Highways and Byways of Hymns

Famous in fifteen minutes

WE RETURN THIS MONTH to stories of how hymns come to be written and composed. Those who study the hymnal handbooks, or browse the glossier illustrated bargains, soon stumble across favourite hymns which arose from earthquakes, shipwrecks, train-crashes, and deathbeds. Of these I do not now speak, but rather of hymns which were apparently put together in five minutes -well, make that fifteen.

Some are well-documented. One Sunday evening in 1883, Dorothy Blomfield (as she then was) left the family sing-song in the drawing room of the Windermere Vicarage, returning a quarter of an hour later with a wedding hymn for her big sister: O perfect love, all human thought transcending. You try writing a hymn during The Archers. Less well known is the tune CALON LAN, one of the options for What a friend we have in Jesus, which was put together over tea between afternoon Sunday School and evening Chapel – Sunday again, but this time in south Wales.

John Mason Neale, by contrast, reckoned that hymns were more like Jack Daniels whisky – if you know your adverts. Get the mix right and let it mature in peace. Uncork it several years later, and you will know if it’s any good. The curious thing about the tales of instant composition is that some of them are true. If that seems tough on those patient toilers who beaver away at seemingly endless

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corrections, adjustments and fine-tuning, how can this be? I suggest two factors.

One is adrenalin. Whatever our occupation, most of us know deadlines, crises, moments of desperate urgency, where somehow it all pans out right in the end. This is a regular factor in journalism and show business; hymns may reckon themselves a cut above all that, but the same constraints apply. Ask your vicar, bishop, or magazine editor.

But the other factor is that of the preacher who was asked how long it took to prepare his sermon. You know; twenty minutes, and twenty years. The young woman who produced the Windermere classic, the Welshman with music propped against the teapot were not starting from scratch. Not everyone could do it, and not even they could do it all the time. They had served their apprenticeship with syntax or scales, parsing or polkas, tenses and transpositions.

I cannot speak for musicians but some notable authors have enjoyed the art of comic verse from schooldays onwards. Walsham How and Dudley Smith spring to mind: before them, Newton and Cowper, earlier still, Watts and Wesley. If Charles Wesley is the exception who turned out passable hymns, many of them masterpieces, at the regular rate of about three a week, he is not so much a model as a meteor. But even he didn’t drop from the sky; I can see little Charlie grinding away at Westminster School at his English grammar and the Greek and Latin classics, not without an occasional ‘What’s the point?’

I have said elsewhere that the trouble with some of today’s writers towards the song end of the spectrum is that they think they can build a temple before they learn to build a wall. First the natural, as someone wrote, then the spiritual. ‘There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body’. If you want an instant hymn, go to a person who has done some homework for a decade or two.

And if you want genuine stories, check your sources. Especially if they feature Harry Secombe, Princess Diana, kittens or daffodils, on the cover. Not even authors and composers always get their own facts straight. To be continued.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark