering me

where the two single-syllabled pronouns are held together by the three-syllabled, multi-meaningful ‘mastering’. It is as if‘Thou’ and ‘me’ would fly off into their own separate states, like a particle thrown off a whirling arm; instead they are held together by ‘mastering’, which can suggest God as master, man as servant, God as master, man as ship, God as master in the sense of owner, and God as master in the sense of conqueror. Lyte’s hymn has none of this compression and density of meaning, hut his first couplet is a finely-balanced distribution of weight and counterweight across the lines. Within that distribution we may observe another, threefold emphasis, in which ‘eventide’ falls midway between ‘Abide’ and ‘abide’. ‘Eventide’ is an important word, because although it means the time of evening, it also means the evening tide (and Lyte, we remember, was perpetual curate of Lower Brixham). So Tennyson’s figure puts out at sunset, under an evening star, with a tide ‘that moving seems asleep’; and Barkis, in Dickens’s David Copperfield, ‘went out with the tide’ (Chapter XXX). Here, in the second verse, the latent significance of ‘eventide’ becomes explicit:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;

The image of the tide going out at the end of the day connects with the imagery of falling darkness in the first verse; both are associated with the transience of human life and all earthly things:

Change and decay in all around I see:
O Thou who changest not, abide with me!

which supports the second half of the first verse:

When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

In both couplets we have the contrast between God and man which was implied in the first two lines of the hymn; now it is amplified — man is helpless, God is help, man is subject to change, God is not. The way in which the second verse supports the first is all part of the delicate pattern of repetition and balance which exists throughout this hymn. It is found especially in a complex design which is suggested by the first reversal of ‘Abide with me’ into ‘with me abide’ in the first couplet. This sets up a syntactical unit (verb, preposition, object), and then repeats them in a different order. Such variations of order in the component parts of a sentence occur significantly throughout the hymn, so that we have —

Change and decay in all around I see:

where the verb comes at the end; and two lines later

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

Lyte brilliantly exploits the verse form, with its end-stopped lines, to provide changing patterns of subject — verb - predicate. So we have

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

to complete a verse in which every line is built on a different syntactical pattern. This may seem no more than a pleasing variation of design, until we come to the fourth verse:

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

In the second line we find a pattern repeated which has been seen before: ‘Ills have no weight’ is like ‘Earth’s joys grow dim’ and ‘The darkness deepens’. It is as if, at the opening of the line, the forces inimical to man have taken the initiative; only now the initiative is checked, and ‘Ills have no weight’. So too, the double question, with its rhetorical dismissal of death and the grave, answers the earlier double

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;

and in the fourth verse, the two centre lines are held within the openings ‘I fear no foe’ and ‘I triumph still’. They succeed the earlier ‘I need’: we are taken from ‘I need’ to ‘I fear’, but it is (like ‘Ills have no weight’) ‘I fear no foe’, and we move inexorably towards ‘I triumph’. And so we move to the imperatives of the final verse:

Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!

The gradual growth of confidence through the hymn, as the grammatical forms become more and more assertive, here bursts out in a prayer which is quite unlike the ‘abide with me’ of the first verse. There the three occurrences of ‘abide with me’ are surrounded by deepening darkness, failing help, and fleeing comforts; now the prayer becomes a series of imperatives, ‘Hold’, ‘Shine’, ‘point’ replacing the feeble and repetitive cry, and the circumstances are now daybreak, fleeing shadows and a life which accepts death. As ‘Heaven’s morning breaks’ we see, too, that death leads to life, so that the last line could refer to earthly life, or to life after death. The last line returns to the first, but it also holds within itself the accumulated resonance of the earlier verses and their cognizance of change and decay, passing glory, and death: ‘life’ in the last verse means this, but it also means something else beyond it, and so does ‘death’. Life means death and death means life; and, for Lyte, God abides in both.

I have tried to show that ‘Abide with me’ is not sentimental, and certainly not a mess. Its status as a poem, however, is still open to question. It has certain superficial resemblances to a poem, but is it perhaps too limited in its range of imaginative possibilities, too doctrinal, too exclusive to be a genuine poem? We remember Dr. Johnson, writing of Isaac Watts:

His ear was well-tuned, and his diction was elegant and copious. But his devotional poetry is, like that of others, unsatisfactory. The paucity of its topicks enforces perpetual repetition, and the sanctity of the matter rejects the ornaments of figurative diction. It is sufficient for Watts to have done better than others what no man has done well. [4.188]

Johnson’s strictures here are based on the same critical principles that caused him to dismiss Milton’s “Lycidas,” and his remarks are (as so often) individual and controversial; but his sense of a narrowness of subject and a limitation of figurative language is a pointer towards the difference between a hymn and a poem, which I should like to examine in more detail.

