Ancient or Modern, Ancient and Modern: The Victorian Hymn and the Nineteenth Century

By Watson, J. R. | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Ancient or Modern, Ancient and Modern: The Victorian Hymn and the Nineteenth Century


Watson, J. R., Yearbook of English Studies


Hymns Ancient and Modern (1860-61) was one of the great literary achievements of the nineteenth century, its sales eclipsing those of every other printed book. In religion, the growing uncertainties and doubts produced a frenetic activity, shown in its constituent parts. The Latin and Greek hymns celebrated the continuity of the Church, and the claim of the Church of England to be a part of the Catholic Church; the translation of German hymns celebrated the Reformation. Behind these major divisions were assumptions about education and the role of women.

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The historian who would consider the impact of literature on the culture of the Victorian period would do well to consider Hymns Ancient and Modern, and the neglected field of hymnody in general. Very few references to the hymn are to be found in studies of the period, and yet the publication figures tell a story of a literary form that penetrated further into ordinary life than any other: even the novels of Dickens and the poetry of Keble or Tennyson, successful though they were, could not match the extraordinary success of A & M. It was published in 1861, and by the end of the century sales had reached more than 35 million. The 1889 edition (that of 1875 with a supplement) sold 3,524,626 copies in 1889 and 1890. (1) And A & M, of course, was not the only hymn book. Over a third of the churches in the Province of Canterbury used Church Hymns with Tunes, published by the SPCK, (2) so a rough estimate of those sales would be ten million. Then there were the denominational hymn books: the Congregational Hymn Book of 1836 sold over 116,000 copies in nine years. (3) The Wesleyans and the United Methodists each had a separate book, and so did the Primitive Methodists (whose 1854 book was described by Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology as 'the worst edited and most severely mutilated collection of hymns ever published'). (4)

We have to imagine these books in the homes of Victorian middle-class families, resting on the piano during the week and taken to church or chapel on Sundays. People, especially Nonconformists, possessed their own copy of their denominational hymn book, often one of the few books in the house beside the Bible and The Pilgrim's Progress (until recently hymn books in Methodist churches were stamped 'For the use of visitors', assuming that church members would bring their own). They provided a vast multi-cultural resource: they contained texts of great splendour and antiquity from the earliest years of the Christian Church at one extreme, and texts such as 'The Church's one foundation', that confronted nineteenth-century anxiety, at the other:

 
   Though with a scornful wonder 
   Men see her sore opprest, 
   By schisms rent asunder, 
 
   By heresies distrest, 
   Yet saints their watch are keeping, 
   Their cry goes up, 'How long?' 
   And soon the night of weeping 
   Shall be the morn of song. 

This hymn, written by Samuel John Stone, a young curate at Windsor, was a response to the controversy over Bishop Colenso's The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, published in 1862, and the subsequent attempt by his senior bishop to have Colenso deposed and excommunicated. The hymn would have brought the controversy out of the newspapers and into every Anglican church and home. It was part of a great spectrum of religious and moral experience to be found in a hymn book: between this response to a contemporary problem on the one hand and the great hymns of the early Church on the other, there were poems by Herbert and Addison, hymns by Watts and Wesley and Cowper, and translations from Latin, German, and Greek. A hymn book was a treasure-house of British and European culture.

For many households it must have been the chief access to poetry, an anthology of tried and tested pieces which gave a glimpse of the imaginative world that was normally denied to them. …

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