Of the three kinds of poetical composition which, in accordance with the Apostle’s direction, have ever been in use in the Church, “Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” two are supplied by inspiration. We have no need, through God’s bounty, to turn our thoughts to the composition of Psalms or Songs; and, to judge from the attempts which have been made, doubtless we are unequal to it. And the unapproachable excellence of the two which have been supplied serves to suggest the difficulties which beset the composition of the third which has not been supplied. Indeed, it is hardly too strong to say that to write Hymns is as much beyond us as to originate Psalmody. The peculiarity of the Psalms is their coming nearer than any other kind of devotion to a converse with the powers of the unseen world. They are longer and freer than Prayers; and, as being so, are less a direct address to the Throne of Grace than a sort of intercourse, first with oneself, then with one’s brethren, then with Saints and Angels, nay, even the world and all creatures. They consist mainly of the praises of God; and the very nature of praise involves a certain abstinence from intimate approaches to Him, and the introduction of other beings into our thoughts, through whom our offering may come round to Him. For as He, and He only, is the direct object of prayer, so it is more becoming not to regard Him as directly addressed in praise, which would imply passing a judgment on Him who is above all scrutiny and all standards. The Seraphim cried one to another, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” veiling their faces, neither looking nor speaking to Him. The Psalms, then, as being praises and thanksgivings, are the language, the ordinary converse, as it may be called, of Saints and Angels in heaven; and, being such, could not be written except by men who had heard the “unspeakable things” which there are uttered. In this light they are more difficult than Prayers. Beggars can express their wants to a prince; they cannot converse like his courtiers.
Much the same remark may be made about the Songs or Canticles of the Church, which are also inspired, and are a kind of Psalms written for particular occasions, chiefly occasions of thanksgiving. Such are the two Songs of Moses, the Song of Hannah, those in Isaiah, the Song of Hezekiah, of Habakkuk, of the Three Children, of Zacharias, of the Blessed Virgin, and of Simeon, most of which are in the Breviary, and the last four are retained in our own Reformed Prayer Book.
Yet though Hymns, as being of a measured length, and restrained metrically, are so far safer to attempt than Psalms or Songs, they have their own peculiar difficulties. They are direct addresses to Almighty God, which ever must be most difficult to the serious mind, whatever be the difficulty of other devotions. This, in the instance of Prayers, has led to the use of Sentences, such as occur in our own Services; which, besides the advantage of extreme brevity, for the most part admit of being taken from Scripture. It has led also to the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, and of the Kyrie Eleison; and, again, to the use of Collects, which lessen the difficulty of addressing God by subjecting it to fixed rules. Hence our best Family Prayers are what may be called a succession of Sentences strung together, the simple and concise expression of our humiliation, fear, hope, and desire, for ourselves and others. Long Public Prayers, to make a general assertion which of course admits of exceptions, are arrogant and irreverent; hence the Pharisees made them. Hence, too, the unchastised effusions which abound in the present day among those who have left the Church or lost her spirit. The great Eucharistic Prayer is nearly the only long prayer in the Catholic Church; and there is every reason to suppose that in its substance it proceeds from inspired authorities. In our own Service it has been separated by our Reformers into three distinct portions.
Hymns, however, being of the nature of praises, cannot be altogether brought down to that grave and severe character which, as being direct addresses to God, they seem to require; and this is their peculiar difficulty. To praise God specially for Redemption, to contemplate the mysteries of the Divine Nature, to enlarge upon the details of the Economy of Grace and yet not to offend, to invoke with awe, to express affection with a pure heart, to be subdued and sober while we rejoice, and to make professions without display, and all this not under the veil of figurative language, as in the Psalms, but plainly, and (as it were) abruptly, surely requires to have had one’s lips touched with a “coal from the Altar,” to have caught from heaven that “new song” “which no man could learn, but the hundred and forty and four thousand which were redeemed from the earth”—the virgin followers of the Lamb.
