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Lyte's 'Abide with Me.' (Henry Francis Lyte's hymn )

There is indeed a great gulf fixed between what highbrows consider significant and what pleases lesser mortals. One wonders how much, and what, academic English Literature textbooks will find to say in 2093 about Betjeman or Coward or Catherine Cookson or Paul Macartney, whose works have gone round the world in our time, the first two achieving a stone each in Westminster Abbey. Probably not much!

These thoughts are prompted by a consideration of the case of Rev. Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) whose tiny verse output has been a solace and inspiration for generations to millions of ordinary people while as a man he remains unknown except to a handful of hymnology students. Perhaps in this his bicentenary year a word or two in his honour may not be out of place. For Lyte wrote the words of two of our favourite English hymns, Abide with Me and Praise my Soul the King of Heaven, which annually jostle each other for places among the top five hymns in the BBC Songs of Praise ballot. Lyte wrote also the words of three more hymns which, though now elbowed out of most modern hymnals by the huge influx of new contemporary material, have still a strong appeal to the older worshippers among us: God of Mercy, God of Grace; Pleasant are Thy Courts above and Long did I toil and knew no earthly Rest. To these he added The Spirit of the Psalms, a complete series of metrical versions, with sometimes as many as four versions of each psalm.

Lyte was born on June 1st, 1793, near Kelso in the Lowlands, the son of an army officer serving in India at the time. His father soon deserted his mother, who had her son educated from age nine to nineteen at Portora School, Belfast, later as a scholar of Trinity College, Dublin where three years running he won the English Poetry prize with such stirring epics as |The Siege of Salamanca'. Ordained in 1815, the year of Waterloo, he served various curacies in Ireland and the south of England, then in 1822 was admitted as perpetual curate of All Saints, Lower Brixham in South Devon (population 4,000) which he held for 25 years until his death. He was immensely popular, went to sea with the local fishermen, preached them relevant sermons about storms on the Sea of Galilee, and equipped each one with a Bible and Prayer Book for use at sea. Six-foot-two tall, he was a Pied Piper to the local children, of whom he mustered more than 700 in his Sunday School, which boasted a staff of 80. In his late forties he developed bronchitis and then tuberculosis, which he was medically advised to hold at bay by travelling in Italy and France. This he did reluctantly, unwilling to tear himself away from his parish duties - |it is better to wear out than to rust out' he said. The travels seemed to work for a time, but in 1847 he died (ultimately of dysentery) in Nice, where his body still lies in the cemetery of the English Holy Trinity church.

Completed at Brixham a few months before he died was the hymn that made him famous all over the English-speaking world, Abide with Me. He called it in a letter to his family |my latest effusion', and it had originally three more stanzas in the middle which were dropped in publication. He wrote his own tune for it, but this was soon superseded by Dr. W. H. Monk's tune |Eventide' which appeared with Lyte's words for the first time in the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern, 1861. (The legend is that Monk retired to the summerhouse at the end of his garden from which he emerged ten minutes later with a smile on his face and the tune completed.) The prominent use of the word |Eventide' as the tune's title probably did as much as anything to get the hymn accepted as a straight evening hymn - which it is not: its words refer to the eventide of life.

What is less well known is that Lyte was an ardent and scholarly collector of antique religious books: the library of 4,500 books he had amassed with his son's help took 16 days to auction in London after his death, its sale catalogue, marked with the price obtained for each item, is still to be seen in the National Library today. It is also satisfying that his daughter's husband, Rev. J. R. Hogg, carried on his work at Brixham for another twenty years, and that their daughter, A. M. R. Hogg, wrote the preface to an edition of her grandfather's poems.

It is, however, not so much the circumstances of his death that are interesting, as those of his birth. This took place in the Berwickshire village of Ednam, three miles north of Kelso, where his mother was lodged in a local farm while the father was out serving in India. It so happens that Ednam was also the birthplace (in the local manse) of James Thomson who in 1740 wrote the words of Rule, Britannia! It is a singular coincidence that this one modest Berwickshire hamlet should have produced both the writers of the two most widely known British songs of all time. There is a memorial to Thomson in Ednam, but none to Lyte. One wonders whether it might be helpful to go and stroll round Ednam for an hour or two in case there is some special virtue in the air there - an afflatus which would help one to generate a third great song which would go round the world in the same way.

The hymns of this kindly scholar-gentleman-parson are his public memorial for all time; but it is tempting to take leave of him on a lighter, more secular note. Here is the stylish little poem he wrote in 1826 for the grave of a friend's dead spaniel, called Var; it might almost serve as his own epitaph:

Breathe, gentle spring, breathe on this grassy mound, And sing, ye birds, and bloom, ye flowers around. Ye suns and dews, make green the resting-place Of honest Var, the noblest of his race. Gentle, yet fearless, active, fond and true, He reads, proud man, a lesson here for you; And bids you (happy might you hear) to be Guiltless in life and calm in death as he. Go, and as faithful to your Master prove, As firm in duty, and as strong in love. You will not find this moment here mis-spent In musing o'er a spaniel's monument.

[Lord Horder is a musicologist and composer as well as the former chairman of Duckworth Publishers.]
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Author:Horder, Mervyn
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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