The New Song, Part 2 (Authors and Hymn Writing)
Many times we find that excellent hymn writers have been ministers who penned hymn poetry to “preach” that way. In the case of Isaac Watts, Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, and many others, this was a means by which the congregation could remember the Sunday sermon and take it home. The truths of the sermon would “live on” in the minds of the people who would more easily recall the poetry and tune than they might the verbal presentation itself.
Veteran pastors with poetic ability are typically well suited to hymn writing, as a survey of Protestant hymnody makes evident. Biblical learning, life experience, and knowledge of great literature and hymnody provide the subject matter and poetic models. But certainly there are many exceptional hymn poets who are neither preachers nor men. Some of the finest and most prolific of our hymn writers have been women.
Whether preacher or poet, hymn writers find inspiration in the same kinds of places that all Christian poets do—in Scripture, in nature, in life experiences that prompt reflection. Hymn writing can be an act of Christian devotion. It both germinates and develops through study of the Bible, and it may, in fact, lead one to deeper levels of spiritual discovery.
Note well though: not every good poem makes a good hymn, and not every good hymn necessarily meets the criteria of great poetry. Hymn poetry, in this day and age, should be limited to six strophes or fewer of consistent length. There are many hymns of greater length, but a glance at those published in hymnals demonstrates that editors often reduce these. An author might like to reserve that right for himself or herself, without wondering what part of the hymn would be omitted.
As a general rule, four to six lines per stanza will be plenty, and each line should maintain meter, rhythm, and stress with its parallel line in other stanzas to avoid an awkward rendering when set to music. Strong and weak syllables should correspond to strong and weak musical beats, something that cannot occur if the hymn writer is inconsistent. Most hymn texts rhyme, although there are a great variety of rhyme scheme options. Also, if one concludes with a strong (accented) syllable, this will ensure that the music can resolutely conclude; otherwise there must be a consequent musical note on a lesser beat.
Since the musical parameters (melody, mode, and rhythm) cannot be altered for each stanza in a strophic tune, a consistent mood in the poetry is preferable, as the hymn will be stronger if its verbal and musical sentiments agree. A refrain can provide opportunity for a change of spirit or direction, or it can serve to summarize or reinforce the theme. If new music is to be written, then consistency in the mood and tone of the text will help the composer determine an appropriate key and spirit for the music. It is my opinion that the text should come first and then the music, although texts can be written to existing tunes. If the text is being written to fit an existing tune, one will want to ensure that a strong union of character between the two is possible throughout all stanzas.
While hymn poetry, like other poetry, may contain metaphors or other figures of speech, the chief goal of the poetry should be the delivery of an identifiable message—one that will unite its singers. Similar to a well-written sermon, hymn singing is a medium in which a broad public encounters Christian doctrine; therefore, the poetry should permit the least educated to comprehend (although not necessarily at first reading) yet give the discerning mind something to ponder.
Sentimentality should be avoided, but the language need not shun emotion. Any hymn text tending toward testimony or personal experience should be able to be applied in a more universal context—something that is the shared or common experience for many or all Christians. The congregation must be able to identify with the text, so concepts or experiences of a unique or overly subjective nature should be avoided.
The Hymn Society of America and Canada states it this way:
“A Christian hymn is a lyric poem, reverently conceived, designed to be sung, which expresses the worshiper’s attitude to God or God’s purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, and its idea so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.”
Stay tuned: Part 3 will discuss composers and tunes.
Some of this material was adapted from my article in The Christian Imagination. Copyright 2002 by Leland Ryken. Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO; and other parts are adapted from my book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications, 2006. All Rights Reserved.