The first demand of a hymn is that it should be singable, and in this are comprised a number of characteristics. It has to be rhythmically stable, understandable in the time it takes to sing the words, and doctrinally sound. Because of this the imagery of a hymn is limited by its needs to refer to orthodox belief, and by its need to avoid ambiguity. Above all, perhaps, a hymn needs to mean something while a poem is something, means itself; the greatest hymns attain to this condition of poetry, but they start from a different place, where poetry, as John Wesley wrote in 1779, ‘keeps its place, as the handmaid of Piety’ (vi). The result is that hymns do not, as a rule, use language to suggest multiple meanings or shifting perspectives. The best they can do is permit a certain suggestion of wider meaning, as in Lyte’s use of‘eventide’; or they can involve an imaginative leap by using the traditional device of typology. Biblical typology is of great significance and great usefulness to the hymn writer, for typology itself involves an imaginative act, a discerning of a significance in an episode which is found in the Old Testament and then applied to the life of Christ. George P. Landow has recently discussed this in an absorbing book, Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows (complete text): he discusses at some length the image of the smitten rock, from Exodus XVII. 6, when the children of Israel were thirsty in the wilderness and Moses was ordered by the Lord to smite the rock, whereupon water came out. St Paul, the first typologist, read this spiritually in 1 Corinthians X. 4: ‘for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.’ A particularly clear example of the Victorian use of this reading (not discussed by Landow) is the hymn by John Samuel Bewley Monsell, which appeared in his Parish Hymnal of 1873:

I hunger and I thirst,
Jesus my manna be:
Ye living waters burst
Out of the rock for me.

Monsell follows St Paul as seeing the manna prefiguring the bread of the Holy Communion and the water prefiguring the wine; the simplicity of the hymn deliberately underemphasises the central imaginative transition, which has its basis in the words used in the Holy Communion of the elements. Behind it too is the miracle of the wedding of Cana, when the water was changed into wine; what is found in Christian doctrine as a miracle becomes for the hymn writer an imaginative opening, a new possibility:

Thou bruised and broken Bread
My life-long wants supply;
As living souls are fed,
O feed me, or I die.

Thou true life-giving Vine
Let me Thy sweetness prove;
Renew my life with Thine,
Refresh my soul with love.

and Monsell closes the hymn nicely with a fitting, if conventional, image of himself as pilgrim, one of the latter-day children of Israel:

For still the desert lies
My thirsty soul before;
O living waters rise
Within me evermore.

The image of the rising water within comes down from Charles Wesley’s ‘Jesu, Lover of my Soul’, where the fountain of grace is the subject of the final prayer:

Spring Thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.

Monsell’s hymn is only one of many applications of the figure of the smitten rock. As Landow points out, it was a favourite subject for Victorian sermons, applied in different ways according to the religious persuasion of the preacher. In this case the image is inherited from Wesley, from Toplady’s ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me’, and William Williams’s ‘Guide me O Thou great Jehovah’, where the second verse runs

Open Thou the crystal fountain.
Whence the healing stream shall flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through;

although in this comparison can be seen one of the features of Victorian hymn writing which makes it less effective than the work of the previous century. Its imagery is less intricately connected with scriptural sources, so that the imagination which applies those texts to the human condition is less active. Or scriptural imagery is invoked and allowed to lie still, as if the image itself were enough, so that instead of‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me’ we have William Orcutt Cushing’s ‘O safe to the Rock that is higher than I’ and its refrain:

Hiding in Thee! Hiding in Thee!
Thou blest Rock of Ages, I’m hiding in Thee!

or Thomas Hornblower Gill’s

We come unto our father’s God,
Their Rock is our salvation;

Less scriptural still are the generalised words of affection which occur in hymns which describe Jesus as a friend, or in the use of the word ‘dear’; this occurs frequently in Victorian hymns, as in the first verse of Mrs Alexander’s

There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified
Who died to save us all.

This is an uncertain opening: not only is the ‘dear Lord’ overintimate, but the ‘without’ (which I take to be the Scots ‘outwith’ or outside) is usually wrongly read to mean a green hill which does not possess a city wall — something which would be unlikely anyway. However, the ‘dear Lord’ is given some retrospective justification when it is taken up in the last verse with a double meaning that is unusual in a hymn:

O dearly, dearly has he loved

which suggests affection, but also great expense; while the repetition allows the double meaning to deepen with an accumulated weight, as it does in a very different poem, Browning’s ‘Up at a Villa — Down in the City’:

But bless you it’s dear - it’s dear! fowls, wine, at double the rate

Nothing could be further from Mrs Alexander than Browning’s delightful old hedonist, but the rhetorical trick is the same.

The texture of its imagery is one reason for the character of the Victorian hymn. Another is its use of metre and rhyme. Pre-Victorian hymn writers, especially Charles Wesley and John Keble, were great experimenters with verse form; and there are some outstanding Victorian examples. One of the finest is Henry Williams Baker’s paraphrase of the 23rd psalm, ‘The King of Love my Shepherd is’, which is very strongly iambic, with a hanging syllable at the end of the second and fourth lines:

The King of Love my Shepherd is
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His
And he is mine for ever.

This is helped, of course, by its tune, Dominus Regit Me, which is by J. B. Dykes; and the reasons why I do not speak about Dykes (a great Durham figure) is that my concern is with words and not music, and that Dykes was the subject of a splendid lecture to the Hymn Society by Arthur Hutchings (formerly Professor of Music here) in 1976. But Dykes’s greatest tunes, such as Nicaea (to ‘Holy, holy, holy’), Hollingside (to ‘Jesu, Lover of my soul’) and St Oswald (to ‘O how blest the hour’), have a significant part to play in strengthening the metrical and rhythmical structure. The convention that hymns should rhyme also affects the firm, even inflexible, structure of a hymn. As Charles Tomlinson has written in his teasing, delightful poem, ‘The Chances of Rhyme’:

The chance of rhyme are like the chances of meeting —
In the finding fortuitous, but once found, binding.

The result is a verse form where line-endings are particularly important; to adapt another phrase from Christopher Ricks, the lines ‘practise their natural determinations’ (‘Pure Organic Pleasure’). Therefore, as in the Heroic Couplet, the interaction of image, rhythm and syntax becomes especially significant. It can be found in many arresting first lines, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s ‘Lord of all being, throned afar’, or Sabine Baring Gould’s ‘Onward, Christian soldiers’; perhaps because hymns are deprived of surprise and ambiguity, translators stand as good a chance as any, and we have Catherine Winkworth’s ‘Now thank we all our God’ or John Mason Neale’s ‘Jerusalem the Golden’. Often these first lines summon us with imperatives, as in Henry Alford’s ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’, or the most celebrated of Christmas hymns, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, translated in this period by Frederick Oakeley.

If the strength and energy of lines are important, so too are the structure of verses, and the structure of a hymn through the verses. The line stands, but it does so in relation to other lines, as it does in this Christina Rossetti poem, where the verse moves in two-line units of extreme shortness:

      In the bleak mid-winter,
           Frosty wind made moan,
     Earth stood hard as iron.
          Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow.
          Snow on snow,
     In the bleak mid-winter,
          Long ago.

Here the line-endings are of crucial significance, as anyone can see who re-writes the verse as a four-line stanza. The endings allow the short lines to stand alone, and yet to relate to one another: the images are so strongly visualized, and so static, that they appear to exist independently of the syntax — ‘Water like a stone’ — and yet not so, in that the earth stood hard as iron, and the water stood like a stone. The same thing happens with the delicate repetition of ‘snow on snow/Snow on snow’. This looks back to ‘Snow had fallen’, and forward to ‘In the bleak midwinter’, as time when — when? ‘Long ago’. The echo of the first line takes up the original phrase, and brilliantly confounds our expectations: for while the first line is an adverbial phrase, ‘In the bleak midwinter, this happened . . the penultimate line is followed by another adverbial phrase, ‘Long ago’, bringing the verse to a sudden stop as if to enact the frozen stillness of the earth. Then it is marvellously succeeded by the first line of the second verse, which justifies its metrical irregularity by its presentation of a soaring freedom in the rhythm:

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,

and Christina Rossetti goes on to portray something which the Victorians occasionally saw as vividly as the Metaphysicals, the paradox of God made man:

In the bleak mid-winter
      A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
      Jesus Christ.

Another example is in ‘See, amid the winter’s snow’ by Edward Caswall, an Anglican vicar who followed Newman into the Roman Catholic Church. Here the couplet form emphasises the contrast:

Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies.

Caswall’s hymn provides a good example of a further structure, organised through the verses, with its three stages as pointed as the three levels of Botticelli’s Nativity (though they are not, of course, the same levels). Its first two verses show man addressing his fellow-man:

See, amid the winter’s snow.
Born for us on earth below.
See the Lamb of God appears,
Promised from eternal years.

