Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More Voices Found: Helen Maria Williams

Today is the birthday of Helen Maria Williams, born in 1761. She was well-known in the literary circles of her time, particularly after the poet Wordsworth addressed a sonnet to her. She took up several causes, including abolition and feminism in her poetry and her published letters. In later years she lived in Paris, where she was briefly imprisoned during the French Revolution for her writing. Her popularity declined as literary England felt she had abandoned them for France, and her poetry was little published for many years after her death. This hymn, however, appeared in many hymnals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

While thee I seek, protecting Power,
My earthly cares be stilled;
And may this consecrated hour
With better hopes be filled.

Thy love the power of thought bestowed;
To thee my thoughts would soar:
Thy mercy o’er my life has flowed;
That mercy I adore.

In each event of life, how clear
Thy guiding hand I see!
Each blessing to my soul more dear,
Because conferred by thee.

In every joy that crowns my days,
In every pain I bear,
My heart shall find delight in praise,
Or seek relief in prayer.

My lifted eye, without a tear,
The gathering storm shall see:
My steadfast heart shall know no fear;
That heart will rest on thee.

Helen Maria Williams, 1786; alt.
Tune: CRIMOND (C.M.)
Jessie Seymour Irvine, 1872; arr. David Grant

When I first found this hymn several years ago, I was looking for texts that referred to God in different ways, and was a little surprised to find this one all the way back in 1786. "Protecting Power" was not a standard name for God in Williams's time - note that it's the only name she uses in the text - it sounds much more modern.

CRIMOND, by Jessie Seymour Irvine, actually does appear in Voices Found, as well it should - it's the oldest known hymn tune by a woman that is still in use today in several hymnals.

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