STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

SUN OF MY SOUL, THOU SAVIOR DEAR

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 Sun of my soul, Thou Savior dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.
2 When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
Forever on my Savior’s breast.
3 Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.
4 If some poor wandering child of Thine
Have spurned today the voice Divine,
Now, Lord, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.
5 Watch by the sick; enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store;
Be every mourner’s sleep tonight,
Like infants’ slumbers, pure and light.
6 Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take,
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in heaven above

Rev. John Keble, 1820

NOTE.– Six verses out of the fourteen of the original poem. The text is that of the second edition of The Christian Year, with (perhaps) a variation in the form of one word (see under “Some Points for Discussion”).

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

In June, 1827, a book of verse in two thin 16mo volumes was published at Oxford, England. It had the following title: “The Christian Year: Thoughts in Verse for the Sundays and Holydays throughout the Year.” Beneath the title was the motto, “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” The author was a young clergyman, John Keble, but his name did not appear in the book. The secret of authorship was shared by a number of friends to whom he had submitted the manuscript, and gradually leaked out. For years he had been writing and revising his poems, and he wished to hold them back for still further polishing; perhaps not letting the book appear till after his death. But his aged father’s urgent wish to see it in print impelled him to publish it without further delay.

The success of the book was immediate and extraordinary. Edition after edition was called for. In twenty-six years after publication forty-three editions, one hundred and eight thousand copies in all, were printed. Indeed, the sale of the book has gone on continuously up to the present time. The man who seemed most indifferent to its success, most unconscious of its merits, was the author himself. He never willingly talked about it or cared to hear it praised. That may be explained partly by his modesty and dissatisfaction with his work, but yet more from the fact that the book laid bare his inmost thoughts and feelings.

The Christian Year is not a continuous poem. It consists of a series of poems, one for each of the days and occasions for which services are provided in the Book of Common Prayer. These poems were not intended for singing, but for devotional reading as a poetical companion to the Prayer Book. And yet a good many hymns have been taken from them by compilers of hymn books.

The first service in the Prayer Book is the Order for Morning Prayer. And the first poem in The Christian Year is called “Morning.” Certain of its verses make one of our most familiar morning hymns, “New Every Morning is the Love ” (The Hymnal, No. 6). The second service in the Prayer Book is the Order for Evening Prayer, and in The Christian Year the second poem is “Evening.” It has fourteen verses, with the motto prefixed, “Abide with us, for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent.” The third, seventh, eighth, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth verses make up the familiar hymn, “Sun of My Soul,” as printed in The Hymnal (No. 16) and here.

Autograph Verses of the Hymn
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It would be interesting to know who it was with the wit to discover that so lovely and complete a hymn lay imbedded among the verses of a poem which, as a whole, is not a hymn at all. The great thing was to discern the precise point at which the hymn should begin. In a copy of the first edition of The Christian Year belonging to the present writer some one has mapped out a proposed hymn, beginning with the first verse of the poem, as follows: –

“’Tis gone, that bright and orbed blaze,
Fast fading from our wistful gaze;
Yon mantling cloud has hid from sight
The last faint pulse of quivering light.”

Such a hymn could not have won its way. As early as 1836 the accomplished Unitarian, John Hamilton Thom, made up for his Selection a hymn whose first verse was the ninth of the poem, beginning, “Thou Framer of the light and dark,” followed by the last three verses as at present sung. A year earlier than that the Rev. Henry Venn Elliott (brother of the author of “Just as I Am”) put into his Psalms and Hymns a selection of four verses, beginning with the “Sun of my soul” verse. His example was followed by other editors, some of them using additional verses. And, unless an earlier instance shall turn up, to him must be given the honor of discovering the hymn that lay imbedded in the poem. It is a curious fact that when Keble himself came to select the verses to be used in the Salisbury Hymn Book, 1857, he left out the “Sun of my soul” verse altogether, and began the hymn with “When the soft dews of kindly sleep.” In this he has had few followers.

In England, as has been said, the success of The Christian Year was immediate. But England was more remote from the United States then than now, and the channels of fellowship between the Episcopal churches in the two countries were less open. Bishop Doane, of Burlington, New Jersey, had his attention called to the book in 1828, accidentally, by coming across a quotation from it. He edited and published in 1834, through Lea & Blanchard, Philadelphia, the first American edition of The Christian Year. His attempt, by means of notes, to make it serve also as a primer of “the order, institutions, and services of the Church,” together with his curious method of printing in italics all such lines throughout the book as especially pleased him, cause a smile of amusement to flit across the expression of one’s appreciation of the Bishop’s venture. It was not, however, until 1865 that “Sun of My Soul” was admitted among the hymns appointed to be sung in Protestant Episcopal churches. The New England Unitarians (least in sympathy with Keble and yet most alert in seeing good in new things) were, as so often, the first to introduce the hymn into this country. In 1835 F. W. P. Greenwood, pastor of King’s Chapel, Boston, included it in his Collection of Psalms and Hymns, beginning the hymn with the first verse of the poem (“’Tis gone, that bright and orbed blaze”), and following that with the “Sun of my soul” verse and two more of those now so familiar. Several other Unitarian compilers followed Mr. Greenwood’s lead. Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Collection of 1855 seems to have introduced the hymn into more orthodox circles; and in The Sabbath Hymn Book of the Andover professors, 1858, it appears, at length relieved of the incubus of a first verse that is not hymnic, as our familiar “Sun of My Soul, Thou Savior Dear.”

THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

John Keble was born at Fairford on April 25th, 1792. He was prepared for college by his father, a country clergyman (for whom the poet was named), and went up to Oxford “as a mere lad, home-bred and home-loving.” Keble’s home-training in a secluded parsonage, with the peaceful English landscape outside, and, within, the unquestioned reign of the old High Church prejudices, opinions, and piety, had a great part in making him what he was. It furnished the very atmosphere of the poetry of his after years.

While only eighteen he was graduated B. A., with double first-class honors, then counted a rare distinction. In those days, when scholarship outranked athletics, it made the shy, gentle lad “first man in Oxford.” Cardinal Newman recalls that when he came there Keble’s was the first name he heard, spoken of “with reverence rather than admiration,” and confesses how abashed he felt in Keble’s presence. This “reverence rather than admiration” seems to have been the common feeling toward Keble through all his life.

Keble was elected a Fellow of Oriel College, and remained in Oxford as a tutor and as examiner. He was ordained to the full ministry in 1816, and took a country curacy in addition to college duties. His mother’s death, in 1823, brought him home to Fairford, and there, with the exception of a year as curate of Hursley, he stayed as his father’s helper as long as the latter lived. It was while at Fairford that he published The Christian Year. Other than that, perhaps the most momentous thing he did in these years was preaching at Oxford in 1833 the famous Assize Sermon that, according to Newman, gave the start to the High Church or Oxford Movement, which transformed the Church of England. And of this movement Keble and Newman and Doctor Pusey were the leading spirits.

In 1835 Keble’s father died. In that year he married and became Vicar of Hursley, a lovely village across the downs from Winchester. There he remained with entire contentment for the rest of his days, a famous man, but leading the life of a retired scholar and faithful country pastor. He rebuilt the village church, largely out of the profits of The Christian Year; and in his daily services and parish ministries carried out the church principles for which he stood.

Tender-hearted, kindly, gentle, and even playful in manner, Keble was none the less firm and decided in holding and advocating extreme High Church views. He gave himself very earnestly to forwarding “the movement,” and had but scant regard for what he called “The Protestant party.” But, unlike his friend Newman, he saw his way clear to remain in the Church of England. It is indeed impossible to think of him as making such a breach with his traditions and familiar surroundings, or as surviving it if made.

