12 January 2019

‘Come down, O love divine,
Seek Thou this soul of mine’

The Duomo in Siena … RF Littledale’s hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’ is a translation of an Italian hymn by Bianco da Siena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow [13 January] is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, when we mark the Baptism of Our Lord at the Parish Eucharist at 9.30 a.m. in Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick, and at Morning Prayer at 11.30 a.m. in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

On both occasions, we are renewing our Baptismal vows, and appropriately one of the hymns we are singing is ‘Come down, O love divine’ for which Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the tune ‘Down Ampey.’ Thanks in particular to this setting by Vaughan Williams, this hymn is loved around the world.

He named the tune after the pretty Cotswold village of Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, where he was born in the Vicarage on 12 October 1872. Down Ampney is off the A417, which runs between Cirencester and Faringdon in Oxfordshire on the A420, and about 5 km north of Cricklade, which is on the A419 running from Cirencester to Swindon, Wiltshire.

The parish church, All Saints’ Church, was founded by the Knights Templar in 1265, although much of its current shape is the result of a Victorian rebuilding. The spire dates from the 14th century, when the south porch was added.

The nave is supported on pointed arches decorated with a profusion of red flowers. One theory says the flowers are a reminder of the bubonic plague or Black Death, when red rash marked the victims’ skin. The Black Death is also said to explain why the church stands at a distance from the centre of the village.

When the order of Templars was suppressed by the crown in 1315, the living of Down Ampney passed to the Abbey of Cirencester. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries it passed to Christ Church, Oxford.

The church has excellent stained glass, much of it Victorian or modern, including a series of nautical parables given by Admiral Charles Talbot after his ship survived a storm off Sebastopol in 1854. Another window depicting the Resurrection Stone is dedicated to Vaughan Williams’s father. The interior is a symphony of woodwork, with intricately carved south transept screen and pulpit, and the Victorian north transept screen incorporates Jacobean panelling. The south transept has a pair of effigies, Sir Nicholas de Valers (or de Valery), a Templar knight associated with the founding of the church, and perhaps his wife, Margaret Bassett, who is shown in a pious pose.

The north transept or Hungerford Chapel is enclosed within a fine oak screen, part of which is made from the Musicians’ Gallery at Cirencester Abbey. The fragments were found in a yard in Down Ampney parish and moved into the church. The chapel is a grandiose memorial to Sir James Hungerford and his son Anthony, successive lords of the manor of Down Ampney. Their ornate, gilded monument dates to 1637 and shows father and son facing each other across a prayer desk.

The composer’s father, the Revd Arthur Charles Vaughan Williams (1834-1875), served in Bemerton, the same parish where the poet George Herbert had been Vicar around 300 years earlier — and at Halsall in Lancashire, before becoming the Vicar of Down Ampney in 1868. He died there on 9 February 1875, only three years after the birth of his son Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

Soon after, Vaughan Williams was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan (née Wedgwood) (1842-1937), a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III and the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a home in the North Downs in Surrey bought by the Wedgwood family in 1847.

The tune he composed for the mediaeval hymn ‘Come Down, O Love Divine’ (Discendi, Amor santo), written by Bianco da Siena (ca1350-1434), is named ‘Down Ampney’ with affection for and in honour of his birthplace.

The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, where the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 (Photograph: Colin West 2011 / Panoramio)

‘Come down, O love divine,’ (New English Hymnal, No 137; Irish Church Hymnal, No 294) was originally written in Italian in the 14th or 15th century by Bianco da Siena.

Bianco di Santi (ca 1350-1399), also known as Bianco da Siena and Bianco da Lanciolina, was an Italian mystic poet and an imitator of Jacopone da Todi. He wrote several religious poems that were popular in the Middle Ages. At first he was a wool carder who worked in Siena. He eventually became a member of the Jesuates, founded by Giovanni Colombini. He died in Venice in 1399.

The hymn was first translated into English in 1867 by the Revd Dr Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890), a Dublin-born Anglican priest who had been forced to give up his full-time parochial ministry due to ill-health.

Richard Frederick Littledale was born in Dublin on 14 September 1833, the fourth son of John Littledale, an auctioneer. He entered Trinity College Dublin in 1850, was elected a Scholar in 1852, graduated BA with a first in classics, and in 1855 received the senior Berkeley gold medal and the first divinity prize. He later proceeded MA (1858) and LL.B and LL.D (1862), and DCL at Oxford (1862) comitatis causa.

He was curate in Saint Matthew in Thorpe Hamlet, Norfolk (1856-1857) and curate of Saint Mary the Virgin, Crown Street, Soho, London (1857-1861), where he took an interest in the work of the House of Charity.

For the rest of his life, Littledale suffered from chronic ill-health. He took little part in any parochial duties and devoted himself mainly to writing. Until his death, he continued to act as a father confessor, and next to Edward Pusey is said to have heard more confessions than any other priest in the Church of England. Through William Bell Scott he came to know and influence the poet Christina Rossetti.

Littledale was a contributor to many newspapers and publications, including Kottabos (a college miscellany in TCD), Notes and Queries, the Daily Telegraph, the Church Quarterly Review, and The Academy. He wrote many books and pamphlets in support of Anglicanism in opposition to Roman Catholicism.

In conjunction with the Revd James Edward Vaux, Littledale wrote The Priest’s Prayer Book (1864), The People’s Hymnal (1867), The Christian Passover (1873) and The Altar Manual, of which 46,000 copies were published.

The People’s Hymnal (1867) included the hymn Come Down, O Love Divine, translating the Italian of Bianco da Siena. The original poem was included in the Laudi Spirituali del Bianco da Siena of Telesforo Bini in 1851.

He died at 9 Red Lion Square, London, on 11 January 1890. A reredos to his memory was erected in the chapel at Saint Katharine’s, 32 Queen Square, London, in March 1891.

In 1906, Littledale’s version of Come Down, O Love Divine was included in the English Hymnal, edited by Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams. It was set to this strong, eminently singable, tune specially composed for it by Vaughan Williams, with a unique metre. Indeed, many regard this as the most beautiful of all his hymn tunes.

’Come down, O Love divine’ (‘Down Ampney’) by King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Thomas Williamson/Stephen Cleobury

Come down, O love divine,
Seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
Till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let thy glorious light
Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong,
With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
Till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.

The Piazza del Campo in Siena … RF Littledale’s hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’ is a translation of an Italian hymn by Bianco da Siena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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