Our Church, with the remarkable caution which she displays so often, has not attempted it. She has received the Psalms and Songs from Scripture; and, rejecting the Roman Hymns, has substituted in their stead, not others, but a metrical version of the Psalms. This abstinence has led on the one hand to some of her members on their own responsibility supplying the deficiency, and has incurred the complaint of others, who argued that she ought to have taken on herself what, being right in itself, will certainly be done by private hands, if not by the fitting authority. But, in truth, when it was necessary for her to abandon those she had received, nothing was left to her but to wait till she should receive others, as in the course of ages she had already received, by little and little.
The Roman Hymns, whether good or bad, were the work of no one generation, much less the outpourings of one mind. They were not the contents of one collection, published all new in a day according to the will of man. They were the gradual accumulations of centuries, bearing in old and new upon one treasure-house. When there was a call to reject them, there was nothing to be done but begin again. We could not be young and old at once. It was a stern necessity alone which could compel us to change from what we were; but being changed, so far we were not what we were, and must be what the primitive Church was in these respects, poor and ill-furnished. We began the world again. This is the proper answer to inconsiderate complaints and impatient interference. There have before now been divines who could write a Liturgy in thirty-six hours. Such is not our Church’s way. She is not the empiric to make things to order, and to profess to anticipate the course of nature, which, under grace, as under Providence, is slow. She waits for that majestic course to perfect in its own good time, what she cannot extort from it; for the gradual drifting of precious things upon her shore, now one and now another, out of which she may complete her rosary and enrich her beads,—beads and rosary more pure and true than those which at the command of duty she flung away.
As far as we know, the public Hymns of the early Church were not much more than the following. First, starting from Scripture, she adopted the repetition of the Hallelujah, which is described by St. John, in the Revelations, to be the chant of the blessed inhabitants of heaven. Next may be mentioned the Gloria Patri, pretty much as we now use it. Thirdly, the Trisagion, or “Holy, Holy, Holy,” from Isaiah vi.; or, as it was also used, and now is, in the Roman Church, “Sanctus Deus, Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Immortalis.” Besides these, there was the Morning or Angelic Hymn, beginning with the words used by the Angels at the nativity; and for the evening the Hymn beginning “Hail gladdening Light,” preserved by St. Basil. These are not metrical, as they were afterwards; nor are two others of a later date, which we still retain, the Te Deum and the Athanasian Creed. They are both of Gallican origin, though the former has been ascribed to St. Ambrose. Others, however, now extant, are certainly his; others are the compositions of St. Hilary, Prudentius, St. Gregory, and later saints. It is not too much to say then that, judging by what we know of the Hymns of the primitive Church, we should not be dissatisfied with the paucity of those which custom has, with a sort of tacit authority, introduced among us in the course of several centuries.
More, doubtless, might be selected from the writings of our sacred Poets; but since, from unhappy circumstances, such a work does not seem likely at the present day, thoughtful minds naturally revert to the discarded collections of the ante-reform era, discarded because of associations with which they were then viewed, and of the interpolations by which they were disfigured; but which, when purified from these, are far more profitable to the Christian than the light and wanton effusions which are their present substitute among us. Nay, even such as the Parisian, which are here first presented to the reader, which have no equal claims to antiquity, breathe an ancient spirit; and even where they are the work of one pen, are the joint and invisible contribution of many ancient minds. Moreover, the ancient language used has a tendency to throw the reader out of every-day thoughts and familiar associations, and to make him fervent without ceasing to be mortified. Many a man could bear to read the Canticles in a foreign language who is unequal to it in his own.
It only remains to say, that the following selection of Hymns, from the Paris Breviary, has been confined to such holy days and seasons as are recognized by our Church, or to special events or things recorded in Scripture; those Hymns, however, being omitted which contained invocations to the Saints of such a nature as to be, even in the largest judgment of charity, not mere apostrophes, but supplications.
J. H. N.
February 21, 1838.