Newman's forgotten hymns are worth rediscovering

Newman's forgotten hymns are worth rediscovering

As the canonisation of John Henry Newman approaches on October 13, parishes will be preparing to sing his beloved hymns. Count on hearing Praise to the Holiest on that Sunday, if not also Lead, Kindly Light and Firmly I Believe and Truly.

But whereas these three masterpieces are rightly his best known, Newman also wrote and translated many other hymns during his life, and music directors and parish priests may wish to consider these as additions to the old favourites.

Most of Newman’s hymns can be found first as poems in two collections of poetry published during his life, the Lyra Apostolica of 1836 (published before his conversion, with other Oxford Movement friends), and the Verses on Various Occasions of 1868 after his conversion and founding of the oratory. Various of these poems made appearances as hymns in one form or another, and around 30 can be found in an astonishing range of hymnals spanning the Christian world from Mennonites to Unitarians, and Anglicans to Anabaptists, witnessing to the ecumenical reach of Newman’s poetic expression of faith.

His knowledge of and love for the Church Fathers is one of the great themes of Newman’s life and especially of his conversion. His intimate familiarity with the writings of St Ambrose, St Gregory the Great and others extended to the great hymns attributed to them and used by the Church in the Divine Office. In fact, his translations of the office hymns, made in 1836-8, take up 62 pages of Verses on Various Occasions. While the versifying of some of the translations is sometimes a little forced and the language occasionally archaic, some are worth taking up again – his simple version of the Compline hymn Te Lucis Ante Terminum, for example, is rather touching:

Now that the day-light dies away,
By all Thy grace and love,
Thee, Maker of the world, we pray
To watch our bed above.

Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,
The offspring of the night,
Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,
Pure in our foe’s despite.

This grace on Thy redeemed confer,
Father, Co-equal Son,
And Holy Ghost, the Comforter,
Eternal Three in One.

After his conversion, Newman’s poetry explored more explicitly Catholic themes, and some of the poems that became hymns are in the sentimental vein of 19th-century popular piety. A beautiful hymn on the Holy Souls, written in 1857, explores some of the ideas found also in The Dream of Gerontius:

Oh, by their patience of delay,
Their hope amid their pain,
Their sacred zeal to burn away
Disfigurement and stain;

Oh, by their fire of love, not less
In keenness than the flame,
Oh, by their very helplessness,
Oh, by Thy own great Name,

Good Jesu, help! Sweet Jesu, aid
The souls to Thee most dear,
In prison, for the debt unpaid
Of sins committed here.

Gerontius is also recalled by Guardian Angel (1853), which tenderly addresses “My oldest friend, mine from the hour / When first I drew my breath; / My faithful friend, that shall be mine, / Unfailing, till my death.”

Newman’s devotion to his guardian angel, expressed here, was one of childlike trust and confidence, and this hymn (appropriately shortened from its 11 verses) is one that could certainly be used in Catholic schools.

His invocation of St Michael, however, expressed in a poem of 1862 which appears in the Westminster Hymnal as late as 1964, is very different:

And thou, at last,
When time itself must die,
Shalt sound that dread and piercing blast,
To wake the dead, and rend the vaulted sky,
And summon all to meet the omniscient Judge on high.

Newman’s Marian devotion was profound, and naturally found expression in poetry. A curiously Chestertonian ballad “The Pilgrim Queen” (1849) became a hymn in the 1870 volume Hymns and Songs for Catholic Children, which describes Mary sitting on the ground “desolate” over the loss of England, but ends in hope with the memorable verses:

I look’d on that Lady,
and out from her eyes
Came the deep glowing blue
of Italy’s skies;
And she raised up her head
and she smiled, as a Queen
On the day of her crowning,
so bland and serene.

“A moment,” she said,
“and the dead shall revive;
The giants are falling,
The Saints are alive;
I am coming to rescue
my home and my reign,
And Peter and Philip
are close in my train.”

“The Month of Mary” (1850) is a similarly stirring hymn for the ‘Queen of May’, which shows Newman’s embrace of popular Marian devotion after his conversion, and is found in hymnaries of Marian sodalities in the late century. It may have been sung by these when processing through the streets of towns and cities such as Boston or Birmingham, and perhaps it may yet be again with Newman’s canonisation.

But if none of these hymns find the same favour in parishes as the more popular Praise to the Holiest or Lead, Kindly Light when their author is raised to the altars, I hope people will find renewed interest in the volumes from which they are drawn. Newman’s poetry is full of rich devotional material, and profound reflections on the spiritual life. His “other” hymns have the potential to enrich our personal prayer lives if not necessarily our parishes’.

Dr Matthew J C Ward is director of music at Mayfield School, director of Stonegate Choir and regional director (South East) of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge