21 NOVEMBER 1908, Page 37



THE use of hymns as an integral part of public worship is one of the great legacies which Hebraism has bequeathed to Christianity. With the Hebrew race religious feeling found in song its natural expression, and the Psalter, or "Book of Praises," compiled, as it now stands, for the service of the Temple, is at once the earliest and best of hymn-books. Nowhere else in the ancient world, neither around the Acropolis nor the Capitol, do there linger like memories of "sacred song" as around the hill of Sion. The first and most sacred traditions of the Christian faith are associated with its melodies. It was with the singing of "a hymn" that the Last Supper closed; the first outburst of a new-born hope took form in the Magni:fleet and the Nunc Dimittis ; while on the first threat of persecution it is in "lifting up their voices to God with one accord" that the little " company " of believers at once find comfort. And wherever the Gospel went, there the use of hymns went with it. St. Paul bids his Gentile converts "admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs " ; St. John, drawing the image, doubtless, from the forms of earthly worship, pictures the redeemed as "singing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb"; while the heathen Pliny a few years later notes as a marked characteristic of Christian seavice "the singing of a hymn to Christ as God "; and from that period onward the development of Greek and Latin hymnology was continuous and immense. English hymns, however, are of late birth, and their history is comprised in the too brief period of little more than two centuries. The use of Latin in the services of the Roman Church, and the absence of an English Bible, were long fatal to English hymnology, while after the Reformation the severe spirit of Puritanism

* (3) The Hundred Best Hymns. Selected and Arranged by the Bev. J. Cullen, D.D. London : George Bontledge and Sons. [is. net.]—(2) The Oxford Hymn Book. Oxford: at the Clarendon Press. [1s. 6(1.] repudiated that "merriment" which induces men either to compose or to "sing psalms." It is only from about the year 1674, when Thomas Ken had composed his three famous

hymns, that the great roll of English hymn-writers, soon to be ennobled by the names of Isaac Watts and of the Wesleys, can be said to have its origin, although to-day our treasury of hymns is only less rich than that of Germany. We Buffer, indeed, now not from dearth, but from abundance. To write a good hymn is one of the hardest of tasks ; but, unhappily, to write a poor one is supremely easy, and in the multiplicity of choice makers of hymn-books seem to be guided by no true standard of merit. Ambitious doggerel set off by some patchy rhymes, or recommended by some popular tune, too often degrades what ought to be one of the noblest and most inspiring forms of common worship. To pass, for instance. from the Prayer-book or the Bible to a volume which addresses the Deity as "Ineffably sublime" must be a shock to any

sensitive mind. And who can "raise the Trisagion " or "Extol the Stem-of-Jesse's Rod," and retain any respect for his native tongue ? Or who can sing without a qualm such lines as-

" Bring your harps, and bring your odours, Sweep the string, and pour the lay "—

when in the very verse set at the head of this effusion he reads that wonderful phrase which tells how "the four and twenty elders" bring before the throne "golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints" ? Nowhere, assuredly, can the

distinction between poetic imagery and vulgar realism be more clearly illustrated than by setting the words "bring your odours," as used by the writer of this so-called hymn, side by aids with the original which they parody ; while perhaps the lines with which he concludes-

" Consubstantial, Co-eternal While unending ages run "-

are the two worst lines that have ever masqueraded as poetry. And yet it is to stuff like this that the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern lend the authority of their imprimatur.

But to recount all that is mean and unworthy in our hymnals would be a weary task. It is of more concern to consider what a hymn should be, and, although, where there is such large scope for variety, any definition must be im- perfect, may it not justly be said that a good hymn ought to be at once simple and sublime ? Just as in the famous phrase quoted by Longinus—" God said, Let there be light : and there was light "—the words are of the simplest, and yet become sublime by catching, as he puts it, "the echo of a great soul," so it should be with a hymn, which must be written in the common speech, and yet at the same time transcend it At least all those hymns which by general consent are the noblest—such, for example, as "0 God, our help in ages past," or "There is a land of pure delight "—seem to answer to such a definition. To sing such hymns is to be raised for a time above the common level of life, to be "caught up," as it were, into a higher world, and that although the words themselves are of the clearest and simplest. But, indeed, the more we reflect, the more, perhaps, it will appear that, regarded from the point of view of art, simplicity in a hymn is a crucial test of merit. Lofty and inspiring thoughts lie ready to the writer's hand, and the proof of his skill is that they should stir a quick and lively

apprehension, so that what is at once grasped by the mind may produce an immediate effect upon the heart. The object of a hymn is to evoke feeling, and feeling—as .distinguished from mere excitement--has its roots in the understanding, so

that the words of a hymn, even though they may give food for meditation, must be such that their large meaning is wholly clear. Doubtless in the effort to be simple it is fatally easy to become mean, prosaic, and almost vulgar; but even the rudest " paraphrase " by Tate and Brady is preferable to such an attempt at fine writing as is to be found, for instance, in that too popular hymn which begins "Crown Him the Virgin's Son," and then proceeds to address our Lord as-

" Fruit of the mystic Rose

As of that Rose the Stem ; The Root whence mercy ever flows, The Babe of Bethlehem."

Is not this symbolism run mad ? Do the words convey any ennobling thought ? Or do they convey any thought at all ? To us, at least, they seem wholly without meaning, and we

"A safe Stronghold our God is still,

A trusty shield and weapon; He'll help us clear from all the ill

That in our day shall happen. The ancient prince of hell Hath risen with purpose fell;

Strong mail of craft and power

He weareth in this hour; On earth is not his fellow."

Rough and rugged such verse as this may be, but assuredly

its plain homespun speech is the stuff from which are made those hymns that are truly "great,"—the hymns that last, that

stand the wear and tear of common life, and go with us almost from the cradle to the grave.

And yet our older hymns, in spite of their strength and grandeur, have, it may be allowed, a certain sameness of form, and scarcely adapt themselves to some more meditative moods, or to the expression of ideas which are not direct and positive. Watts constantly felt himself trammelled by what he calls the " fetters " of "the old narrow metres," while modern thought, even where it clings firmly to dogma, is yet haunted by a sense of perplexity ; seems at times to lose, as it were, the clue amid the vast labyrinth of knowledge, and so to lack that assured confidence which gave force to the early hymn-writers.

Let any one consider that hymn which is perhaps the most distinctive of modern hymns—we mean "Lead, kindly Light"—and contrast it with "0 God, our help in ages past" ; or let him look at "Crossing the Bar," which the common voice has now pronounced to be a true hymn,

and then turn to the Dies Irae, or to "Great God, what do I see and hear " The old and the new are separated almost by a world of thought. Both Newman and Tennyson

bear on them the impress of an age in which, as knowledge "grows from more to more," and our sense of ignorance grows with it, even the clearest belief seems somehow to be "clouded with a doubt." And yet their two great hymns, written under new and more complex conditions, still conform to the old

laws. Unless the famous reference to "Angel faces" is held to bar such a judgment, they are both, we think, models of simplicity. The words are of the plainest ; the images are

such as stir an immediate apprehension ; and, above all, there is no fine writing, no attempt to impose by being unintelligible.

"Here," said Wesley in the preface to his own hymn-book, "is no doggerel ; no botches; nothing put in to patch up the

rhyme nothing turgid and bombast on the one band or low and creeping on the other ; no cant expressions " ; and these hymns, though so different from his own, would certainly satisfy him in all of these points; whiic they would equally fulfil his second law that a hymn must possess that "spirit of true poetry" which we have ventured in the case of sacred song to call "sublimity." To labour the point is idle, for those who fail to catch in them some "echo" of a soul that is soaring heavenward would be deaf to argument ; but it may be permissible to note that they have a third distinction, which may be called "sobriety." Restraint and measure arc the mark of all good work, and most especially in things which have relation to the divine. "God is in heaven," said the Hebrew prophet, "and thou upon earth : therefore let thy words be few " ; and this law of reticence applies not only to

the multitude of words but to their spirit. Exaggeration and effusiveness of speech are not to be estimated only by formal length, but also by tone and temper. A true piety is reserved and reverent even under the stress of strong emotion, and such a

hymn, for instance, as "0 Paradise, 0 Paradise," exhibits, we think, rather feebleness than force of feeling. Ecstatic ejacula-

tions and the repetition of such words as "All rapture through and through" come more readily from the lips than from the heart. They mark an agitation which is most violent where there is least depth. They are alien from reality and the soberness of truth, while in their orgiastic character they seem repugnant to the meek and quiet spirit of Christianity. We may, indeed, fitly quote and apply to hymns South's magnificent . appeal for plainness of speech in sermons :—

speak the words of soberness,' said Saint Paul; and I preach the gospel not with the enticing words of man's

will place after them, in grim contrast, a stanza of Luther's and its rendering by Carlyle :— " Ein forte burg 1st unser Gott, em n gate wehr and waffen ;

Er Hilt uns frey RUE alley not die uns ytzt hat betroffen. Der alt bose feind mit ernst era ytzt meint,

gros macht und vie list sein grausam rostung ant erd 1st nicht seine gleichen."

wisdom.' This was the way of the apostles' discoursing of things sacred. Nothing here of the fringes of the north star ;' nothing of nature's becoming unnatural;' nothing of the 'down of angels' wings,' or 'the beautiful looks of cherubims ;' no starched similitudes introduced with a Thus have I seen a cloud rolling in its airy mansion,' and the like. No, these were sublimities above the rise of the apostolic spirit. For the apostles, poor mortals, were content to take lower steps, and to tell the world in plain terms, that he who believed should be saved, and that he who believed not should be damned.' And this was the dialect which pierced the conscience, and made the hearers cry out, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do 1" It tickled not the ear, but sunk into the heart : and when men came from such sermons, they never commended the preacher for his taking voice or gesture ; for the fineness of such a simile, or the quaintness of such a sentence; but they spoke like men conquered with the overpowering force and evidence of the most concerning truths; much in the words of the two disciples going to Emmaus; 'Did not our hearts burn within us, while he opened to us the Scriptures ?' In a word, the apostles' preaching was therefore mighty, and successful, because plain, natural, and familiar, and by no means above the capacity of their hearers ; nothing being more preposterous, than for those who were pro- fessedly aiming at men's hearts to miss the mark, by shooting over their heads."

But amid the vast and varied mass of hymns—for Charles Wesley alone wrote about six thousand—to arrive at any clear criterion of excellence is perhaps hardly possible, and the editor of the present volume, in selecting " the hundred best hymns," though his choice is on the whole admirable, has probably been guided, as most of us would be, rather by an unreasoning preference than by regard for any rule. At least, when he makes it the test of "a good hymn" that it should "have in it devotion, teaching, religion, and poetry," his definition seems of little use, for the first three requirements are assuredly often found in very bad hymns ; and we have there- fore attempted to indicate certain qualities which seem to be more essential. Such an endeavour can, indeed, only be hesitating and hazardous—a venture, as it were, upon an unmapped sea—but it may appear not unjustified to those who reflect how often poor and unworthy hymns mar the beauty and solemnity of our public services.

Happily, however, there seems at last some hope of better things. Within the last few days The Orford Hymn Book has come into our hands. We only wish we had more space to devote to its consideration. But though, unfortunately, we cannot give it detailed notice, we can unhesitatingly commend it to our readers as a very noteworthy collection of noble hymns.