30 March 2012

Poems for Lent (35): ‘It is a thing most wonderful,’ by William Walsham How

‘I sometimes think about the cross,/ and shut my eyes, and try to see ...’ a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have been canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the past week. At Choral Evensong on Sunday afternoon, as I prepared to receive the collection and give the blessing, I listened attentively to the words of the closing hymn, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 226; New English Hymnal, 84), written as a poem in 1872 by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897).

The tune we used for this hymn on Sunday afternoon, Passion Sunday, is Herongate, an Essex folk song arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

William Walsham How, a solicitor’s son, was born in Shrewsbury in 1823 and educated at Shrewsbury School and Wadham College, Oxford (BA 1845). He was ordained in 1846, and was curate of Saint George’s, Kidderminster (1846), Holy Cross, Shrewsbury (1848), before becoming the Rector of Whittington in the Diocese of St Asaph in 1851. He was later a Rural Dean (1853), a canon of Saint Asaph Cathedral (1860), chaplain of the English church in Rome (1865) and Rector of Saint Andrew’s Undershaft, London, (1879).

He became a Suffragan Bishop for East London as Bishop of Bedford, and in 1888 he became the first Bishop of Wakefield, a new diocese in the industrial heartlands. His untiring work among the people of the docks and the slums earned him the title of “the poor man’s bishop,” and because he insisted on using public transport he was also known as the “omnibus bishop.” But he liked best his description as “the children’s bishop.” He died in Leenane, Co Mayo, in 1897, while on a fishing holiday in Dulough.

Bishop How, who was strongly influenced by the Tractarian Movement, was the author and editor of several collections of hymns, sermons and children’s stories, many of them published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), and he wrote at least sixty hymns.

His hymns are marked by pure rhythm as well as directness and simplicity, showing a comprehensive grasp of the subject and throwing unexpected light on their themes, with images interwoven with tender thoughts. Although he is seldom thought of as a poet, his hymns have outlived his other literary works and he is one of the most effective Victorian hymn writers.

Seven of his hymns are included in the Irish Church Hymnal. His most popular hymns include ‘For all the Saints who from their labours rest,’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 459; New English Hymnal, 197), ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ (Irish Church Hymnal, 226, New English Hymnal, 84), ‘To thee our God we fly (Irish Church Hymnal, 540, New English Hymnal, 127), and ‘Who is this so weak and helpless’ (New English Hymnal, 474).

‘It is a thing most wonderful’ was written by How, while he was Rector of Whittington in Shropshire – then in the Diocese of St Asaph but now in the Diocese of Lichfield – but it was not published until 1872.

The first version was five verses in length, but within 15 years he had added two more verses to the original. Through this hymn, How is trying to reveal the love of God by looking at the Cross through the eyes of a child. In the 1872 draft, he placed the text I John 4: 10 above the hymn: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

The tune ‘Herongate’ is one of several folksong melodies collected by Vaughan Williams. He transcribed the tune of ‘In Jesse’s City’ in 1903 when he heard a maid singing that song in Ingrave Rectory near Brentwood, about three miles from Herongate in Essex. It was first used with this hymn in 1906 in the first edition of the English Hymnal, which Vaughan Wlliams edited with Percy Dearmer.

All Saints’ Church, one of the two Anglican churches in Rome William Walsham How was chaplain here from 1865 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is a thing most wonderful, by William Walsham How

It is a thing most wonderful,
almost too wonderful to be,
that God’s own Son should come from heaven,
and die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:
he chose a poor and humble lot,
and wept and toiled, and mourned and died,
for love of those who loved him not.

I cannot tell how he would love
a child so weak and full of sin;
his love must be most wonderful,
if he could die my love to win.

I sometimes think about the cross,
and shut my eyes, and try to see
the cruel nails and crown of thorns,
and Jesus crucified for me.

But even could I see him die,
I could but see a little part
of that great love which, like a fire,
is always burning in his heart.

It is most wonderful to know
his love for me so free and sure;
but ’tis more wonderful to see
my love for him so faint and poor.

And yet I want to love thee, Lord,
O light the flame within my heart,
and I will love thee more and more,
until I see thee as thou art.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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