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.
I suspect that Watson’s greatest love is for the Dissenting or near-Dissenting tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries – Baxter, Charles Wesley, Watts (‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’ receives ten full pages). Though he is generally broad in his sympathies, at one or two moments he seems mildly patronising towards the Church of England; he also declares that Neale is the most important Anglican hymn-writer if we except Charles Wesley (but we can’t – he lived and died an Anglican priest). He is excellent on the early and Mid-Victorian hymn; thereafter, the treatment becomes more rapid, and there are one or two odd repetitions and discontinuities that may be signs of haste. Mysteriously, ‘Welsh hymnody lies outside the scope of this book,’ though American hymnody is examined – and rightly so, if only because so many Victorian hymns which have become popular in Britain are of American authorship. (Conversely, we learn from Bradley about the English hymn’s penetration of American life: ‘Abide with me’ was sung at the funerals of Herbert Hoover and Adlai Stevenson, ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’ at the funerals of both Kennedy brothers, and ‘Lead, kindly light’ at the funerals of MacArthur and Eisenhower.)
Watson is least satisfactory on Gospel hymns and negro spirituals (which might reasonably have been left out). He handles Moody and Sankey and their followers testily, paying spirituals, by contrast, an almost uncritical veneration. The incantatory repetitions and escapist pictures of heaven which he censures in Moody and Sankey he admires in spirituals, which escape reproach because of their ‘conditions of production’ – a morally appealing but aesthetically troublesome argument. The truth is surely that it is impossible to consider spirituals apart from their music; their words, unlike those of the literary hymn, do not have a separable origin or function. In general, Watson, so confident and independent in his literary judgments, is much more conventional in his outlook on what might broadly be termed moral and political issues; any hint of triumphalism or condescension towards the heathen is promptly rebuked. Predictably, he is uneasy over Kipling’s ‘Recessional’; it does not seem to occur to him that there is wit and irony in ‘Such boastings as the Gentiles use,/Or lesser breeds without the Law’. From the context it is clear that Kipling was thinking not of black or brown subject peoples but of Germany (and perhaps secondarily of America). To have spotted the danger in German nationalism in 1897 might be thought prescient.
Watson’s literary and Bradley’s more sociological approach to the Victorian age are complementary. Watson concurs with Bradley’s argument that the presence of hymns in public worship was essentially a 19th-century innovation. Today they are felt to be so necessary to a service that small congregations in a country church will drone through them to the accompaniment of a wheezy harmonium when a decent silence would be more edifying; but it was not ever thus. In the 18th century hymns were still the province mostly of Dissenters and evangelicals. Indeed, the Wesley brothers saw them as a way of imparting sound doctrine. Bradley’s impression is that even in Victorian fiction hymn-singing is associated chiefly with Dissenters. He has to allow a conspicuous exception: on the opening page of Adam Bede, set in 1799, the eponymous hero is singing Thomas Ken’s ‘New every morning is the love’ as he works. But this is private, not public worship, and Adam, though Anglican, is evangelically inclined. The scene is imaginary, but George Eliot’s historical sense was acute.
In the first half of the 19th century zealous parsons began introducing hymns because they were popular and cheered services up. In the country, the predominant form of church music had been the ‘west gallery music’ performed by village instrumentalists, as depicted in Under the Greenwood Tree. Bradley sometimes describes the ousting of the old ‘fuguing music’ and its replacement by hymns and organs as an authoritarian imposition and sometimes as a genuinely democratic and popular change. The truth seems to be that it was both (there is a parallel in the battles over guitars and tambourines today, as go-ahead vicar assures recalcitrant flock that this is what people really enjoy in church – the difference being that in the last century hymns and organs caught on, whereas tambourines, outside evangelical town churches, have not). On the one hand, the west gallery tradition was popular and anarchic: when a clergyman got rid of the village band, installed an organ and seated his wife or the local schoolmistress at the console, this could be seen as the gentry talking control and suppressing a disorderly kind of folk art. On the other hand, these changes were a response to a movement from below, to the appeal of enthusiasm and Dissent, and an attempt to make church services more attractive.
