In praise of manly piety

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The 18th-Century Hymn in England by Donald Davie
    Cambridge, 167 pp, £27.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 521 38168 1

Donald Davie is already known for – among many other things – his striking comments on the hymns of Watts and Wesley in A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest 1700-1930 (1978). Now he has devoted an entire book to the hymn in 18th-century England – or rather, as the title indicates, he is trying to define a specific genre or set of modes and tones that constitute ‘the 18th-century hymn’. The Christian hymn is a difficult subject, for it always belongs to a particular church party or group, is associated with congregations and public occasions, and the success of an individual hymn is partly measured by the success of its tune. Although Davie professes to approve the congregational nature of hymns, and the living transmission of them (‘They are like the Border Ballads’), he refuses to deal with music or singers, and his book shows a preference for the poetic abstracted from vulgar congregational performance – he likes John Byrom and Christopher Smart, whose greatest successes, as Davie sees it, were not pointed towards the actual singing of current congregations. Some poems which have been highly successful as sung works in congregations – of the past and sometimes of the present – seem to him scandalous or uncomfortable.

It is not always clear whether Davie is entitled to dislike as much hymn-writing as he does, since he himself warns us (rightly) that ‘there is no scale for judging works of literature that is not undergirded (or else undermined) by valuations from outside literature altogether.’ He dislikes the ‘blood-boltered imagery’ of the Olney Hymns – ‘There is a fountain filled with blood/Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins’ – and thinks that we must ultimately ‘deplore’ Cowper’s lines while approving Watts’s ‘His dying crimson, like a robe’. He cites Vincent Newey’s argument that Cowper’s lines have a liturgical force in strict Dissenting chapels, where their theological meaning is understood, but then, without really saying why, rejects this argument. Yet on the principles he has stated, no one can be entitled to easy condemnation of theologically explicit verse.

Isaac Watts is evidently Davie’s beau idéal of the hymn-writer, and it is Watts (at least, the Watts he cites, the Watts of the best quotations) who meets Davie’s interest in exhibiting a true ‘Augustan’ strain in English hymnody. Presumably because A Gathered Church led readers to assume that Davie is himself one of the Dissenters whom he approves, he takes the trouble to slide in a reference to his religious identity, in a phrasing Jamesian in structural subtlety: ‘What are the grounds for defining or in any way qualifying my, as it happens, Anglican conscience as nonconformist?’ If his as it happens conscience is Anglican, Davie’s preferences in hymnology are still by and large in favour of the moderate and intellectual Dissenters. He dislikes certain strains in Anglicanism. He states baldly that Thomas Ken’s ‘Evening Hymn’ is ‘very indifferent writing’, and he presumes that quoting the poem in its entirety will prove his point. It does not. Davie is disingenuous when he argues that because Ken’s ‘Evening Hymn’ is sung in abbreviated form (not all the verses of the original poem are performed by congregations or reproduced in hymnbooks) therefore the poem is demonstrably inferior: ‘A good poem is an organism too delicate to be subjected to ... such drastic amputation.’ But this is no argument at all. Hymns through the centuries have been abbreviations of longer works; hymns by Watts have been truncated and changed in exactly the same manner. Davie has no other reason to offer as to why he finds Bishop Ken’s hymn inferior, save that it appeals to sentimental associations (described in a Kipling story) which Davie dismisses as ‘mawkish’. One is left on one’s own to decide why Davie really dislikes Ken’s hymn. Perhaps it is because of a certain Anglican optimism in Ken that is sure of ‘all the blessings of the light’. Perhaps it is because of an unstrenuous, insufficiently ‘manly’ approach to death: ‘Teach me to live, that I may dread/The grave as little as my bed.’ Perhaps there is a suspect eroticism about Ken’s poem: ‘may my soul on Thee repose, /And may sweet sleep my eyelids close.’ It is not ‘strong’. That is in Davie’s eyes a major defect in a hymn. Philip Doddridge is too thin and tender: ‘Only in the last two lines of “O god of Bethel” does Doddridge achieve Watts’s strength, in the sense that the 17th and 18th centuries gave to that term, meaning resonant conciseness.’ But is ‘resonant conciseness’ exactly the same as strength? One could be resonant and concise about tender feelings, but this would be suspect in the Davie system.

