HYMNS OF OLD ENGLAND'S CHRISTIAN BIRTH-TIME.
"And the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord."
I lived at Lichfield," said a lady to a clerical friend, "I used, now and then, to attend the ordination service; and I learnt 0110 thing at least."
"What was that?"
"Why, that there are some hymns which, though they are known to be mere human compositions, are scarcely ever sung without touching the soul in a manner very lite that of inspired truth.."
"Pray, what impressed you with that thought?
"Well, I observed that there were always some among the candidates for ordination who seemed disposed to go through the service without seriousness, if not in a style approaching to levity, even during the time allowed for silent prayer; but that as soon as the hymn ' Veni Creator Spiritus' was begun, a solemn hush and reverent feeling appeared to rest on each and all."
"Which of the hymns do you refer to? There are two in the ordination service."
"The first. And now let me read it. And if I can read so as to give you the feeling with which it always impresses me, I think you will believe as I do, that the Holy Ghost honours the hymn by which He is honoured, and breathes a holy power into its gracious lines. Let me read."
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
Is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
The dulness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
With the abundance of Thy grace.
Keep far our foes, give peace at home:
Where Thou art guide no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
And Thee of both to be but one;
That through the ages all along,
This may be our endless song;
Praise to Thine eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The lady was right; and her clerical friend confessed to the feeling in which many, many have shared, a sense of the spiritual unction which attends this as well as several other hymns of like primitive simplicity and power. And he was reminded, he said, of Keble's Ordination Hymn, in which this feeling is so sweetly expressed. The hymn is founded on that passage in the rubric in the "Office for Ordering Priests," "After this the congregation shall be desired, secretly in their prayers to make their humble supplication to God for all these things; for the which prayers there shall be silence kept for a space. After which shall be sung or said by the bishop (the persons to be ordained priests all kneeling) 'Veni Creator
'Twas silence in Thy temple, Lord,
When slowly through the hallowed air,
The spreading cloud of incense soared,
Charged with the breath of Israel's prayer.
'Twas silence round Thy throne on high,
When the last wondrous seal unclos'd;
And in the portals of the sky
Thine armies awfully repos'd.
And this deep pause, that o'er us now
Is hovering—comes it not of Thee?
Is it not like a mother's Vow,
When with her darling on her knee,
She weighs and numbers o'er and o'er
Love's treasures hid in her fond breast;
To cull from that exhaustless store
The dearest blessing and the best?
And where shall mother's bosom find,
With all its deep love-learned skill,
A prayer so sweetly to her mind,
As, in this sacred hour and still,
Is wafted from the white-rob'd choir,
Ere yet the pure high-breathed lay,
"Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,"
Rise floating on its dove-like way?
And when it comes, so deep and clear
The strain, so soft the melting fall,
It seems not to the entranced ear
Less than Thine own heart-cheering call.
Spirit of Christ—Thine earnest given
That these our prayers are heard; and they
Who grasp, this hour, the sword of heaven
Shall feel Thee on their weary way.
The "Veni Creator Spiritus" was introduced into the ritual of the Western Church about the end of the eleventh century; and with beautiful consistency, as an utterance, probably, from the lips of one whose name marks an era in the history of church music; and it was gracefully retained in the service of the English Church as a contribution from the man to whom England owes her first lesson in Christianity. This was Gregory the Great, a man whose name is one of the landmarks of history, and whose character, in grand outline, will ever remain as the most distinguished honour of his generation. He was a man for his times. Shut up in Kome, with savage hordes at the gates, and pestilence, famine, and flood within; with heresy in the provinces, and the care of every department weighing heavily upon him at home, he never "bated jot of heart or hope," but met every demand in turn; always ready, always prompt, always decided, and generally successful. He was modest and simple in his dress, plain in his household, severe to himself, but ceaselessly kind to others. He was at once the domestic economist, the vigilant landowner, the municipal overseer. Now, he "is the watchful diplomatist; then the soldier, superintending his own commissariat, planning his own defences, and directing his troops. Now in the pulpit, passionately rousing his flock to spiritual life and action; in the cloisters, keeping his monks to their discipline; or in his closet, writing "morals " on the Book of Job, or keeping up a wide correspondence with kings and queens, ecclesiastics and scholars. Then, in the choir, reforming the church service, and giving that musical impulse to the Christian world which will be felt as long as the " Gregorian Chant" continues to charm a human soul. Indeed he was everything which his church and his times required. If to us he seems over-credulous, he was only conformed to the fashion of his day; and it is a remarkable fact that the same reproach, if reproach it be, has been cast upon almost every man who has been a leader of his generation. In his time the Teutonic tribes had cut out their "marks" in this island, and had fairly taken possession of the soil. They were as yet heathen, but they were the chosen instruments of heaven in renovating and reorganizing the western world, and in preparing Christendom for her benevolent mission
"to the farthest verge Of the green earth."
