SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER III THE POETS

The Hymns Of Methodism In Their Literary Relations by Charles H. Kelly


ws kai tines twn kaq umas poihtwn eirhkasi ...

There are occasional reminiscences of the Latin poets in the hymns, naturally, for the Wesleys were good classical scholars. Charles Wesley once defended himself against the abuse of that virago, his brother's wife, by reciting Virgil at the top of his voice. Judging by their quotations, Virgil was his favorite Latin poet, as Horace was his brother John's.


The most distinct allusion to Virgil that we have traced is in a hymn which paraphrases a famous passage in the sixth book of the Aeneid (724-729):

Principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentis

Lucentemque globum Lunae Titaniaque astra

Spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus

Mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.

Inde hominum pecudumque genus vitaeque volantum

Et quae marmoreo fert monstra sub aequore pontus.

It is evident that this has colored the thought of some of the following lines:

That all-informing breath Thou art

Who dost continued life impart,

And bid'st the world persist to be

Garnished by Thee yon azure sky

And all those beauteous orbs on high

Depend in golden chains from Thee.

Thou art the Uuiversal Soul,

The plastic power that fills the whole,

And governs earth, air, sea, and sky;

The creatures all Thy breath receive,

And who by Thy inspiring live,

Without Thy inspiration die.

Spirit immense, eternal Mind,

That on the souls of lost mankind

Dost with benignest influence move,

Pleased to restore the ruined race,

And new-create a world of grace

In all the image of Thy love!


The most striking allusion to Horace is in the hymn, Stand the omnipotent decree!' -- which, while a paraphrase of a passage in Young's Night Thoughts, is yet influenced by the ode, Justum et tenacem propositi virum' --

Si fractus illabitur orbis,

Inpavidum ferient ruinae. (iii.3.)

Let this earth dissolve and blend

In death the wicked and the just,

Let those ponderous orbs descend

And grind us into dust.

Rests secure the righteous man!

The English poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have influenced the hymns very considerably, especially Milton, George Herbert, Dryden, Prior, and Young.


The influence of Milton is visible everywhere in the hymns. The great Puritan poet is the source of many of their striking phrases, and his influence upon the poetic style of the Wesleys is greater, perhaps, than that of any other writer. John Wesley apparently knew a great part of Paradise Lost by heart. At Kingswood, in 1750, he selected passages of Milton for the eldest children to transcribe and repeat weekly.' Later -- in 1763 -- he published An Extract from Milton's Paradise Lost, and in the Preface declared that Of all the poems which have hitherto appeared in the world, in whatever age or nation, the preference has generally been given by impartial judges to Milton's Paradise Lost.'

Samson Agonistos'

One or two passages in which the hymns reflect the language of the great poet are well known. Thus:

O dark, dark, dark, I still must say

Amid the blaze of gospel day,

is a reminiscence of the wonderful plaint of the blinded giant in Samson Agonistes:

Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half,

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,

Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse,

Without all hope of day!

And the fine stanza:

With Thee conversing, I forget

All time, and toil, and care:

Labor is rest, and pain is sweet,

If Thou, my God, art here,

deliberately recalls the words of Eve to Adam:

With thee conversing, I forget all time,

An seasons and their change; all please alike.

Paradise Lost'

There are many other examples, however, less obvious than these, or at any rate less noticed, which are yet unmistakable allusions to Milton. For instance:

Thine arm hath safely brought us

A way no more expected

Than when Thy sheep passed through the deep

By crystal walls protected,

reminds us of the lines:

As on dry land, between two crystal walls,

Awed by the rod of Moses so to stand,

Divided till his rescued gain their shore.

The quoted phrase, by the way, occurs a second time in Paradise Lost. The first apostrophe in

O unexampled Love!

O all-redeeming Grace!

How swiftly didst Thou move

To save a fallen race! ...

is from the same source:

. . .O unexampled Love!

Love nowhere to be found less than divine!

In the lines:

But above all lay hold

On faith's victorious shield,

Armed with that adamant and gold

Be sure to win the field,

the poet of Methodism has borrowed his vivid phrase from the description of the arch-fiend:

Satan, with vast and haughty strides advanced,

Came towering, armed in adamant and gold.

In the verse:

With glorious clonds encompassed round,

Whom angels dimly see,

Will the Unsearchable be found,

or God appear to me?

there is a remembrance of the address to the Most High put into the mouths of our first parents in the fifth book of the poem:

Unspeakable! Who sitt'st above these heavens

To us invisible, or dimly seen.

The one majestic phrase in the stanza:

From heaven angelic voices sound,

See the almighty Jesus crowned!

Girt with omnipotence and grace

And glory decks the Savior's face!

is from the discourse of Raphael:

. . . meanwhile the Son,

On His great expedition now appeared,

Girt with omnipotence, with radiance crowned.

Behind Milton's phrase there is, of course, the language of Ps.65:6.