Donald Davie begins his discourse with the assault on Ken – it is disconcerting to find the first hymn quoted is to be trashed. The experience of the first few pages may give one an unfavourable impression of Davie’s book, which is unfair, for there are many good things in it, and some splendid observations. Davie is at home with much of the poetry he describes, and where he likes a work he is almost always good in discussing it. The analysis of Watts’s ‘A Sight of heaven in sickness’ finely traces its relation to Edmund Waller’s farewell poem of 1687 (‘The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decayed, /Lets in new light through chinks that time has made’). The description of Watts’s manner here is pithily given: ‘a disconcerting Wordsworthian plainness that rides recklessly over and into the pot-holes of bathos’. And Davie adds, interestingly: ‘Before it was Wordsworthian, this diction was evangelical.’

Where Davie tends to be good on Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley makes him nervous, for Wesley ‘is a poet of vehement feeling’. Too much feeling in hymn-poetry Davie is certainly not prepared to countenance. Poetry that expresses giving way to feeling seems to Davie un-British and unmanly. It is in some sense feminine. ‘Elizabeth Rowe ... was a byword in her time for emotionalism that Watts indeed apologised for.’ ‘Indeed’? This is a startling statement. One expects the misogyny, but not the twisting of the evidence. Many of Rowe’s poems are very serene; some describe mystic experience or something close to it. Isaac Watts after her death was anxious to repudiate the idea that Rowe was a mystic – which would evidently seem a suspect Continental and Roman Catholic sort of thing to be. Watts doesn’t care much if Rowe is emotional or not: he’s concerned about the nature of the experiences she describes, and wants to bring them back into the field of rational dissent and out of the orbit of the mystics.

Nowhere in his book does Donald Davie raise the question of mysticism, and he fights shy of the experiential and visionary religion known to both the 17th and 18th centuries in his determined hunt for the manly, the unmawkish. When he finds a poem whose tone he likes, he enjoys analysing its prosody, and to some purpose, as in his accounts of Wesley’s use of anapaests and Smart’s employment of trimeter. Certain kinds of poetic intricacy appeal to him, but he is not much concerned with tracing the tradition back to, say, George Herbert, who is a well-known technical virtuoso but whose description of experience does not entirely accord with the public clarity, the absence of ‘mawkishness’ and ‘emotionalism’ that Davie is anxious to pursue.

Davie will not refer to Herbert even when such a reference might seem inevitable, as when he discusses a stanza by Wesley:

Entering on Life’s Meridian Stage
  I see the Shades appear,
And feel Anticipated Age,
  Death’s welcome Harbinger.

Davie is glad to praise such a stanza:

There will be those who find this quatrain stilted and frosty. But surely on the contrary it is marmoreal: as a mordantly succinct observation on middle age, it might be carved in marble ... It ... seems to be memorably imperturbable, in the manner of an unbelieving stoic. And just here we come upon the strangeness: that the author of these seemingly imperturbable verses was very perturbed indeed – by nightmare visions reaching back through the Middle Ages to apocalyptic parts of Scripture.

Here is a good example of both the strength and weakness of Davie’s book. He picks up a stanza and highlights it, making us know something we had not known before. But the commentary becomes a trifle perverse. In this instance, Davie overdoes the marble-like elements in the quatrain, and overlooks the reference to (or borrowing from) Herbert’s ‘The Harbingers’. The experiencing of age seems more mobile than stony. Even the stoicism (which is present) is experiential. The stanza is not unbelieving (joy at death being a Christian response) even if no explicit Christian dogma is here brought in. And how are we to differentiate between the ‘nightmare visions’ – that Davie does not approve – and the ‘normal’ Christian dogmas? Davie earnestly argues against our closing our minds to the experience of 18th-century people, but he enacts such mind-closings himself. Little doors slam. He dislikes, for instance, Wesley’s apocalyptic hymns in Hymns for the Year 1756: ‘We have not just poetic vulgarity, but incoherence; religiose cant does not merely tarnish these texts, considered as poems, it destroys them.’ On what grounds are we to differentiate between respectable doctrine – Davie heaps scorn on ‘modern’ readers who don’t understand doctrine – and statement which is beyond the pale, mere ‘vulgarity’, ‘religiose cant’?

In his defence of the kind of manly Augustinian doctrine he finds characteristic of 18th-century hymn-writing at its best, Davie makes many generalisations about what ‘we’ like and do not like. The reader may disconnect from this ‘we’. Davie conducts a war against ‘modern readers’ and theorists without quite knowing his opponents. He concedes that ‘modern critics’ are right in having recognised that no work in the canon of literature arrives abstractly without being embedded in particular historical circumstances, but he also assumes, quite incorrectly, that such ‘modern critics’ imagine that they can arrive at a ‘value-free’ judgment. Nobody now dealing in sophisticated literary theory imagines that judgments are value-free: what the good ‘modern’ critic does is to declare his or her own biases, and make the bases of argument and judgment as clear as possible. Davie seems to be at war with ‘moderns’ of the Sixties. He appears unaware that the word ‘modern’ is not self-applied in these Post-Modern times. ‘Modern’ sounds old-fashioned, a reference to literature written through the period from the 1890s to World War Two. Davie’s targets have been moving around when he wasn’t looking.

There are some puzzling weaknesses in Davie’s discussion of the 18th-century poems’ significance in their contemporary world, and these weaknesses appear when he is particularly anxious to defend himself against his imaginary moderns. He worries about the hymn-writers’ presentation of Christ’s crucifixion as an ‘atrocity’ they may take too calmly, but he claims for the Watts of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ that ‘he raises the monstrosity to the level of idea’. That, however, is what Christians have always been up to – the execution of Christ is already at ‘the level of idea’ in the New Testament. Davie makes too large a claim for Watts’s own detachment and abstraction, as in the stanza beginning ‘His dying crimson, like a robe,/ Spreads o’er his body on the tree.’ Davie takes the second line as the application of a trope, an antique, generalising trope: ‘After all it is only “in the abstract” that the Cross (any cross) can be conceived of as a “tree”.’ This is to ignore the vernacular use of ‘tree’ for ‘gallows tree’ and its application to Tyburn’s familiar gallows tree – ‘At the tree I shall suffer with pleasure,’ sings Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera. There may be a delicate hidden touch of blasphemy in Macheath’s words, but the ‘fatal tree’ is a much more horrifying, deathly, nasty and immediate image of execution in the 18th century than we can readily imagine. Watts’s poem loses no immediacy at all for its contemporaries, and is far less ‘abstract’ than anything we could readily achieve in a country without public execution.

Davie has a way of making heavy weather of matters that don’t bring clouds to others’ skies. No, one is not surprised to know that the 18th-century Christians used phrases like ‘the Throne of Grace’ or ‘the Mercy-Seat’ – it would be more surprising if they did not; ‘Mercy-Seat’ comes from Hebrews 9.5, and ‘Throne of Grace’ from Hebrews 4.16; the divine throne is of course also found in Revelation. The use of the word ‘saints’ is not the puzzle that Davie thinks, in Christian theology generally nor in the period. Davie alludes to ‘our doubts about whether such human creatures ever existed or can exist’. This is a singular doubt for a professing Christian; Davie’s anxiety seems partly to stem from a notion of saints as persons declared such by the Roman Catholic Church. But Rome claims only to identify some – God alone knows all. And that all Christians are called upon to be saints is not a concept new to churches either Catholic or Protestant in the 18th century. Does Davie think that ‘saint’ means a perfectly sinless person? This is heretical. To say that ‘it is only figuratively, or by analogy, that Protestants can speak of saints’ forgets the whole Civil War history, and the Protestant hope for ‘the Rule of the Saints’. It is one of the odder statements in a book that has its share of crankiness.

There is one decided error that needs correction. Donald Davie refers twice to an author of a book called Order from Confusion Sprung, and this author he names as ‘Claude Rogers’. Now, the real author’s name is Claude Rawson, and Professor Rawson is a very well-known critic of 18th-century literature. Is this a piece of satire or sly invective on Davie’s part – conflating Rawson’s name with that of another well-known scholar of 18th-century life and literature, Pat Rogers? I feel inclined to give Professor Rawson back his own book, and to point out that Donald Davie is not entitled to fault ‘moderns’ for sloppiness if he is going to commit such errors himself. The editors at Cambridge will be sorry they let this get by, but it is the sort of authorial error it is very difficult to catch. The editors should note, however, that they do their author a disservice by creating a blurb which begins ‘Donald Davie is the foremost literary critic of his generation.’ At the least, this absolute phrase should be tempered to read ‘critic of English literature’ (which diminishes the field considerably), and it would be preferable merely to remark ‘Donald Davie is one of the leading critics of English literature.’ To panegyric and hyperbole in blurbs we are attuned – large promise is the soul of a book jacket – but gross hyperbole becomes a satire on the author, or at least leads to disappointment in a useful, and even entertaining, book that cannot meet vast claims.