But who first ministered to them the truth which touched, and purified, and consecrated their minds and hearts to the nobler service of Him by whose providence they had so far been trained? It was Gregory the Great. Let no Protestant be alarmed; his religion is not in danger. Protestantism must never be blind to truth, nor do its interests ever require us to be unfair. The scattered remnants of the unfaithful British Church had proved themselves unable or unwilling to evangelize the rude Teutons, and the first Christian mission to these Teutons was from Gregory. The sight of some young Saxon slaves in the Roman markets probably touched his heart, and suggested the first thought of a mission to England. He would fain have entered on the mission himself, but he was too valuable a man for Koine to lose. When raised to the Papal chair, amidst all his labours and cares, his favourite scheme was not forgotten. His first purpose was to procure young natives from the slave market, and have them trained as evangelists to their countrymen. This process, however, was too slow for his impatient zeal. He fell back on his monks, selected a missionary baud of nearly forty, and in the year 596 sent them, with many exhortations and blessings, to the coast of Kent. England still reaps the fruit of his success, and, it may be, records her early sense of obligation to Gregory in her national legend of " St. George (or St. Gregory) and the Dragon." Paganism (the "Dragon") in England fell before the cross; and the ultimate result of Augustine's mission was the establishment of a Saxon Church, which, for many generations, exemplified the purity and power of the Christian faith. Like tlie primitive churches, it had its "psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs," some of them borrowed from the land to which it owed its spiritual birth, and others, in native Saxon rhythm, springing from the warm and simple hearts of English converts. A few precious fragments of native hymnology remain, and a translation from the Codex JSxoniemis may afford some notion of the simple heartiness and quaint music of a Saxon hymn "to the Holy Trinity."
Holy art Thou, holy,
Lord of archangels,
True Lord of triumph,
Ever Thou art holy,
Lord of lords.
Thy power for over lasteth
Earthly with men,
In every time
Thou art God of hosts,
For Thou hast filled
Earth and heavens—
Safeguard of warriors!
With Thy glory,
Patron of all beings!
Be to Thee in the highest
And on earth praise,
Bright with men.
Live Thou blessed,
Who, in the Lord's name,
With power comest,
In comfort to the humble;
To Thee in the heavens be,
Ever without end,
But the Saxon Church was not left to its own resources merely for supplies to its "service of song." Many a choral chant and many a grand old Latin hymn came floating across tho Guamiel from the churches of Italy and Gaul. England had its schools of church music, and diligently enriched its public devotion with the compositions of Continental hymnists. Venantius Fortunatus was in his prime during Gregory's early life. A monk, too, in his later days, he exemplified the possibility of harmonizing literary freedom and cheerful or even light-hearted contentment with monastic vows. He could enjoy many a quiet laugh in his correspondence with saintly ladies, and yet furnish them with grand hymns to grace their church processions. One of these immortal productions was composed for a special service, in which Gregory of Tours and the author's lady friend St. Radigund took a leading part. It would be sung as a kind of spiritual march, "a song of degrees," as they moved with devout steps towards the church which was to be consecrated. The strain is not quite so simple and unpretending as some hymns of an earlier time, but it has a solemn swell and a subduing pathos:—
The royal ensigns onward go;
The cross in mystic glory beams,
Where He who made us bears our woe,
Our curse removes, our soul redeems.
Where gushing life flows from His side,
To wash our hearts—a precious flood;
Where deeply once the spear was dy'd,
And mingling water came with blood.
Fulfill'd is David's song of old.
How David's Son and Lord is He
Who rules the nations, as foretold;
The God who triumphs from the tree.*
In royal purple richly drest,
0 cross of light! 0 tree of grace! Chosen was Thy triumphal breast,
For holy limbs, a resting-place!
* An allusion to Psalm xcvi. 10, which, in the Italic version, is rendered, "Tell it among the heathen that the Lord reigneth from the tree."
So widely Thy dear arms were spread.
The ransom of the world to bear—
To pay the price in sinners' stead,
And spoils from our fell spoiler tear.
From all thy boughs, O fragrant tree,
Sweetest of nectar sweets distil,
And praises richly bloom on thee,
And fruits of peace thy branches fill.
Hail, holy victim! Hail, O life!
Who death for sinners once endured;
Victorious from Thy passion's strife,
Thy death hath life for man procured'.