The stanza in one of the hymns on holiness:

He wills that I should holy be,

That holiness I long to feel,

That full, divine conformity

To all my Savior's blessed will,

borrows a phrase from the address of Michael:

. . . . Judge not what is best

By pleasure, though to Nature seeming meet,

Created, as thou art, to nobler end,

Holy and pure, conformity divine.

Charles Wesley wrote, in another hymn:

For every sinful action

Thou hast atonement made,

The rigid satisfaction

Thy precious death hath paid.

The striking phrase is a quotation from Milton:

Die he or justice must; unless for him

Some other, able, and as willing, pay

The rigid satisfaction, death for death.

One phrase which occurs often in the hymns of the Wesleys is particularly unfortunate; we mean that awkward ellipsis the stony':

The stony from my heart remove,

And give me, Lord, O give me love,

Or at Thy feet I die.

It sounds unpleasantly like Mr. Swiveller's references to the rosy and the mazy. But the Wesleys were following the Miltonic usage, seen, to give one example only, in the lines:

. . . For from the mercy-seat above

Prevenient grace descending had removed

The stony from their hearts.

A phrase from the magnificent lines with which the third book of Paradise Lost begins was used by the Wesleys again and again:

Hail, holy Light! offspring of heaven first-born!

Or of the Eternal co-eternal Beam.

This is remembered in the beginning of a hymn:

Eternal Beam of Light Divine,

Fountain of unexhausted Love,

and in the dosing lines of one of John Wesley's splendid translations:

Thou Beam of the Eternal Beam,

Thou purging Fire, Thou quickening Flame!

There is nothing corresponding to this in Tersteegen's German. It is John Wesley's remembrance of Milton. Doubtless the word had behind it, in the thought of both Milton and Wesley, the apaugasma of the Apostolic writer in Heb.1:3.

George Herbert

George Herbert was a favorite poet with both the Wesleys. They adapted a considerable number of pieces from The Temple as hymns, and included them in their early publications. They must have been familiar with Herbert from childhood, for he was one of the writers most beloved by Susanna Wesley, and probably they hardly knew when they were echoing his words.

The line in Obedience:

O let Thy sacred will

All Thy delight in me fulfil!

is borrowed in John Wesley's translation of Zinzendorf's Du ewiger Abgrund der seligen Liebe:

The dictates of Thy sovereign will,

With joy our grateful hearts receive;

All Thy delight in us fulfil;

Lo! all we are to Thee we give.

The first stanza of A True Hymn:

My joy, my life, my crown!

My heart was meaning all the day,

Somewhat it fain would say:

And still it runneth muttering up and down

With only this, My joy, my life, my crown!'

has influenced the language of another of John Wesley's translations, his great version of Scheffler's Ich will dich lieben, meine Stärke, where, in the last verse:

Thee will I love, my joy, my crown,

Thee will I love, my Lord, my God!


Ich will dich lichen, meine Krone,

Ich will dich lieben, meinen Gott.

And, curiously enough, in still another hymn from the German, John Wesley's version of Joachim Lange's O Jesu, süsses Licht, the lines:

O God, what offering shall I give

To Thee, the Lord of earth and skies?

My spirit, soul, and flesh receive,

A holy, living sacrifice;

Small as it is, 'tis all my store

More should'st Thou have, if I had more.

suggest a recollection of Herbert's Praise

To write a verse or two is all the praise

That I can raise:

Mend my estate in any ways

Thou shalt have more.

The last lines of the verse in Lange's German are merely Dass soll mein Opfer sein, Weil ich sonst nichts vermag.'

A phrase in The Pulley:

Let us (said He) pour on Him all we can:

Let the world's riches, which dispersèd lie,

Contract into a span,

is remembered and used nobly in a hymn for the Nativity:

Our God, contracted to a Span,

Incomprehensibly made man.

The lines in Longing:

Lord Jesu, Thou did'st bow

Thy dying head upon the tree,

are recalled in the verse:

Vessels, instruments of grace,

Pass we thus our happy days

'Twixt the mount and multitude,

Doing or receiving good;

Glad to pray and labor on,

Till our earthly course is run,

Till we, on the sacred tree,

Bow the head, and die like Thee.

The line in Sunday:

O let me take thee at the bound,

Leaping with thee from seven to seven,

Till that we both, being tossed from earth,

Fly hand in hand to heaven!

is remembered in another hymn:

Let us all together rise,

To Thy glorious life restored,

Here regain our paradise,

Here prepare to meet our Lord;

Here enjoy the earnest given,

Travel hand in hand to heaven!

And the thought in Praise:

Small it is, in this poor sort

To enrol Thee:

E'en eternity is too short

To extol Thee,

is remembered in a version of one of the Psalms:

And all eternity shall prove

Too short to utter all His love.


Some of the reminiscences of Dryden's lines in the hymns are striking and unmistakable, and altogether the allusions are enough to show a pretty close acquaintance on the part of the Wesleys with nearly all that the poet wrote.

Charles Wesley's fine evening hymn:

All praise to Him who dwells in bliss,

Who made both day and night:

Whose Throne is darkness in the abyss

Of uncreated light,

deliberately borrows a great line from The Hind and the Panther:

But, gracious God, how well dost Thou provide

For erring judgernents an unerring Guide!

Thy throne is darkness in the abyss of light,

A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.

One of the hymns for the Nativity recalls another line from the same poem, for

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail the incarnate Deity!

is an echo of Dryden's argument for Transubstantiation --

Could He His Godhead veil in flesh and blood,

And not veil these again to be our food?

The hymn:

Love Divine, all loves excelling,

Joy of heaven, to earth come down,

Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,

All Thy faithful mercies crown,

owes both its trochaic metre and the form of its first line to the Song of Venus' in King Arthur:

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling,

Seat of pleasures and of loves;

Venus here will choose her dwelling,

And forsake her Cyprian groves.

One of the hymns for Advent:

Stupendous height of heavenly love,

Of pitying tenderness divine!

It brought the Savior from above,

It caused the springing day to shine,

The Sun of Righteousness to appear,

And gild our gloomy hemisphere,

adopts a phrase from the juvenile and affected Elegy upon the Death of Lord Hastings:

Lived Tycho now, struck with this ray (which shone

More bright i' th' morn than others beam at noon),

He'd take his astrolabe and seek out here,

What new star 'twas did gild our hemisphere.

The verse:

The things unknown to feeble sense,

Unseen by reason's glimmering ray

With strong commanding evidence,

Their heavenly origin display,

owes a phrase to the Religio Laici:

So reason's glimmering ray

Was lent, not to assure our doubtful way,

But guide us upward to a better day.

The hymn:

O God of God, in whom combine

The heights and depths of love divine,

With thankful hearts to Thee we sing:

To Thee our longing souls aspire,

In fervent flames of strong desire:

Come, and Thy sacred unction bring!

borrows an entire line from Dryden's translation of the Veni, Creator Spiritus:

Come, and Thy sacred unction bring

To sanctify us while we sing!

One of the penitential hymns echoes a phrase of Dryden's which he used in a very different connection. Wesley wrote:

The godly grief, the pleasing smart,

The meltings of a broken heart,

evidently remembering a lively love-song in The Maiden Queen:

I feel a flame within which so torments me

That it both pains my heart and yet contents me;

'Tis such a pleasing smart, and I so love it,

That I would rather die than once remove it.

And there are several other cases where single phrases or striking epithets of Dryden's have passed, perhaps unconsciously, into the hymns. So Wesley's O'er earth in endless circles roved,' is an echo of Religio Laici, Thus anxious thoughts in endless circles roll'; and the all-atoning Lamb' (which occurs frequently in the hymns) borrows the epithet from a line in Absalom and Achitophel:

Then, seized with fear, yet still affecting fame,

Usurped a patriot's all-atoning name.


There are one or two allusions to Cowley. In the verses entitled Life occur the lines:

But angels in their full-enlightened state,

Angels who live, and know what tis to be!

Who all the nonsense of our language see,

And words, our ill-drawn pictures, scorn,

when we, by a foolish figure, say,

Behold an old man dead! then they

Speak properly, and say, Behold a man-child born!

This is recalled in one of the finest of the Funeral hymns:

When from flesh the spirit freed,

Hastens homeward to return,

Mortals cry, A man is dead!'

Angels Sing, A child is born!'

There is a slighter parallel in Prior, a favorite poet with both the Wesleys:

And while the buried man we idly mourn,

Do angels joy to see his better half return?

A hymn, popularly supposed to have been written at Land's End, has the lines:

Lo! on a narrow neck of land

'Twixt two unbounded seas I stand

Secure, insensible.

Cowley has the thought in Life:

Vain, weak-built isthmus which dost proudly rise

Up betwixt two eternities.

The comparison was frequent in the eighteenth century. Prior wrote in Solomon:

Amid two Seas on one small point of land,

Wearied, uncertain, and amazed we stand.

And Pope, in the Essay on Man:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great.

Addison has the thought in the Spectator, in language which supplies the closest parallel of all:

in our speculations of Eternity, we consider the Time which is present to us the Middle, which divides the whole time into two equal Parts. For this Reason, many witty Authors compare the present Time to an Isthmus or narrow Neck of Land that rises in the midst of an ocean, immeasurably diffused on either Side of it.

Addison's Spectator'

There are several other evidences in the hymns of that familiarity with Addison's Spectator which we should expect on the part of the Wesleys. A line of Addison's version of Ps.23. (which Wesley republished in the Collection of Psalms and Hymns of 1738):

Thy friendly Crook shall give me Aid,

And guide me through the dreadful Shade,

is borrowed in one of the Advent hymns:

And cheer the souls of death afraid,

And guide them through the dreadful shade.

Dr. John Duncan once remarked upon the curiosa filicitas of a line in the stanza:

All are not lost and wandered back,

All have not left Thy Church and Thee;

There are who suffer for Thy sake,

Enjoy Thy glorious infamy,

Esteem the scandal of the Cross,

And only seek divine applause.

The happy phrase is borrowed, with a variation, from an apostrophe in the paper which Steele contributed to the Spectator, on Good Friday, 1712 (it is really reprinted from The Christian Hero): See where they have nailed the Lord and Giver of Life! How His wounds blacken, His Body writhes, and Heart heaves with Pity and with Agony! O Almighty Sufferer, look down, look down from Thy triumphant Infamy!'

A French Sonnet

But the most striking illustration of the influence of the Spectator is an example in which the verse of Charles Wesley was considerably indebted to a French sonnet quoted by Addison in its pages -- an indebtedness which was first indicated, in a very roundabout fashion, by no less an eighteenth-century personage than Mrs. Piozzi.

Contemporary Critics

In 1745 the Rev. Thomas Church (the friend of Bolingbroke), who was Vicar of Battersea and Prebendary of St. Paul's, published a pamphlet entitled Remarks on the Rev. Mr. Wesley's Last Journal. He was one of the fairest of Wesley's innumerable critics. Thirty years afterwards, Wesley referred to him in contrast with Rowland Hill, and said that he was a gentleman, a scholar, and a Christian: and as such he both spoke and wrote.' In the Remarks Church attacked the extravagancy and presumption' of the lines:

Doom, if Thou canst, to endless pains.

And drive me from Thy face;

But if Thy stronger love constrains,

Let me be saved by grace!

Wesley answered the Remarks in a letter addressed to the author, and a second pamphlet, Some Further Remarks, in a second letter. He expressed a natural amazement that the lines should have been so grossly misunderstood, and defended them as being one of the strongest forms of obtestation, of adjuring God to show mercy, by all His grace, and truth, and love.'

Mrs. Piozzi's Comment

Four years later, in 1749, Lavington, a much less reputable antagonist, repeated Church's attack. He quoted the same lines, and reiterated the charge of presumption, in The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compared. A copy of the first edition of the first part of Lavington's book was in the possession of Mrs. Piozzi, that lively lady who was Mrs. Thrale in earlier life, the friend of Dr. Johnson, and familiar to all readers of Boswell. She was very fond of writing marginal comments in her books. One of her biographers has remarked upon the habit. She enriched the margin of Lavington's book with considerable annotations. One of these is a comment on the lines he quoted: Doom, if Thou canst, to endless pains. And drive me from Thy face!' She says that they are in imitation of the famous French sonnet by Despreaux, but by an awkwardness of expression seem to lay the Supreme Being under constraint of destiny, and that is neither good philosophy nor good religion. In the French sonnet there is no such fault.'

Des Barreaux

We were unable to discover any sonnet by the famous poet Despreaux, better known as Boileau, which fits this reference; nor is he very likely to have written such a one. This is, in fact, an example of the trivial inaccuracy for which Boswell so often reproaches Mrs. Piozzi. For it is a famous sonnet by Des Barreaux, a poet of the generation immediately preceding Boileau, of which she was thinking. The editors of the old collection of French poetry in which we found it say that the reputation of Des Barreaux rests upon a single sonnet, which is perhaps the masterpiece of that kind of verse' (le chef-d'oeuvre de ce genre). Almost immediately after finding this, we happened upon an essay of Addison's in the Spectator, in which be quotes the sonnet in full, and describes it as a noble hymn in French ... written by Monsieur Des Barreaux, who had been one of the greatest wits and libertines in France, but in his last years as remarkable a penitent.'

Jacques Vallée, Seigneur des Barreaux, was born in 1602, and died in 1673. He was a counsellor in the Parliament of Paris, but would never plead a cause, and eventually resigned the office, according to some accounts, that he might devote himself wholly to pleasure. Another story is that Cardinal Richelieu fell in love with the famous Marion de Lorme, who was Des Barreaux's mistress, and that after the Cardinal had made some overtures to Des Barreaux, which he rejected, Richelieu became his determined enemy, and forced him to give up his office, and leave Paris.

Des Barreaux wrote many Latin and French verses, but never published anything. Pascal makes a casual reference to him. Writing in the Pensées, of the war between reason and passion, he alleges Des Barreaux as an example of those who would renounce their reason and become brute beasts.' He lived an exceedingly dissolute life, but in his later years repented and reformed, and spent his last days in religious retirement at Chalon-sur-Saône.

He wrote this sonnet three or four years before his death. It is entitled A Sinner's Recourse to the Goodness of God.' We have roughly translated it thus:

O God, just are Thy judgements, just and right

Vast is Thy mercy, and Thy patience long;

But I have done such evil in Thy sight

As to forgive would do Thy justice wrong.

Sin has annulled Thy love's prerogative:

Thou canst not pardon such a wretch as I,

Thy righteousness forbids Thee to forgive,

Thy mercy must stand helpless while I die.

Then take Thy vengeance, Lord -- I plead no more --

Mock at my tears, who mocked Thee to Thy face;

Strike, slay! avenge Thee on my hardihood --

I perish, yet Thy justice I adore;

But where shall fall Thy thunders? on what place

That is not covered with the Savior's blood?

The last lines of the French are:

Tonne, frappe, il est temps, rends-moi guerre pour guerre,

J'adore en perissant la raison qui t'aigrit;

Mais dessus quel endroit tombera ton tonnerre,

Qui ne soit tout couveit du sang de Jesus-Christ!

John Fletcher quotes the lines

Charles Wesley must have seen this sonnet in the Spectator, and, besides, a letter is extant, written to him by John Fletcher, which quotes some lines of it as if they were perfectly familiar to them both. Fletcher is describing his own experience at that time, when he was passing through a season of spiritual depression: It seemed altogether incompatible with the holiness, the justice, and the veracity of the Supreme Being to admit so stubborn an offender into His presence. I could do nothing but be astonished at the patience of God; and I would willingly have sung those verses of Desbaraux (sic) if I had had strength:

Tonne, frappe, il est temps, rends-moi guerre pour guerre;

J'adore en perissant la raison qui t'aigrit.'

There is no doubt that the sonnet has considerably influenced the verse of Charles Wesley. There are echoes of it in

But if my gracious day is past,

And I am banished from Thy sight,

When into outer darkness cast,

My Judge, I'll own, hath done me right,

Adore the Hand whose stroke I feel.

Nor murmur when I sink to hell.

and --

Then pour Thy vengeance on my head,

And quench the smoking flax in me;

Break (if Thou caust) a bruised reed,

And cast me out who come to Thee.

and --

While groaning at Thy feet I fall,

Spurn me away, refuse my call;

If love permit, contract Thy brow

And if Thou canst, destroy me now!

But there are some lines in one of the Eucharistic hymns which put the matter beyond doubt, for the allusion to the last lines of the sonnet is exact and unmistakable:

Still the wounds are open wide,

The blood doth freely flow,

As when first His sacred side

Received the deadly blow;

Still, O God, the blood is warm,

Covered with the blood we are;

Find a part it doth not arm,

And strike the sinner there!

John Fletcher, who has been mentioned as quoting Des Barreaux's lines to Charles Wesley, was the saint of early Methodism.

John Fletcher's Ecstasy

In Wesley's Life of Fletcher, the following story is told in the language of Joseph Benson, from whom Wesley received it: I have sometimes seen him on these occasions [at Trevecca], once in particular, so filled with the love of God, that he could contain no more; but cried out, |O my God, withhold Thy hand, or the vessel will burst!| But he afterwards told me he was afraid he had grieved the Spirit of God; and that he ought rather to have prayed that the Lord would have enlarged the vessel, or have suffered it to break; that the soul might have no further bar or interruption to its enjoyment of the supreme good.'

The most singular circumstance here is that the experience is paralleled in the lives of many of the saints. It seems to be, if the phrase may be allowed, a standard type of spiritual ecstasy. It is related, in almost the same terms, with the same appeal against such excessive bliss, in the lives of holy men and women as different from John Fletcher as St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, and Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, -- and, in our own days, Mr. Evan Roberts, the leader of the Welsh Revival of 1905. But it was doubtless the wonderful experience of Fletcher that is recalled in Charles Wesley's fervent lines:

O would He more of heaven bestow,

And let the vessel break!

And let our ransomed spirits go

To grasp the God we seek!

Samuel Wesley the younger

Both John and Charles Wesley owed much, in many ways, to their elder brother Samuel. While he was Usher at Westminster School, he was the trusted friend of Prior and Pope: and he was a poet himself, not greatly gifted, but more than the equal of others who have made a greater name. There are constant reminiscences of his verse in the hymns.

In The Battle of the Sexes he wrote (addressing the lady who later became his wife)

And thou, dear object of my growing love,

whom now I must not, or I dare not, name,

Approve my verse, which shines if you approve!

John Wesley borrowed a line of this in his translation of Spangenberg's Der König ruht and schauet doch:

Great object of our growing love,

To whom our more than all we owe,

Open the fountain from above,

And let it our full souls o'erfiow

and the phrase is used many times in other hymns.

Many other lines in the same poem are quoted in the hymns, such as:

Now cruel false, now seeming faithful, kind,

With well-dressed hate, and well-dissembled love,

in --

O may I calmly wait,

Thy succors from above

And stand against their open hate,

And well-dissembled love,

and --

His hardened front, unblushing, unappalled,

Laughed at reproaches, and enjoyed disgrace,

in --

I then shall turn my steady face,

Want, pain defy, enjoy disgrace,

Glory in dissolution near!

and --

With cool disdain, The preacher he derides,

Who marks the eternal bounds of good and ill,

in --

To time our every smile or frown,

To mark the bounds of good and ill,

And beat the pride of nature down,

And bend or break his rising will.

Easter Hymn

In a Hymn on Easter Day, Samuel Wesley wrote:

In vain the stone, the watch, the seal,

Forbid an early rise,

To Him who breaks the gates of hell,

And opens Paradise.

This is closely copied in Charles Wesley's great Easter hymn, Christ the Lord is risen today!'

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal,

Christ hath burst the gates of hell:

Death in vain forbids His rise,

Christ hath opened Paradise!

Samuel Wesley wrote an elegy On the Death of Mr. William Morgan. He was an early associate of John and Charles Wesley at Oxford, whose death they were accused of hastening by the austerities which the early Methodists practised. In this poem occur these lines, describing Morgan:

Fearful of sin in every close disguise

Unmoved by threatening or by glozing lies,

Whose zeal, for other men's salvation shown,

Beyond the reach of hell secured his own.

Two phrases in these lines are reflected in the hymns:

I want a true regard,

A single, steady aim,

(Unmoved by threatening or reward),

To Thee, and Thy great Name.

Let us then sweet connsel take,

How to make our calling sure,

Our election how to make,

Past the reach of hell secure.

And there are many other phrases in the poems of Samuel Wesley that are similarly reflected in the hymns written by his younger and more famous brothers.


The hymns were were considerably influenced by the poems of Prior. There is, of course, a special reason for the high esteem in which Prior was held by all the Wesleys. He was the intimate friend of Atterbury -- that singular prelate of whom John Wesley has recorded so high an opinion. And Samuel Wesley the younger, while Usher at Westminster School, was the trusted companion of Atterbury. He would meet Prior many a time at the Deanery, and John also, on his visits to the elder brother, would doubtless see the good-natured poet frequently. One can irnagine that the Usher would point the moral of Mr. Prior's rise to greatness through scholarship -- had he not been Ambassador at Paris, and did it not all begin through construing Horace in a tavern? At any rate, John Wesley held Prior in great esteem; and toward the end of his life, in his Thoughts on the Character and Writings of Mr. Prior, he went out of his way to defend the poet's memory.

An edition of Prior, with a memoir, appeared in 1779. Apparently this occasioned the revival of some scandalous stories which had been set about by Arbuthnot, Spence (of the Anecdotes), and Pope, as to the identity of Prior's Chloe.' Wesley wrote: I do not believe one word of this. Although I was often in his neighborhood, I never heard a word of it before. It carries no face of probability. Would Bishop Atterbury have kept up an acquaintance with a man of such a character?'

Wesley passes on to express a high opinion of Prior's genius, and to record his judgement that his best verse does not yield to anything that has been wrote either by Pope, or Dryden, or any English poet, except Milton.' Especially he praises Solomon, as containing the strongest sense expressed in some of the finest verses that ever appeared in the English tongue.'


Charles Wesley shared his brother's admiration, and often recommended Solomon to his younger friends. He wrote, in a letter to his daughter Sally (Oct.1, 1778): You should therefore be always getting something by heart. Begin with the first book of Prior's Solomon, the Vanity of Knowledge. Let me see how much of it you can repeat when we meet.'

Accordingly we find frequent reminiscences of the poem in the hymns of the brothers.

The second line of the couplet:

We weave the chaplet, and we crown the bowl,

And smiling see the nearer waters roll,

was clearly in the mind of Charles Wesley when he wrote:

Jesu, Lover of my soul,

Let me to Thy bosom fly,

While the nearer waters roll,

While the tempest still is high.

The lines spoken by the Egyptian:

Or grant thy passion has these names destroyed:

That Love, like Death, makes all distinction void,

were evidently the inspiration of a verse in the hymn which Edward FitzGerald so much admired:

Love, like Death, hath all destroyed,

Rendered our distinctions void!

Names, and sects, and parties fall

Thou, O Christ, art all in all!

And Prior's apostrophe:

From Now, from instant Now, great Sire! dispel

The clouds that press my soul: from Now reveal

A gracious beam of light; from Now inspire

My tongue to sing, my hand to touch the lyre,

was apparently in the memory of the writer of the magnificent lines:

While low at Jesu's Cross I bow,

He hears the blood of sprinkling now.

This instant now I may receive

The answer of His powerful prayer:

This instant now by Him I live,

His prevalence with God declare.

There are also phrases of constant occurrence in the hymns that are traceable to the same source. The sun's directer rays' (found in hymns by both Samuel and Charles Wesley, and in a schoolboy translation of Horace by John Wesley), our cautioned soul,' my constant flame,' -- these are all from Solomon.

The other poems of Prior have not influenced the Wesleys so much, but that is as we should expect; the difference of subject and tone amply accounts for it. Still, there are a few clear allusions to the minor poems. In his Ode to a Lady, She refusing to continue a Dispute with Me, Prior wrote:

You, far from danger as from fear,

Might have sustained an open fight.

Charles Wesley wrote, in the hymn Captain of Israel's host and Guide':

As far from danger as from fear,

While Love, Almighty Love, is near.

In Charity, a Paraphrase of the Thirteenth Chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Prior wrote:

Soft peace she brings wherever she arrives,

She builds our quiet, as she forms our lives,

Lays the rough paths of peevish nature ev'n,

And opens in each heart a little heaven.

This is remembered in the hymn:

The peace Thou hast given, This moment impart,

And open Thy heaven, O Love, in my heart!

And once more, Prior wrote in his Henry and Emma, an abominable Georgian perversion of a delightful old ballad (which John Wesley republished in the Arminian Magazine, to the great scandal of some of his followers)

If love, alas! be pain, the pain I bear

No thought can figure and no tongue declare.

John Wesley, in his superb translation of Gerhardt's hymn, wrote:

Jesu, Thy boundless love to me

No thought can reach, no tongue declare,

adopting Prior's phrase, and improving it.

Today Matthew Prior is very largely a forgotten poet. But he had as much of the genuine poetic gift as any writer of his age. John Wesley, in this matter at any rate, is in very good company, for he is at one with writers as diverse as Cowper, Thackeray, and Swinburne, in his admiration for the genius of Prior.

Prior's Influence

Something of the freedom of their versification the Wesleys certainly owed to Prior. It was his influence that saved them from the monotonous antithesis of the correct' style of Pope, and almost every eighteenth-century writer, following in his train. In the Preface to Solomon Prior wrote: I would say one word of the measure in which this and most poems of the age are written. Heroic with continued rhyme, as Donne and his contemporaries used it, carrying the sense of one verse most commonly into another, was found too dissolute and wild, and came very often too near prose. As Davenant and Waller corrected, and Dryden perfected it, it is too confined: it cuts off the sense at the end of every first line, which must always rhyme to the next following, and consequently produces too frequent an identity in the sound, and brings every couplet to the point of an epigram.' Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, characteristically decides that Prior's attempt to put his critical principle into practice, by extending the sense from one couplet to another, with variety of pauses,' is without success: his interrupted lines are unpleasing, and his sense, as less distinct, is less striking.' We do not agree: Solomon is more free, more fluent, in its use of the heroic measure than any poem that was published within the next three generations. One of Prior's favorite methods of breaking the monotony of the couplet brings about a pause after the second syllable of the second line, as in

And at approach of death shall only know

The truths, . . . which from these pensive members flow.

On the vile worm, that yesterday began

To crawl; . . . Thy fellow creature, abject man!

Yet take thy bent, my soul; another sense

Indulge, . . . add music to magnificence.

John Wesley caught this trick of enjambement from Prior, and his hymns abound with it. One or two examples will serve where dozens might be given:

To gain earth's gilded toys, or flee

The Cross . . . endured, my God, by Thee?

A man! an heir of death! a slave

To sin! . . . a bubble on the wave.


The verse of the Wesleys has not been greatly influenced by the writings of Pope, with the exception of a single poem. The hymns only contain two or three slight allusions to the Essay on Man, but they echo the language of Eloïsa to Abelard in the most extraordinary way. Probably Charles Wesley had got the poem by heart, and hardly knew when he was quoting it.

The first line of the couplet:

Thy eyes diffused a reconciling ray,

And gleams of glory brightened all the day,

is recalled in one of Charles Wesley's earliest hymns, with a single change necessitated by the metre:

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

The lines:

To sounds of heavenly harps she dies away,

And melts in visions of eternal day,

are remembered in another hymn:

Till, on the bosom of my Lord,

I sink in blissful dreams away

And visions of eternal day.

The thought in the passage:

When, at the close of each sad, sorrowing day,

Fancy restores what vengeance snatched away,

Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free,

All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee,

is remembered and redeemed to a nobler significance in an evening hymn:

Loose me from the chains of sense,

Set me from the body free,

Draw, with stronger influence,

My unfettered soul to Thee!

In me, Lord, Thyself reveal,

Fill me with a sweet surprise:

Let me Thee when waking feel;

Let me in Thine image rise.

The lines in the same poem

O happy state, when souls each other draw,

When love is liberty, and nature law,

lines which Pope repeated with a variation in the Essay on Man:

Converse and love mankind might strongly draw,

When love was liberty, and nature law,

were evidently in Charles Wesley's mind when he wrote:

Implant it deep within,

Whence it may ne'er remove,

The law of liberty from sin,

The perfect law of love.

Thy nature be my law,

Thy spotless sanctity,

And sweetly every moment draw

My happy soul to Thee.


It is difficult for us in these days to understand the immense vogue of Young's Night Thoughts in the eighteenth century. Young's turgid platitudes are so wearisome to a modern reader that it needs an effort to discern the real poetic power which sometimes underlies the bombastic lines, and which goes some way toward justifying the rather fantastic judgement of D. G. Rossetti, that Young was the greatest poet of his century. But there can be no doubt as to the extent of Young's fame and influence in that age. Charles Wesley set his daughter to learn by heart long passages of Young's poem, and he himself more than once transcribed the whole of it. He said expressly: No writings but the inspired are more useful to me.' And some of the greatest names of that century might be quoted in support of Charles Wesley's high estimate of Young. He was in good company, at least, in his admiration for a poet who influenced Goethe, who was quoted on the scaffold by Camille Desmoulins, and to the study of whose writings Burke himself ascribed his own splendid style.

Night Thoughts'

One of the hymns:

Stand the omnipotent decree!

Jehovah's will be done!

Nature's end we wait to see,

And hear her final groan;

Let this earth dissolve, and blend

In death the wicked and the just,

Let those ponderous orbs descend,

And grind us into dust,

is a deliberate paraphrase of a passage in the Night Thoughts:

If so decreed, the Almighty Will be done,

Let earth dissolve, you pond'rous orbs descend,

And grind us into dust; the soul is safe;

The man emerges.

The lines:

they see

On earth a bounty not indulged on high,

And downward look for Heaven's superior praise,

are recalled in the verse:

Ye seraphs, nearest to the Throne,

With rapturous amaze,

On us, poor ransomed worms, look down

For Heaven's superior praise.

And the vivid but unfortunate image in the lines

Thou who didst save him, snatch the smoking brand

From out the flames, and quench it in Thy Blood,

is reproduced in many stanzas, such as:

I want an even strong desire,

I want a calmly fervent zeal,

To save poor souls out of the fire,

To snatch them from the verge of hell,

And turn them to a pardoning God,

And quench the brands in Jesu's blood!

Young's apostrophe:

Happy day that breaks our chain!

That manumits, that calls from exile home,

reappears in a hymn as:

O happy, happy day,

That calls Thy exiles home!

The heavens shall pass away,

The earth receive its doom;

Earth we shall view, and heaven destroyed,

And shout above the fiery void.

The verse:

His love, surpassing far

The love of all beneath,

We find within our hearts, and dare

The pointless darts of death,

borrows a phrase from Young's line

Death's pointless darts, and hell's defeated storms.

The lines

the rush of years

Beats down their strength; Their numberless escapes

In ruin end,

are remembered in a hymn which is a paraphrase of Jer.32:24:

The rush of numerous years bears down

The most gigantic strength of man;

And where is all his wisdom gone

When dust he turns to dust again?

Here Charles Wesley wrote beats down,' and the word was altered to bears down' by John Wesley in his revision.

Last Day'

There are also several recollections in the hymns of Young's Last Day. The apostrophe

Triumphant King of Glory! Soul of bliss!

What a stupendous turn of fate is this!

is recalled in the hymn for Easter

King of Glory! Soul of bliss!

Everlasting life is this,

Thee to know, Thy power to prove,

Thus to sing, and thus to love.

And the lines:

Drive back the tide, suspend a storm in air,

Arrest the sun, but still of this despair,

are adapted in another hymn, with a mystical sense of which Young was utterly incapable:

Thou my impetuous spirit guide,

And curb my headstrong will,

Thou only canst drive back the tide,

And bid the sun stand still

The hymn (the only one on this dread subject included in the Collection of 1780):

Terrible thought! shall I alone,

Who may be saved, shall I,

Of all, alas! whom I have known,

Through sin for ever die?

is based upon a neighboring passage in the same poem:

thy wretched self alone

Cast on the left of all whom Thou hast known,

How would it wound?

Many other examples of Young's influence might be quoted. Apart from distinct allusions to his lines, he enriched the language of Charles Wesley by favorite phrases, such as the starry crown,' the mighty void,' and by favorite word such as triumph' and pomp ' -- the latter occurring almost as incessantly in Young as in the hymns.

Links with Literature

It is not the least part of the spiritual privilege of Methodists that these magnificent hymns have so many links with literature. Dryden called Ben Jonson the great plagiary,' and spoke of tracking his footsteps in the snow.' The Wesleys were great plagiarists, in the same honorable sense, and it has not been an unpleasant or an unfruitful task, we trust, to trace somewhat of their indebtedness, in thought and language, to the great writers of the past. It has been rightly said that one of the great charms of Milton is the implicit lore' of his verse -- the amount of scholarship that is held in solution in his stately lines. There is a similar charm in the verse of the Wesleys: one is always finding fresh evidence, embedded in the hymns, of their wide reading and exact knowledge. These spiritual songs, like Prospero's isle, are full of echoes.

The Hymns of Methodism are Unique

The hymns of Methodism stand alone, in many respects, in the religious literature of the world. They are unique in their intimate connection with one of the greatest spiritual movements of history, for the very genius of the Evangelical Revival is in their burning lines: they enshrine what has been well called the holy, compassionate, believing spirit of early Methodism.' And, while they constitute the greatest body of devotional verse in the language, they are wholly the work of those astonishing and apostolic men who were not only brothers by blood, but also


In honor, as in one community,

Scholars and gentlemen.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy