Sunday, June 1, 2008

Henry Francis Lyte

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; God, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of pilgrims, thus abide with me.

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.

Henry Francis Lyte, 1847, alt.
William Henry Monk, 1861

Henry Francis Lyte was the author of dozens of hymns that appeared in the hymnals of the nineteenth century, but his two most enduring are this one and Praise, my soul, the King of heaven. Since Abide with me was previously voted a favorite among readers of this blog (a small group, admittedly) it had to be featured today for Lyte's birthday (215 years ago). This hymn has probably also been near the top on just about any poll on hymns taken in more than a hundred years. I do admit to shuffling the original eight verses a bit in order to choose a final five, using one that has rarely been sung since the nineteenth century.

Lyte wrote his own tune for the hymn which was probably sung at All Saints, the church in Brixham where he was pastor for more than twenty years. But in 1861 the hymn was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern (the influential English hymnal that sold more than 60 million copies) with a new tune by the prolific composer W.H. Monk (one of the editors of the collection), the tune by which everyone knows it today. Others have tried to write new tunes for it, including Frederick Atkinson's MORECAMBE, but none have stuck, as this page from the Oremus Hymnal shows, listing the tunes matched with this text in hymnals spanning nearly 150 years. As mentioned before, tunes are often just as important as texts in establishing a hymn's popularity (for better or worse, some would say).

I know that many people associate this hymn mostly with funerals, but I never have. We used to sing it at the close of evening worship, and (very) occasionally it's used at Evensong in my present church. Heck, we even used to sing it in the subway or at airports. The four-part harmony is irresistible

Here's another verse by Lyte that I particularly like, the final verse of Jesus, I my cross have taken (1824). Sometimes you just find one verse especially meaningful, without liking the whole hymn. Like Abide with me, and like many hymns of the Victorian era, the last verse of the hymn ends up in heaven (that theme again). We used to sing about heaven a lot, so maybe that's why this jumped out to me when I first read it some months ago

Haste then, on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith and winged by prayer;
Heav'ns eternal day before thee,
God's own hand shall guide thee there.
Soon shall close the earthly mission,
Swift shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope soon change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

Now there's a verse that deserves to close with an "Amen."


Dorothy said...

I posted "Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven" today but I had no idea that today was Henry F. Lyte's birthday! Thanks for the information. I'm sure you've realized by now that I am not a musician, church or otherwise. I'm just a "fan." And I love "Abide With Me."

C.W.S. said...

I guess I go on about the tunes sometimes, but I wouldn't call myself a musician either. Hymns are for everyone - the music of the people, not for musicians or theologians alone.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

That verse from "Jesus, I my cross have taken" is amenable indeed ;-)

Thanks! And belated Happy Birthday to Rev. Lyte.


PS Eager to see if this comment will disappear the way two of mine here have now...

Leland Bryant Ross said...

"... the last verse of the hymn ends up in heaven" isn't just for the Victorians. Tindley surely counts as an Edwardian, and his Christmas hymn "Heaven's Christmas Tree" (whose tune, I think, could take Home on the Range as a descant) runs as follows; note how the fifth and final verse ends up in heaven:

I have heard of a tree, a great Christmas tree,
it was fixed in yon Bethlehem's stall.
The blessings of heaven for you and for me,
a Christmas present for all.

     There is a package for me on that tree;
     a precious token that someone loves me.
     Oh yes, I can see on Calvary's Tree,
     that there is a package for me.

There is one I behold in letters of gold,
it hangs on a limb near to me.
'Tis labeled "salvation", and Jesus, I'm told,
has bought that package for me.

There is one just above, its title is Love,
it is marked by a deep crimson stain.
For there it was tied by the Lord when he died,
and glory to his dear Name.

Another I see, it must be for me,
the words "I will help you" I read.
While holding his hand, by faith I can stand,
and this is the package I need.

There are many I'm sure, but just this one more
I speak of above all the rest.
It spells "happy home" with God near the throne,
a place where the weary shall rest.

     There is a package for me on that tree;
     a precious token that someone loves me.
     Oh yes, I can see on Calvary's Tree,
     that there is a package for me.


C.W.S. said...

Well, no, hymnists didn't stop writing hymns that way just because the monarch changed. But that aspect is one of the more widely noted characteristics of Victorian hymns (indeed, Victorian culture at large was quite fond of idealized death expressed in the arts).

And yes, you can probably find examples of pre-Victorian hymns that end up the same way.

C.W.S. said...

P.S. Coments will disappear when they are deemed overly confrontational. I'm mostly writing off the top of my head (that's what blogs are for), not to be challenged with various facts that dispute something I've said. "Gotcha" posts are kind of rude.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

I apologize for any "gotcha" posts I may have posted. I certainly haven't meant to be confrontational in my comments here.