Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley
John (17031791) and Charles Wesley (17071788)
[John Wesley, founder of the people called Methodists, was the second son of Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth. He was born June 17, 1703. Educated at the Charterhouse and Oxford, he was elected Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726, and there with some brief intervals remained till 1735, when having been ordained by Potter, then Bishop of Oxford, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, he laid the first foundations of the society which, from the rigid and almost ascetic rules adopted by its members, was called Methodists.
In 1735 he went to Georgia, at the inducement of General Oglethorpe, governor of that colony, to preach to the Indians. This mission, for personal reasons, was a comparative failure. He returned to England in 1738, and there found that his former friend and disciple, George Whitefield, had embarked on the course of itinerant preaching, in which John Wesley, though with considerable difference of character and opinions, joined himand this from henceforth became the purpose of his life. A career of incessant activity, in which preaching, writing, and organising played almost equal parts, occupied the remainder of his long career, which closed on March 2, 1791. He had, as Matthew Arnold expresses it, a genius for godliness, and he united with it a breadth of sympathy and a soundness of judgment which, although occasionally betrayed into eccentricity, gave him a conspicuous place amongst the teachers of the eighteenth century. His life is best told, in a literary point of view, by Southey, and with the utmost detail of admiring yet truthful partisanship, by Dr. Tyerman.
Charles Wesley, Johns younger brother, was educated at Westminster School, and Christ Church, Oxford, and shared his brothers career in Oxford and in Georgia. He was more of a scholar and poet than of a preacher, and his connexion with the Church of England was exposed to a less severe strain than that of John. He died in 1788.]
IT was a fine conception which prompted John Wesley to the arduous task of creating for his followers not merely an ecclesiastical society, a code of laws, and a rule of life, but also a poetical literature which should fulfil their religious aspirations. The thought was no doubt inspired by two motives,one expressed tersely by a famous Scottish statesman, the other by himself. Fletcher of Saltoun is reported to have said, Give others the making of a nations laws, if only you give to me the making of a nations ballads; and John Wesley, from another point of view, added to this sense of the importance of popular poetry the feeling that it ought to be rescued from the exclusive possession of the world,Why should the devil have all the best tunes?
The poetical works of John and Charles Wesley extend through ten volumes, edited lately with scrupulous care by Dr. G. Osborn. Such a demand as the Wesleys thus imposed on their own powers was too extensive even for a great poet to have met; but in this case the difficulty was aggravated partly by the nature of the subject, partly by their own deficiencies. The question why poetry, as applied to sacred subjects, has not had a greater success, has been often debated. A distinguished critic of our times, in his professorial chair, is reported one day to have held out in one hand The Golden Treasury of English Lyrics, collected by Francis Palgrave, and in the other The Book of Praise, collected from all English hymnody by Lord Selborne, and to have asked, Why is it that the Golden Treasury contains almost nothing that is bad, and why is it that the Book of Praise contains almost nothing that is good? The complaint does not apply exclusively to the hymns of Protestant Churches. Dean Milman, in his Latin Christianity, has observed that the fame of the Latin hymns of the Mediæval Church rests chiefly on six or seven well-known examples. Take away the Dies Iræ, the Veni Sanctus Spiritus, the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, the Pange Lingua Gloriosa, the Lauda Sion Salvatorem,and there remains very little that from a literary point of view deserves any attention. In the numerous hymns which have lately been translated into English from the Latin in Lord Butes edition of the Roman Breviary, it is observable that whilst in those which are rendered into English by Cardinal Newman there is a distinct poetical glow and artistic finish, all the rest are couched in the uniform pedestrian style which is unfortunately familiar to English Churchmen in the vast mass of the verses contained in Hymns Ancient and Modern. It is the English poet of the nineteenth century not the Latin hymnodists of the fourteenth or fifteenth that have furnished whatever there is of poetical in the collection. Three reasons may be given for this comparative failure, inherent in the nature of the subject.
The first is, that the moment poetry is made a vehicle of theological argument it becomes essentially prosaic, as much, or almost as much, as if it were employed for arguments on political or philosophical problems. This accounts for the repulsive aspect worn by that vast number of the Wesleyan hymns which were written to set forth their peculiar and complex system of predestination, assurance, and substitution.
