»Abide with me«

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The call to the hymns know in childhood was clear within me when, in the rooms of Messrs. Hodgson last month, the manuscript of the words of this famous hymn was sold by auction. Thanks to the courtesy of the auctioneers, I was permitted myself to turn the pages of an old pocketbook carried by the Rev Henry Francis Lyte when, at the age of fifty-four, he left his parish in Devonshire for Nice, hoping to regain health. It was early in the year 1847, and he was weary and ill after thirty years’ work, but he passed away in the autumn. He was born at Kelso in Scotland in 1793, but as a young man studied medicine at Trinity College. Dublin, where incidentally he gained prizes for poetry. However, he abandoned the study of medicine and took holy orders.

Fastened in the old pocketbook was a photograph of Lyte, showing in its resemblance to Bishop Selwyn a face kindly disposed and bearing the old side-whiskers of the period: his calligraphy also was of the time, with long spider-leg strokes, and evidently he had not taken to using the new envelope, even if he had heard of it. During the few months at Nice, many entries of sacred and secular poems occur, and I noted one addressed to the French government protesting against the moving of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena. Well, Napoleon may have wished to lie by the Seine among the people whom he loved so well (as we read on the tomb at the Invalides), but perhaps Lyte foresaw the conducted parties and the charabancs of an exhibition year in Paris.

The last entry in the pocketbook is the now famous religious poem of eight verses, Abide with me. In what state or condition the poem reached the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern or what they printed in the first edition (1861) I do not know, but my copy of 1875 shows the omission of the third fourth and fifth verses. ‘The darkness thickens’ becomes deepens, ‘Hold then Thy cross is changed to Thou, and ‘Speak through the gloom’ becomes Shine. Protests against these and similar changes in other hymns recur at intervals, and I think they have for the greater part been directed against Hymns Ancient and Modern. Here I may add my own at the deletion of the verse beginning ‘Come not in terror’, which I think is the most imaginative of them all. But, after all, poetry and religious tenets are difficult things to prepare for the free use of a free people, and at the same time avoid the almost inevitable Ego.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1939, pp. 489–490