We can never think of England's Christian birth-time 'without thinking of one of her first and holiest Christian children—one whose memory is now honoured under the title of the "Venerable Bede." Nor can this name ever cease to be associated with Christian psalmody. Born, about the year 672, near the spot on which the good Benedict Biscop soon afterwards founded the Abbey of Wearmouth, he became a pupil under Biscop when seven years old, and remained a devout brother of the inonasten' of Wearmouth until death. His earlier years were spent in the study of the Scriptures, and in the practice of psalmody, which formed a prominent part in the daily services of the church. His taste for psalms and hymns and holy music was cultivated under the care of John the arch-chanter, who had accompanied Biscop from Rome. In his nineteenth year he was made deacon, and at thirty was ordained a priest. His life was spent in tranquil study, earnest prayer, and cho'erful praise. His disciple and friend Cuthbert, who witnessed his end, gives us the following' beautiful and touching story:—" He had been labouring under a severe attack of difficulty of breathing, . yet without pain, for nearly two weeks before the day of our Lord's resurrection; and in this state he continued, cheerr ful and rejoicing, and giving thanks to Almighty God, both day and night, even every hour, until ascension day. He daily instructed us his disciples, and spent the remainder of the day in the singing of psalms, and continued on also during the night in joy and thanksgiving, except when interrupted by a moderate sleep. On awaking, he returned to his accustomed occupation, and with outstretched hands ceased not to give thanks to God. He was in truth a blessed man. He chanted the passage from St. Paul, 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God;' and many other passages of Holy Writ, in which he admonished us to rise from the sleep of the soul by anticipating the last hour. And being skilled in our poetry, he thus spoke in the Saxon language of the awful departure of the soul from the body:—
Before the need-fare
No man becometh
Of thought more prudent
Than is needful to him
Before his departure
What, to his spirit,
Of good or evil
After his death-day
Will be adjudged.
He also sang anthems, as well for our consolation as his own, one of which was the following:—
O King of glory,
God of might,
Who didst ascend to-day,
In triumph above all heavens,
Leave us not orphans,
But send upon us
The promise of the Father,
The Spirit of truth.
And when he came to the words, 'Leave us not orphans,' he burst into tears, and wept much; and, after the space of an hour, he resumed the repetition of what he had begun. As we heard, we wept along with him; one while we read, another while we wept; and our reading was always mingled with tears. In such kind of joy as this we passed the days between Easter, and up to the day which I have mentioned; and he rejoiced exceedingly, and thanked God, who had thought him worthy of suffering.... In addition to the lessons we received from him, and the singing of psalms, he strove all this time to finish two very important works—the Gospel of St. John, which he was translating into Saxon for the use of the Church, and certain extracts from the boots of the Rotro of St. Isidore. 'Learn quickly,' he would say, 'for I know not how long I may abide, nor how soon He who created me may take me away.' One of us remained with him one day, and said, 'Dearly beloved master, one chapter is still wanting; and it appears to be painful to you that I should ask any further questions.' But he said, 'It does not trouble me; tako your pen, and be attentive, and write quickly.' At the ninth hour he expressed a wish to see all the presbyters, that he might admonish them, and distribute a few gifts among them. They all mourned or wept, chiefly because he told them that they should no longer see his face in the world; but they rejoiced when he said, 'It is time that I returned to Him who made me, who created me, and formed me out of nothing. I have had a long life upon the earth; the merciful Judge has also been pleased to ordain for me a happy life. The time of my departure is at hand, for I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ.' And with many such like remarks he passed the day until eventide; then the boy whom we have already mentioned said to him, 'Still one sentence, dear master, remains unwritten.' He replied, 'Write quickly!' After a little while the boy said, 'Now the sentence is finished.' He answered, 'You have spoken the truth; it is indeed finished. Eaise my head in your hands, for it pleases me much to recline opposite to that holy place of mine in which I used to pray, so that, while resting• there, I may call upon God my Father.' And being placed upon the pavement of his cell, he said, 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!' and as soon as he had named the name of the Holy Ghost, he breathe out his own spirit, and so departed to the kingdom oi heaven." Blessed man ! ho has followed
The Saviour's pathway to his home above.
And while we linger around the scene of his departure, we catch the music of that divine "Ascension hymn" of his, in which he used to express the longing of his soul in its upward gaze after the ascending Lord:—
A hymn of glory let us sing;
New hymns throughout the wond shall ring;
By a new way none ever trod,
Christ mounteth to the throne of God.
The apostles on the mountain stand—
The mystic mount in Holy Land;
They, with the Virgin Mother, see
Jesus ascend in majesty.
The angels say to the eleven,
"Why stand ye gazing into heaven?
This is the Saviour—this is He I
Jesus hath triumph'd gloriously!"
They said the Lord should come again,
As these beheld Him rising then,
Calm soaring through the radiant sky,
Mounting its dazzling summits high.
May our affections thither tend,
And thither constantly ascend,
When, seated on the Father's throne,
Thee, reigning in the heavens, we own!
Be Thou our present joy, O Lord,
Who wilt be ever our reward;
And as the countless ages flee,
May all our glory be in Thee!
In this hymn, as well as in the other fragments which have come to us from the venerable Bede, there is the holy familiarity with the historical parts of the New Testament, and the same simple and devout pleasure in them which distinguish most of the earlier hymns of the Christian Church. Bede, too, keeps up that fixed adoring gaze upon the divine objects of faith, and that deeply reverent yet jubilant feeling of devotion which give the songs of Christianity's first love the secret of their beauty and life. In him, also, there is sometimes that tender sympathy with infancy and youth which is so often associated with pure heavenliness of spirit in the truly primitive Christian Fathers. This feeling breathes sweetly in his hymn "for the Holy Innocents :"—
Raise the conquering martyr's song;
Song of the Victor Innocents;
Outcasts from th' unholy throng,
Number" d now with heaven's saints;
Those whose angels see God's face,
Pour unceasing shouts along;
While they ever hymn His grace,
liaise the conquering martyr's song!
By that cursed ruler slain;
By their loving Maker crowned;
Sorrowless with Him to reign,
Where beauty, light, and peace abound.
There He gives them mansions all;
They have changed their loss for gain;
In their heavenly Father's hall,
By that cursed ruler slain.
A wailing voice in Ramah rose,
From weeping mothers all forlorn;
Sad Rachel mourned her children's woes,
Her victim babes, for murder born.
Now their triumph is complete;
TJnconquered by tormenting foes;
Though once from homes, and fields, and street,
A wailing voice in Ramah rose.
Blest little flock, no longer fear
The lion that prey'd on your life,
For now your heav'nly Shepherd dear
Gives pastures never scath'd by strife:
On Sion's hill now dwelling safe,
The footprints of the Lamb are clear;
No tyrant there your souls will chafe,
Blest little flock, no longer fear.
The tear is wiped from every eye
By His, your tender Father's, hand;
No harm of death is ever nigh,
Where life breathes o'er the happy land.
Who sow in tears, in joy shall reap;
Their harvest-home is found on high;
The light of heav'n sees no one weep;
The tear is wiped from every eye.
A city blest through all the earth,
With martyrs' triumphs, martyrs' love;
Thy boast is in thy Saviour's birth,
Which gives thee greatness far above
All cities that would count thee small,
Or rival thee in pride or mirth;
Thy holy claim surpasses all,
O city blest through all the earth!
That venerable hymnist, who thus supplied the choir with appropriate means of celebrating the day of "Holy Innocents," quotes from other hymnists Lhere and there— hymnists whose names, it may be, we shall never know in this world, but whose hymns seem to have been familiar to Bede, and were probably used in the English Church in that its Christian birth-time. Of these, one is a fine old judgment hymn, which, as Dr. Neale observes, manifestly contains the germ of the Dies Ira, to which, however inferior in lyric fervour and effect, it scarcely yields in devotion and simple realization of its subject:—
That great day of wrath is coming,
Day of doom and final woe;
Like a midnight robber breaking
On the sons of men below;
When the world's proud life is over,
All her pomp of ages pass'd,
And her children stand in anguish,
That the end is come at last;
And the blast of that loud trumpet,
Through earth's quarters pealing dread,
Louder and yet louder waxing,
Calls together quick and dead;
And the glorious King appearing
On His throne so high and white,
And His holy bands of angels
Wait within His circling light;
And the sun, like sackcloth darkling,
And the moon a bloody red,
And the stars from heaven falling,
As untimely figs are shed;
Tempests, fires, and desolation
'Fore the Judge's footsteps go;
Earth and sea, all life's abysses,
Shall his final sentence know.
Wherefore man, while judgment lingers,
Fly the dragon's charm of sin;
And with bread supply the needy,
If thou would'st thy heaven win;
Gird thy loins, be up and ready,
Heart all pure, and conscience right;
Let the Bridegroom, when He cometh,
Find thy lamp-flame clear and bright.
Who does not wish to realize oneness with those who used to sing such hymns? In many respects mere translations are defective, but in this case they may be so far in the spirit and manner of the originals as to show us that the early English Christians really learnt to ''admonish one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs."
England, however, may be said to have had a second Christian birth-time, when she was saved from the darkness and corruption which for many centuries, in her later history, had been enclosing and oppressing her Christian life, when in all her sanctuaries she might have sung one of her own bishop's hymns :—
Hence in Thy truth Thy Church delights,
From all corruptions freed;
Unblemish'd worship, spotless rites,
And unadulterate creed:
Hence Thy pure words her children lead
To speak the united prayer,
Their Saviour's name alone to plead,
His cup of blessing share.
O God, whose love, our country's guides,
Once nerved with courage strong,
And still o'er us, their sons, presides,
Accept our grateful song.
And oh, the truth, revived among
Our sires from times of old,
Do Thou to future times prolong,
And grant our sons to hold!
The process of England's Christian renewal was somewhat slow; beginning amidst the changes under Henry VIII., and unfolding its first definite results as the claims of the Stuart dynasty yielded to the rights of conscience and of law. The seventeenth century may be called the age of England's renovation, and the period was marked by a quickening in every department of public life. Every sphere of science, literature, arts, and religion was adorned with the most illustrious talent, learning and genius. Nor was the age wanting in poets whose hallowed powers were given to Him whose grace had inspired the new Christian life. Psalms and hymns broke forth then, as well as in the earlier times of deliverance. The hymns were not perhaps so simple, so childlike; their manner and style had more of the artificial; and, like the times which gave them birth, they had too many elaborated conceits, and quaint turns of thought and expression; still, they had their distinctive beauty, and were quite equal in spirituality, and cheerfulness, and warmth. Among other hymnists of the age there was Francis Quarles. Who can forget him? He was "the darling of our plebeian judgments," as Milton's nephew, Phillips, called him, with a kind of prophetic insight into the unfailing popularity of "Quarles' Divine Emblems," in tie cottage homes of his country. Born in Essex in 1592, Quarles was by and by known among the Cambridge scholars, then respected as a student in Lincoln's Inn; and then, by turns, he acted as cupbearer to a royal hymnist, Elizabeth of Bohemia, as secretary to Archbishop Usher, and as chronologer to the City of London. Amidst all the activities of his busy and public life his poetic genius was kept in full play; ever and anon giving to the world either a "Job Militant," or a "Feast of Worms," or "Sion's Elegies," or the fruits of "the Morning Muse." The good man, however, like many of his fellows, suffered so much from the strife of parties that he fell a victim to sorrow at the age of fifty-two. His "Emblems" have enriched the thoughts of many a peasant; but peasant and prince alike may enjoy his noble hymn on "Delight in God Only."
I love (and have some cause to love) the earth:
She is my Maker's creature; therefore good:
She is my mother, for she gave, me birth;
She is my tender nurse—she gives me food;
But what's a creature, Lord, compared with Thee?
Or what's my mother, or my nurse to me?
I love the air: her daily sweets refresh
My drooping soul, and to new sweets invite me;
Her shrill-mouth'd quire sustains me with their flesh,
And with their polyphonian notes delight me;
But what's the air, or all the sweets that she
Can bless my soul withal, compared to Thee?
I love the sea: she is my fellow creature,
My careful purveyor; she provides me store;
She walls me round; she makes my diet greater;
She wafts my treasure from a foreign shore:
But, Lord of oceans, when compared with Thee,
What is the ocean, or her wealth to me?
To heaven's high city I direct my journey,
Whose spangled suburbs entertain my eye,
Mine eye, by contemplations great attorney,
Transcends the crystal pavement of the sky:
But what is heaven, great God, compared to Thee?
Without Thy presence heaven's no heaven to me.
Without Thy presence earth gives no refection;
Without Thy presence sea affords no treasure;
Without Thy presence air "s a rank infection;
Without Thy presence heaven itself no pleasure;
If not possess'd, if not enjoy'd in Thee,
What's earth, or sea, or air, or heaven to me?
The highest honours that the world can boast,
Are subjects far too low for my desire;
The brightest beams of glory are (at most)
But dying sparkles of Thy living fire:
The loudest flames that earth can kindle, be
But mighty glow-worms, if compared to Thee.
Without Thy presence wealth is bags of cares;
Wisdom but folly; joy disquiet sadness:
Friendship is treason, and delights are snares;
Pleasures but pain, and mirth but pleasing madness; Without Thee, Lord, things be not what they be, Nor have they being when compared with Thee.
In having all things, and not Thee, what have I?
Not having Thee, what have my labours got?
Let me enjoy but Thee, what further crave I?
And having Thee alone, what have I not?
I wish nor sea nor land; nor would I be,
Possess'd of heaven, heaven unpossess'd of Thee.