An early hymnal--Association with "Hymns Ancient and Modern"--"Jesu, meek and gentle"--Circumstances of its composition-- Collected poetical works --A hymn of the Annunciation.
OF all Prynne's writings that which has attained the widest popularity is his hymn--
"Jesu, meek and gentle,
Son of God Most High,
Pitying, loving Saviour,
Hear Thy children's cry."
This hymn, every verse of which breathes the gentleness which was so characteristic of its writer, is known and loved in many parts of the world. It was written in 1856, in the midst of stormy days at St. Peter's, and was first published in 1857 in "A Hymnal Suited for the Services of the Church: together with a Selection of Introits." This Hymnal, compiled by Prynne and published by Masters, represented a considerable advance upon anything of the sort previously accessible, and was speedily adopted in a number of churches, being twice enlarged during the few years that it was before the public. The early Tractarians, and notably Neale, Keble, and Williams, had already supplied a great want in English hymnology, and enriched it with many beautiful translations from the Latin office-hymns, some of which men like Thomas Helmore were beginning to set to music. But in the majority of churches this leaven had not begun to work, the "Mitre Collection" still furnishing worshippers with such sentiments as the following--
"What hath God wrought, let Britain see,
Freed from the Papal tyranny."
Prynne, anticipating "Hymns Ancient and Modern" by several years, brought out the first part of his Hymnal in 1854; in it he had put together 177 hymns, arranged in the order of the Church's year, and including a number translated from the Latin, some by himself, others by various scholars. Of the hymns published in this early collection, eighty-four were subsequently included in "Hymns Ancient and Modern." After the Hymnal had been published a little while it was supplemented with seventy additional hymns, one of these being--
"Jesu, grant me power to plead,"
an adaptation by Prynne, of peculiar force and beauty, from the Latin of St. John Damascene. The 1866 edition of the Hymnal--making the fifteenth thousand --included 433 hymns and introits, and of the former nearly 200 were subsequently inserted in "Hymns Ancient and Modern." As the latter hymnal began to attain its remarkable success, Prynne relinquished the idea he had entertained of preparing a music edition of his Hymnal, and later he formed one of the small committee engaged by the Rev. Sir Henry Baker to assist in the revision and enlargement of "Hymns Ancient and Modern," which was accomplished in 1875. The Hymnal--of which very few copies now exist--looks small and quaint in comparison with the spacious and expensive productions with which we are familiar to-day: but, like so much else of Prynne's work, it was the outcome of pioneer labour in a field which at that early period was comparatively untouched. Regarded from this point of view, its excellence is remarkable.
Concerning the hymn most widely associated with his memory, Prynne himself has said:--
"It is commonly thought to have been written for children, and on this supposition I have been asked to simplify the fourth verse. The hymn, however, was not written specially for children. Where it is used in collections of hymns for children it might be well to alter the last two lines in the fourth verse thus--
"'Through earth's passing darkness
To heaven's endless day.'
Almost every year it is sung on the occasion of the festival of the Holy Innocents in Westminster Abbey. It has been translated into several languages, and has been the means of great blessing in our own and other lands. I composed it one summer's evening just forty-six years ago, and I don't suppose the entire composition took me more than half an hour. My wife, who was a very good musician, was playing to me from my favourite composers at the time, and, as she played, so the words of the hymn came into my mind. I did not at first think of reducing them to paper, and it was only after the entire hymn was conceived that I at last took an envelope from my pocket and scribbled the verses on the back."
The most general and touching use of the hymn in Prynne's own church was after the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This was especially so when it was sung at the Solemn Requiem celebrated on the occasion of Prynne's funeral service, with the body of its saintly author lying at peace within the chancel of his loved church. Of late years it has always been sung at St. Peter's to the tune written for it by Dr. Hoyte, of All Saints', Margaret Street, W., which setting was greatly loved by Prynne.
Prynne's collected poems and hymns were published in a volume twenty years before his death, chief place being given to the title poem, "The Soldier's Dying Vision." The poems and hymns were, as Prynne observed, "written in fragments of time during five and twenty years of a busy life." They are naturally of unequal merit; but throughout them all there runs that strain of simple piety and loving Christian teaching which was ever so characteristic of their author. As one of the critics observed when the volume was published, "Prynne has not written a hymn which does not bear the impress of the full loving heart from which it springs."
We may perhaps fitly conclude this chapter with one of Prynne's little-known hymns, written by him for the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. This festival, it may be remembered, was strikingly associated with Prynne's life. On it in 1821 he was made a member of the Church by baptism; it was on the feast of the Annunciation that he was admitted to the priesthood in 1842; and early on the morning of the same festival, sixty years later, the days of weakness and of pain were ended and his soul passed to join the waiting Church beyond the veil. Thus the poet-priest sings of this feast of Our Lady, and the hymn seems to us worthy of a place in one or other of the Church's hymnals:--
"And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."
Sing to-day with holy joy
And exultant gladness;
Lo! an angel comes from heaven
To dispel our sadness.
Whither hies the Spirit blest?
To a Virgin holy,
In sweet converse with her God,
In her chamber lowly.
What the message which from heaven
Gabriel is laden,
As he hovers round the shrine
Of the saintly maiden?
Hail! choice vessel full of grace;
Hail! blest Virgin holy;
God in heaven loves to dwell
With the meek and lowly.
"Favour thou hast found with God
Before every other,
Of the Saviour of the world
To become the Mother."
Meekly kneels the Virgin blest,
Her sweet spirit bending
To God's will in glad consent,
To our joy unending.
Praise we then our God to-day
For Christ's Incarnation,
Which, through Mary, brought to man,
Pardon and salvation.