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The present is an attempt, not to add to the great and constantly increasing multitude of hymn-books intended for congregational use ; but to present, under a convenient arrangement, a collection of such examples of a copious and interesting branch of popular literature, as, after a study of the subject which for several years has occupied part of his leisure hours, have seemed to the Editor most worthy of being separated from the mass to which they belong.
A good hymn should have simplicity, freshness, and reality of feeling; a consistent elevation of tone, and a rhythm easy and harmonious, but not jingling or trivial. Its language may be homely; but should not be slovenly or
Affectation or visible artifice is worse than excess of homeliness: a hymn is easily spoiled by a single falsetto note. Nor will the
most exemplary soundness of doctrine atone for doggrel, or redeem from failure a prosaic didactic style.
There are many hymns in the English language, which will bear the test of these rules, as well, perhaps, as those of Germany, or of the ancient Latin Church. But they are apt to be presented in such company, or in such a manner, as to detract much from their effect. From the operation of causes connected with the nature of such compositions, it happens, that writers, who do not in general rise above mediocrity, sometimes produce beautiful hymns; while, on the other hand, there is far more dross than gold in the works of all voluminous hymnwriters. Nor are the principles, on which popular collections of hymns for congregational use are formed, favourable to that kind of selection, which is here attempted. In such collections, as a general rule, the taste of the compilers is regulated by their theology : they seem to be very easily satisfied with all that they think orthodox and edifying, or liturgically appropriate; they do not submit hymns, derived from sources which they respect, to any free or independent criticism ; and, on the other hand, they reject, with morbid fastidiousness, every sentiment and expression in which they think they detect the traces of opinions which they dislike. It is also their frequent habit to cut down the compositions which they approve, with little discrimination or judgment, to such arbitrary dimensions, as suit their ideas of the time which ought to be occupied, during Divine service, by congregational singing.
The same regard to motives of (real, or supposed, convenience and edification has introduced a system of tampering with the text of hymns, which has now grown into so great an abuse, that to meet with any author's genuine text, in a book of this kind, is quite the exception. Censurable as this practice is, in a literary point of view, it must be confessed that those who adopt it may plead, in their excuse, the examples of many of the writers, whose compositions they alter. The Wesleys altered the compositions of George Herbert, Sandys, Austin, and Watts. Toplady, Madan, and others, altered some of Charles Wesley's hymns, much to his brother John's discontent, as he testifies in the preface to his Hymn-Book for Methodists. Toplady's own hymns, even the “Rock of Ages,” have not escaped similar treatment. James Montgomery complains much, in the preface to the edition of his collected hymns published in 1853, of his share in this peculiar cross of hymn-writers, as he calls it. But he had himself, about thirty years before, altered the works of other men, in his Christian Psalmist. Bishop Heber, scholar as he was, and editor of Jeremy Taylor's works, silently altered Taylor's Advent Hymn in his own hymn-book; and the hymns of Heber himself, and of writers still living, such as Keble, Milman, Alford, and Neale, are met with every day in a variety of forms, which their authors would hardly recognize. Perhaps, when the masters of the art have taken' such liberties, it may be explained on the same principle as that on which musicians, and particularly the composers of anthems, produce variations from, and improvements upon, the works of their predecessors : and, indeed, some such variations of hymns are sufficiently good to take rank as new compositions; better than those by which they were suggested. But this is a rare felicity; and the result is widely different, when the work of alteration is undertaken by incompetent hands.