In the third verse this changes to become question, followed by answer in the fourth verse. The speaker, or singer, questions the ‘holy’ shepherds, who recount the visit of the angels, so that there is a clear staircase of communication from earth to heaven; thus it is natural in the final two verses for the singer to address God, the ‘Sacred Infant’. Meanwhile the six verses are punctuated by the refrain:

Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem:
Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Obviously these lines emphasise the theory behind the Incarnation, the act of redemption in history; but the invitation to ‘Sing through all Jerusalem’ invites us (since we are not in Jerusalem) to think of it as the holy city, the new Jerusalem, perhaps as Blake’s Jerusalem, the world transformed by imagination and love.

I have been arguing that the study of the hymn as a literary form depends upon a recognition of certain specific qualities, or limitations, such as simplicity, clarity, and the demands of rhyme and metre; and that structure, in lines, verses, and through the verses, is of fundamental importance to it. But there is one further characteristic which is more important than any of these, and it is here that the entrance of Blake is timely. It concerns the relationship between the writer and his work, as it reflects his religious experience, and I can best illustrate it by referring to Blake’s water-colour of Ezekiel’s Wheels. In the painting the vision of God appears above the four-faced cherubim, with Ezekiel lying at the foot of the picture; it illustrates the first verse of the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel:

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

The visions consisted of a whirlwind, a great cloud, and a brightness, out of which came four living creatures, with four faces and four wings; beside and around them were wheels —

And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

Whithersoever the Spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. (verses 19, 20)

Coleridge quotes this in the Preface to Aids to Reflection, where he speaks about language, poetic language - ‘living words’ - “The wheels of the intellect I admit them to be: but such as Ezekiel beheld in the visions of God as he sate among the captives by the river of Chebar” (author’s preface, III. i), and Coleridge’s brilliant synthesizing mind seizes upon this verse as a representation of the true creative process of the imagination working through language: ‘The truths and the symbols that represent them move in conjunction and form the living chariot that bears up (for us) the throne of the Divine Humanity’ (Lay Sermons VI, 29). So the relationship between the truth and its expression is seen by Coleridge as an organic one. He describes the Scriptures, in opposition to the histories and political economy of his own day, as ‘the living educts of the Imagination.’

From this we can observe the figure of Ezekiel as a prototype of the romantic artist. In the first verse of his first chapter he establishes the time and place, and his condition among the capitives, before recording that he saw visions of God. The ordinary moment is transformed, as it often is for Wordsworth; while his place among the captives suggests a sense of either mental or political captivity. In Blake’s picture he is half out of the water, which for Blake meant that he was rising from the waters of materialism; while in Coleridge’s use of the chariot image, he emphasises the organic relationship between the spirit and its expression. For both, and for Wordsworth, Ezekiel is the crucial figure of the prophet; Wordsworth describes himself and Coleridge at the end of The Prelude, as prophet-teachers of men:

Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason and by truth;             [1805 text, xiii. 442-44]

and Shelley in A Defence of Poetry notes that poets ‘were called in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters’ (124).

In the character of the prophet-poet, we find a figure who is essentially different from the hymn writer. The two correspond closely to the two kinds of religious authority, the priest and the prophet, as described by Max Weber in The Sociology of Religion. Weber sees the priesthood as “the specialization of a particular group of persons in the continuous operation of a cultic enterprise, permanently associated with particular norms, places and times, and related to specific social groups” (30). The prophet, on the other hand, is understood to indicate ‘a purely individual bearer of charisma, who by virtue of his mission proclaims a religious doctrine or divine commandment’ (46). The assumption of charisma seems to me to lie behind the authority claimed by Blake and Wordsworth in their different ways; their individual vision, and their ways of expressing it, provide examples not only of the prophet type but also of the organic connection between a vision and its expression.

For the hymn writer, none of this power is available. He is essentially Weber’s priest type (and I am not just pointing out that many Victorian hymn writers were clergymen, though many were) whose virtues of orthodoxy, clarity, and metrical skill are related to his function of communicating the gospel. The point may be made by contrasting John Wesley’s image of poetry as the handmaid of piety, which I have already quoted, with Shelley’s description of poets, who are —

not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion. [124]

As might be expected from an author who was sent down from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism, the vision here is comprehensive and anti-doctrinal. It is a statement which places the prophet in a position from which he regards religious belief as one example of a transcendent truth but by no means the only one. For the prophet’s concern is with his individual, charismatic vision, and the expression which is inseparable from it; the priest’s concern is with doctrine, and with a form of words which will clothe that doctrine, teach it, and confirm it to the faithful.

