HYMNS AND THEIR AUTHORS.*
Sometimes a light surprises The Christian while he sings It is the Lord who rises, With healing on His wings," —when we read such hymns with a full knowledge of the fluc- tuating lights and shadows that chased each over that fragile nature, we find in them a pathos and a beauty which the words alone would convey in very much slighter measure. The picture suggested is infinitely more touching than any hymn without that personal background could present. But the knowledge of Cowper's history suggests sad thoughts and perplexities which diminish the immediate stimulus which the hymn affords to spiritual trust. This is not only due to the remem- brance of the thickening clouds which drew together, with fewer and fewer partings, as his life drew towards a close. For, to think of him petting his hares, rambling with his spaniel beside the Ouse in search of water-lilies, reading his verses to Mrs. Unwin, laughing with, child-like glee over the story of John Gilpin,—a man, in short, in every way adapted to find his fullest happiness in the mild humour and tender poetry of quiet domestic life, had only his spiritual nature been at peace,—shattering his gentle nature against the systematic divinity of John Newton, and crushed beneath the belief that a distinct spiritual assurance of pardon was needful for him, and was not often to be extorted from the silent skies,—to think of him able to enjoy God's love in such sweet and delicate minutiae of creation, and yet doubting it because he could not distinguish clearly between the natural and the supernatural assurances of it, adds at once a new depth to the yearning of his prayers, and a new mystery to the awful Provi- dence which did not speak to him out of the whirlwind. Such tender joy in solitude as Cowper sometimes exquisitely expressed, has a tendency perhaps, when taken up by those who know his fate, to make them ask bitterly why the fountains of that joy were so soon dried up :-
"Far from the world, 0 Lord! I flee, From strife and tumult far, From scenes where Satan wages still His most successful war.
"The calm retreat, the silent shade, With prayer and praise agree, And seem by Thy sweet bounty made For those who follow Thee.
"There, if Thy spirit touch the soul, And grace her mean abode, Oh! with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God.
" There like a nightingale she pours Her solitary lays,
Nor asks a witness for her song, Nor thirsts for human praise."
Why, one cannot but ask, were the heavens so often dark and cold above such a tender flower as this? Why were these moments of -joy so transient, and the gloom of the last years so impenetrable? Is there a dark necessity which limits even the intercourse of God
• Our Hymns, fkir Authors and Origin. Being Biographies] Sketches of nearly Two 1.111..dred of the intim:gal Psalm and Hymn Writers, with Notes on their P.shni and Hymns. A c ■mpacion to the New Congregational Hymn Book. By Josiah N.A. London: Jackson, Walford, and Hodder. 1883. MR. MILLER hag a very just impression that hymns of any beauty and power, more even than other lyrical poems of equal beauty or power, gain greatly in the fascination for the imagination of the reader when you can trace them to their personal origin in the character and special circumstances of the nature which gave birth to them. He is undoubtedly often right. But with the increase of fascination thus gained by the poem there may be not unfrequently a loss of specific effect in the hymn. The lesson conveyed by a deeper knowledge of the personnel of most of the greater hymn writers is, like almost all those conveyed by our deeper knowledge of religious questions, one calculated indeed to deepen awe, but to impress us also, still more profoundly than before, with the mystery that envelops the answers to even the purest craving for divine light. Cowper's hymns, for instance, as Mr. Miller justly enough indicates, gain infinitely in beauty and depth when we see the sad interior of that tender, melancholy, yet playful and innocent spirit from which the passionate craving for divine light went forth. Thus, when we read, with this help, the well known verses, of no great power in themselves, on the mystery of God's government, the hymn, we mean, ending with the line about God being " His own interpreter," and " behind a frowning Providence hiding a smil- ing face," or the hymn on the intervals of peace which a believer enjoys,— with His children ? Is it only here and there that even the purest natures find a favouring hour when a shaft is opened through the dark canopy, and they can see the supreme light ? Such perplexi- ties must come with the knowledge of the personal origin of hymns like Cowper's ; and yet that knowledge not only adds infinite depth to the tones of his melancholy and gratitude, but brings more powerfully than ever before us the deep yearning of man for direct converse with that Eternal Word with whom Cowper, though created apparently to interpret the trivial and limited beauties of quiet Nature and an innocent domestic life, was incessantly engaged in wrestling for a blessing. The knowledge of the poet turns for us his hymns into something much deeper and much sadder than mere hymns, yet bearing much more emphatic evidence to the need of a real communion between man and God, and to the hindrances (other than moral hindrances) to its free
enjoyment. They gain something of tragic meaning, which raises their influence over the imagination, and yet diminishes their spell as hymns. The horizon they call up before us suddenly widens they seem the outpouring of a heart seeking, often in vain, more and more in vain as life went on, to obtain from God an answer that it could clearly hear and understand ; yet as the gloom deepens the cry becomes more heartrending, and we tremble to realize that prayers so true and piteous can go up to Heaven without wringing any immediate reply from the Almighty love. A con- gregation clearly realizing the despair of Cowper's clouded intellect in his last years, could scarcely use his words of sweet and solemn hope without a shiver of trembling sadness. Something of the same complexity of impression is produced by the study of Madame Guyon's sad life, though Mr. Miller has given us too brief and im- perfect a glimpse of it to betray its spiritual secrets to those who have not read her own account of them.
It is otherwise, no doubt, with some hymn writers. Charles Wesley, who was certainly more of a true poet than any other English hymn writer whose whole poetical power has been con- centrated in this one department of poetry, has nothing in his character or history that does not rather add to the effect of what- he wrote not only as poetry, but also as a religious influence. What Mr. Miller has to tell us, both of Charles Wesley's general life and of the special origin of some of his beautiful hymns, adds to their interest rather as hymns than as poems, for his religious life, intense as it was, ran smoothly and deeply in the missionary channel. Thus, there is a touch of fresh colour given to one of his hymns in learn- ing that the hymn on Jeremiah xxiii., 29, " Is not my word . . . . like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces ?" and beginning,- " Come, 0 Thou all-victorious Lord! Thy power to us make known, Strike with the hammer of Thy word, And break these hearts of stone,"
—was written for the stone-quarry men of Portland, Dorsetshire ; or that that beginning, See how great a flame aspires,' was written/ in the time of the author's success among the Newcastle colliers, and suggested by the great fires which lighted up that gloomy district at night. In the case of Wesley and several of the German hymn writers, there is no spiritual paradox opened out by the better knowledge of their mind and life. And the same is not only the case with Dr. Watts, but so much the case, that the knowledge of this good and narrow little hymn manufacturer as he really was, takes away all poetical illusion from such of his hymns as have any. You see too clearly the limitation of the nature which produced them. There is. a self-satisfaction, a shrill spiritual complacency, running through almost all his hymns, reminding us of the model good boy of the eighteenth century, the Harry Sandford' of the pulpit, and which explains the absence of those deeper shadows and softer lights which the private history of a religious poet throws over his lyrics. The truth is that with very few exceptions Dr. Watts wrote nothing that could be called poetry, and this is brought home to any one who had not discerned it already, when his thoughts are seen in the undress of his ordinary prose. He wrote verses here and there indeed which rise quite above the level of his usual shrill and didactic enthusiasm. When he says,—
" In Thee what endless wonders meet,
What various glory shines!
The crossing rays too fiercely beat Upon our fainting minds,"
he rises quite out of himself into something like true vision. But in general his hymns, like a good part of the age in which he wrote, had a pious but petty egotism in them that is the antithesis of true poetry.
"When I with pleasing wonder stand And all my frame survey,"
is a sort of versification of Paley's argument from the design visible in the structure of the human body, and gives us a painfully graphic impression of the Doctor meditating in his shower bath, and hold- ing a sort of moral inquest on his own majestic limbs, considered as his personal contribution to the data for religious belief.
No doubt in the case of many, perhaps most, of the writers named and briefly characterized by Mr. Miller, the religious im- pression produced by what is known of their thoughts and lives would be simple, and not widely divergent from that left by their hymns. But yet the higher we go in the intellectual range of these writers, the more complex and the more chequered with light and shade difficult to reconcile, is the true spiritual lesson of their religious poems. Take the case of one whom Mr. Miller, writing with reference to a special hymn-book of sufficiently comprehensive, but still not quite universal poetical catholicity, has not included,—Dr. New- man,—and notice what a range of complicating meaning is added to perhaps the most beautiful hymn in the language when we recall fully the character and career of its author, and the circum- stances under which he has himself told us that it was composed. The following hymn has beauty enough indeed without this per- sonal background, but with it, to the beauty of thought and language is added a vision of men and things which not only embodies the thought in living scenes and actions, but forces on us the inward question, ' how was this prayer for light answered ?'—
" Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on !
The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on !
Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see The distant scene,—one step enough for me!
"I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou Should'st lead me on !
I loved to choose and see my path ; but now Lead Thou me on !
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will; remember not past years !
" So long Thy power hath led me, sure it still Will lead me on, O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till The night is gone ; And with the morn those angel faces smile Which I have loved long since and lost awhile."
When we remember that this prayer for guiding light was uttered lay the great leader of the Romanist reaction in the first excite- ment of " sounding on his dim and perilous way " into unknown seas,—that it came from a heart feverish with resentment against the success of the then recent Liberal effervescence in France,— that he wrote it becalmed in a little orange boat in the straits of Bonifazio, sighing for a breeze that might take him to Marseilles on his homeward way, lying under the shadow of the wild Corsican mountains which recalled the birth-place of Napoleon's godless ambition, and his heart all on fire with the desire to pro- claim a spiritual power the very antithesis of this restless revolu- tionary liberalism (as he held it), a power that might both stir up supine England and control irritable France,—when we re- member all this, we cannot even enter into the beauty of the prayer itself, without asking ourselves what this prayer in his case really implied, and how far it was truly answered. Did not the ' light' he craved lead him onward into the mazes of a false system and a falling Church ? And could any one who knew the origin of this exquisite hymn, use it now with confidence that it would be answered by a truer light leading us away from authoritative ecclesiastical guidance into the direct !knowledge of living truth? We ourselves believe that the prayer was absolutely pure, and that the light which answered it did lead its author into deeper truth, while apparently involving him in a false system. No one who has read his late writings can doubt that he has since grasped the spirit of a more truly catholic faith, even though it seem within the lines of the dogmatic Roman Church, than he had then attained in the comparative liberty outside it. And doubtless others like him may gain more truth out of seeming error than they ever held under a truer external form. But then this only illus- trates the more the subtleties and complexities of our real relation to God ; and all this, if realized by ordinary persons, would dis- hearten them from throwing themselves fully into the words of a prayer which seemed at least to be breathed forth in darkness, and to lead him who first uttered it into spiritual slavery.
On the whole, while we thank Mr. Miller heartily for this volume of biographical insight into the lives of the chief composers of our hymns, we are inclined to think that the deeper we plunge into the real spiritual scenery in which our religious lyrics take their origin, the more of mystery will there seem to be in the communion between God and man, and the less shall we feel disposed to explain in any dogmatic, or even closely defined way, the faith which we must all cherish if we are to use hymns in common at all, that the expression of our genuine emotions does affect God, and provokes from Him some better answer than we can ask or think. The lives of the greater hymn writers are far more touch- ing than their own hymns, and enlarge indefinitely the mystery and scope of the spirit of trust which their own hymns would suggest.