aA
aA
aA
aA
aA
aA
Hymns of Wesley and Watts: Five Papers
« Prev Wesley's Hymns Reconsidered Next »

Wesley's Hymns Reconsidered

Bernard Manning

A paper read before the Cambridge University Methodist Society on February 9, 1939.

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, sometime Scholar of Jesus College in the University of Cambridge, once wrote some ingenious verses {Metrical Feet: Lesson for a Boy.} to help his sons to remember the chief sorts of metre. If Coleridge had been a Methodist instead of a pilgrim from Anglicanism to Unitarianism and back again, he would have needed to do no such thing: he would have needed only to advise his boys to learn a selection of Wesley's hymns. From this point I begin. Leaving on one side for the moment any discussion of the meaning and content of the hymns, let us notice the metre, the rhyming, and the accentuation of them. These things deserve more attention than they usually get, and by this side road we shall approach the more important parts of the subject. By observing the mere form of the hymns, we shall learn more than we might expect.

Take the old hymn–book, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists. By the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., Sometime Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. Get an edition with tunes, and turn to the index of metres. You will gasp with astonishment at the variety. You will be tempted to believe that Charles Wesley alone used as many metres in writing hymns as all other hymn–writers taken together. There are common metre, long metre, short metre, double short metre, 6.8s, 7s, 8s and 6s, 6s and 8s, 7s and 6s, 10S and 11S, 4.6s and 2.8s, 8s, 5s and I IS, 2.6s and 4.7s (to take a few examples) and the large number lumped together, very properly, as peculiar metre.

Wesley's variety is not fully represented by a mere enumeration of the syllables in each line, as that list might suggest. There is variety too in his arrangement of the stressed syllables. It is difficult to say much about this without coming under the condemnation passed by the Translators of the Authorized Version on a part of their own Preface to the Reader: ‘We weary the unlearned, who need not know so much, and trouble the learned, who know it already.' Despite this, it is worth while to glance at a few technical matters in order to drive home what has been said about Wesley's infinite variety.

In English verse, the books tell us, the stressed and unstressed syllables take the place of the long and short syllables in classical Latin verse, and it is convenient to use some of the classical names for the metres. The metre most familiar to most of us is, I suppose, iambic: in this metre the line is divided into pairs of syllables with the stress falling on the second syllable.

The way was long, the wind was cold.

This metre is familiar in the common metre of hymns:

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,

He sets the pris'ner free;

in long metre:

Our Lord is risen from the dead;

Our Jesus is gone up on high;

in short metre:

To serve the present age,

My calling to fulfil;

in 6.8s:

O Thou eternal Victim, slain

A sacrifice for guilty man;

in 8s and 6s:

O Love divine, how sweet Thou art

When shall I find my willing heart

All taken up by Thee?

The exact opposite of the iambic metre is, of course, the trochaic. In this the stress falls on the first of the two syllables. Wesley is hardly less fond of this than of the iambic metre:

Jesu, Lover of my soul,

Let me to Thy bosom fly

Depth of mercy, can there be

Mercy still reserved for me?

Wesley sometimes combines the two, and so produces a very effective verse in 7s and 6s. A seven–syllable trochaic line is followed by a six–syllable iambic line:

Who is this gigantic foe

That proudly stalks along,

Overlooks the crowd below,

In brazen armour strong?

Notice the jumpy effect caused by the change in the alternate lines. It can be very moving; and it is a device peculiarly characteristic of Wesley. Here is another example:

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,

That famous Plant Thou art;

Tree of Life eternal, rise

In every longing heart!

Bid us find the food in Thee

For which our deathless spirits pine,

Fed with immortality,

And filled with love divine.

The quick succession of strong stresses in the last syllable of line 2 and in the first syllable of line 3 has the effect of knitting the verse very tight. The same device makes us rush almost breathlessly from line 4 to line 5. So it comes about that the four lines in the first half of the verse are not separated from the four lines iri the second half, as would happen if either iambic or trochaic measures were used alone. The same structure is to be found in the famous hymn:

Son of God, if Thy free grace

Again hath raised me up,

Called me still to seek Thy face,

And giv'n me back my hope;

Still Thy timely help afford,

And all Thy loving kindness show:

Keep me, keep me, gracious Lord,

And never let me go!

