« ElőzőTovább »
Not now. We once had hearts like yours
Repeaters of the perfect round,
Still, bell-like, stricken into sound
The order'd impulse of their ways;
And by the placid-moving days :
The frank sweet tongue has ceased to move;
That homely household voice of love.
And well, that tongue has ceased to sway-
The place of one bright yesterday.
Toward that far land of make-believe-
ARTHUR J. MUNBY.
ENGLISH SACRED POETRY
The number at which the editions of
i The Christian Year, by John Keble. 65th
of Protestant England had had its bards.
Anglican Church-poet, such as his affectionate admirers recognise in the author of the “Christian Year."
But we must remember, on the other hand, that, before the publication of “Keble,” modern High-Churchism, hight Anglicanism by its friends, Tractarianism by its foes—was not an established phase of human thought. The High-Churchism of the beginning of the present century was a different thing from what we are usually apt to associate with that term. It was an orthodox, self-satisfied, withal a somewhat prosaic persuasion. Its traditional sympathies with Jacobites and Nonjurors did not go the length of causing serious disaffection to the things that be. The alliance of Church and State — Church represented by prelates like Horsley and Lowth, State represented by a king like George the Third—was a first principle of its creed. Its congregational worship affected no revolutionary Rubricism ; for congregational singing, Tate and Brady's version of the Psalms, once set forth by authority, was sufficient. Hymns and spiritual songs were perhaps not very much in vogue, either for Church or closet, with those who piqued themselves on being especially “high and dry ;” but unsophisticated piety, of whatever persuasion, might and did find aliment in the strains of Cowper, or of Addison, or of Watts, or of other pious versifiers of more or less divergency from ecclesiastical requirements.
And here, preparatory to dealings with some elements in the formation of Keble's style, let us throw a glance over the history and principal features of English devotional poetry in the last and present century, and the influences which have modified the public taste, from time to time, in this department of our literature.
Addison's hymns were written at a time when certainly there was very little sensibility to sacred poetry apparent either in the higher or lower classes of society. The Puritanism, which in its heroic age had produced the sublime conceptions of Milton, had given place to a dull, disputatious Dissent. The
away in the not unimpressive tones of Bishop Ken. The rising school of poetic composition was about to exhibit, in the essays of its greatest genius, Pope, a type of the umimpassioned philosophy which was its inspiration. Among the “good society” of that period, the “infidel" Bolingbroke, the "corrupt” Harley, and the "profligate Steele," were representatives of the fashionable principles too commonly afloat. It was a time, assuredly, when devotional tendencies, where they existed, were not brought prominently forward. A man of refinement had no inducement in the sympathy of his fellows, to employ his talents in recommending religious subjects ; especially a man who as a statesman, philosopher, and wit, had no professional prepossession for such subjects. Yet, from the natural impulses of a pious heart, Addison produced a few simple effusions of sacred verse, which have always retained a place in the affections of his countrymen. There is no devotional zeal, no fervid spiritualism in these hymns; they are the utterance of a calm, but genial spirit, reposing in sure trust on the Providence of God, and rejoicing in His mercies. Nor were they the casual flights of a soul ordinarily absorbed in the pursuits of ambition or of pleasure. Like the beautiful meditations which infuse an under-current of religion through the pages of the Spectator, they arose from the habitual, though to the mere outward observer, imperceptible direction of his thoughts. For by the meditations of his inmost soul in life, not less than by his pious hope in death, to which he himself ventured the appeal, Addison gave evidence far better than that of many a formal treatise, of the faith which is the good man's one sustaining guide through a busy and an evil world.
But, if the fashionable world of Addison's time was disinclined for the cultivation of poetry as connected with religious subjects, if it afforded little attraction to the steady-going adherents of the Establishment; with the straiter sects addicted to Calvinist Nonconformity there was a positive ob
Puritan prejudices inveighed against by “If the trifling, incredible tales that the republican poet, George Wither. “ furnish out a tragedy are so armed by They were still disposed to
“ wit and fancy as to become sovereign “ Misjudge of poetry, as if the same
“ of rational powers, to triumph over all Did worthily deserve reproach or
“ the affections, and manage our smiles
“ and our tears at pleasure, how wonblame;"
“ drous a conquest might be obtained and, indeed, if the carnal learning and the “over a wild world, and reduce it at ornaments of imagination displayed in « least to sobriety, if the same happy Milton's verse had been too much for “talent were employed in dressing the the rigid temper of his contemporaries, “scenes of religion in their proper it was scarcely to be wondered at, that " figures of majesty, sweetness, and the succeeding generation should have "terror!” These seem familiar commonheld in increased suspicion an art that places now; but in Watts's time the had been perverted to licentious uses by project was a daring one ; and it is a such writers as Dryden, Rochester, and little remarkable that it should first Etherege.
have been entertained, not by the But, as the excitement of great deeds Church party, which might be supposed had ceased to elevate the Puritanic to hold more liberal views regarding the cause, some there were who felt that embellishment of Divine worship, and the ore of poetic fancy might be worked which assuredly need have attached no to advantage in its behalf. It was the prescriptive reverence to the but regrave sectarian, Dr. Isaac Watts, who cently-authorized version of the Psalms first, after the Restoration, ventured on by Tate and Brady, but by the austere system to invade the realm of Poetry, Puritanic party, whose denunciation of and conquer a province of it expressly ornament, both in architecture and in for religious uses. He made his decla- vestments, was one of their distinctive ration of war in the following terms :- shibboleths.
“ The profanation and debasement of Watts's hymns are some of the best "so Divine an art has tempted some of their class and period, for fervour “ weaker Christians to imagine that and freedom from sectarian narrowness. “ poetry and vice are naturally akin; But his contemporary fame was mostly cor, at least, that verse is fit only to built on his “Horæ Lyricæ,” in which “ recommend trifles, and entertain our he aims at a more reflective and elaborate “ looser hours, but it is too light and style. As devotional pieces, adapted for “ trivial a method to treat anything that private meditation, the first book of the “ is serious and sacred. They submit, « Horæ Lyricæ" might stand a curious “ indeed, to use it in Divine psalmody, comparison with the “ Christian Year." “ but they love the driest translation of We might mark the characteristic differ“ the psalm best. They will venture to ence, not merely between the theological “ sing a dull hymn or two at church, in standing points of Keble and of Watts, “ tunes of equal dulness, but still they but between the styles of poetical ex“ persuade themselves and their chil- pression on sacred subjects which were “ dren that the beauties of poetry are relished by the educated contemporaries “ vain and dangerous. All that arises of the one and of the other. For Watts “ a degree above Mr. Sternhold is too did not address himself to vulgar or "airy for worship, and hardly escapes illiterate readers. His style was culti“ the sentence of 'unclean and abomi. vated by classical learning, and by an “ nable'... Shall the French poet acquaintance with French composition. “ affright us by saying,
In fact, it is the lingering imitation of “ De la foi d'un Chrétien les mys- French models that we detect in the * tères terribles
stilted diction common to most fine “ D'ornements égayés ne sont point writers of that age ; and which, when
others, resulted in a sort of compound of the sentiment of Le Grand Cyrus and that of Solomon's Song. How much unction was felt in George I.'s days, for the fervid style of those pieces on Divine Love in the “Horæ Lyricæ,” which now shock our taste, is testified by the numerous commendatory verses, couched in similar warmth of language, which were appended to the later editions. Thus writes Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe:
“No gay Alexis in the grove
Shall be my future theme :
And sing a purer flame.
And sacred transports feel, While, Watts, to thy celestial strain,
Surprised, I listen still." Thus was accomplished the somewhat curious alliance of Nonconformity with a propensity for rhyme. The Dissenters, Presbyterian and Independent, notwith standing their proverbial stiffness and dislike of ornament in religious worship, did, nevertheless, take a march in the flowery paths of metre, from which phlegmatic Churchmen held aloof. The early days of the Hanoverian dynasty are noted for a lethargy and poverty in all matters of taste and imagination; yet a constant succession of Calvinist ministers continued to turn into verse the rigid doctrines of their creed, and the “experiences” of the spiritual life; and, notwithstanding the monotony which results from the limited range of subjects on which they allowed them. selves to expatiate, will sometimes be found to have touched a chord of true feeling, to which the heart of any Christian might respond. Doddridge, with some of the fashionable affectation of his class, some of the amatory exaggeration to which we have alluded, was tender and earnest. It is a curious trait of the liberalism, or latitudinarianism, as some would say, of the days in which his lot was cast, that some of his hymns, Dissenter as he was, were
where they still retain their place. But Doddridge lived on terms of friend. ship and correspondence with several divines, and even prelates, of the Church of England, and was a favourite spiritual counsellor of some ladies of rank. Perhaps his accommodating temper may have a little compromised, at times, the strictness of his theology.
