Monday, January 31, 2011

Bernard Barton

Bernard Barton (January 31, 1784 - February 19, 1849) was known in England as the Quaker Poet, years before John Greenleaf Whittier gained that attribution in this country.

Born in Carlisle, in northwest England, into a Quaker family, he eventually settled on a career in banking. His first book of poetry, Metrical Effusions, was published in 1812. Several succeeding volumes over the next sixteen years would help him establish friendships with other famous poets of the day such as Robert Southey and Charles Lamb. It was Lamb who gave him some advice when Barton was considering leaving his position at Alexanders' Bank in Suffolk to support himself through his writing. "Keep to yous bank, and the bank will keep you." So Barton would remain at that same Suffolk bank until his death. After 1828 his books of poetry became less frequent until 1845, when his Household Verses appeared to great acclaim and success.

Many of Barton's poems that later appeared in hymnals are from his Devotional Verses (1826). Today's hymn was probably his most well-known, which finds in more than 200 hymnals, but only two published since 1978. Still, it's probably remembered by many.

Lamp of our feet, whereby we trace
Our path when wont to stray;
Stream from the fount of heav’nly grace,
Brook by the traveler’s way.

Bread of our souls whereon we feed,
True manna from on high;
Our guide and chart wherein we read
Of realms beyond the sky.

Pillar of fire, through watches dark,
Or radiant cloud by day;
When waves would break our tossing bark,
Our anchor and our stay.

Yet to unfold thy hidden worth,
Thy myst'ries to reveal,
That Spirit which first gave thee forth,
Thy volume must unseal.

God, grant us all aright to learn
The wisdom it imparts,
And to its gracious teaching turn
With simple, childlike hearts.

Bernard Barton, 1826
William Henry Havergal, 1846

I think that, in some places today, hymns about the Scriptures themselves are sometimes seen as "singing to the Bible" and are less likely to be found in hymnals. But here I think you could make a broader case; that Barton was talking about the concept of the Word of God and not, strictly speaking, about words on a page.

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