Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hymn-writer extraordinaire

It can be argued that Christopher "Kit" Smart (author of the famous encomium to his cat Jeoffry) is in certain respects the greatest of all hymn-writers in the English language. He was by no means as prolific as Charles Wesley (who was?), and his hymn texts put demands on the reader/singer; but Smart can scarcely be equalled for verbal audacity, dramatic power, theological depth, and biblical imagination.

He had a rather tragic life, which adds to the poignance of his texts. He was committed to an insane asylum in London for several years, and died in a debtor's prison. His Wikipedia entry displays incomprehension regarding his evangelical faith, and one gathers that he was much misunderstood--though Dr. Samuel Johnson, also an evangelical, stoutly defended him against detractors.

One of Smart's hymns was sung on the second Sunday of Easter at St. Paul's Within the Walls in Rome; it can be found in the Episcopal Church Hymnal, # 212. It's set to an excellent, sturdy 18th century tune. It begins rather ordinarily and then builds all at once to a tremendous climax:

Awake, arise, lift up your voice,
let Easter music swell;
rejoice in Christ, again rejoice,
and on his praises dwell.

O with what gladness and surprise
the saints their Savior greet;
nor will they trust their ears and eyes
but by his hands and feet,

those hands of liberal love indeed
in infinite degree,
those feet still free to move and bleed
for millions and for me.

His enemies had sealed the stone
as Pilate gave them leave,
lest dead and friendless and alone
he should their skill decieve.

O Dead arise! O Friendless stand
by seraphim adored!
O Solitude again command
your host from heav'n restored!

Also recommended is the astonishing "We sing of God, the mighty source," #386. I could not find Smart in the Cyberhymnal; he is probably too original and too difficult to be "popular." I have noticed that many church musicians and choir directors pay no attention to hymn texts and do not help the singers to understand them. I once attended a "hymn sing" led by a famous choirmaster. After we sang "There is a balm in Gilead," someone asked what the reference to Gilead was. The choir director did not know! I had to explain the text from Jeremiah, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" This is pathetic! Our great hymns are among our most effective and powerful teachers, if they were only emphasized and taught.