Hymns of Christopher Wordsworth

Christopher wordsworth (1807–1885) was, even in a time in which the Church of England could count a number of formidable scholars among her ranks, a very distinguished member of a very distinguished family of scholars, writers, and clergymen. Among his close relatives were his uncle, the poet William Wordsworth; his father, Christopher, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; his brother John, a classical scholar; his brother Charles, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld, and Dunblane; his son John, Bishop of Salisbury; his son Christopher, a noted liturgical scholar; and his daughter Elizabeth, first principal of Lady Margaret Hall, the first women’s college in the University of Oxford.

The Christopher in question had a brilliant academic career and was a leading Hellenist of his day; he made an edition of the New Testament; wrote hymns and devotional poetry, Biblical commentary and doctrinal instruction, works on epigraphy and on history ecclesiastical and secular, and much else; after a time as Headmaster of Harrow School, and twenty years in parish ministry alongside a Canonry at Westminster Abbey, he became in 1869 the influential Bishop of Lincoln.

Wordsworth, a good Prayer Book Catholic, expressly wrote his collection of hymns for public worship according to the rites of the Church of England, conceiving his 1862 collection The Holy Year; or Hymns for Sundays and Holydays Throughout the Year, and for Other Occasions as a companion to the Book of Common Prayer. In the Preface to that work he decried (with an outbreak of italics worthy of a writer from one or two centuries earlier) the use of subjective hymnody in public worship; rather, his hymns are purposely doxological and doctrinal, ecclesial and liturgical, in nature, each following closely the themes presented in the propers of the day for which it was written – propers and themes which he explicated admirably, and whose antiquity he was careful to point out by appeal to the Fathers and the continuity of the use of the English Church in at least this regard. Lest anyone protest that doctrine is too dry a well to water the doxology or devotion of the faithful, however, Wordsworth points out that one of the most ancient and noble hymns of all, ‘Te Deum laudamus’, is rigorously doctrinal, and that on the other side of the coin, the Creeds of the Church are truly hymns of praise and victory; he hopes that by a deeper understanding of and meditation upon the doctrines of the Church – the mystery of the Incarnation underlying them all – experienced liturgically in scripture and song through the course of the year, the people may well be moved to a stronger faith and a more deeply rooted piety.

Several of his hymns are found in the Hymnal:

048 O day of radiant gladness (st. 1–2, alt.)
088 Sing, O sing, this blessed morn
135 Songs of thankfulness and praise
191 Alleluia, alleluia! Hearts and voices heavenward raise
215 See the Conqueror mounts in triumph
275 Hark! the sound of holy voices
612 Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
626 Lord, be thy word my rule

‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’, his hymn for the Ascension, has been quoted in this space before; ‘Songs of thankfulness and praise’ is an Epiphanytide staple, having been written for the VI. Sunday after the Epiphany, when, in the older Prayer Book scheme, the themes of that season had run their course and a particularly fine Collect (now assigned to Proper 27) was read.

This Sunday, in keeping with the Epistle from the Revelation to St John (7.9–17), the parish I serve sings ‘Hark! the sound of holy voices’, Bp Wordsworth’s hymn for All Saints’ Day, when this Epistle is also appointed. The hymn draws heavily upon the imagery of this passage; a manuscript note of the author’s notes that ‘the whole hymn from beginning to end is in harmony with the Epistle for the festival of the day, and like it is the utterance in triumphant song of a vision of the final gathering of the Saints’:

Multitude which none can number like the stars in glory stands,
clothed in white apparel, holding palms of victory in their hands.

     from stanza 1

I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
     Rv 7.9

The second Hymnal stanza is practically a list of traditional categories of saints: patriarchs, prophets, kings, apostles, confessors (those persecuted but not killed for the faith), martyrs, evangelists, virgins and holy women (it is interesting to note that he includes patriarchs and prophets, who in the Eastern Christianity are included among the saints, though he omits the traditional category of bishops as well as the more exclusively Roman categories of Doctors and Popes).

Two stanzas of the original have been omitted in the Hymnal, the first somewhat understandably, the second rather unfortunately, even if more than four stanzas of eight lines (or of four fifteen-syllable lines, as Wordsworth insisted on formatting such hymns) can often become tiresome to sing:

after stanza 2
They have come from tribulation, and have wash’d their robes in Blood,
Wash’d them in the Blood of Jesus; tried they were, and firm they stood;
Mock’d, imprison’d, ston’d, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword;
They have conquer’d Death and Satan, by the might of Christ the Lord.

final Doxology
God of God, the One-begotten, Light of Light, Emmanuel,
In Whose Body join’d together all the Saints for ever dwell,
Pour upon us of Thy fulness, that we may for evermore
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost adore.

The several tunes with which this text has been paired – ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Carlton’, ‘Deerhurst’ (in HA&M New Standard and the New English Hymnal), ‘Gloria (Smart)’, ‘Knightsbridge’, ‘Moultrie’ (in the Hymnal since 1892) are mostly contemporary with it and mostly do not help to relieve any potential tedium in singing long stanzas. The third edition of the English Hymnal set it to a new, folk-like tune called ‘Vision’, written by one S. Mason – an improvement, to be sure – and suggested (as does the Hymnal  1982) ‘In Babilone’ (to which ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’ is set) as an alternative.

In my place of work it is sung to ‘Pleading Savior’, a pentatonic tune first printed in an early nineteenth-century American collection and typical of a certain strain of such folk-derived tunes (cf. ‘Star in the East’ [118] and ‘Holy Manna’ [238] for close parallels). Such a tune, free from the pull of the half-steps in the diatonic scale, to say nothing of chromatic alterations, has the virtue of being tonally ambiguous (or open-ended), susceptible of a variety of harmonizations and styles of accompaniment, and strong enough to be sung with none at all. Its simplicity of both scale and rhythm mean it can be sung with an entirely natural vigor (when this is desired) far from the artificial enthusiasm to which many kinds of tunes of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries attempt to rally the singer.

The relative plainness of Bp Wordsworth’s style, which at its best has contributed to the continuing use of some of his hymns, means that it can be sung to such a sturdy tune without any sense of discord, just as many of Watts’s and Wesley’s were successfully matched with tunes of this ilk. Indeed, set to ‘Pleading Savior’, Wordsworth’s text acquires a certain sense of earnestness and joins a whole constellation of ‘songs of heaven’ found in the early nineteenth-century American collections.