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To offer poetry for poetry's sake has been my first aim and leading principle in fulfilling the task with which the authorities of the Clarendon Press have honoured me. Hence it is probable that many poems which would be justly expected when the object of a selection is direct usefulness, spiritual aid and comfort, or (to put it in one word) edification, will here be found absent. And this deficiency, I fear, will be felt even by readers who are not satisfied with religious verse, however good its intention, unless it be clothed in the veil of beauty. For verse of this kind, hymns in particular, beyond any other modes of poetry, hold a special place in the hearts of men; so closely intertwined with the predilections of childhood, with the memories of the home or the church of our youth, with the voices no longer heard on this side the grave, that they have a charm for us beyond criticism,--a spell which is none the less irresistible because it is not cast over us by their own proper magic.
Yet if my aim--an aim in collections of sacred song rarely avowed or followed--to present poetry for poetry's sake, has not here altogether been missed through my own want of taste or discernment, may it not be hoped that the final end and object of all the Fine Arts, and Poetry as the queen of them,--permanent pleasure, elevation and enlightenment of the soul,--to return to the word, edification in the highest sense,--will be secured more effectually and more enduringly, through the subtle, yet powerful aid of melody in words, and beauty in form? It is confessedly thus when Music or Painting are concerned; the better and finer the art, the more exquisite the pleasure, the more penetrating, the more vivifying, the impression. From this point of view, we may agree with the poet, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.' And so far from being alien or opposed to piety, these great gifts of God to man nowhere else have a more fitting place or a loftier function. Nowhere is the power and magic of poetry as an art more naturally in place or better employed than when her inspiring Muses are Faith, Hope, and Love,--when her subjects are those incomparably highest and most vital interests to mankind, which may be briefly summed up as right conduct here, and its reward hereafter.
If, however, the rule of choice which I have tried to follow be theoretically valid, the argument has to be met, that by its very nature, through its general aim and its often imperfect quality as art,--Sacred Poetry rarely deserves the honour of that great name. And there is a large element of truth in this objection. The aim at direct usefulness to the individual or to the Church has unquestionably led to the neglect of Poetry in religious verse; and Art, we may truly say, has here revenged herself upon Religion. The most weighty of these adverse criticisms is the often-quoted verdict of Dr. Johnson. 'Poetry,' he says, 'loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do is to help the memory, and delight the ear, and for these purposes it may be very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament.' Johnson is a judge whose native good sense, sincerity, and alertness of mind, render disregard of his decisions impossible without folly. Yet we cannot concede to him, in this matter, the infallibility which, (when that great debater had 'tossed and gored' his antagonists), he would laughingly disclaim for himself. His argument seems arbitrarily to confine the range and the capability of religious verse, as it will be found represented in this selection: and it is also a view coloured by the unalloyed seriousness--the gloom--of the great writer's own deeply felt religious faith; possibly, also, by the fact that he was writing at a period when our sacred song was wellnigh confined to hymns. And although with certain singular gifts as a critic of poetry, Johnson was not in advance of his day. Many of the poets who lived before the modern manner had established itself, he appears to have read or valued but little: with Habington or Herbert, for example, I am not aware that he shows any sympathetic acquaintance; while Vaughan, from his own time to ours, was almost wholly forgotten.
It is however undeniable that if, (with some later critics), we inaccurately group all sacred verse under the single section of hymns in the popular sense of the word, the Religious lyric, in comparison with the Secular, (epithets which I use perforce in default of better), will be found largely inferior in poetical charm. But the argument in this form is sophistical. Secular verse covers many provinces; manners, incident, love, landscape,--the vast sphere of drama;--in a word, all the many-coloured romance of life. Sacred verse can hardly go beyond one province: to expect masterpieces in our field approximately numerous as those in the secular lyric is unreasonable. Even more unreasonable is it, when of this single province a district only is chosen out for censure, and treated as the whole domain. Hymns, wellnigh limited to the functions of prayer and of praise, are precisely that region in which a practical aim is naturally, almost inevitably predominant. The writers, (not to dwell upon the imperfect training of many among them), have hence far too frequently and easily made the sacrifice of pleasure to usefulness, of beauty to edification. But it should also be remembered that hymns, in this respect, are subject to the common penalty, the inferiority in art, inherent in all didactic verse; although with a more pressing and powerful excuse than didactic verse can offer for its inevitable prosaicism.
Yet I hope that an answer, far more pleasant and convincing than any argument,--is offered to these objections by the following anthology. If indeed the limitations of its sphere be considered, the triteness of some inevitable motives, the insuperable loftiness of others, it seems to the Editor that English lyrical religious poetry fairly--perhaps fully--holds its own: that Urania has her legitimate throne beside her sister Muses of song. And should this opinion appear partial to my readers, let me plead that I have turned over many thousand pages in my search, as an excuse--if not a justification--for partiality.
A few details remain for notice. Translations, as even when at the best, (by a law of nature, may I not call it?) hardly ever reaching excellence as poetry, or reaching it only for a moment, are here excluded. But paraphrases,--a style for centuries frequent in religious verse,--have been regarded as entitled to a measure of admission, when executed with such freedom and spirit, as to take rank with original inventions.
A book planned for popular use half-defeats its own object by adherence to unfamiliar modes of spelling. But whilst in this respect modernizing the diction, I have carefully followed the best text easily accessible;--here, again, judging reference in every case to original editions not essential to the purpose of the volume. No verbal changes whatever have been made: but I have freely allowed such omissions as might appear to bring a poem to a closer unity in idea, or a more equably sustained excellence in poetry:--a freedom for which I shall hope forgiveness, at least from readers who accept the leading principle of the selection. And if the notes added upon obsolete words and phrases appear to any too numerous, I would plead that Poetry,--especially in this age of facile prose--requires every assistance to attract and hold her audience. Better that fifty should find an explanation superfluous, than one find a difficulty unsolved.
Longer explanatory remarks have been reserved for the final notes: in which, also, (supported by the example of Archbishop Trench in his excellent Household Book of English Poetry), I have added a few indications of peculiar poetical merit. To separate a poet's serious work from his personality, as Goethe once remarked, is simply impossible. The brief biographies inserted, (which exclude our well-known master-singers, and those still living), will, therefore, it is hoped, satisfy, in a fair degree, the natural desire for some acquaintance with the lives of those whose best and deepest thoughts are here before us. Even when only a few bare facts have been recorded or noticed, they can hardly fail to throw over the verse some light and interest. But greater space has been given to those writers whose public career or personal modes of thought, (in particular when remote from present fashions), have given a special colour to their poetry.
A chronological arrangement,--so far as chronology is possible, where the actual dates of composition are rarely known,--has been generally kept in view. But poems of cognate character, whether in style or in thought, have been often grouped together.
Thanks are due to the unvaried kindness with which owners of copyright have conceded the privilege of reprinting. Amongst these it is proper to specify,--in case of Lord Tennyson, permission given by Messrs. Macmillan:--by Messrs. Parker and Messrs. Burns, for pieces from Keble's Miscellaneous Poems, and Father Faber's Hymns, respectively:--for Archbishop Trench and Mr. Barnes, from Messrs. K. Paul;--Mr. Lyte, Messrs. Rivingtons;--Dr. Bonar, Mr. J. Nisbet.
The aim of this little book, let me repeat, is to offer such lyrical sacred song, and such only, as shall be instinctively felt worthy the august name of Poetry. And as I have also attempted to present here all such pieces known to me as reach a certain standard of excellence, a comparatively large space has been necessarily given to three or four poets who combined high genius with a considerable bulk of suitable work:--whilst the limits of size have compelled me to omit verse of simply moral quality, however pure and lofty, and thus intrinsically religious.
It is, however, the inevitable--perhaps the unfortunate--lot of a selection framed upon these lines, that whether poetical merit or spiritual value be regarded, the selector's own personal tastes and opinions cannot be excluded; and in such matters it is difficult to keep perfectly true the balance of the soul. On the point of merit I can only plead an honest endeavour to shut out all mere individual predilections, and to form the decision by a wide and comparative research through this region of our literature during the last four centuries. But in reference to the different aspects of religion here presented, my task has been aided signally by the wide-embracing charity, the Catholic spirit (as embodied in the Creeds), natural to Poetry as part of her very essence. This has been well expressed by Mr. C. J. Abbey in his valuable essay upon the English Sacred Poetry of the eighteenth century. 'It may be said to be the peculiar privilege of hymn-writers that to a great extent they write, not for any one society of Christians, but for the Church at large. Men whose theological views contrast most strongly meet on common ground when they express in verse the deeper aspirations of the heart, and the voice of Christian praise.'--In a word, whilst severity has been aimed at, where Poetry as an art is concerned,--in regard to the religious quality of the verse selected, my rule has been that which Dante describes as given by S. Peter to the Angel at the gate of the Mount of Purgatory,
--ch' io erri
Anzi ad aprir, che a tenerla serrata.
F. T. P.
The Treasury of Sacred Song
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