The conflict between the usually incompatible modes of priest and poet is reconciled by some writers, but more often it gives rise to controversy and problems. A brief account of a minor example will, I hope, illuminate this. In 1855 a Congregationalist minister, Thomas Toke Lynch, published a small collection of hymns entitled Hymns for Heart and Voice. The Rivulet. It includes hymns that are still quite frequently sung, such as ‘Gracious Spirit, dwell with me’ and ‘Dismiss me not Thy service, Lord’, and as a book it seems to us innocuous, with a large number of hymns reflecting that God is found in the freshness of nature, in rain, grass, trees and flowers. To the Morning Advertiser of 7th January 1856 it seemed very different, a book in which ‘from beginning to end, there was not one sparkle of vital religion or evangelical piety’. Lynch’s defenders replied in the Nonconformist monthly The Eclectic, and their support incurred the wrath of Dr John Campbell, an eminent Congregationalist and editor of the British Banner. Campbell denounced The Rivulet as ‘incomparably the most unspiritual publication of the kind in the English tongue’; he said that it was ‘stamped throughout by a harmonious negation touching the facts of the Gospel’. Lynch’s verses were ‘the essence of absurdity’, and ‘worse than the quintessence of absurdity’; they were ‘most miserable garbage’, ‘irrational and unscriptural’ and ‘doing violence alike to reason, to Scripture, and to the experience of all sane and sanctified men.’ Since Campbell was also the editor of the magazines of the Congregational Union, the controversy caused an immense stir within the denomination. Lynch bore his part with patience, only replying in the October of 1856 with a series of poems entitled Songs Controversial, by Silent Long; while Campbell muddied the waters further by maintaining that he was only taking a stand ‘against the increase of German error’ (see Jones, 250 ff. and White, Ch. chapter 7).

At first sight the Rivulet controversy seems to be just one more of the unedifying spectacles of the church in the nineteenth century. But I think it is more interesting than that: it is an example of a collision between the natural supernaturalism of the romantic movement, from which Lynch inherited his sense of God in nature, and the Evangelical emphasis on the doctrine of salvation. The prophet-poet is confronted by the priest, and the result is not edifying-

Much hymnody, and especially Victorian hymnody, reflects this particular clash, in addition to reflecting other areas of struggle and contention in the religious and national life of the age (see Tamke). As Samuel J. Stone wrote in ‘The Church’s One Foundation’, supposedly about Bishop Colenso:

Though with a scornful wonder
      Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
      By heresies distressed;

and yet out of the turmoil and strife there come, as I hope I have shown, examples of hymnody which have captured the popular imagination, and taken hold of individual lives, in the way that much other poetry has not.

So I would end by asserting the humanity of hymns: their ability to express, through their fusion of words and music, emotions and sentiments which are not to be despised. And my final image is tangential, as it so often is in the poetry of that great Victorian poet and critic, Matthew Arnold. I have been reminded that to-day is the birthday of the man who was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, as Carl Sandburg points out in his biography, was a man of simple religious views; they might have been an object lesson to the churches and chapels on this side of the Atlantic. He quotes the story of two Quaker ladies discussing an election: one thought Lincoln’s rival would win because he was ‘a praying man’:

‘And so is Abraham a praying man.’

‘Yes, but the Lord will think Abraham is joking.’

Lincoln’s beliefs, as Sandburg points out, may be summed up as a trust in the Fatherhood of God and in the brotherhood of man (573). Clearly, we cannot all subscribe to the first of these; but in literature, and even in such a by-way as the Victorian hymn, I hope we can find the second.


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George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. New Haven, 1954-78.

Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. London, 1975; Penguin Edn., 1978.

Hutchings, Arthur. ‘J. B. Dykes: Amateur or Professional?’ Bulletin of the Hymn Society 138, 8.12 (1977): 209-15.

Johnson, Samuel. ‘Watts’ in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; The Works of Samuel Johnson. London, 1787.

Jones, R. Tudur. Congregationalism in England, 1662-1962. London, 1962.

Lawrence, D. H. . ‘Hymns in a Man’s Life’ in Selected Literary Criticism. Ed. A. Beal London, 1956; H.E.B. paperback.

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Ricks, Christopher. Keats and Embarrassment. Oxford, 1974.

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Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘A Defence of Poetry’, part I, in Shelley’s Literary and Philosophical Criticism. Ed. J. Shawcross, London, 1909.

Tamke, Susan S. Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord. Athens, Ohio, 1978.

Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. Trans. E. Fischoff. London, 1965.

Wesley, John. “Preface to A Collection of Hymns, for use of the People called Methodists” (1780); reprinted in The Methodist Hymn Book. London, 1933.

White, William. Memoir of Thomas T. Lynch. London, 1874.

Williams, Raymond. ‘Thomas Hardy’, Critical Quarterly 6.4 (1964): 341-51.

Last modified 6 June 2020