Another great (underused) hymn : Jesu, lover of my soul

Peter Hackett painting of Christ afloat
Wanted : good hymns about love

There’s a need, at various points in the Church’s year, for some general hymns about love.  It can be hard to find them, but here’s one which isn’t sung enough in Catholic churches, in my experience :  Jesu, lover of my soul. We sang it here a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised to find that several members of the choir were unfamiliar with it. It is a magnificent hymn, and deserves to be better known.

Once we’re past the Resurrection, there are still several weeks between Easter and Pentecost, and the readings tend to be more of a collection of Jesus’ greatest sayings, or important things we haven’t had time to talk about before. In our current liturgical year, Year B, we have various readings interpolated from John’s Gospel. John doesn’t have a Year of his own, like the others (Matthew Year A, Mark Year B, Luke Year C), but he comes in quite often during Mark’s year, because Mark is shorter than the other two.

Christ leaving tomb
the Resurrection…and what happened next
…but not always pink and fluffy

So there are some Sundays where the theme is just love, John’s great emphasis, and these are where you need more general hymns about love. It’s difficult writing about love, without being anodyne or saccharine, and especially to a strict metre and to be sung. You want to be simple but not too facile, and you have to allow for the embarrassment factor in the grown-ups in your congregation. Jesus loves me works fine for small children or even possibly on a retreat with a trusted group, but is difficult as a hymn on a Sunday morning.

Sheep and shepherd
Playing to a captive audience

Other ‘love’ hymns are too overtly for weddings to work on Sundays. There are some perennials for which we are enormously grateful, like Love divine, all loves excelling (whichever tune you sing it to, I prefer the 8-line version because the 4-line one is a bit choppy), and My song is love unknown, but that’s a bit regretful for the Easter period. There are several about loving shepherds, which is good for Good Shepherd Sunday (and there’s always the various translations of Psalm 22/23).

Jesu, lover of my soul: one hymn that fills the gap

But what about Jesu, lover of my soul, by Charles Wesley, always sung to the wonderful dark hymn tune Aberystwyth?  Apart from everything else I’m going to say about it, it’s a brilliant contrast with all the Easter alleluias.  It sounds dark, but the overall effect is definitely triumphant, so it works with the season. It’s got a magnificent bass line that an organist can really go to town on (or if you have the game-changing chance of any brass, get them in). Here’s a Welsh choir singing it.

Church choir
everybody wideawake and joining in the singing, but who wrote the hymn?

I did not come across this hymn in church or at school, because of the understanding when I was young that only Catholic hymns went into Catholic hymnals or could be sung in Catholic schools or churches. I’ve never understood this. It’s not the Devil who has all the best tunes, it’s usually the Protestants. One of the many things for which we should all be grateful to Martin Luther is that he took congregational singing seriously. I’m not trying to knock Catholic hymns either; we have some beauties, but I want the others as well.

So I didn’t encounter this hymn until I bought some hymn cassettes for the car on long journeys, including a Welsh male voice choir one. I get very upset about choirs which don’t allow women to sing; I am delighted that so many (Anglican) cathedrals now have mixed choirs, and embarrassed that the cathedrals of my own persuasion do not allow me, as an adult woman, to sing in the choir ( even though I can sing soprano, alto or tenor if required). But I give Welsh male voice choirs a free pass, because without them I might never have come across this hymn, or Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, Eternal Father, strong to save, and some others, and my life would be the poorer.

Details about the hymn : tune

It’s one of those hymns where the tune and the words match beautifully. Many sets of hymn words can have different tunes applied, according to what the congregation or choir knows, and I use this frequently to get a new set of words or a new tune introduced with the minimum of fuss; but this tune belongs to these words. Apparently there are a couple of other possible tunes, but I’ve never heard them being used. It is of a later date than the words (Charles Wesley, who wrote the words, lived from 1708 to 1788; Joseph Parry, who wrote the tune, from 1841 to 1903), but one authority suggests that Parry simply arranged a tune already known, which would explain it.

Aberystwyth is a dark, meaty tune, but it’s not hard to pick up quickly. It has a comfortable amount of repetition and a very strong structure, with lines 1 and 3 the same, 2 and 4 slightly different from each other, as one asks a musical question and the other answers it. Then we have 5 and 6 moving in a new direction, 7 arching over the others as a climax, and triumphantly delivering us to the last line, returning to the same pattern as 1 and 3 so that you know you’re coming home for the end of the verse. Elegant construction; beautiful and satisfying. And because it’s such a solid tune, if you do go wrong, it’s unlikely not to harmonise with the right version, always very comforting when you learn a new hymn. It’s dark, but it’s the right sort of dark, especially with a hymn which was originally published under the title ‘In Temptation’. The tune is also so loved that there is a plaque outside the church where it was first played on the organ, and it’s credited as one of the sources for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika . I suspect that just shows how beloved both tunes are, rather than their being related.

Details about the hymn : words

Now let’s look at the words. There are four verses (spoiler alert! there were once five), although some hymnbooks leave out the third one (probably just for reasons of space). It was written by Charles Wesley, eighteenth child of his parents, brother to John and Samuel (and many others). They all wrote hymns, but Charles more than the others, and more successfully.This hymn is so popular that it has a couple of little myths of its own. Apparently he wrote it while staying at his wife’s parents’ house, where a frightened bird had flown in and sought refuge from a threatened storm, but there is never any authority quoted for this story.

What is really striking about the words is how much they sound like something from the Psalms. And this is especially striking when we think how the Psalms are never addressed to Jesus (we get by because they use the expression ‘Lord’ for much of the time). The Christian understanding of the Psalms is totally skewed by our reorientation towards Jesus. The shepherd in Psalm 22/23 was conceived as an image for God the Father by the psalmist, and in every case where we see a link to Jesus, his life, death and what happened after, we are reading into the words something that the original writers, singers and listeners would never have imagined.

Verse 1

Here we have a hymn text which starts as directly as any of the cry-for-help psalms, but addressed straight to Jesus by name, and with total confidence. These first four lines have been rewritten or adapted more than any other hymn words, according to my old Dictionary of Hymnology. Since it was written, many people have been uncomfortable with the directness of the appeal, and especially with the use of the word ‘lover’ (alternatives have included ‘refuge’ and ‘Saviour’, but Charles uses that just a couple of lines down).

John Wesley’s Preface to his Collection of Hymns for the use of the People called Methodists, published in 1779, and including several of his brother’s hymns, includes an appeal to editors and compilers of hymnals not to attempt to improve Charles’ hymns,  for ‘none of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse’. This sounds as though both brothers were used to people trying to alter them, but certainly not resigned to it; and certainly none of the alternative readings has the power of the original.

Sea monster in waves
storm at sea, plus monsters

It is a cry in times of trouble and peril, as acute as Psalm 68 :’Save me, O God / for the waters have risen to my neck’ (1), or like the sailors in a storm in Ps. 106 (23f), and the singer asks to be guided ‘safe into the haven’, exactly as happens to the sailors : ‘they rejoiced because of the calm / and he led them to the haven they desired’ (Ps 106:30).

Verse 2

The second verse explains how no one can help but Jesus; the singer in his distress knows there is no help to be had anywhere else.

God creating earth
God protecting the world

The second line ‘hangs my helpless soul on thee’ echoes Ps 62 : ‘My soul clings to you’, while the final image of this verse ‘cover my defenceless head / with the shadow of thy wing’ immediately evokes Ps 56 ‘in the shadow of your wings I take refuge’ (2) as well as Ps 90 ‘under his wings you will find refuge’ (4), and there are other echoes too. The surprise here is that this is Jesus with wings rather than God.

[a disappeared verse]

There is another verse following here in the original version, but it rarely makes the cut in later hymnals. It is weaker than the others and does not add much. Here it is:   Wilt thou not regard my call? /Wilt thou not accept my prayer? /Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall— /Lo! On thee I cast my care: /Reach me out thy gracious hand! /While I of thy strength receive, /Hoping against hope I stand, /Dying, and behold I live!    I suspect that the apparent lack of faith in Jesus’ power, and the over-dramatised repetition, meant that both Charles and John were happy to see a bit of editing here, however genuine the feeling may have been.

Verse 3

The third verse moves away from the Psalms and on to the Gospels, with another direct invocation, this time by name to Christ, and a declaration: ‘Thou, O Christ, art all I want, /More than all in thee I find’.  The next two lines cover Jesus’ public career with an almost-humorous perfunctoriness : ‘ raise the fallen, cheer the faint,/ heal the sick and lead the blind’. It’s like the list in the Veni Creator: ‘Melt the frozen, warm the chill, guide the steps that go astray’. The second half of the verse is a double contrast between the sinner and his Lord, nicely arranged so that the first and last lines of the quatrain (about Jesus’ perfection) embrace the two middle lines about how sinful the  singer is (I do like a neat chiasmus), and ending with lots of stress on the words ‘truth and grace’.

Verse 4
Jesus talking with woman at the well
Sir, give me some of that water

Grace is the trigger for the last verse, repeated and abundant (or, indeed, abounding, to coin a phrase), and we move into water imagery. Although there is a lot of water in the Psalms, here we are firmly in the New Testament, with grace the bridge to Jesus as the fountain of living water  (the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4), and it’s amazing how much of the story Charles Wesley manages to squeeze into the last four short lines.

It starts even earlier, in the second line of the verse : ‘grace to cover all my sin’, which reminds us of the later conversation about the woman’s past history and all her husbands; but the lines about Jesus are a masterpiece of compression : ‘Thou of life the fountain art, /freely let me take of thee; /spring thou up within my heart, / rise to all eternity’. Compare this with Jesus’ own words (ESV Translation) :  whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). The only line that is not Jesus’ words is where the singer becomes the person Jesus is talking to; ‘freely let me take of thee’ makes us into the woman, who says ;’Sir, give me this water’ (John 4:15). Women’s voices and words being so rare in the Bible, it’s lovely to see a congregation using them.

Hackett painting of Christ afloat
plenty of peril, but a serene Jesus (Peter Hackett)

It’s very impressive how simple and direct the words of this hymn are, and it is one reason why it has not really dated. There are a couple of archaisms (‘Jesu’ for ‘Jesus’, which is just a vocative, ‘bosom’ and ‘unrighteousness’) and a few longer words, but overall the words are monosyllables, short and basic. They are easy to comprehend at any age or stage of English, and the experience they describe is common to us all. This has always been an amazingly popular hymn, never out of print, and rarely omitted from hymnbooks (except Catholic ones until recently). Let’s get it (back) into frequent use. It is a very great hymn.


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2024. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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