The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study

The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study

The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study

The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study

Synopsis

Why do people sing hymns? Are hymns poetry? What makes a good hymn? The author discusses the nature of hymns and their particular appeal, examines the English hymn as a literary form, and systematically describes its development through four centuries, from the Reformation to the mid-twentieth century.

Excerpt

Some explanation ought perhaps to be offered for writing another book on the English hymn. I have written this one because I have not found those books which have already been written to be particularly helpful in any attempt to understand why the words of one hymn are interesting, or much-loved, or long-lasting, and those of another are not. Most of the writing about hymns has been done by the clergy or by musicians (or by clergy-musicians) and has concentrated on the use of hymns for worship, on the content of hymns, or on their tunes. Some books rely upon anecdotes, and others, such as the lively and stimulating books by Erik Routley, on subjective evaluations, or on an assessment of the value of the hymn's content (often in relation to church worship). the best book on the subject, Louis F. Benson's The English Hymn, dates from 1915, and rarely ventures into critical or even descriptive language. Apart from the work by Donald Davie and Lionel Adey, and on the eighteenth-century hymn by Madeleine Forrell Marshall and Janet Todd, there has not been much serious attention to the words of a hymn, treating them as part of a literary text in the way that one might examine a poem (Susan S. Tamke's admirable Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord is mainly a study of the sociology of hymns), although there have been some excellent studies of individual writers, such as those on Charles Wesley by Frank Baker. Occasionally there are books called (say) Hymns as Poetry, and questions are sometimes asked about whether or not a hymn can be poetry; but on the whole the texts of hymns have received little serious critical study from students of English literature. This book is an attempt to provide that study. It is different from most of the others because it is a work of literary criticism, rather than a study of the content and usefulness of hymns in a liturgical setting.

It is best described by indicating some of the things which it is not. It is not about hymns in worship, although I hope that its treatment of the texts will sometimes result in a deeper understanding which will be beneficial to church worship. Nor is it a book about hymns and their tunes, although there is some reference to the singing of hymns in the first part of Chapter 2. I am convinced that the tunes are important, but I am not qualified to write about them; the best examination of them is (in my . . .

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