Nothing is more difficult than to determine what a child takes in, and does not take in, of its environment and its teaching. This fact is brought home to me by the hymns which I learned as a child, and never forget. They mean to me almost more than the finest poetry, and they have for me a more permanent value, somehow or other.
With these words the poet and author D H Lawrence began an article Hymns in a man’s life published in the London Evening News in 1928. Lawrence goes on to describe the hymns which inspired him at his childhood Congregational chapel in the mining community of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. Lawrence is not talking about hymns written for children, but rather about the wonder and mystery of some of the words and imagery of hymns he encountered. He is not at all, he writes, concerned with dogma or salvation, in which he had little interest. His focus is wonder. The hymns of childhood, Lawrence comments ‘live and glisten in the depth’s of consciousness in undimmed wonder, because they have not been subjected to any criticism or analysis.’
Recently at vespers at St Chrysostom’s we sang John Keble’s lovely evening hymn ‘Sun of my soul! Thou Saviour dear, It is not night if Thou be near – ‘ Lawrence also was impressed by this hymn he writes ‘That was the last hymn at the board school. It did not mean any Christian dogma or any salvation. Just the words, ‘Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear’ penetrated me with wonder and the mystery of twilight.’
He challenges the ‘ghastly sentimentalism’ of some hymns. He encourages us to favour hymns that engender the ‘magic’ and ‘wonder’ which he found in several of his childhood hymns. A favourite was ‘O worship the Lord, in the beauty of holiness.’ He writes ‘I don’t know what the ‘beauty of holiness’ is exactly. It easily becomes cant, or nonsense. But if you don’t think about it – and why should you? – it has a magic. The same with the whole verse. It is rather bad, really, ‘gold of obedience’ and ‘incense of lowliness.’ But in me, to the music, it still produces a sense of splendour.’
- Which hymn or hymns from childhood have brought wonder, mystery or splendour to you?
The whole article by D H Lawrence can be read here (pdf): D H Lawrence on Hymns