So far all is simple, but have you considered what complications may lurk under that innocent–looking heading ‘8s'? It does not always mean a simple accumulation of iambic lines of eight syllables, as in 6.8s.

Lo! God is here! let us adore,

or, as in long metre,

Thy arm, Lord, is not shortened now.

Often it means something quite different. It covers a subtle system of accentuation, anapaestic, which Wesley uses for some of his most moving and most inspired hymns. No other hymn–writer, it is fairly safe to say, has approached him in mastery of this particular metre. In it we have no longer a simple alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, but in the later part of each line we have two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. The line is not divided in the way that we have already observed, 2: 2: 2: 2, but 2: 3: 3. The supreme example of this is to be seen in what is perhaps the most passionate and exalted of all Wesley's hymns:

Thou Shepherd of Israel, and mine,

The joy and desire of my heart,

For closer communion I pine,

I long to reside where Thou art.

The pasture I languish to find,

Where all who their Shepherd obey

Are fed, on Thy bosom reclined,

And screened from the heat of the day

We have a yet more complicated arrangement of anapaestic measures in hymns like:

Come, let us anew

Our journey pursue,

Roll round with the year,

And never stand still till the Master appear.

This is an amazing, magical metre which Wesley used with the surest touch. Hardly any one else, I think, has succeeded in it, or even tried to master it. The accumulation of anapaests in the last line is most subtle.

Nothing shows Wesley's superb mastery of metre more than his use of the perverse, unnatural, and almost ludicrous metre 2.6s and 4.7s. On this tight rope, to all appearance fit only for acrobatics, Wesley moves with ease and confidence and grace. In this metre, indeed, he writes some of his most characteristic hymns. The metre 2.6s and 4.7s is so artificial as to be at first, even in Wesley's hands, slightly irritating and precious; but once you have made yourself familiar with it (especially if you have taken the trouble to see precisely what Wesley is doing) it holds you.

How weak the thoughts, and vain,

Of self–deluding men;

Men, who, fixed to earth alone,

Think their houses shall endure,

Fondly call their lands their own,

To their distant heirs secure.

Fairly flat that seems: an uninspired, almost solicitor–like version of a not very attractive psalm. Yes, but wait till Wesley has left the solicitor's office. By the time he has reached verse 4 he is finding his wings:

High on Immanuel's land

We see the fabric stand;

From a tott'ring world remove

To our steadfast mansion there:

Our inheritance above

Cannot pass from heir to heir.

Those amaranthine bowers

(Unalienably ours)

Bloom, our infinite reward,

Rise, our permanent abode;

From the founded world prepared;

Purchased by the blood of God.

Unless you have in mind the precise wording of Psalm xlix; unless you catch the reference to the fourteenth chapter of St. John in mansion; unless you lick your lips over the contrast between the Saxon language of the earlier verses and the gathering Latinisms as the hymn proceeds: mansion, inheritance, amaranthine, unalienably, infinite, permanent; unless you relish the pure Latin construction from the founded world; unless you catch the deftly sudden change in the position of one stress in

High on Immanuel's land;

you do not begin to learn the art of Wesley or to understand why he dominates the lesser fry as he does.

Examine another hymn, also about heaven, in the same perverse metre. It is clear that, like every other man who knows that he has the power of doing something difficult, Wesley enjoys exercising his skill. He bends the intractable material to his purpose with a certain zest.

Again we lift our voice,

And shout our solemn joys;

Cause of highest raptures this,

Raptures that shall never fail;

See a soul escaped to bliss,

Keep the Christian Festival.

Our friend is gone before

To that celestial shore;

He hath left his mates behind,

He hath all the storms outrode,

Found the rest we toil to find

Landed in the arms of God.

Regard for space prevents the transcription of the rest of this hymn, notable for its dignity and its superb faith. We observe in passing the reminiscence of the familiar lines of Spenser about rest after toil and the natural way in which it is combined with the reminiscence of the text in Deuteronomy xxxiii. 27.