The second reason is, that the very greatness of the words which either from biblical or ecclesiastical usage have been consecrated to the sublime thoughts of religion, misleads the writer into the belief that they are of themselves sufficient to carry on the poetic afflatus. The consequence has been that, whether in Latin or in English, the writers of hymns have been tempted to ring the changes on sacred phrases without imparting to them the touch of their own native sentiment or genius; and consequently that a large majority of hymns exemplify almost as much as the watchwords of political or ecclesiastical party, although in a loftier region, the force of the expression of St. Paul, a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
The third cause is the temptation which biblical metaphors have afforded of pursuing into detail, and especially into anatomical detail, expressions derived from the physical structure of the human frame. Of all the forms of devotion which in the Roman Catholic Church have taken possession of devout minds, the most unattractive, the most prosaic, because the most surgical, is the devotion which fastens itself on pictures and representations of the Sacred Heart. Such is the temptation which the Wesleyan hymns have too much followed in their luxuriance of phraseology, like the dropping of the warm blood, or like these lines from one of the poems of John Wesley:
These difficulties, as we have said, are almost inherent in the nature of the subject; but there are others which arise from the deficiencies of the author. The general interest in theology, and the yet more general interest in religious feeling, have enlisted in the service of theology, both in prose and poetry, a larger number of inferior writers than will be found either in philosophy or history or science. It is not every one who believes himself equal to a treatise on the stars, or the history of the English nation; but there are very few who do not think themselves equal to treating the truths which concern us all so deeply as those which are involved whether in the essence or in the circumstantials of religion. Accordingly, whilst the Mediaeval Church produced only one or possibly two great poets, there was no restraint on the number of commonplace minds who thought themselves competent to attempt those monastic doggerel rhymes which fill the larger part of the mediæval hymnology. So also has it been in the Protestant Churches. Men who had hardly a particle of poetic fire in their souls, have not scrupled to produce any number of hymns or psalms on these permitted themes. Amongst such John Wesley is conspicuous. Of all the characteristics of that wonderful mind, none is more remarkable than his downright, plain-spoken, matter-of-fact mode of facing all the great problems which presented themselves to him. For lucidity of expression he almost rivals Paley; for energy he mounts to the level of Warburton or Horsley. But in the prosaic century with which his life was coextensive he was almost the least qualified to produce a substantial addition to its poetry. In the ten volumes of which we have spoken it is sufficient to take at random some few of the passages in which he has endeavoured to clothe his sentiments in verse, in order to appreciate on how low a step he stood in the school of the Muses.
Nevertheless there are two sources of inspiration from which hymn-writers in general and John Wesley in particular have derived a fire which makes it impossible to overlook the claims of the Wesleyan hymnology to be ranked as part of our national literature. First, however prosaic might be the soul of John Wesley himself, he had sufficient appreciation of the grandeur of the gift in others to appropriate it in some degree for his purposes. Such are some beautiful passages adopted or adapted from Gambold the Moravian and from George Herbert. But yet more, Charles Wesley supplied in a large degree the deficiencies of his brother John. He doubtless also was led away by those temptations of hymn-writers to which we have before referred. What John Wesley said of Charles Wesleys Hymns on the Nativity might well have been extended to many dozens, Omit one or two of them and I will thank you. They are namby-pambical. But Charles nevertheless had within him a poetic fervour, perhaps a scholar-like polish, which his brother wanted. These gifts showed themselves in the closer tenacity with which he clung to the Church of his fathers, and also gave to his hymns a literary character which redeems many of them from the pedestrian and argumentative style which disfigures so large a part of his own and his brothers poems. Secondly, there is a redeeming quality in the subjects themselves round which hymns have clustered: although it is true that polemics and over-strained metaphors and sounding words are dangerous pitfalls, yet when a genuine religious soul strikes on one of the greater themes of religion, either touching the simpler emotions of the human heart or the more unquestionable doctrines of Christianity, is struck a spark which not unfrequently rises into true and lasting poetry. Such in the Roman Church were those few hymns to which we have called attention; and such in the Wesleyan hymns are those which we shall select in the following extracts.
Of these the two most important are two of Charles Wesleys hymns, the first on Wrestling Jacob, the second on Catholic Love. The hymn on Wrestling Jacob is not only a hymn, but a philosophical poem, disfigured indeed in parts by the anatomical allusions to the shrunk sinew, but filled on the whole with a depth and pathos which might well excite Watts to say that it was worth all the verses he himself had written, and induce Montgomery to compare it to the action of a lyrical drama.
Of the Hymn on Catholic Love it is a curious and significant fact that it is not contained in any ordinary hymn-book used either by the Wesleyan community or by the English Church. It is not to be found in Lord Selbornes Book of Praise. It was first published at the end of John Wesleys sermon on the Catholic Spirit, on 2 Kings x. 15, in 1755. Nevertheless it is not contained in the published edition of the three volumes where that sermon is printed with the last corrections of the author (1849). It is only to be found, as far as we are aware, in the Century of Methodism, p. 175 (1839), and in vol. vi. 71 of The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley. Within the last year it has been republished from the last entry of the journal of Catherine Stanley, widow of Bishop Stanley (Memoirs of Edward and Catherine Stanley).