All Together Now

Richard Jenkyns

  • Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns by Ian Bradley
    SCM, 299 pp, £30.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 334 02692 X
  • The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study by J.R. Watson
    Oxford, 552 pp, £65.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 19 826762 2

What is the best known Victorian poem? Which American poems of the same period are best known in this country? Which verses by a canonical English poet do the largest number of people today know by heart? The best known Victorian poem is probably ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (by J.M. Neale), followed by ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (Mrs Alexander); ‘All things bright and beautiful’ (also Mrs Alexander) is less familiar than it used to be, but was once possibly the best known of all. The most famous American poem of the Victorian age is ‘Away in a manger’ (anonymous), with ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ (Phillips Brooks) and ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ (John Greenleaf Whittier) as runners-up. Among the works of the canonical English poets, the lines known to most people are probably those beginning Blake’s Milton, ‘And did those feet in ancient time ...’, which Parry set to music and turned into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

Along with the Christmas story, hymns provide probably the chief access to religious language and ideas for the greater part of an unchurched nation. Their words and music do abide with us, above all the hymns of the Victorian and what one might call the long Edwardian age. Ian Bradley’s study is fascinating, once past a misguided Introduction, which develops a long comparison between Victorian hymns and modern soap-operas that seems to embarrass Bradley himself halfway through. He is a mine of information not only on the development of Victorian hymnody but on the lives and backgrounds of those who wrote the words and the music. He is particularly strong on Scotland; Wales, which provided some of the tunes most popular today, is dealt with briefly but effectively. Bradley’s own passion for Victorian hymns is freely exhibited, though he never seems quite sure whether he should be making high claims for them or confessing to a guilty fondness.

J.R. Watson’s The English Hymn is a far more ambitious book, charting the history of the English hymn from its origins in the metrical psalmody of Sternhold and Hopkins in the 16th century through almost to the present day. It is a work of distinction, written with eloquence and grace. Watson writes as an enthusiast, and as a stranger to the half-apologetic tone that Bradley sometimes adopts. He is not shy of highbrow comparisons: he finds ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in the hymns of the later Victorian period; likens the themes of John Ellerton’s ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ and Isaac Watts’s ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ to Eliot’s Four Quartets; compares ‘Abide with me’ to Waiting for Godot; and declares Cowper’s ‘O God, our help in ages past’ to be in one sense more original than ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. One or two of these claims are excessive, but, in context, they do not seem strained or far-fetched.

What is especially refreshing is Watson’s willingness to take seriously not only those few hymnodists who have been accepted or half-accepted into the literary canon – George Herbert, Thomas Ken, Watts, Charles Wesley – but many less celebrated names, such as Sir Robert Grant, William Walsham How, William Chatterton Dix: Grant (‘O worship the King, all glorious above’), the Scottish-born English MP who ended his life as Governor of Bombay; Thomas Olivers (‘The God of Abraham praise’), a cobbler who was converted after hearing Whitefield and became one of John Wesley’s preachers; Edward Caswall (‘Bethlehem of noblest cities’, ‘See, amid the winter’s snow’), the Tractarian clergyman who followed Newman to Rome; and How, the Bishop of Wake-field (‘It is a thing most wonderful’, ‘For all the saints who from their labours rest’), who burnt Jude the Obscure in the episcopal fireplace.

Most of us, probably, have been guilty of supposing that many hymns have nothing much to say, merely rehearsing a few commonplaces of penitence or praise. What Watson demonstrates is that competent hymns usually have a distinctive shape and idea, and that their writers have, if not a theology then at least an emphasis and style of their own. He discriminates between both periods and authors, drawing out the ‘passion for Heaven’ in Richard Baxter, the ‘clarity and assurance’ characteristic of Watts, Addison’s gentlemanliness, Charles Wesley’s ‘physicality’, Montgomery as ‘the greatest hymn-writer on the difficult subject of prayer’, the whisper and privacy in Keble’s conception of man’s relationship with God, the ‘nobler and deeper impersonality’ of Neale, ‘uncomplicated, transparent’. At the same time he traces changes such as the shift in the subject-matter of Romantic hymns from salvation to adoration, from the foul sinner washed in the blood of the Lamb to the inner spirit irradiated by a vision of transcendent glory. He explores the interplay between tradition and the individual talent for the most part with great skill.

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