Friday, December 17, 2010

John Greenleaf Whittier

The Quaker poet and activist John Greenleaf Whittier, born today in 1807, did not consider himself a hymn writer.

I am really not a hymnwriter, for the good reason that I know nothing of music. Only a very few of my pieces were written for singing. A good hymn is the best use to which poetry can be devoted, but I do not claim that I have succeeded in composing one.

However, hymnal editors since his time have not shared his opinion, and even today most hymnals you will see contain his work. It's true that most of his hymns were not written as such, and are often taken from longer poems. Sometimes the same poem yields different hymns, or at least different arrangements of stanzas. John Julian, in his Dictionary of Hymnology (1907), lists 33 hymn texts by Whittier and traces their provenance from the original poems. Today, at, which has references from hundreds more hymnals since Julian's work was compiled, they list 165 texts, and the number may even be larger.

This hymn is derived from Whittier's 1859 poem My Psalm, which is seventeen stanzas long, and has birthed several different arrangements of stanzas.

All as God wills, who wisely heeds
To give or to withhold,
And knoweth more of all my needs
Than all my prayers have told.

That more and more God's Providence
Of love is understood,
Which makes the springs of time and sense
Bright with eternal good --

That care and trial seem at last,
Through memory's sunset air,
Like mountain-ranges overpast,
In purple distance fair;

That all the jarring notes of life
Seem blending in a psalm,
And all the angles of its strife
Slow rounding into calm.

No longer forward nor behind
I look in hope or fear;
But, grateful, take the good I find,
The best of now and here.

John Greenleaf Whittier, 1859; alt.
Henry J. Gauntlett, 1849

John Julian also wrote that Whittier's hymns were "characterized by rich poetic beauty, sweet tenderness, and deep sympathy with human kind."

A new book, Congregational Hymns from the Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier (2009) by Samuel J. Rogal delves into this subject further, and you can see a preview of it online thanks to Google Books.

Two Years Ago: John Greenleaf Whittier

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