Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Boreham on 'When I Survey'

I want you, if you kindly will, to peep over this gentleman's shoulder and take a swift glance into the room that he is just about to enter. You say that, before doing so, you would like to know something of the gentleman himself. I assure you that your objection is quite beside the point.

As a matter of fact, the well-groomed gentleman tapping softly at the door is the Right Hon. Arthur Onslow, Speaker of the House of Commons. Having heard that Dr. Isaac Watts is nearing his end, he feels somewhat ashamed of the circumstance that he has never made it his business to meet so good and so eminent a man. He has, therefore, made up his mind, before it is too late, to repair the omission.

And here he is! But see, the door is opening! And there, not in bed, but hunched up in his big study-chair, is a tiny, bony, pinch-faced wisp of humanity, almost hidden in the ample folds of a gaily-flowered dressing-gown, and looking for all the world like a little wizened Chinese mandarin! As his visitor enters, the shrivelled and dwarfish creature looks up and smiles, not unpleasantly, and, although his voice is a trifle squeaky, the general impression is a distinctly agreeable one. This, if you please, is the greatest hymn-writer of all time, the man whose songs are destined to be sung, always with enjoyment and often with ecstasy, by all the Churches as long as the language endures!


To his life-long chagrin, he was pitifully small. He loathed the sight of his diminutive figure whenever he glimpsed it in a mirror. Nothing stung him more than to hear somebody refer to him as little Dr. Watts. He simply squirmed. It was in self-defence that he sang:

Were I so tall to reach the pole,
Or grasp the ocean with my span,
I must be measured by my soul,
The mind's the standard of the man.

The torture of his physical insignificance frayed his nerves. It wove itself into his dreams. And, in times of serious illness, his delirium turned the horror topsy-turvy. He raved of his colossal proportions! He was too big to pass through any doorway! He could not squeeze himself into his pulpit! The chairs crumpled like matchwood under his weight! No cab or carriage would hold him! His fevered brain had converted the pygmy into a giant!

And, in some respects, a giant he was! `He stands absolutely alone,' says Thomas Wright. 'He has no peer. He is the greatest of the great.' Mr. Wright adds that if nothing from his pen has attained to the popularity of Toplady's Rock of Ages, or is quite so affecting as Cowper's God Moves in a Mysterious Way; if he lacks the mellifluence of Charles Wesley or the equipoise of John Newton: the fact remains that he has written a larger number of hymns of the first rank than any other hymnist.

He was literally a born poet. Even as a small boy there were times when he could not express himself other than in verse. His father—a stern and puritanical soul who had endured several terms of imprisonment for conscience' sake—looked askance on this propensity in his boy. But Isaac could not repress it. On one occasion the household was engaged in family worship. Isaac, sad to say, was on his knees with eyes wide open. Whilst the priest-like father lifted up his voice in fervent supplication, a mouse scampered across the room and ran up the bell-rope. Isaac burst into laughter. Prayers over, the horrified father indignantly demanded an explanation. Isaac told in his own way what had happened:

There was a mouse for want of stairs
Ran up the rope to say his prayers.

This was piling crime on crime. The father seized his rod and ordered Isaac to follow him out of the room. The boy, however, threw himself on his knees. `O father,' he cried,

‘O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make!’

His mother, more sympathetic, once offered a farthing to the boy who should write the best verses. Isaac entered for the prize, but attached to his manuscript the couplet:

I write not for a farthing; but to try
How I your farthing writers can outvie.

As he made his way through his teens, he became extremely serious. The salvation of his own soul became to him the thing above all others to be desired and sought. Among his papers there is a memorandum in which he tells us that he fell under considerable conviction of sin in his fifteenth year. Twelve months later he says: `I was taught to trust in Christ, I hope.' The two words, `I hope', introduce a palpable note of uncertainty. But there is no uncertainty about a later record. `An heir of glory has been born!' he joyously declares. And this transfiguring experience turned his gift for poesy into a new channel.


At the age of twenty-one, he accompanied his father one day to a Nonconformist chapel at Southampton. In discussing the service on the way home, Isaac remarked that he had carefully examined the hymn-book and had found it very disappointing. There was not, he sweepingly declared, a decent hymn in the collection. Without an exception, they were all lacking in dignity and beauty.
`Then, my boy,' replied the philosophical father, who had come to realize, by this time, that his son's poetic impulses were in capable of restraint, `the best thing that you can do is to write some better ones!'
On reaching home, Isaac sat down and called on his best powers to respond to his father's challenge. He wrote:

Behold the glories of the Lamb,
Amidst his Father's throne;
Prepare new honours for His name
And songs before unknown!

And thus commenced, on that very day, the fruitful career of `the father of our English hymnody'.

Many of the hymns that immediately followed were composed in the saddle in the course of long country rides, and those who are familiar with the swing and the cadence of his verses will find it easy to match the metre with the rhythm of the horse's feet.

In his monumental trilogy—Clayhanger, Hilda Lessways and These Twain—Arnold Bennett twice describes the public holiday on which the centenary of the Sunday School movement was celebrated in the Five Towns. Moved by curiosity, his hero and heroine, Edwin and Hilda, join the throng in the streets. They follow the proceedings—the procession, the speeches, the singing, and all the rest of it—with languid and almost cynical interest, until suddenly the assembled multitude joins in a hymn that changes the entire atmosphere:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Hilda, to whom religion had made no profound appeal, was overwhelmed: she could not tell why. To conceal her emotion, she turned her face.
'What's the matter?' asked Edwin.
Hilda was disgusted at his tactlessness in embarrassing her; but, for the sake of saying something, and easing the tension, she asked him who wrote the hymn. In spite of his pretensions to bookishness, Edwin did not know; and she despised him for his ignorance.
'Dr: Watts wrote it,' she flashed, `and it would be worth anything on earth to be able to sing those words—and mean them!'

A novelist of a very different type, Mrs. L. T. Meade, has devoted one of her books, Hepsy, Gipsy, to showing how the same hymn met the aching need and irradiated the young life of her principal character.
Hepry, Gipsy, is a story of two cavities. The first cavity is the hole in the druid oak from which Giant Lee's gold has been stolen. The second cavity is the empty heart of Hepsy, the gipsy girl, when she found her childish faith in ruins. The last chapter in the book is entitled Full and tells how both vacuums ceased to exist.

Hepsy chanced to discover that Giant Lee was going once more to the oak in the depths of the wood to grope for his lost treasure. Hepsy herself was mothering the baby boy that, in dying, Nancy Lee had presented to her husband. The Giant would have nothing to do with his child, and, but for Hepsy, it must have perished. Hepsy made up her mind that Lee should care for his boy, and she compassed her end by guile. She reached the druid oak before him and hid the baby where he had once hidden the gold. When he reached the spot, he climbed the tree, and, in doing so, thought he heard a strange sound in the heart of the oak. When he peered into the cavity, he was startled. For a very fair face, a face that was surrounded by an aureole of gold, a sweet, soft baby face that seemed the very image of poor Nancy's, peeped out of the ivy and looked straight at him. And, in the end, Giant Lee took his neglected baby to his heart; and his boy was a greater comfort to him than all his gold could have been.

And Hepsy? How was that empty heart of hers filled and satisfied? She one day heard a sweet voice singing:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

`What's "love so amazing"?' Hepsy asked the singer.
And then, for the first time, Hepry heard the story of the Wondrous Cross. Poor Hepsy's empty heart drank it all in. She was thirsty for it. It was just what she wanted. It filled the aching void. The Cross was the substance of which her girlish dreams were the shadow.
Later on, Hepsy rescued the baby from a blazing tent; and, in doing so, was herself terribly burned.
`But what's the pain?' she murmured. `What's the pain? It's nothing when the heart's full—full of love so amazing, so divine! My heart is like a cup when you take it to the well and fill it to the brim!'


And, turning from fiction to fact, was not George Eliot fond of telling how her aunt, Mrs. Samuel Evans—‘the fiery little Methodist heroine of Adam Bede'—recited the hymn with rapturous fervour during her last sickness?

Nor can we forget Matthew Arnold. On a beautiful Sunday morning in the spring of 1888, Arnold, when visiting Liverpool in order to meet his daughter on her return from America, went to hear Dr. John Watson—better known as Ian Maclaren—at Sefton Park. Dr. Watson preached on `The Shadow of the Cross', using an illustration borrowed from the reports of the Riviera earthquake. In one village, he said, everything was overthrown but the huge wayside crucifix, and to it the people, feeling the very ground shuddering beneath their feet, rushed for shelter and protection. The service closed with Dr. Watts' When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Matthew Arnold walked quietly back to the home of his brother-in-law, with whom he was staying; and, as he came down to lunch half an hour later, a servant heard him crooning the verses softly to himself. `Ah, yes,' he remarked to Mr. and Mrs. Cropper at table, after repeating Dr. Watson's earthquake story and telling of the deep impression left upon his mind by the service; 'Ah, yes; the Cross still stands, and, in the straits of the soul, makes its ancient appeal!' Glancing at his watch, he excused himself: hurried to catch a tram; collapsed of heart failure on the street; and was gone!

I am not surprised that the hymn appealed to a mind as coldly critical as Matthew Arnold's, for, like so many of the hymns of Isaac Watts, it is marked, not only by intense devotion, but by profound philosophy. Take the last verse for example:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

It means, if it means anything, that a million universes are of smaller worth than a single human soul. The whole realm of nature is too paltry an offering: love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul! Arnold would appreciate a point like that.

Isaac Watts was a choice spirit. His people at Mark Lane—afterwards Bury Street—were devotedly attached to him, and although, during his later years, his health would only permit of fitful visits to his pulpit, they would not hear of any severance of the tie. Perhaps the finest testimony to the sweetness and charm of his disposition is found in the fact that, in 1714, he went to spend a week with Sir Thomas and Lady Abney; the visit extended until he died in I748; and Lady Abney said that he became more honoured and beloved of the household with every day that passed. I often think that his inner self is best reflected in that verse of his best-known hymn—When I Survey—which is usually omitted from our collections;

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.

Blaming his petite stature for his rejection at the hands of the beautiful Elizabeth Singer—a highly-gifted young lady of comely form, rich auburn hair, and dark blue eyes that sparkled with animation—he remained a bachelor to the end of the chapter. He continued in secret to write amatory verses concerning his lost love who, some time later, married a minister thirteen years younger than herself. Dr. Watts retained her friendship to the last, and, when she died at the age of sixty-three, there was found in her desk a packet of manuscript with a letter addressed to him, assuring him of her sincere admiration and begging him to revise her work and, if he deemed it wise, publish it.

The good old man died in Lady Abney's beautiful home at the age of seventy-four. He was visited in his last illness by men like Philip Doddridge and by women like the Countess of Huntingdon. A monument marks his resting place in Bunhill Fields, where he lies in company with William Blake, John Bunyan, John Owen, Susanna Wesley, Daniel Defoe, and a multitude of other celebrities, with John Wesley himself and George Fox, the sturdy Quaker, nearby.

Another monument is to be found in Westminster Abbey. In Abney Park Cemetery, which marks the site of the stately home that showed him such extended hospitality, there is a statue by E. H. Bailey, R.A., erected by public subscription, whilst in the Watts' Memorial Park at Southampton there is another statue—a particularly fine one—by Mr. R. T. Lucas. At the Civic Centre in Southampton, too, a carillon rings out the tune of his O God, Our Help in Ages Past, every four hours. But his most fitting and most eloquent memorial is the stained-glass window at Freeby in Leicestershire which represents him as still surveying the Cross—that Wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died.

F W Boreham, ‘When I Survey’ A Late Lark Singing (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), 29-36.

Words and Tunes of When I Survey

Image: Isaac Watts.