John Keble
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Keble’s mind was that of a poet and not that of a logician. Intuition and feeling were more to him than reasoning, and he instinctively craved a comfortable support of authority as the sanction for his opinions and acts. His character, in its childlikeness and purity, its entire unworldliness, its devotional fervor and spirit of consecration, was lovely indeed. Taken together with his power of substituting lofty poetry for polemics, it has given him extraordinary influence within the Church of England. Beyond its bounds that influence was necessarily limited by a theory of the church that withdrew him from any real sympathy and communion with his fellow Christians in other folds. His position in hymnody does not by any means correspond with the important place he occupies as a religious poet. The two lovely hymns extracted from the opening poems of The Christian Year come near to exhausting the materials that are available without an effort of piecing together unrelated passages. It is a book of meditative poetry and not of hymns. Keble’s other poetical works include Lyra Innocentium, in which childhood is contemplated with the light from stained-glass windows falling upon it; and also a complete metrical version of the Psalms. The latter was never used as a hymn book, but is far superior to the average attempt to do a thing which, as Keble himself knew and acknowledged, is inherently impossible. The hymn beginning “God, the Lord, a King remaineth” (The Hymnal, No. 89) is an example of Keble’s renderings. From time to time he contributed a few other hymns to various books compiled by personal friends. He also assisted Earl Nelson in editing The Salisbury Hymn Book of 1857. In this he printed his familiar wedding hymn, “The Voice that Breathed o’er Eden” (The Hymnal, No. 687).

Keble died on March 29th, 1866, at Bournemouth, where he had gone for the health of his wife, who survived him but six weeks. The last book he had in his hand was a hymn book – Roundell Palmer’s Book of Praise. He had sent for it, because unable to recall all the verses of Bishop Ken’s Evening Hymn, which he was accustomed to say in the night-watches by his wife. The graves of the poet and his wife are in Hursley church-yard.

SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) Can even a hymn so tender and lovely as this be sung thoughtlessly? There is in the diary of the late Archbishop Benson a good instance of the thoughtful hearing of the hymn. He was preaching in the chapel of Eton College, and notes: “In Evening Service I could not see one single boy who was not singing the Evening Hymn after Service, ‘Sun of My Soul,’ – and the last verse was most touching, and most touchingly sung, as one thought of school as the waking place of so many souls and minds: –

    “‘Come near and bless us when we wake,
    E’re through the world our way me take.

(2) The many alterations made in the text of the hymn by various editors may well be passed by. The revisions of Keble himself are more interesting. Two autograph manuscripts of The Christian Year, or parts of it, are in existence, and of that dated 1822 a facsimile has been printed. Its differences from The Hymnal text are these: –

    Verse 2, line 2:    drooping eyelids.
    Verse 2, line 4:    our Savior’s.
    Verse 3, line 1:    to eve.
    Verse 4, line 1:    wandering soul.
    Verse 4, line 2:    has spurned.
    Verse 4, line 3:    Thy gracious work.
    Verse 4, line 4:    Let him not sleep tonight in sin.

The Hymnal text here given is that of the second edition (1827) of The Christian Year. It differs from that of the first edition in only two places. In the opening line of the fourth verse the first edition followed the manuscript form, “If some poor wandering soul of thine”; and the last line of that verse began (oddly enough), “Let her no more.” Can there be any question that in this second edition Keble improved the text of these lines? 

There is, however, one small particular in which The Hymnal text differs from that of all the early printed editions. In them the last line of the fifth verse is printed to read “Like infant’s slumbers,” instead of “Like infants’ slumbers.” In Keble’s manuscript the position of the apostrophe is problematical. In later editions of The Christian Year the word is printed “infants’,” whether or not by Keble’s authority does not appear. It is hard to believe that he would have defended “like infant’s slumbers” as good English, if his attention was called to it. It seems more likely that it was an overlooked misprint.

(3) What passage of Scripture suggested the lines: –

    “O may no earth-born cloud arise
    To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes?”

(4) The familiar tune, Hursley, was arranged for this hymn from an old German melody: Abends (The Hymnal, No. 18), Keble (No. 61), Sun of My Soul (No. 118), and Clolata (No. 444), were all specially written for it. Of the five tunes, which best expresses the spirit of the hymn?