THE English poet John Betjeman once smilingly trounced a supercilious youngtelevision interviewer who was insisting that hymns were worthless doggerel. “Ah, I see what you mean,” the Poet Laureate said mildly, and quoted this:
His dying crimson like a robe
Spreads o’er his body on the Tree.
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
The young man was silenced.
The verse is from When I survey the wondrous cross by Isaac Watts, a hymn which expresses both profound emotion and complex theology in a form which only the ignorant or the truly pretentious would deny is art. I love it. The contemporary songwriter Graham Kendrick put his finger on the source of its power. “It is all about wonder,” he said, “wonder at the seemingly mad extremes of divine love that chooses a crucifixion to atone for evil and conquer death.”
No hymn captures so brilliantly and so movingly the timeless paradoxes of what happened on that Cross. Here we have an instrument of torture which is also in some extraordinary sense “wondrous”, the entire realm of nature constituting too small an offering in the face of such a sacrifice, the richest gain counting for nothing at all, a love being demonstrated which demands nothing less than everything.
Familiarity can shrivel these complex ideas into platitudes; in Isaac Watts’s hands they are reworked with deceptively simple freshness, yet with a scope which gives the hymn truly epic grandeur. This offer of “my soul, my life, my all” instigated something of a sea-change in Church worship. As a young man preparing to be a Dissenting minister among congregations who thought it frivolous to sing anything but psalms in church services, it took courage for Isaac Watts to produce hymns Which allowed the singer to address God directly, and personally.
But the trend caught on, and he wrote nearly 600 in the end, many of them among the most loved in the canon. This is surely the finest. I heard it sung recently by the Caernarvon Male Voice Choir to the glorious tune“Morte Christe”, which I had never encountered before. The blend of harmonies was spine-tinglingly beautiful, soaring to such a moving climax with the words, Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all – that there was barely a breath in Bangor Cathedral As the last note died away.
From Glorious Things: My Hymns for Life, by Sally Magnusson, published by Continuum Books, June 2004, £9.99.
Adapted by the author.
Theologian Matthew Arnold considered it to be “the greatest hymn in the English language.” Even Charles Wesley, another excellent hymnist and contemporary of Isaac Watts, said that he would exchange every song he had written if he could have only written this one.
see also http://www.challies.com/articles/hymn-stories-when-i-survey-the-wondrous-cross-free-download