Academic journal article The Hymn

"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross": A Commentary

Academic journal article The Hymn

"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross": A Commentary

Article excerpt

Isaac Watts's hymn on the Crucifixion, "When I survey the wondrous cross," has long been recognized as one of the greatest hymns written in the English language.1 It has become part of the standard repertory of congregational song in England and America-and, indeed, around the world-and no English-language hymnal would be considered complete without it. Watts himself is often called the "Father of English Hymnody" because of his significant role in breaking the monopoly of exclusive psalm singing in Great Britain to usher in the writing of "hymns of human composure."2

"When I survey" was originally published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), Watts's first book designed especially for congregational singing, under the heading "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ" and with the scripture reference, Galatians 6:14. The text appeared as number seven in the third part of the book, which contained hymns for "Celebration of the Lord's Supper."3 Two years later (1709), the second edition of the book included a slighdy revised version of the hymn, and this form of the text eventually found its way into many other collections of congregational song.

The purpose of the present article is to serve as a commentary on the hymn, in much the same sense that a biblical commentary describes and analyzes a passage of scripture. Nearly every word Watts chose for "When I survey" is pregnant with meaning, and the structure of the text reveals a remarkable sense of both form and theological/spiritual insight. In the process of singing as an act of worship it is often difficult to internalize the full essence of a hymn that is as tightiy constructed as is this one. It is hoped that the present analysis, though certainly not expressing the full essence of what this hymn conveys, will both enhance artistic appreciation of the hymn and-more importantiy-help increase the spiritual understanding of those who sing it.4

In order to evaluate the text, it is important to know the sense in which Watts understood the words he used. To that end, frequent reference is made to N[athan] Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), one of the first comprehensive dictionaries of the English language, and one of the most popular such works during the eighteenth century. Though published more than a dozen years after Watts's hymn, Bailey's book gives insight into the meanings of the words Watts employed as they would have been understood in the early eighteenth century.

Mechanical Features

"When I survey" was initially laid out in five V V stanzas. When Watts reprinted the text in 1709 he marked the original stanza four for possible omission, a suggestion that has been followed by most subsequent hymnal editors, though (as will be seen below) this omission spoils one of the most distinctive structural features of the hymn. The hymn is in Long Meter (four lines of eight syllables each, 8888), one of the three most commonly used hymnic patterns of the time. In the preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Watts remarked that he had "confin'd" the whole volume "to three Sorts of Metre" so they could be "fitted to the most common Tunes."5 Long Meter, together with Common Meter (8686) and Short Meter (6686) were the patterns drawn upon most often for the metrical psalm singing that had been customary in England since the sixteenth century, and it was these psalm tunes that Watts had in mind. The author's limiting himself to these three meters is an indication of the practical nature of his intent.

The hymn is also structured in iambic tetrameter, that is, four poetic feet (tetrameter) of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (iambic)-u/. Iambic meter tends to pull the reader/hearer/singer ahead into the next thought, and tetrameter gives terseness to each line, creating a sense of forward, perhaps inevitable, momentum. Several lines begin with a Choriambus, a foot of four syllables with the first and fourth accented and the second and third unaccented (/uu/). …

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