The verse known as 10s and 11s presents another very subtle combination. For some reason the insertion of an insignificant, odd, extra syllable in the last two lines gives the verse a lilt that four symmetrical lines of ten syllables each has not got. The verse is anapaestic. The first half of all four lines is the same. In the first couplet the second half line merely repeats the first half line; but in the second couplet we come on the extra syllables which give the leaping effect.

O what shall we do Our Saviour to love?

To make us anew, Come, Lord, from above!

The fruit of Thy passion, Thy holiness give:

Give us the salvation Of all that believe.

It is not until we have explored a few of his metrical mazes that we begin to understand why in his thousands of lines Wesley so rarely lets the accent fall on the wrong syllable. Only a master of versification could trip so seldom, but, of course, unless he had been a master of versification Wesley could never have written anything whatsoever in many of these metres. When you take into consideration the large flank which Wesley presents for attack, it is astonishing how few successful attacks can be made on him. Most hymn–writers with only a tenth of the number of hymns in our books give us a larger number of unhappily placed stresses. Wesley rarely offends by writing such a line as that which is a sad blemish in Crossman's one well–known hymn, ‘My song is love unknown'. Crossman lets the stress fall intolerably in one solemn line:

They rise and needs will have

My dear Lord made away.

The careless reader may think that he has caught Wesley napping sometimes, and at times, of course, Wesley does nod disastrously; but before the amateur critic like myself boasts too rashly about catching Wesley out, he should study Dr. Bett's invaluable book on the Wesley poetry. {The Hymns of Methodism in their Literary Relations, Epworth Press.} There, with the modesty of high scholarship, Dr. Bett traces the changes in the pronunciation of certain words such as confessor and acceptable which have made some of Wesley's verses seem (to the ignorant) incorrectly stressed.

More than most writers, Wesley makes the end of his lines correspond with natural pauses in his thought. The sound and the sense coincide. This is it which makes his verse specially suitable for singing. This is it which makes it possible to sing his hymns so easily to the so–called ‘old–fashioned' tunes, the florid, repetitious tunes, in which any line may be repeated almost at random in almost accidental combinations. But even Wesley's arrangement of lines does not always win applause. At times the meaning ‘runs over' the end of one line into the middle of the next:

Ah, soften, melt this rock, and may

Thy blood wash all these stains away!

and

Relieve the thirsty soul, the faint

Revive, illuminate the blind.

This seems ugly when it is contrasted with the next couplet, written in the more usual happy style:

The mournful cheer, the drooping lead,

And heal the sick, and raise the dead.

But before we say, or even think, too much about these ‘irregular' lines, we should ponder what Dr. Bett has to say about them and the light that they may throw on the tangled problem of separating the compositions of John from those of Charles.

One part of the attractiveness of the older hymn–writers is their frequent use of proper names. They inherited this habit from their predecessors, who had simply paraphrased Holy Scripture. Paraphrasers, it is clear, had no choice. They had to take the rough with the smooth. They had to boil down the weirdest geographical and personal names into rigid metre. Dexterity in the art, once acquired, persisted; and it was bequeathed to hymn–writers.

It is by no means only in his paraphrases that Wesley uses proper names. He knew what our psychologists are now giving one another Ph.D.s for discovering by research in dark rooms with coloured slips of paper. He knew that the use of a proper name with associations may start or clinch a train of thought more effectively than a flood of colourless words will start or clinch it. To you and to me, with our beggarly knowledge of Holy Scripture, this magic is less potent than it was to Wesley. What was once moving may seem to us only quaint. Even you and I, it is true, can pick up a reference to the Church as Sion or Jerusalem, a reference to death as Jordan, a reference to heaven as Canaan. But how much farther can we go? What does a modern congregation make of

None is like Jeshurun's God?

We may not have got to the pass of the undergraduate who politely enquired, ‘Yes, but who was Jehovah?' but, if we are honest, many of us might ask, ‘Who was Jeshurun?' In the hymn beginning

O Great Mountain, who art thou,

Immense, immovable?

how many will catch the reference in the line

My Zerubbabel is near?

More easy are the allusions in the following:

In soft Laodicean ease

We sleep our useless lives away

and

Less grievous will the judgment–day

To Sodom and Gomorrah prove.

and (as we used to be allowed to sing in ‘O for a thousand tongues')

Cast all your sins into the deep,

And wash the Aethiop white.

But this is more difficult:

Take when Thou wilt into Thy hands,

And as Thou wilt require;

Resume by the Chaldean bands,

Or the devouring fire.

The first and the second Adam are never far from Wesley's thought, and no hymn–writer has more happily used the Pauline antithesis. One mention of the name must be made, for it gives a classic summary of St. Paul's teaching concerning the solidarity of lost and of saved mankind:

Adam, descended from above!

Federal Head of all mankind.

From such a use of Holy Scripture it is but a short step to the paraphrase proper. Wesley's paraphrases have a distinctive quality of their own. Most men's paraphrases tend to be wooden in their exactness. They often say in feebler language what has been said superbly in Holy Scripture; and the better we remember the scriptural words the worse we think of the paraphrase. Wesley avoids this peril by the freedom with which he paraphrases. He is very bold. His verses are a commentary on the passage as well as a restatement of it. Nowhere has he more profited from the example of his master, Dr. Watts. Dr. Watts provided evangelical interpretations for psalms and for Old Testament passages and Wesley uses the same method, but with even greater boldness.

Wesley's paraphrases form but a small part of the book, but among them are some of his masterpieces. They deserve more exact study than they have received. How are we to select? There is the sublime treatment of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy xxxiii: ‘None is like Jeshurun's God.' There is the promise of the Corner Stone in Zechariah iv: ‘O Great Mountain, who art thou?' There is the survey of the Promised Land from Pisgah — ravishing stuff indeed:

O that I might at once go up!

No more on this side Jordan stop,

But now the land possess;

This moment end my legal years;

Sorrows, and sins, and doubts, and fears,

A howling wilderness.

There is the thirty–fifth chapter of Isaiah: ‘The wilderness and the solitary place.' Here we note the use of proper names:

Lo! abundantly they bloom;

Lebanon is hither come;

Carmel's stores the heavens dispense,

Sharon's fertile excellence.

The Revised Version (in the interest of zoological truth, no doubt) degrades the dragons of this chapter into mere jackals: ‘in the habitation of jackals where they lay.' Wesley, with more inspired imagination, increases the vigour of the Authorized Version not by merely retaining the dragons, but by bestowing old age upon them, and so making them the type of Satan, the old Dragon.

Where the ancient Dragon lay,

Open for Thyself a way!

There let holy tempers rise,

All the fruits of Paradise.

A last example of Wesley's paraphrases is provided by the confused and magical mystery of the Christmas lesson in Isaiah ix. Of the Authorized Version of that chapter, Sir Arthur Quiller–Couch has said: ‘the old translators made nonsense, and, in two passages at least, stark nonsense.' The Revised Version straightens out the meaning into somewhat prosaic common sense. Wesley solved the problem in a third way. ‘For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.' ‘Granted the rhythmical antithesis,' writes Sir Arthur Quiller–Couch, ‘where is the real antithesis, the difference, the improvement? If a battle there must be, how is burning better than garments rolled in blood? and, in fine, what is it all about?' The inquiry is answered in the Revised Version, as Sir Arthur Quiller–Couch points out, and every wise lover of the English Bible will have Sir Arthur's words by heart. {On the Art of Writing, lectures VI and VII; On the Art of Reading, lectures VIII, IX, and X.} Yet it is still worth while seeing what Wesley makes of the matter. Here is his paraphrase and his notion of the reality of the antithesis:

Thou hast our bonds in sunder broke,

Took all our load of guilt away;

From sin, the world, and Satan's yoke,

(Like Israel saved in Midian's day,)

Redeemed us by our conquering Lord,

Our Gideon, and His Spirit's sword.

Not like the warring sons of men,

With shout, and garments rolled in blood,

Our Captain doth the fight maintain;

But lo! the burning Spirit of God

Kindles in each a secret fire,

And all our sins as smoke expire!

Wesley's hymns provide, as we have seen, an education in the use of proper names; but he deals not only with proper names. To sing or to read his hymns is to expand one's vocabulary and to learn the power of pregnant words. In general, Wesley prefers the Saxon word, but no one can more effectively use Latin words either alone or in combination. Here are a few typical lines:

Here we in the spirit breathe

The quintessence of praise.

Joyful consentaneous sound,

Sweetest symphony of praise.

That couplet, Latin and Greek, ends one verse; the next ends with pure Saxon:

Only sing and praise and love.

Here is another fine set of strong words:

Implunged in the crystal abyss,

And lost in the ocean of God.

And here is a full mixture of Latin and Saxon, with powerful repetitions:

Thee let me drink, and thirst no more

For drops of finite happiness;

Spring up, O Well, in heavenly power

In streams of pure, perennial peace,

In joy, that none can take away,

In life, which shall for ever stay.

Wesley does not stop at words derived from Latin and Greek. In one famous passion hymn, which Dr. Bett has fully discussed, he goes farther and refers to a classical legend in severely classical language: ‘Great Pan is dead.'

Lo! the powers of heaven He shakes;

Nature in convulsions lies;

Earth's profoundest centre quakes;

The great Jehovah dies!

Dies the glorious cause of all,

The true eternal Pan

Falls to raise us from our fall,

To ransom sinful man!

Well may Sol withdraw his light....

We may compare the reference to Thor and Woden:

Less guilty if with those of old

We worshipped Thor and Woden still.

As we should expect in the hymns of an eighteenth–century writer, there are in Wesley's some words and phrases that sound oddly today. His rhymes betray a few changes in pronunciation. He rhymes words like join and mine, as every one must have noticed. When a word has changed in meaning, it has usually changed for the worse. Words like bloody and blasted are today less solemn and impressive than they once were; but in the main the changes are fewer than we might have expected. The impression made by Wesley's language is very different from that made by Watts's. Watts was born only one generation before Wesley. He was thirty–four years older, but he speaks what is almost a different language. You cannot read many lines of Watts without coming on some grotesque or quaint expression. Watts used many words in a fashion quite unlike our own. That is why it is so difficult to use most of Watts's hymns today. His book, crammed as it is with magnificent things, has a decidedly antiquarian aroma. Wesley's usage is separated from ours by a less gulf. Only occasionally does he write an odd line like this on death:

And when the storms of life shall cease,

Jesus, in that important hour,

In death as life be Thou my guide;

or this:

But, O almighty God of love,

Into Thy hands the matter take.

No one understood better than Wesley what may be called the conventional literary devices. Elsewhere I have written at some length about his use of the chiasmus, of which he was an accomplished master.

We now Thy promised presence claim,

Sent to disciple all mankind,

Sent to baptize into Thy name,

We now Thy promised presence find.

On the simple device of repetition he rings endless changes. A whole essay would be needed even to begin to do them justice. One hymn alone will provide several examples.

There is, first, the simple repetition of the invocation:

Come, Holy Ghost, all–quick'ning fire,

Come, and in me delight to rest;

then with an echo of it, we continue:

Drawn by the lure of strong desire,

O come and consecrate my breast!

In the next verse we begin again with the simple repetition:

If now Thy influence I feel,

If now in Thee begin to live,

and we continue with a variant of the same device:

Still to my heart Thyself reveal;

Give me Thyself, for ever give.

Next comes, not repetition, but a pair of parallel phrases:

A point my good, a drop my store,

and now the last line of this verse and the first line of the next verse are tied together by a treble repetition: a repetition of these three words: eager, ask, pant.

A point my good, a drop my store,

Eager I ask, I pant for more.

Eager for Thee I ask and pant;

So strong the principle divine,

and so on.

Contrast the effect of verses so knit and so coloured with (let us say) the verses of that casual Papist rhymer Faber. Faber adds line to line, careful of nothing, if the second line comes near to rhyming with the fourth. He not only does not achieve anything more: he does not even attempt anything more. Here is the wretched stuff; but we ought not to call it careless or casual, for we must observe the care with which he has packed it with false stresses:

O it is hard to work for God,

To rise and take His part

Upon this battle–field of earth,

And not sometimes lose heart.

It would make first–rate prose.

He hides Himself so wondrously

As if there were no God,

He is least seen when all the powers

Of ill are most abroad.

Yet our hardest words must not be for Faber, but for the Methodist editors alike in 1904 and in 1933. Wesley had built his hymn on the principle of repetition, the climax being in the two adjacent verses (as we have seen). One ended

Eager I ask, I pant for more.

The other began

Eager for Thee I ask and pant.

Now, unless the thing had happened, we could not have believed it. The 1904 editors printed the earlier verse without the later; the 1933 editors printed the later verse without the earlier. They agreed only in this: that what Wesley had joined together his followers should put asunder. One is tempted to inquire if any one in 1904 or in 1933 had taken the trouble to read through the whole hymn.

A more cumulative effect of repetition we get in ‘Holy Lamb, who Thee confess'; but note, first, the perfect balance of the first four lines.

Early in the temple met,

Let us still our Saviour greet;

Nightly to the mount repair,

Join our praying Pattern there.

There...

Notice this repetition linking the two halves of the verse and preparing us for the crashing repetitions to follow:

There by wrestling faith obtain

Power to work for God again;

Power His image to retrieve,

Power, like Thee, our Lord, to live.

By a similar device in

Come, Thou long–expected Jesus,

Born to set Thy people free,

we have the word born appearing early in the verse to prepare us for the triple use that is to follow:

Born Thy people to deliver,

Born a child and yet a king,

Born to reign in us for ever;

Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.

Still more daring, but completely triumphant, is the sixfold repetition of one in this hymn on the Communion of Saints:

Build us in one body up,

Called in one high calling's hope;

One the Spirit Whom we claim;

One the pure baptismal flame;

One the faith, and common Lord,

One the Father lives adored,

Over, through, and in us all

God incomprehensible.

And yet (is it possible?) when we want a hymn about our unity, we have the effrontery to forget Wesley and to sing Baring–Gould's ditty:

Through the night of doubt and sorrow.

Wesley's art does not exhaust itself in the choice and use of single words. His hymns have a quality which is perhaps fairly described as dramatic and architectural. In a few lines Wesley sketches a background. At once you are made aware of a vista, a setting, and an atmosphere. You see and feel and hear and even smell the action as it proceeds. Often it is liturgical action. It is shown, perhaps, supremely in ‘Victim Divine, Thy grace we claim' (but not in the fragment printed in the new Methodist Hymn–book) and in ‘Entered the holy place above'. This art Wesley learnt, we cannot doubt, from the Apocalypse. Take this exalted passage on the Beatific Vision from ‘Come on, my partners in distress':

That great mysterious Deity

We soon with open face shall see;

The beatific sight

Shall fill heaven's sounding courts with praise,

And wide diffuse the golden blaze

Of everlasting light.

The Father shining on His throne,

The glorious co–eternal Son,

The Spirit, one and seven,

Conspire our rapture to complete;

And lo! we fall before His feet,

And silence heightens heaven.

Wesley has added heightens to what he found in the Apocalypse about silence in Heaven. It is one of the sharp strokes which illustrates the soundness and the brilliance of his intuition.

If we are to measure the merit of Wesley here we must set his picture beside that of, say, Kelly. Kelly shared much of Wesley's faith and experience. He is always trying to say the same things. He is sincere and he is likeable. But his achievement is not equal to his good intention. In trying to be sublime, he is so vigorous as to be almost irreverent; and yet, for all his loud emphasis, we feel that when he comes to great things he is sadly guilty of under–statement. He is like the schoolgirl who wrote of the Apostle, ‘St. Luke was a good man'. It was true, but it was so inadequate as to be patronizing.

Contrast Kelly's picture of the final glory of Heaven with Wesley's. Kelly wrote:

Hark! those bursts of acclamation!

Hark! those loud triumphant chords!

Jesus takes the highest station;

O what joy the sight affords!

The last line is exquisite bathos, and the last couplet suggests a certain relief in finding that the issue has not, after all, been different.

Contrast again Bridges' lines:

All hail! Redeemer, hail!

(For Thou hast died for me)

Thy praise shall never, never fail

Throughout eternity.

In an attempt to be personal, the author pushes himself forward in the wrong way. It is an unfortunate version of the song of the redeemed in the Apocalypse. Moreover, never, never fail is an example of precisely the wrong way to repeat a word. It is like Watts's unhappy line

There shall we see His face,

And never, never sin.

We more than half fear that the word is repeated, not for emphasis, but only to fill up the required number of syllables. Set beside such lines the moving repetitions which we have studied in Wesley. Nothing is weaker than repetition weakly done. Nothing is stronger than repetition strongly done. In Wesley's jubilation we discern the dignity and the reverence due to the Son of God. The personal note is not missing, but it is subordinate; and there is no half–suggestion that the event might have been otherwise.

Jesus the Saviour reigns,

The God of truth and love;

When He had purged our stains,

He took His seat above:

Lift up your heart, lift up your voice;

Rejoice; again I say, rejoice.

That exhortation is more vigorous and more scriptural than Kelly's exclamation:

O what joy the sight affords!

To conclude this matter, there is Wesley's less familiar verse in which all the notes are struck:

Extol His kingly power;

Kiss the exalted Son,

Who died, and lives, to die no more,

High on His Father's throne.

Our Advocate with God,

He undertakes our cause,

And spreads through all the earth abroad

The victory of His cross.

It is time to leave these smaller matters of language and to say something of the more general character of Wesley's hymns. The first quality which must strike us is their faithful, moving, but utterly unsentimental record of every phase of religious feeling. There is no mood of the Christian soul that is not reflected in Wesley's hymns. If you are depressed, elated, energetic, enervated, full of doubt, secure in faith, you can find in Wesley's hymns, as you can find nowhere else but in the Psalms, the appropriate words in which to pour out your soul to God. You can indeed often find in Wesley's hymns words more appropriate than you will find in the Psalms, because Wesley's are Christian words. They are written for you against the background of the Cross. They do not need the interpretation and the allegorizing which the Psalmist's words sometimes need and which we are sometimes too badly broken to give. Here is one example. Can we hope to express repentance better than this?

Stay, Thou insulted Spirit, stay,

Though I have done Thee such despite,

Nor cast the sinner quite away,

Nor take Thine everlasting flight.

Though I have steeled my stubborn heart,

And still shook off my guilty fears;

And vexed, and urged Thee to depart,

For many long rebellious years:

Though I have most unfaithful been,

Of all who e'er Thy grace received;

Ten thousand times Thy goodness seen,

Ten thousand times Thy goodness grieved:

Yet O! the chief of sinners spare,

In honour of my great High–Priest;

Nor in Thy righteous anger swear

To exclude me from Thy people's rest.

This only woe I deprecate;

This only plague I pray remove;

Nor leave me in my lost estate;

Nor curse me with this want of love.

But, though Wesley portrays all feelings potently, there is one note in his hymns which rings out clear above all the rest. It is the note of confidence, heavenly and inviolable confidence: The best of all is, God is with us.

As far from danger as from fear,

While love, almighty love, is near.

What mighty troubles hast Thou shewn

Thy feeble, tempted followers here!

We have through fire and water gone,

But saw Thee on the floods appear,

But felt Thee present in the flame,

And shouted our Deliverer's name.

(In passing, we note the characteristic interpretation of the Psalmist's words, ‘we went through fire and through water,' by references to our Lord walking on the Sea of Galilee and to the appearance of One like the Son of God in the Babylonian furnace.)

Lord, we Thy will obey,

And in Thy pleasure rest;

We, only we, can say,

‘Whatever is, is best'.

Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,

And looks to that alone;

Laughs at impossibilities,

And cries, ‘It shall be done!'

(In passing, we note another favourite device of Wesley's: he likes to use a word which refers us to a passage of Holy Scripture, but to change and often to strengthen its meaning. Faith ‘laughs' at impossibilities. Wesley has taken the notion of laughing from the story of Sarah's incredulity about Isaac's birth. Originally it was Sarah who laughed in scornful unbelief. Wesley baptizes Sarah's laughter, and in his scheme of things it is faith, not unfaith, which laughs. The point is small, but very characteristic. We catch, too, in line four a reference to Pope's dictum, Whatever is, is right. Stated by Pope as a general truth, it is open to question. Wesley rewrites it in the light of Romans viii. 28. He makes it less general, and so, though more emphatic, less questionable.)

Why this confidence? What is its basis? We need look no farther than the hymns themselves. Wesley's confidence is rooted in the orthodox, catholic, evangelical faith. Nowhere have you a better body of sound doctrine. If you know Wesley's hymns, you receive (whether you wish it or not) a magnificent course of instruction in high dogmatic theology. Here is a prayer to the Holy Ghost:

Thy witness with my spirit bear,

That God, my God, inhabits there,

Thou, with the Father and the Son,

Eternal light's co–eval beam: —

Be Christ in me, and I in Him,

Till perfect we are made in one.

Here is an address to the Son:

Effulgence of the Light Divine,

Ere rolling planets knew to shine,

Ere time its ceaseless course began;

Thou, when the appointed hour was come,

Didst not abhor the virgin's womb,

But, God with God, wast man with man.

Here is a sacramental prayer to the Father (copied, I suspect, by Dr. Bright in his better–known, but less excellent, hymn, ‘And now, O Father, mindful of the love');

With solemn faith we offer up,

And spread before Thy glorious eyes,

That only ground of all our hope,

That precious, bleeding Sacrifice,

Which brings Thy grace on sinners down,

And perfects all our souls in one.

Nothing is more untrue than to represent the heart of Wesley's religion as personal experience or even personal feeling. The heart of Wesley's religion is sound doctrine. The common misrepresentation of him can be cherished only by those who never read, for instance, the eucharistic hymn which begins:

And shall I let Him go?

If now I do not feel

The streams of Living Water flow,

Shall I forsake the Well?

Because He saith, Do this,

This I will always do.

We find in Wesley, then, not merely the comfort and the drive of personal religion, not merely a heart strangely warmed and hands vigorous for the fight: we find displayed in the hymns the secret power that warms the heart and teaches the fingers to fight. Today many of us envy Wesley's enthusiasm and Wesley's assault upon the world. We do well to envy; and we can perceive in the hymns that what we envy is the product of something else. The hymns present to us, time and again, glorious confessions of faith in the Incarnate Word of God, confessions in which Wesley has rarely been equalled and never surpassed. Very God and Very Man: it is that vision which inspires and drives Wesley, as it inspired and drove the writers of the New Testament.

Fairer than all the earth–born race,

Perfect in comeliness Thou art;

Replenished are Thy lips with grace,

And full of love Thy tender heart:

God ever blest! we bow the knee,

And own all fulness dwells in Thee.

The greatness of Wesley's hymns lies in the exactness with which they recapture and represent the life of the New Testament. In them, as in it, we move high above all ecclesiastical divisions and out of hearing of almost all theological controversies. Wesley speaks the language of the Gospels and the Epistles. The dramatic action of his hymns is drawn from the Apocalypse. His picture of a Christian society is copied from the Acts of the Apostles. We see all this in the great Easter hymn as savagely and as criminally truncated in the new Methodist Hymn–book as it was even in the English Hymnal. Here are the verses which no one now permits us to sing: verses in which Wesley's theology, literary art, use of Old Testament allegory, and dominant confidence all find illustration:

What though once we perished all,

Partners in our parents' fall?

Second life we all receive;

In our heavenly Adam live.

Risen with Him we upward move,

Still we seek the things above;

Still pursue and kiss the Son,

Seated on His Father's throne.

Scarce a thought on earth bestow,

Dead to all we leave below;

Heav'n our aim and loved abode,

Hid our life with Christ in God.

Hid, till Christ our life appear,

Glorious in His members here,

Joined to Him we then shall shine,

All immortal, all divine.

That is the faith; but is it without works and dead?

That bloody banner see,

And, in your Captain's sight,

Fight the good fight of faith with me,

My fellow–soldiers, fight!

In mighty phalanx joined,

To battle all proceed;

Armed with the unconquerable mind

Which was in Christ your Head.

The world cannot withstand

Its ancient Conqueror;

The world must sink beneath the hand

Which arms us for the war

This is our victory!

Before our faith they fall;

Jesus hath died for you and me;

Believe, and conquer all.

« Prev Wesley's Hymns Reconsidered Next »

Advertisements


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |