In the last years of the War and the first years of the peace, Arthur Christopher Benson was Master of Magdalene. He lived, not in the new Lodge, but in the old Lodge in Magdalene Street, a house turned now into sets of rooms. It was my good fortune to be one of the many on whom he showered kindnesses, and often in those years I used to call on him and go out with him walking or bicycling. You rang a bell at the street door, and after a rather long delay you were admitted: not, as you at first expected, to the house, but to a short cloister open on one side and leading to a french window. Before you passed through the french window, you often heard the comfortable notes of organ music proceeding in a smothered sort of fashion from an inner room. The french window admitted you to an outer hall, dark with tapestry and crowded with pictures; from it you entered an inner waiting-room, sandwiched (as you learnt later) between the Master's study and his bedroom. This room looked out on the Master's garden. It was lighted by windows partly filled with quaint Dutch painted glass of the seventeenth century. In this inner waiting-room you found the Master playing, with apparent carelessness and with infinite satisfaction, a small organ.
What was he playing? Well, as often as not, Charles Wesley's hymns to such tunes as Stella; and, if you glanced round the room you saw at least half a score of busts and images of the great John himself. Benson was the son of an archbishop, but he had been a boy in Lincoln Chancery and a young man in Methodist Cornwall; and in those congenial atmospheres he had acquired, as he often told me, a devotion to the Wesleys. To be sure, he treated them as disrespectfully as he treated every one else of whom he was fond. He dissected, criticized, mocked at, and misunderstood them with conscious but entertaining perversity. Nevertheless, he returned to them with affection and veneration, and he liked nothing better than to play these hymns and to quote them.
As I used to go into that dark and slightly mysterious house and hear the familiar tunes, I got many and many a time the feeling that something had assured me of the unshaken truth of essential Christianity. Those years of war were years of much argument, much questioning, much doubt, much despair; but to hear the tunes which cried out the words of Wesley's faith was, at least for me, to feel myself confirmed mysteriously in the faith itself. Why this happened no doubt any fifth-rate psychologist could explain. Those tunes and (to use one of Wesley's favourite expressions) the latent words I had first known and had unforgettably learnt in the remote Lincolnshire wolds. The tunes and the faith still enjoyed the security, the certainty, that then were features of all my schoolboy life. -- Wesley's hymns to Stella, Euphony, Sovereignty, Irish, Justification by Faith, the Plan of Salvation, the Gift of God, the Wages of Sin, it was all as certain to recur on Sunday as the football match on Saturday, an illicit drive over the Wolds about every other week, the sheep fair in March, and the roundabouts in the Market Place in May. The plan of salvation and justification by faith were as much in the nature of things, as self-evident, and as much to be taken for granted as the benevolence of the Liberal party, the malevolence of the Conservatives, the wisdom of the minority on the Board of Guardians, and the iniquity of the local solicitors.
Yes, it all may be so. I think, nevertheless, that there was more in it than that; and to that I shall in due course return. Meanwhile I ask you to remember that sense of security as we take a look at the hymns themselves.
It will be difficult not to spend too much time over the form and structure: difficult especially for me who most Sunday nights in term endure Hymns Ancient and Modern with the wretched versification, doubtful grammar, and questionable theology thereof, much of it nowadays most appropriately set out in what I may call the jazz music of Vaughan Williams. Or, if we seek relief from Ancient and Modern, there is the English Hymnal, better it is true, but stuffed out with second-rate creaking translations of Greek and Latin hymns, fusty as a second-hand Lewis and Short, more like the meritorious exercises of the classical sixth than Poetry, the handmaid of Piety. Worst of all there is the self-conscious preciosity of Songs of Praise, mistaking quaintness for strength and antiquarianism for orthodoxy. From all such let us turn to Charles Wesley, and as we linger in the outer court let us notice, first, a simple but useful virtue which Wesley practises in almost every hymn. I mean that he binds his verses, not merely by rhyme, not merely by consecutive thought, but by verbal references which, without our noticing them, lead us from line to line. Wesley gives us no jumps in language to distract our attention from what he and we are saying. I choose a verse at random:
Thou waitest to be gracious still;
Thou dost with sinners bear,
the second Thou carries us on from the first:
That, saved, we may Thy goodness feel,
we of this third line is sinners of line 2,
And all Thy grace declare.
Thy grace, a repetition of the idea in Thy goodness of line 3.
It is the technique that the careful reader notes in Macaulay: every sentence is linked with the preceding sentence by a word or an allusion. This word or allusion throws the reader back to something which he has not had time to forget and so knits Macaulay's paragraph, like Wesley's verse, into one.
You value this fully if you have suffered from what I may call the ill-regulated verse of the next century: say, George Macdonald's morning prayer:
Lord, let me live and act this day,
Still rising from the dead; [Why, still?]
Lord, make my spirit good and gay --
Give me my daily bread.
Admirable sentiments, but a thought disconnected. The connexion between goodness and gaiety and rising from the dead needs looking for and exposing, if indeed it exists; whilst the connexion in thought between daily bread and what precedes seems to consist only in this: that bread rhymes undeniably with dead. It is the verse of a tyro: the verse that you and I write. I slide over the (to me) horrible posing childishness of praying to be gay. Wesley, I think, I hope, never descends to the triviality which pretends to be simplicity.
But let us compare Wesley with hymn-writers who were no tyros. In two writers at least in the nineteenth century we may perceive a mastery of the art of versification which excludes the grosser faults: Bishop Walsham How and Bishop Wordsworth at least knew that of is not a very good word on which to allow an accent to fall. Neither of them, we may think, would have written the shocking lines in that popular hymn of the Rabbi Felix Adler, Sing we of the golden city':
It will pass into the splendours
Of the city of the light.
Let us see then what they can do.
Wordsworth can do well. Hark! the sound of holy voices' is honest verse and wholesome doctrine, even if its language is not so classically scriptural as Wesley's. But this is exceptionally good for Wordsworth. More often Wordsworth takes a scriptural metaphor and beats it out too thin in line after line, or, worse still, takes a metaphor of his own composing and does the same to it. He has a fatal facility for verse. He does not, like George Macdonald, have to think as far as bread to get a rhyme with dead; he gently expands every notion till it is sure sooner or later to rhyme with anything that may be about. Gospel light for Wordsworth does not merely glow: it glows with pure and radiant beams. Living water does not merely flow: it flows with soul-refreshing streams. The Bishop leaves nothing to the imagination. He drags out, shakes out, and ticks off every commonplace extension of every commonplace thought.
Until it was set to a feeble dance tune by Vaughan Williams, Bishop How's For all the saints' was a hymn with merit. It is perhaps a trifle too luscious and romantic to ring quite true for those of us whose human treasure is in fact in heaven. There is more than a touch of King Arthur and the Round Table about the distant triumph song, the golden evening brightening in the West, and Paradise the blest. But that is nothing. When we reach the last two verses, they ring dreadfully false and thin. The exactness of the geography of earth's bounds and ocean's coast does not fit the apocalyptic gates of pearl, and then with this unreal picture of the saints rising from land and sea and entering the gates of pearl we come suddenly on what should be no Arthurian romantic stuff: the doxology to the Holy Trinity. Compare this combination of Malory's tinsel and a young lady's water colour of a sunset with Wesley's virile presentation of the same communion of saints under the same metaphor of an army. I can scarcely bear not to quote it all, but you know it:
One army of the living God,
To His command we bow;
Part of His host have crossed the flood,
And part are crossing now.
His militant embodied host,
With wishful looks we stand;
And long to see that happy coast,
And reach the heavenly land.
Not a word wasted. It is as spare and taut as the warriors it describes. Yet if more spare it is far more daring than How. Listen:
Even now by faith we join our hands
With those that went before,
And greet the blood-besprinkled bands
On the eternal shore.
There is a communion of saints indeed.
Our spirits too shall quickly join,
Like theirs with glory crowned,
And shout to see our Captain's sign,
To hear His trumpet sound.
If you want a military metaphor, that is it. No distant triumph song stealing in the ear or countless host streaming through gates of pearl, but -
Shout to see our Captain's sign,
To hear His trumpet sound.
Not in vain for Wesley had Balaam prophesied: The Lord his God is with him; and the shout of a king is among them.'
If we study Wesley's use of metaphors and similes, we shall note that a very large proportion of them come directly from Holy Scripture or are reminiscences of Holy Scripture. John Wesley (you remember the Preface) praised his brother's hymns for their exposition of Scriptural Christianity'. The praise, of course, was merited, but might have been extended; in metaphor and simile, not less than in doctrine, Charles Wesley deserves that high and unfashionable commendation: scriptural. This constant reference to the classical language of the faith -- the written Word of God -- gives Charles Wesley's hymns themselves a classical poise and accent which marks them off, I believe, from all other modern hymns. It saves Wesley from the deplorable bathos and feeble amateurishness into which almost all other hymn-writers fall at times and from which some never escape. Great poetic genius is needed to use metaphor and simile in verse. Homer, Virgil, Milton can do it:
Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
and so on. But we ordinary folk, flying to metaphor and simile in our own strength, merely make ourselves ridiculous. Let me illustrate. The perfectly well-intentioned J. D. Burns attempts a metaphor of his own invention and at first fares pretty well:
Thy ways are love -- though they transcend
Our feeble range of sight,
They wind through darkness to their end
In everlasting light.
But, encouraged, alas! by this success, he proceeds:
Thy thoughts are love, and Jesus is
The loving voice they find;
Christ is indeed the Word, but what follows?
His love lights up the vast abyss
Of the Eternal Mind.
We plunge from the sensible (I cannot say the sublime) to the ridiculous, perhaps indeed to the blasphemous. The vast abyss of the Eternal Mind' is not a reverent or a complimentary expression -- even if you spell Eternal Mind' with capital letters and light it with a voice. That is what happens when a man of ordinary ability leaves the classical metaphors of Holy Scripture. Charles Wesley, who could do it with less risk than most hymnwriters, takes the risk less often than most. And when he does seem to me to have no scriptural authority, I believe that it is almost always because my knowledge of Holy Scripture is too exiguous to detect the reference.
I do not say that the non-scriptural metaphor always fails. Even the wishy-washy Faber succeeded with it once, in his one good hymn, because he kept it simple and short:
Through life's long day and death's dark night,
O gentle Jesus, be our light.
But for one success there are a thousand failures.
Baring Gould is a writer for whom, despite my better judgement, I have a sneaking affection, and Onward! Christian soldiers' is not to be written off hastily; but compare his treatment of a scriptural phrase with Wesley's treatment of the same phrase:
Crowns and thrones may perish,
Kingdoms rise and wane,
But the Church of Jesus
Constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never
'Gainst that Church prevail;
We have Christ's own promise
And that cannot fail.
How does Wesley say it? Before we read him, we may be sure he will avoid a bad stress like that in the last line And that cannot fail'. He will avoid the ugly 'gainst' and the needlessly emphatic that Church', as if there were a multitude of churches. Notice the climbing effect of his verse. He saves his scripture till the last line; and boldly exaggerates the Gospel word from a negative resistance to a positive attack. Notice, too, the subtle use of alliteration: w in the first half of the verse, m in lines 5 and 6, s in lines 7 and 8.
When He first the work begun,
Small and feeble was His day:
Now the word doth swiftly run,
Now it wins its widening way;
More and more it spreads and grows
Ever mighty to prevail;
Sin's strongholds it now o'erthrows,
Shakes the trembling gates of hell.
The Gospel word prevail is wrested from the use of the gates of hell -- the gates of hell shall not prevail -- and the Church does not merely resist the gates, the prevailing word shakes them. It is the strong finish, all saved for a knock-out blow. Every verse of that superb hymn ends in such a line. All the preceding lines lead by steps to an emphatic concluding phrase.
Verse 1 ends:
All partake the glorious bliss!
Verse 3 ends:
Him Who spake a world from nought.
Verse 4 ends:
All the Spirit of His love!
These other fellows appear at once as mere children and bunglers when we can, as here, compare their treatment of a theme with Wesley's treatment of the same theme.
I do not except Newman. Praise to the Holiest' is almost a great hymn. It has some very great verses; but you must have lamented over the feebleness of its ending. After presenting in awful language the theology of the sacrifice of Calvary, Newman ends as a Unitarian might have ended, as indeed a Unitarian did end, his Passion hymn. The second Adam, the higher gift than grace, God's Presence and His very Self -- to what does it lead Newman? To this: the sacrifice of God Himself on the Cross is to teach us to bear suffering and death. True, no doubt; but what a perfect anti-climax! The Unitarian Martineau has it more passionately, for he can go as far as that:
O Lord of sorrow, meekly die:
Thou'lt heal or hallow all our woe,
Great chief of faithful souls, arise,
None else can lead the martyr-band.
It is not to the Roman Cardinal that we must look to supply the deficiencies of the Unitarian's faith. It is to one of ourselves, blessed be God. Hear Wesley:
Come, then, and to my soul reveal
The heights and depths of grace,
The wounds which all my sorrows heal,
That dear disfigured face.
Before my eyes of faith confest,
Stand forth a slaughtered Lamb;
And wrap me in Thy crimson vest
And tell me all Thy name.
Jehovah in Thy Person show,
And then the pardoning God I know,
And feel the blood applied.
I view the Lamb in His own light,
Whom angels dimly see,
And gaze, transported at the sight,
To all eternity.
Endless scenes of wonder rise
From that mysterious tree,
Crucified before our eyes,
Where we our Maker see;
Jesus, Lord, what hast Thou done?
Publish we the death divine,
Stop, and gaze, and fall, and own
Was never love like Thine!
Never love nor sorrow was [Note that verbal link.]
Like that my Saviour showed:
See Him stretched on yonder Cross,
And crushed beneath our load!
Now discern the Deity,
Now His heavenly birth declare!
Faith cries out, 'Tis He, 'Tis He,
My God, that suffers there!
Contrast Newman's mean conclusion:
To teach His brethren, and inspire
To suffer and to die.
Newman's is a humanitarian tinkling. Wesley's is the catholic, evangelical, orthodox, holy faith.
Here I must turn aside for a moment to triumph in Wesley's scholarship. To that we owe a feature of our eucharistic worship which neither the confused and truncated canon of the Roman Mass nor the Anglican rite has preserved. The epiclesis takes us back to the earliest and purest celebrations of the Supper of the Lord. This link with primitive catholicism which Rome and Canterbury threw away, Wesley restored.
Come, Holy Ghost, Thine influence shed,
And realize the sign.
Thy life infuse into the bread,
Thy power into the wine.
I need not quote more. Wesley gave us what Canterbury now struggles illegally to recover and what Rome stupidly lost in the Dark Ages and still rejects in these days of her wanton and self-conscious schism from ancient orthodoxy. We have almost nothing to learn even liturgically that we cannot learn from Wesley.
It is tempting, and you see that I cannot resist the temptation, to linger over the flawless forms of Wesley's hymns. Let us now move to consider two or three of the more obvious features of the content of the hymns. If you will suffer the paradox, we will begin by noting one feature that is not prominent. Last summer I read and re-read the whole of Isaac Watts's hymns. I seal my lips lest I begin to praise them, but I mention one quality which distinguishes them sharply from Wesley's. Watts, time and again, sets the faith of the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection against its cosmic background. He surveys the solar system, the planets, the fixed stars, the animal creation, from the beginning to the end of time.
He surveys the whole realm of Nature, as in an immortal phrase he has described it, and at the centre he always sees the dying and crucified Creator. Methodist editors have drawn freely on Watts to supply hymns of this type: I name only one, God is a Name my soul adores'. You remember it:
A glance of Thine runs through the globe,
Rules the bright worlds, and moves their frame;
and so on. Methodists have borrowed these hymns to supplement Wesley, because Wesley had comparatively little to say on that subject. Wesley is obsessed with one theme: God and the Soul; for the stage in space and time on which that drama is set he has little concern. He is always at Calvary; no other place in the universe matters, and for him the course of historic time is lost in the eternal NOW. This is partly because of the urgent poignancy of his own evangelical experience. It is partly because his education, if more polished in classical form than Watts's, was less wide, less philosophical, less sweeping.
You find, therefore, that in the age of Deism Wesley is, of all writers, the least Deistic, the most uncompromisingly, the most exclusively Christian. There is little touch of Natural Religion' in Wesley. Do not misunderstand me. I do not charge Watts with Deism and Natural Religion. Watts, in that earlier generation, was near enough to the profound evangelicalism of seventeenth-century Calvinism to survey the whole realm of Nature and still to remain invincibly Christian; but fifty years later the experiment would have been more dangerous. It was perhaps well for Wesley that, in his more Deistic generation, he wore so constantly the blinkers that restricted his view to the essentials of the Christian faith. A cosmic view in his time was more difficult than in Watts's to combine with passionate orthodoxy.
We note then the exclusively Christian and New Testament quality of Wesley's hymns. Truly he says of himself (accurate in every word):
My heart is full of Christ, and longs
Its glorious matter to declare!
Of Him I make my loftier songs,
I cannot from His praise forbear.
Take one rough, and not exhaustive, test. Of the 769 hymns in one edition not fewer than 84 have as their first word the Name: Jesus, Christ, or Saviour. One hymn in every nine opens so. In Songs of praise the proportion is more like one in twenty-four. I have not gone a step lower, but I suspect that Wesley is one of the hymn-writers least well represented in Unitarian hymn-books.
You find in Wesley, therefore, comparatively few occasional hymns, for social, national, or human occasions. The index of your old hymn-book teaches you that. God and the Soul: clear directions for making your calling and election sure, for perfecting holiness in the fear of God' -- this is Wesley's concern. We find Sinners exhorted, Mourners convinced of sin, Persons convinced of backsliding, Backsliders recovered. We find believers in many postures, and the society in several. We find formal and inward religion distinguished. We find the goodness of God, the pleasantness of religion, and the four last things, Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell, described. Wesley means business all the time. He is in deadly earnest. He has no leisure for frills and furbelows. He makes no concessions to human interests and the sentimental associations of religion. He condescends to write a morning hymn, it is true, and enriches the world by the glorious line, reminiscent of Dante, Christ, whose glory fills the skies', but Wesley forgets the time of day before he has written far.
Take a look at the work of Percy Dearmer, Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw as it is revealed in the Index to Songs of Praise. Here we find sixty hymns on the Christian Year and nearly as many on the Church and its ordinances; but by far the greatest number of the titles are such as New Year, Spring, May, Morning, Noon, Evening, Hospitals, Social Service, Absent Friends. My account is unfair, because the bulk of the book is under the heading General', yet the contrast with Wesley remains valid and impressive. Dr. Dearmer and his friends do not arrange their hymns in the exclusively Christian and New Testament categories used by Wesley.
Do not suppose that I am merely praising Wesley and condemning Dearmer. As I distinguished Wesley from Watts, I now distinguish him from his successors. Watts sounded some notes which have been used to supplement Wesley; and more recent writers have supplemented him usefully too. But, when all is said, Wesley's obsession with the greatest things saved him, and us, from much that it is well to be saved from. Wesley's scheme did not tempt him to the vaguely religious poetizing which asks us to sing
Day is dying in the west,
and chokes us with metaphorical confectionery. Nor does he indulge in those bird's-eye tours round the world which read like a versified Holiday Haunts:
Sun and moon bright, night and moonlight,
Starry temples azure-floored;
Cloud and rain, and wild wind's madness,
Breeze that floats with genial gladness,
Praise ye, praise ye, God the Lord.
Bond and freeman, land and sea man,
Earth with peoples widely stored,
Wanderer lone o'er prairies ample,
Full-voiced choir in costly temple,
Praise ye, praise ye, God the Lord!
Still farther is Wesley from the impieties of modern Roman and Anglo-Catholic hymns. These, like the degenerate late medieval and modern papal architecture, push aside the central acts of God in Christ in favour of the imaginary adventures of sinful mortals. When I glance at these hymnbooks, they remind me of the beautiful blasphemy of the west front of Rheims Cathedral: there the Passion of the Son of God and His final Judgement of mankind serve as minor side ornaments to the central panel. And what is the central panel? The so-called Coronation of the Virgin, a matter with no place in history or theology or reputable legend. Precisely this blasphemy you will find in the hymn-books of certain schools, but you find it without the beauty of the Rheims blasphemy. God, as the Psalmist noted, has punished their own inventions. Not only orthodoxy, but the power of writing tolerable verse has deserted them.
Wesley's obsession was with the greatest things: I do not abandon my phrase, but I want to add to it. Despite my profound veneration of his verse, there are two or three things about Wesley's literary form that I regret -- his use of compound adjectives like soul-reviving, and the unhappy use of mine and every in phrases like this heart of mine' and our every so and so'. It is the same with the content of the hymns. There is one feature which, to a Calvinist especially, seems unworthy of Wesley, though it is, to be sure, the defect of his qualities. Sometimes he speaks as if our feelings were of greater importance than I believe them to be. Occasionally a verse might give a hasty reader the impression that salvation almost depended on our feelings. It is perhaps the Pelagian shadow which has sometimes accompanied Arminianism, but it is an accidental and detachable shadow. For Wesley himself, the substance of revealed religion was too overwhelming to leave him at the mercy of his feelings, and it is but fair to Arminianism to remember that there were eighteenth-century Calvinists who suffered like Arminians from an over-emphasis on feelings about salvation. It was difficult for a man with Wesley's vivid experience not so to speak of experience as to make it take too prominent a place in the life of men who lacked the massive foundation of his instructed faith. Yet we may wish that by writing some hymns differently he had protected his ignorant and sensitive followers from the tortures of their ignorant sensitiveness.
I end by returning to my first inquiry. Why do Wesley's hymns confirm and restore our confidence, and build us up securely in our most holy faith? It is no doubt partly because they show us something of the life of one of the pure in heart who saw God. We may not see God. We cannot fail to see that Wesley saw Him. Purity of heart: we are near Wesley's secret there; scriptural holiness, purity of heart, inevitably reflected in his clear mind and limpid verse.
But I think I see another thing. Those very limitations which we have noticed in his hymn-book: his exclusion of all but God and Soul; his indifference to historical setting, cosmic backgrounds, times of day, seasons of the year; his frank neglect of any serious attempt to insert the gospel into natural religion, to tinge and colour normal human activities and occasions with a Christian hue; his ruthless inattention to everything that St. Thomas Aquinas wished to do to the natural order and the divine order -- in all of this limitation we see one source of Wesley's power. Concern with all these things is no doubt needed in each generation; but the more appropriately and fully the work is done for a particular generation the more dated and transient it is. Wesley leaves all that aside. He is obsessed with the greatest things, and he confirms our faith because he shows us these above all the immediate, local, fashionable problems and objections to the faith. We move to the serener air. We sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus; and simply to be taken there -- that is, after all, the supreme confirmation of faith.
What we have felt and seen
With confidence we tell.
This same obsession with the greatest things lifts Wesley and us, his readers and singers, above all ecclesiastical divisions and discussions into the realm of religion. The Pleasantness of Religion', formal religion, inward religion, it is on these lines Wesley's thought moves, not on lines of valid and invalid, regular and irregular, historic and personal, priestly and prophetic ministrations. Wesley had his ecclesiastical opinions and could express them with his customary vigour and clarity; but, as he tells us himself, he escapes with joy from all such things to religion. The Bicentenary is indeed a recall to religion, to religion not merely when opposed to irreligion, but when opposed to religiousness, to theological gymnastics and ecclesiastical politics. I end with words which, for some reason, none of our editors will permit us to sing. You know them, but you shall hear them all again. In them Wesley tells you plainly what I have fumbled in my saying about that ampler air of pure religion: our security and our fellowship and our duty there:
Weary of all this wordy strife,
These notions, forms, and modes and names,
To Thee, the Way, the Truth, the Life,
Whose love my simple heart inflames,
Divinely taught at last I fly
With Thee and Thine to live and die.
Forth from the midst of Babel brought,
Parties and sects I cast behind;
Enlarged my heart, and free my thought
Where'er the latent truth I find;
The latent truth with joy to own
And bow to Jesus' name alone.
One with the little flock I rest,
The members sound who hold the Head,
The chosen few, with pardon blest,
And by the anointing spirit led.
Into the mind that was in Thee,
Into the depths of Deity.
My brethren, friends and kinsmen these
Who do my heavenly Father's will;
Who aim at perfect holiness,
And all Thy counsels to fulfil,
Athirst to be whate'er Thou art
And love their God with all their heart.
For these, howe'er in flesh disjoined,
Where'er dispersed o'er earth abroad,
Unfeigned unbounded love I find
And constant as the life of God;
Fountain of life, from thence it sprung,
As pure, as even, and as strong.
Joined to the hidden church unknown
In this sure bond of perfectness,
Obscurely safe, I dwell alone,
And glory in the uniting grace,
To me, to each believer given,
To all Thy saints in earth and heaven.