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A New Species of Christian Song
Where did the English hymn come from?
What gave rise to the English hymn in the eighteenth century? What determined its form and the way it worked? Many earlier texts were transformed into congregational hymns (for example, texts from the breviary, from the German tradition, and from Herbert and Milton). Yet the hymns of Watts must be our starting point. The roots of his hymns are the roots of hymnody in English. At least four major roots can be identified.
Throughout the eighteenth century, metrical psalms continued to influence the English hymn. It’s a safe bet that the majority of the singers who sang Watts’s texts knew the bulk of the psalter by heart. We know that Wesley and his singers sang psalms in Church of England worship. The psalms were at least as familiar to eighteenth-century hymn singers as our own Christmas carols are to us.
Images and even lines from the psalms recur in the hymns. When singing “Joy to the World” (Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 98), the Sternhold-and-Hopkins “Old Version” of the psalm must have been very much in mind especially when psalter tunes were used. If modern congregations are alert to any changes in wording, we can only imagine the critical response to an entirely new hymnody.
While we pretend to discriminate, it’s often hard to distinguish hymns from psalms: in fact, the terms are often used interchangeably. Metrical psalms were updated and hymns were heavily biblical.
Isaac Watts’s arguments for the new hymnody suggest that psalms were inadequate. We may well wonder. John Dryden’s criticism of the old language of older poetry indicates that changes in the English language—as much as any innate limitations of psalmody—provoked Watts’s dissatisfaction.
Indeed, the psalms are wonderful expressions of a wide range of devotional attitudes, hardly limited by their pre-Christian composition. They are profoundly “psychological.” Like hymns, they are public and private at once, shaping a wide range of devotional attitudes, from near-despair to exultation.
The crucial difference between psalms and hymns comes clear in the explicitly Christian texts explaining and reflecting on the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the sacraments. These demonstrate how far beyond simple praise the hymn had to go as a vehicle for Christian education, for proclamation, for spiritual direction.
Even the poetry that influenced the young English hymn was itself in debt to psalmody. The voice of the psalmist, its rhythms and imagery, was a basic, universal experience of English poets and their readers. Many distinguished poets paraphrased psalms, including the same Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) who figures prominently in the history of the sonnet. John Milton and many of his contemporaries wrote psalm paraphrases. At every literary historical turn, it seems, the psalms were available as models of sacred poetry as well as congregational song.
As poems, hymns proceeded from the understanding of the nature and purpose of poetry common in the late sevententh and early eighteenth centuries. This understanding is not modern.
We tend to think of poetry as a private affair, very personal, a vehicle for feeling. If we read it at all, we expect poetry to be ambiguous, suggestive, perhaps obscurely beautiful. We are unlikely to trust the poets for communication or education. Prose, not poetry, is our medium for public discourse.
When we survey the works of the big-name English poets of the period 1660 to 1740—John Dryden and Alexander Pope—we may well wonder at their subjects. They wrote major poetry on theological, political, and moral issues, even literary and cultural criticism. The private self of the poet is nowhere evident. Poetic language is neither obscure nor ambiguous.
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