Wonder in hymns

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.

D H Lawrence’s Congregational Chapel at Eastwood

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.’

Lawrence’s words are a gentle challenge to those who edit hymn books and those who choose hymns for worship.

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

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About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester, UK. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community rejoicing in our Anglo Catholic tradition, where people of many differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2364267899/
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2 Responses to Wonder in hymns

  1. nosnikrapzil says:

    Two hymns really stand out, because of their imagery.
    To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise
    in hymns of adoration,
    to thee bring sacrifice of praise
    with shouts of exultation.
    Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,
    the hills with joy are ringing,
    the valleys stand so thick with corn
    that even they are singing.

    The idea of robes of gold, the hills ringing with joy, and the valley standing thick with and are singing just seemed so beautiful to me as a child.

    And then

    t came upon the midnight clear
    That glorious song of old
    From Angels playing near the earth
    To touch their harps of gold

    I loved the image of those angels bending near the earth, and the gold harps.

    And another one has come to me:

    God is working his purpose out
    as year succeeds to year:
    God is working his purpose out,
    and the time is drawing near;
    nearer and nearer draws the time,
    the time that shall surely be,
    when the earth shall be filled
    with the glory of God
    as the waters cover the sea.

    Again, the earth being filled with the Glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.

    Aside from the imagery they share, I also remember them rarely being sung in the churches I have been a member of. I used to sit in boring bits of high school assembly looking through the hymn book, which is where I found God is working his purpose out; The only time I remember actually singing it was my aunts funeral 9 years ago, although I had heard recorded versions. I was rather glad she had chosen that one.

  2. Judy Ford says:

    The two hymns that stand out for me specifically from my childhood are “Glad that I live am I” and “May I rise, may I rise at the break of the day with the song of the brave in my heart.” both of which we sang frequently during the two years that I attended the Methodist Primary School in Canterbury. The only hymn book that I’ve ever found them in is “The School Hymn Book of the Methodist Church”. They both have vivid imagery and, like the hymns that Lawrence cites, are not heavy on theology. In fact, the first is not specifically Christian or even theist:
    Glad that I live am I that the sky is blue;
    Glad for the Country lane and the fall of dew.
    After the sun the rain, after the rain the sun;
    This is the way of life, till the work be done.
    All that we need to do, be we low or high,
    Is to see that we grow nearer the sky.
    Lizette woodworth Reese

    The second is in the “Adventure” section of the hymn book – another feature that distinguishes this book from any other I know. It depicts us as sailors riding the waves manning of our own boats but following in the wake of our Captain who has taken the route before us. It’s too long to write out in full here and I haven’t managed to find any internet source. The author is Doris M gill, who also wrote “Come let us remember the joys of the town” another hymn that I remember from childhood, but this time from my first (secular) Primary school.

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