Hymns — poetic expressions linking faiths, expressing hope

Robert Cotner


The tradition of hymn-singing in worship is older than Christianity, and very early the church adopted the practice as integral to worship. One historian reports, “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.” (Acts 16:25)

St. Paul, a great intellectual of his day, was very clear in his writing that the hymn and its singing was to do more than create a mood or set a tone in worship. To the Ephesians he wrote of the communicative value of the hymn: “Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)

To the people of Colossae he enunciated the principle that the wisdom of the ages is, in part, contained in and taught through the ancient songs. Paul urged them to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)

One of the fine modern commentators on hymns and hymnology, William J. Reynolds, has written: “The Hebrew Psalter and the manner in which it was used were the musical heritage of the early Christians.” He links the common heritage of Christians and Jews to the personal nature of God and the religious experience as communicated through tunes which “were seemingly taught and preserved in the oral tradition only.” Parts and perhaps complete portions of modern hymn tunes span the Judeo-Christian tradition of singing in worship.

Jesus himself maintained the ancient practice of singing in his last act with his disciples. Reynolds comments: “It is not surprising to find that, at the conclusion of the Last Supper, Christ and his disciples sang a hymn which historians believe to have been a portion of the Hallel, Psalm 114-118.”

A good modern hymnal is a complete anthology of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs spanning all of time in both tunes and lyrics. One of the blessings of living in the 21st Century is that the whole tradition of the hymn is as close as the hymn-rack in front of us in nearly every service of worship. In fact, worshipers hold it in their very hands for a lengthy time each week. If they wish, they can share in these rich collections the Spirit’s inspiration of poets and musicians since biblical times.

The Structure of Hymns

The Hymn Society of America calls the hymn “a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshiper’s attitude toward God, or God’s purpose in human life.”

One common form that the lyric poem of the hymn often takes is that of the ballad stanza. The Common Meter tune (marked C.M. in hymnals) is the closest form to the ballad pattern. Each four-line stanza of Common Meter has a first and third line of eight syllables, and a second and fourth line of six syllables. Other frequently used patterns are the Short Meter (S.M.) and the Long Meter (L.M.) and their variants (with refrain, and doubled), and adaptations of the Common Meter. All these ancient tunes are intertwined with the same oral traditions that produced the ballads in early cultures. Approximately one-third of the hymns in a popular Protestant hymnal, Hymnbook for Christian Worship, are written to one of the tunes from the ballad tradition.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), considered the father of the church hymn, wrote his beautiful hymn: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” to the Common Meter tune called “St. Anne.” The first stanza illustrates the structure of this form:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Watts’ hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” is set to “Duke Street,” a Long Meter tune, illustrative of a longer common form:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His Kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Illustrative of another stanza form, a very unusual one, is John Henry Newman’s powerful hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light,” which is set to “Sandon” The first stanza appears in poetic form like this:

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!

The diversity of the stanza pattern in hymns is extraordinary and merits much study and attention. It is linked directly to the formation of poetry throughout the ages. David Erdman has observed that the hymn movement begun by Isaac Watts in the 18th Century was “nurtured — more than anyone had realized — by infusions from Herbert, Donne, and other metaphysical poets; to have been brought to immense power upon the modes and tunes of subsequent English and American poets.” William Blake and Emily Dickinson, whom he calls “the solitary Puritan singer,” are part of the poetic tradition of the hymn. And, in our own day, we find Robert Frost’s poetry occasionally in hymnals.

The Language of Hymns

The craft of the poet in creating ideas through figurative language that will touch the reader (or singer) at the deepest levels of one’s being is at the heart of hymn-writing. The task of the hymn-writer is made more difficult because frequent use of a hymn may indeed render it commonplace. The writer’s task is to create poetry true to the faith and subtle enough to permit reverberations of meanings which echo the vastness of the divine.

As people mature, they find new ways to speak of and to God in hymns. It is no easy task, and not all writers are able to accomplish it. There are poor hymns printed in every hymnal. Perhaps the best way of discussing the poet’s craft in the hymn is to share the glorious hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley (1708-1788). Wesley has been called “the world’s most versatile master of poetic device in hymnology.”

The tune to which today’s church sings this 1747 hymn was written in 1870 by John Zundel, organist at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Congregational Church, Brooklyn, NY. Zundel was such a fine performer, it is reported, that scores of people would come to hear his pre-service concerts each Sunday. He wrote the tune “Beecher” and named it in honor of the beloved Brooklyn pastor.

Eric Routley, the brilliant critic and teacher whose death in 1980 was a great loss to those who study the hymn, has called “Love Divine” a “biblical mosaic.” There are at least 18 biblical allusions imbedded in the 32 lines of the hymn. Through the subtle use of words and phrases from Scripture, Routley says, Wesley “was capable of providing infinitely more than a singer could pick up at first hearing and thus made for the increase of discovery and understanding through repeated singings.”

The idea of the hymn is built upon a creative adaptation of St. John’s statement, “God is love.” The first stanza focuses on Jesus as the fulfillment of Love Divine. He is “pure, unbounded love.” Wesley infused the all-inclusiveness of his and his brother’s ministry and message in the word “all,” which links the title and first three stanzas to the final stanza, in which the personal pronouns “us” and “we” dominate the fulfillment of this prayer-hymn.

The second stanza extends the prayer begun in the first. It asks that “thy loving Spirit” be breathed — a fine metaphor of recreation — “into every troubled breast.” The end of this infusion is a state of forgiveness, freedom from sin, and “hearts at liberty.” The third stanza is a prayer for the presence of Love Divine to establish the writer and those who sing in a state of permanent and perpetual praise — a balance of awareness, gratitude, and honor — “glory in thy perfect love.” The final stanza is a wondrously culminating statement by the 18th Century poet regarding the possibility and the paradox of complete fulfillment of divinely ordained love. Such fulfillment will be in “thy new creation,” “pure and spotless,” and restored perfectly in Love Divine itself. Ironically, when mortals finally see “thy great salvation,” they will be “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” What a marvelous and wise conclusion about the human ability to cope with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling!”

We could share similar thoughts on other great poems of the faith. There is majestic meaning in “Lord Jesus, Think on Me,” “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten” (the full text is a must), “Now Thank We All Our God” (what a moving story behind this hymn), “God of Grace and God of Glory,” “O God of Earth and Altar,” “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” and dozens more.

The important thing is that every worshipper has his or her own text — the hymnal sung from every day of worship. That book can become the source of a rich and profound expansion of one’s intellectual and spiritual horizons, once one becomes engaged deeply in the meaning of the faith as expressed by the artists who have provided the legacy of poetry which is the hymn.

Adapted from an article in Disciple, Nov. 1985.

Title page of Musica Reservata,

Title page of Musica Reservata, Nuremburg, 1552, one of four-part books for choral settings of the Latin psalms. From the collection of the Newberry Library, through whose courtesy it is used.

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