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Literary Recognition

It was remarked by Archbishop Trench that the greatest hymn of the Middle Ages owes much of its modern recognition to the use that Goethe made of it in Faust. It was this circumstance which ‘helped to bring it to the knowledge of some who would not otherwise have known it; or if they had, would not have believed its worth, but that the sage and seer of this world had thus stood sponsor to it, and set his seal of recognition upon it.’11Sacred Latin Poetry, p. 273. It would appear that the literary world is waiting for some such warranty before it realizes that in the early hymns of Methodism we possess a unique literature of devotion. The rare quality, literary and spiritual, of the hymns of the Wesleys has passed almost unrecognized for more than a hundred and fifty years, except among Methodists. 2 There is a perverse tradition among men of letters that Methodism has no literature. Leslie Stephen contrasted the literary result of the Oxford Movement and of the Evangelical Revival, and deplored, in the latter, ‘the absence of any literature possessing more than a purely historical interest.’22History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, vol. ii. xii., p. 101. This is one of the most amazing judgements to which a critic ever committed himself. It is surely beyond question, for those who know both books, that John Wesley's Journal is in its way as absolutely literature as Newman's Apologia, and what a gulf there is between the pale, ecclesiastical verse of Keble and the lyrical raptures of Charles Wesley!

The mere fact is that the hymns of Methodism constitute the finest body of devotional verse in the language, and that the very best of them belong to the exalted region of the Dies irae, dies illa of Thomas of Celano, and the Jesu dulcis memoria of St. Bernard.

The extraordinary fecundity of Charles Wesley as a writer of religious verse has certainly obscured our sense of the literary value of what he wrote. No poet can maintain the highest level throughout a dozen volumes. In the thousands of hymns he wrote there are inevitably many that are mere versification of evangelical commonplace. But the general quality 3 of the style is remarkably high, and scattered through this mass of work there are many scores of hymns, at the least, that are of the very highest order. The best work of Charles Wesley abides for the universal Church in the Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists of 1780--an anthology, selected mainly from the vast mass of his brother's work by John Wesley--of which so unprejudiced a critic as Dr. Martineau declared that it was ‘after the Scriptures, the grandest instrument of popular religious culture that Christendom has ever produced.’33In a letter to Miss Winkworth.

Early Methodism and Literature

The writings of the early Methodists mark an epoch in English literature. The early eighteenth century was a period when almost every writer was chilled into conventionality by a false classicism. Addison represented the perfection of English prose. And, as De Quincey once declared, in a very discerning paragraph, ‘Addison, in particular, shrank from every bold and every profound expression as from an offence against good taste. He dared not for his life have used the word “passion” except in the vulgar sense of an angry paroxysm. He durst as soon have danced a hornpipe on the top of the Monument as have talked of “rapturous emotion.” What would he have said? Why, “sentiments that were of a nature to prove 4 agreeable after an unusual rate.”’44Works xi., p. 21 (1890). The writings of the early Methodists marked the first return to simplicity and sincerity in prose. It was Edward FitzGerald who was the first to point this out, with characteristic insight and independence of judgement. ‘Another book I have had is Wesley's Journal,’ he wrote to Professor Cowell. ‘If you don't know it, do know it; it is curious to think of this Diary of his running almost coevally with Walpole's Letter-Diary, the two men born and dying too within a few years of one another, and with such different lives to record. And it is remarkable to read pure, unaffected, and undying English, while Addison and Johnson are tainted with a style which all the world imitated!’

The Methodist Hymns a Lyrical Prelude

And as in the prose, so in the poetry of the age. Appearing at the very time when English poetry was most stilted and sterile, the hymns of Methodism became the prelude of a lyrical revival. Wordsworth remarked that, with one or two negligible exceptions, ‘the poetry of the period intervening between the publication of Paradise Lost and The Seasons does not contain a single new image of external nature, and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred that the eye of the poet had been steadily fixed upon his object, much less that his feelings had urged him 5 to work upon it in the spirit of genuine imagination.’ 55Essay, Supplementary to the Preface of the Poems. It would be equally true to say that for a similar period, beginning and ending a little later, say, from the death of Henry Vaughan to the youth of Robert Burns, the lyrical note was never heard in these lands. Poetry had ceased to be ‘simple, sensuous, and passionate.’ Fire and fervor, the sense of wonder, the arresting note of reality, had all gone. Lyrical sincerity and spontaneity reappear first of all in the hymns of Methodism. We hear again the authentic note of passion, and it betokens much for English poetry in the days to come. A single example will serve where scores might be adduced. Think of the verve, the imaginative boldness, the ecstatic fervor of stanzas like these in an age when English verse was dominated by the influence of Pope--the lines were published in 1749:

I cannot see Thy face, and live,

Then let me see Thy face, and die!

Now, Lord, my gasping spirit receive;

Give me on eagle's wings to fly,

With eagle's eyes on Thee to gaze,

And plunge into the glorious blaze!

The fullness of my great reward

A blest eternity shall be,

But hast Thou not on earth prepared

Some better thing than this for me?

What, but one drop! one transient sight!

I want a sup, a sea of light.

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