Augustus Toplady, Vicar of Broad Hembury, in Devonshire, was a man of a different stamp. Whimsical, hardheaded, and extreme in his opinions, he hated an Arminian with right good will. Yet some of his hymns are favourites even to this day with persons of directly opposite views to those he entertained. Dr. Pusey, who would have fought à l'outrance with Toplady on almost any point of dogmatic theology, has recorded his fervid admiration of the hymn beginning, “ Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee,” &c. which finds its place in almost every collection, for Church or conventicle.
The cultivation of hymns by the Wesleyan Methodists was undertaken in a yet more systematic and purposelike manner than among the old Calvinists. Hymns were regarded by John Wesley, and his brother, much as they were by the author of a greater religious “revival," Martin Luther, as an essential part of his liturgical apparatus. Like Luther's, his spiritual songs, and those of his brother, were the outbursts of a naturally demonstrative nature, and of a temperament inclined to music and verse. They were appeals sent straight to the consciences and feelings of his hearers. They were for the most part intense and overwrought in tone, compared with those of the German Reformer ; but, like them, they have retained a hold over the affections of a religious party, to which no other sacred verse among us can furnish any parallel. The sect of the Wesleyan Methodists, indeed, consists, and has always consisted, mostly of the “lower orders.” The very circumstance that the Methodist hymns were
primarily intended, would deter them is often found to sway sensitive genius. from gaining 'wide acceptance with the The pressure was too strong. The old educated classes. For it is unquestion- wine was poured into the new bottles, able that in England our higher and and, finally, the bottles brake; but, lower ranks have difficulty in meeting on meanwhile, the flavour was enriched and any common ground of sentiment. Any mellowed. The more the composition approximation of this sort among us is of the vessel told upon the quality of commonly artificial and temporary. This the liquid, the more the former crudeis partly owing to the reserve of the ness disappeared. Even in Cowper's one class, partly to the want of any “Olney Hymns," which were written at poetical refinement in the other. In Newton's prescription, we discern the Germany, on the other hand, and even poetic grace and sweetness of his fancy in the sister kingdom, north of the often controlling the rigid doctrinalism Tweed, the noble and the peasant are of his theory. His lines on the “Wisvery commonly moved by the same dom” of Proverbs, ch. viii. have much spell of poetical association, be it in freedom and force of diction. Those on matters of history or of religion. Wit- “Retirement,” “Far from the world, O ness in Germany the Kirchenlied, to Lord, I flee,” are an unaffected transcript which princes and divines, titled ladies, of his own pensive temperament. But, artisans, jurists, physicians, all professions in general, these hymns are too much and all ranks, have contributed, till the squared to a pattern, in order to suit the body of sacred song has reached the pro- requirements of his Evangelical guides. portions of a great national monument. It is not in his “Olney Hymns” that we Witness in Scotland the strong attach are to seek for his true poetry. It was ment felt by the people to the Psalms not by them that he became the favourite and Paraphrases of the Kirk, and the bard of the religious world. Cowper way in which these mingle with their possessed, if not a very powerful, at every-day contemplations. Of historical least a pure and an original genius. No and traditional associations it is not our writing hymns “to order” for Newton. place here to speak ; but the difference and his fellow apostles, could satisfy the of character between ourselves and our instincts of his heart. His true genius is northern neighbours is, perhaps, even to be found in the discursive verse which more strikingly displayed in this re- was the outpouring of his unfettered spect.
thoughts, the solace of his painful existMeanwhile the stream of Calvinistence; for, in addition to the religious verse flowed on through John Newton affections which made him yearn to and Cowper. Here it encountered a God as a Father, even when his dark mind of true genius ; and, as genius is delusions made him conceive of Him as never satisfied with passing on a mere an angry and offended Father, Cowper transcript of former fashions, but must possessed also a poet's love of nature; needs interpret for itself, in its own way, in other words, the Almighty, in His the features of nature, and of human works of creation, was as much an object life around it, so with Cowper a modi- of attraction to his sensitive mind, as in fication of character was introduced into His work of redemption; and the gloom our sacred poetry, which in great mea- which his dogmatic views of religion, sure it still retains.
unrelieved, would have rendered as deep John Newton, of Olney, was one of in his poetry as in his life, was tempered those vigorous enthusiasts, uniting nar- in the former by the loving study of the rowness of spirit with a vast breadth of great Parent's manifestations. common sense, and a thoroughly genial Cowper was a thoroughly English poet; disposition, of which our evangelical and this, perhaps, was unconsciously one school has been very productive. He cause of his popularity at an era when swayed the gentle impressible mind of national sentiment, as well as evangelical