Despite Hardy’s nostalgia, it is hard to resist the impression that most west gallery music must have been pretty dismal. Bradley observes that it effectively excluded most of the congregation from the musical parts of the service; its replacement by straightforward, singable tunes meant that everyone could take an active part, including women and children. Many of the best known Victorian hymns have words by women, though the only tune written by a woman is Crimond (‘The Lord’s my shepherd’), composed by Jessie Seymour Irvine while still in her teens. Watson devotes a fascinating chapter to the female hymn-writers of this period; it is uncomfortable to discover how sickly many of them were, and how devoted to the language of passive suffering – even the bouncy Alpinist Frances Ridley Havergal, who ‘stands apart from the other women hymn-writers of the 19th century, if only because of her good health’.
When the dog collar was first introduced, it was considered Romish, but it gradually spread until it became the uniform even of Nonconformist ministers. The hymn travelled in the opposite direction. In the Romantic period the High Churchman Reginald Heber (‘Holy, Holy, Holy!’, ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’) was writing hymns with the conscious purpose of seizing one of the evangelicals’ most powerful weapons. That work was carried on in the next generation by Neale, who also translated many early Christian hymns, including a number from the Eastern tradition (he had a keen interest, unusual for the time, in the Greek Orthodox church); in fact, the use of ancient words and music is itself a Victorian idea. The growth of hymnody in the established Church culminated in Hymns Ancient and Modern, first published in 1860-61, which quickly came to dominate the Anglican market, without a serious rival until the appearance in 1906 of The English Hymnal, still probably the best hymn-book to have achieved widespread use.
Catholics stood out against hymns the longest (Owen Chadwick has suggested that Newman must have been among the minority of Englishmen who never heard ‘Lead, kindly light’ sung): the first hymn-book to be widely used by Catholics, Arundel Hymns, edited by the Duke of Norfolk, came out only in 1901. They were too late; and much of their hymnody was too poor. The 20th century has seen a progressive colonisation of Roman Catholicism by Protestant hymns, so that (for example) Clifton Cathedral was consecrated to the Calvinist strains of the Old Hundredth. According to Bradley, some Catholic churches, including Liverpool and Leeds Cathedrals, have adopted The New English Hymnal and the hymns sung by most English Catholic congregations today probably differ little from those sung by Anglicans. These facts are of some ecumenical significance: though in principle the externals of worship are independent of theology or sacramental content, people nevertheless tend to conflate common practice with common belief. In secular terms, too, hymns have had a cohesive force, being almost the only words and music that have been known to all social classes; a breadth of shared experience hard to parallel before the coming of broadcasting.
Despite the importance of hymns in Victorian culture, Bradley is surely mistaken in claiming that ‘in the Victorian period, unlike our own, hymn writing was very much within the mainstream of literary activity’. Major poets did not join in; then as now, hymn-writers were a class apart. It is true that a section of In Memoriam, ‘Strong son of God, immortal love’, was ripped from its setting and attached to a melody, but this was obviously an act of violence, and it did not catch on. By far the best known hymn by a canonical Victorian poet is Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’, but from the metrical irregularities alone it is evident that it was not designed for singing. In the event, both the familiar settings, by Holst and Harold Darke, try to disguise the very short line concluding each stanza, so important to the effect of the original poem (‘Long ago’, ‘Give my heart’): Holst enfeebles an otherwise fine tune with a flabby auxiliary note (‘Wi-i-ith a kiss’); Darke’s long note sustained over moving lower parts is more satisfactory.
Hymns are written to be sung, and to be sung by congregations. This has been considered limiting (a poem of Robert Lowell’s complains about ‘stiff quatrains shovelled out four-square’); in Watson’s view, though, the formal restrictions impose a discipline which has its own possibilities. He sees an interplay between the circularity of the tune and the linear progression of the words, and finds a rhythmic subtlety in the best hymns. Thus in ‘Our God, our help in ages past’ (these were the original words, altered by John Wesley to ‘O God ...’) he draws a contrast between the iambic regularity of the first quatrain and the variations that Watts then makes on it – so that when we sing ’Under the shadow of Thy throne’ we should presumably feel not an awkwardness (or not only an awkwardness) but a pleasing tension.
