Devotions; George Hickes, the non-juror, wrote one of his numerous recommendatory prefaces to S. Hopton’s edition; and the Wesleys, in their earliest hymn-book, adopted hymns from them, with little alteration. These writers were followed by John Mason in 1683, and Thomas Shepherd in 1692,—the former, a country clergyman, much esteemed by Baxter and other Nonconformists; the latter himself a Nonconformist, who finally emigrated to America. Between these two men there was a close alliance, Shepherd’s Penitential Cries being published as an addition to the Spiritual Songs of Mason. Their hymns came into early use in several Nonconformist congregations; but, with the exception of one by Mason (“There is a stream which issues forth”), they are not suitable for public singing. In those of Mason there is often a very fine vein of poetry; and later authors have, by extracts or centoes from different parts of his works (where they were not disfigured by his general quaintness), constructed several hymns of more than average excellence.
Three other eminent names of the 17th century remain to be mentioned, John Dryden, Bishop Ken and Bishop Simon Patrick; with which may be associated that of Addison, though he wrote in the 18th century.
Dryden’s translation of “Veni Creator” a cold and laboured
performance, is to be met with in many hymn-books. Abridgments
of Ken’s morning and evening hymns are in all.
These, with the midnight hymn, which is not inferior
to them, first appeared In 1697, appended to the third
edition of the author’s Manual of Prayers for Winchester Scholars.
Between these and a large number of other hymns (on the
attributes of God, and for the festivals of the church) published
by Bishop Ken after 1703 the contrast is remarkable. The
universal acceptance of the morning and evening hymns is due
to their transparent simplicity, warm but not overstrained
devotion, and extremely popular style. Those afterwards
published have no such qualities. They are mystical, florid, stiff,
Addison. didactic and seldom poetical, and deserve the neglect into which they have fallen. Bishop Patrick’s hymns were chiefly translations from the Latin, most of them from Prudentius. The best is a version of “Alleluia dulce carmen.” Of the five attributed to Addison, not more than three are adapted to public singing; one (“The spacious firmament on high”) is a very perfect and finished composition, taking rank among the best hymns in the English language.
From the preface to Simon Browne’s hymns, published in 1720, we learn that down to the time of Dr Watts the only hymns known to be “in common use, either in private families or in Christian assemblies,” were those of Barton, Mason and Shepherd, together with “an attempt to turn some of George Herbert’s poems into common metre,” and a few sacramental hymns by authors now forgotten, named Joseph Boyse (1660–1728) and Joseph Stennett. Of the 1410 authors of original British hymns enumerated in Daniel Sedgwick’s catalogue, published in 1863, 1213 are of later date than 1707; and, if any correct enumeration could be made of the total number of hymns of all kinds published in Great Britain before and after that date, the proportion subsequent to 1707 would be very much larger.
The English Independents, as represented by Dr Isaac Watts, have a just claim to be considered the real founders of modern English hymnody. Watts was the first to understand the nature of the want, and, by the publication of his Hymns in 1707–1709, and Psalms (not translations, but hymns founded on psalms) in 1709, he led the way in providing for it. His immediate followers were Simon Browne and Philip Doddridge. Later in the 18th century, Joseph Hart, Thomas Gibbons, Miss Anne Steele, Samuel Medley, Samuel Stennett, John Ryland, Benjamin Beddome and Joseph Swain succeeded to them.
Among these writers, most of whom produced some hymns of merit, and several are extremely voluminous, Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge are pre-eminent. It has been the fashion with some to disparage Watts, as if he had never risen above the level of his Hymns for Little Children. No Watts. doubt his taste is often faulty, and his style very unequal, but, looking to the good, and disregarding the large quantity of inferior matter, it is probable that more hymns which approach to a very high standard of excellence, and are at the same time suitable for congregational use, may be found in his works than in those of any other English writer. Such are “When I survey the wondrous cross,” “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun” (and also another adaptation of the same 72nd Psalm), “Before Jehovah’s awful throne” (first line of which, however, is not his, but Wesley’s), “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” “My soul, repeat His praise,” “Why do we mourn departing friends,” “There is a land of pure delight,” “Our God, our help in ages past,” “Up to the hills I lift mine eyes,” and many more. It is true that in some of these cases dross is found in the original poems mixed with gold; but the process of separation, by selection without change, is not difficult. As long as pure nervous English, unaffected fervour, strong simplicity and liquid yet manly sweetness are admitted to be characteristics of a good hymn, works such as these must command admiration.
Doddridge is, generally, much more laboured and artificial; but his place also as a hymn-writer ought to be determined, not by his failures, but by his successes, of which the number is not inconsiderable. In his better works he is distinguished by a graceful and pointed, sometimes even Doddridge. a noble style. His “Hark, the glad sound, the Saviour comes” (which is, indeed, his masterpiece), is as sweet, vigorous and perfect a composition as can anywhere be found. Two other hymns, “How gentle God’s commands,” and that which, in a form slightly varied, became the “O God of Bethel, by whose hand,” of the Scottish “Paraphrases,” well represent his softer manner.
Of the other followers in the school of Watts, Miss Anne Steele (1717–1778) is the most popular and perhaps the best. Her hymn beginning “Far from these narrow scenes of night” deserves high praise, even by the side of other good performances on the same subject.
The influence of Watts was felt in Scotland, and among the first whom it reached there was Ralph Erskine. This seems to have been after the publication of Erskine’s Gospel Sonnets, which appeared in 1732, five years before he joined his brother Ebenezer in the Secession Church. The Gospel Sonnets became, as some have said, a “people’s classic”; but there is in them very little which belongs to the category of hymnody. More than nineteen-twentieths of this very curious book are occupied with what are, in fact, theological treatises and catechisms, mystical meditations on Christ as a bridegroom or husband, and spiritual enigmas, paradoxes, and antithetical conceits, versified, it is true, but of a quality of which such lines as—
|“Faith’s certain by fiducial arts,|
Sense by its evidential facts,”
may be taken as a sample. The grains of poetry scattered through this large mass of Calvinistic divinity are very few; yet in one short passage of seven stanzas (“O send me down a draught of love”), the fire burns with a brightness so remarkable as to justify a strong feeling of regret that the gift which this writer evidently had in him was not more often cultivated.
Another passage, not so well sustained, but of considerable
- The authorship of this and of one other, “When all thy mercies, O my God,” has been made a subject of controversy,—being claimed for Andrew Marvell (who died in 1678), in the preface to Captain E. Thompson’s edition (1776) of Marvell’s Works. But this claim does not appear to be substantiated. The editor did not give his readers the means of judging as to the real age, character or value of a manuscript to which he referred; he did not say that these portions of it were in Marvell’s handwriting; he did not even himself include them among Marvell’s poems, as published in the body of his edition; and he advanced a like claim on like grounds to two other poems, in very different styles, which had been published as their own by Tickell and Mallet. It is certain that all the five hymns were first made public in 1712, in papers contributed by Addison to the Spectator (Nos. 441, 453, 465, 489, 513), in which they were introduced in a way which might have been expected if they were by the hand which wrote those papers, but which would have been improbable, and unworthy of Addison, if they were unpublished works of a writer of so much genius, and such note in his day, as Marvell. They are all printed as Addison’s in Dr Johnson’s British Poets.