It is easy to fancy that it is the music which has given the best loved hymns their popularity, and that the words are hardly noticed. But Bradley is right to maintain that a happy coupling between text and melody is often the key to popular favour. Newman is an exception, with three hymns ‘in the repertoire’, none of them with a single generally accepted tune. Dykes’s setting of ‘Lead, kind light’, Lux Benigna, drags lugubriously, and is now commonly replaced by W.H. Harris’s much superior Alberta. ‘Praise to the holiest in the height’ is regularly sung to at least three tunes, by Dykes, Thomas Haweis and Sir Arthur Somervell. Sometimes an ideal coupling has been fortuitous, as with the tune from Parry’s oratorio Judith attached to ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ by the music master at Repton School after both poet and composer were dead. Watson suggests that the music, which requires the last line of each stanza to be repeated, alters the poem’s effect, importing a sweet sinking deep into the consciousness. Monk’s Eventide, on the other hand, was written specifically for ‘Abide with me’; here Watson feels that the experience of the poem has become in part a musical one, with the melody enforcing a strong caesura after the fourth syllable.
Victorian hymn music came under attack early in this century, censured for self-indulgence, cloying chromaticism and ‘vulgar lusciousness’. These charges are accepted by Bradley a little too readily. Jolly though it is to hear the High Victorians accused of decadence, we may wonder how far the accusation is just; if these composers are to be criticised, it might more fairly be for a certain gaucheness and a harmonic vocabulary of limited range. Open a typical modern hymnal and you are likely to find settings with scrunchy, sensuous dissonances, but they are mostly chorale tunes harmonised by Bach. Victorian settings were much simpler. In Eventide, Monk effectively permits himself only one chromaticism, an augmented chord nicely placed near the end of the third line (‘When other helpers fail, and comforts flee’). It is interesting to see that, in The New English Hymnal, E.J. Hopkins’s grand old tearjerker Ellers (sung both to ‘Lord, Thou hast brought us to our journey’s end’ and to ‘Saviour, again to Thy great name we raise’) appears not as its composer wrote it but in a different harmonisation provided by Sir Arthur Sullivan. This is certainly more sophisticated and technically assured than Hopkins’s own, but one may still feel that the honest plainness of the original harmony best fits the simple but irresistible tune. As it happens, the most famous of Sullivan’s own hymn tunes, St Gertrude (‘Onward Christian soldiers’), is extremely simple, both melodically and harmonically; that is what makes it so catchy. A greater richness does appear in the Late Victorian period; Sullivan’s contemporary Sir Joseph Barnby can stand as an example, and a growth in harmonic lushness can be traced among Edwardian church composers.
Bradley worries that the Victorian hymn failed to give proper expression to the doubts which perplexed the age, though he makes an exception for ‘Lead, kindly light’. But it was Newman himself who said that ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, a silly aphorism which none the less points to an important distinction; it is not doubt but fear and danger that his poem explores. In any case, Bradley is here asking the hymn to do what it cannot do: there are many thoughts and emotions which may be voiced congregationally, but agnosticism is not among them. He is on firmer ground in regretting the lack of social awareness in Victorian hymns. It is in the early 20th century that the hymn of social or political concern becomes prominent, with Henry Scott Holland’s ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’, G.K. Chesterton’s ‘O God of earth and altar’ and Athelstan Riley’s ‘Turn back, O man’. It is curious, in a way, that these expressions of engagement with modern issues should be embodied in a language of vatic, almost luxuriant grandeur, and in Chesterton’s case with a kind of voluptuous archaism: ‘From sale and profanation/ Of honour and the sword’, ‘Tie in a living tether/The prince and priest and thrall’. This is perhaps one reason why these hymns have become established, while the self-consciously up-to-date products of more recent times have not. Most congregations do not like worshipping a ‘God of concrete, God of steel’ with Richard Jones, or proclaiming, with Fred Kaan, an aspiration to ‘sing and live Magnificat/In crowded street and council flat’.
One key to the emotional power of hymns is that they are both collective and personal. The ‘I’ of hymns can be the original writer, the individual singer, the Christian body, or mankind. One might think that nothing could be further from the psychoanalyst’s couch than the open spaces of the church nave, and yet both allow people to express what they would otherwise keep locked up. It is no accident that so many favourite hymns confess to human fear and frailty in the first person singular (no accident either that prayers of penitence and abjection are among the most popular): ‘The night is dark, and I am far from home’, ‘Change and decay in all around I see’, ‘Let me hide myself in Thee’. To make these declarations in unison is at once to submit to a discipline and to be released from inhibition. Even the crowd singing ‘Abide with me’ at the Cup Final unconsciously knows this; the words still matter, and the experience remains vestigially a spiritual one. Similarly, Watson remarks that ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ is ‘probably as near as most people will ever get to the vita contemplativa’ – which one may regard as either disheartening or hopeful.