From cities humming with a restless crowd
by Ken Myers
In our time, the best-known hymn by slaver-turned-abolitionist-priest John Newton (1725–1807) is “Amazing Grace.” But during the nineteenth century, his hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” was much more popular. The hymn’s first stanza doesn’t address God, but “Zion, City of our God.”
The final stanza in the original hymn moved from describing the attributes of the Heavenly Jerusalem to discussing, in the form of a prayer, the characteristics that should be evident in the lives of citizens of the Holy City.
Savior, if of Zion’s city
I, thro’ grace, a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name;
fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion's children know.
Newton’s fellow hymn-writer William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”) seems to have been extremely alert to the distractions and temptations of the various pleasures of worldlings. One of the many hymns that he wrote — a hymn published in the Newton-edited collection Olney Hymns — expresses the desire to escape from the noise and distraction of worldliness. The hymn — usually named by its first line — was when originally published called simply “Retirement.”
1. Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
2. The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
3. There, if Thy Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her mean abode,
O with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!
4. There, like the nightingale, she pours
Her solitary lays;
Nor asks a witness of her song,
Nor thirsts for human praise.
5. Author and Guardian of my life,
Sweet Source of light divine,
And, all harmonious names in one,
My Saviour, — Thou art mine!
6. What thanks I owe Thee, and what love,
A boundless, endless store,
Shall echo through the realms above
When time shall be no more!
In his book The Hymnal: A Reading History (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal and excerpted here), Christopher N. Phillips describes how the writing of hymns was the genesis of Cowper’s emergence as a significant English poet. So it is not surprising that one of Cowper’s longer poems (800 lines) develops in a more expansive mode some of the themes present in this hymn. That poem is also called “Retirement.” Below are some excerpts.
. . . conscience pleads her cause within the breast,
Though long rebell’d against, not yet suppress’d,
And calls a creature form’d for God alone,
For Heaven’s high purposes, and not his own,
Calls him away from selfish ends and aims,
From what debilitates and what inflames,
From cities humming with a restless crowd,
Sordid as active, ignorant as loud,
Whose highest praise is that they live in vain,
The dupes of pleasure, or the slaves of gain,
Where works of man are cluster’d close around,
And works of God are hardly to be found,
To regions where, in spite of sin and woe,
Traces of Eden are still seen below,
Where mountain, river, forest, field, and grove,
Remind him of his Maker’s power and love. . . .
Some minds by nature are averse to noise,
And hate the tumult half the world enjoys,
The lure of avarice, or the pompous prize
That courts display before ambitious eyes;
The fruits that hang on pleasure’s flowery stem,
Whate’er enchants them, are no snares to them.
To them the deep recess of dusky groves,
Or forest, where the deer securely roves,
The fall of waters, and the song of birds,
And hills that echo to the distant herds,
Are luxuries excelling all the glare
The world can boast, and her chief favourites share.
With eager step, and carelessly array’d,
For such a cause the poet seeks the shade, . . .
Luxury gives the mind a childish cast,
And, while she polishes, perverts the taste;
Habits of close attention, thinking heads,
Become more rare as dissipation spreads,
Till authors hear at length one general cry,
Tickle and entertain us, or we die.
The loud demand, from year to year the same,
Beggars invention, and makes fancy lame;
Till farce itself, most mournfully jejune,
Calls for the kind assistance of a tune;
And novels (witness every month’s review)
Belie their name, and offer nothing new.
The mind, relaxing into needful sport,
Should turn to writers of an abler sort,
Whose wit well managed, and whose classic style,
Give truth a lustre, and make wisdom smile. . . .
Religion does not censure or exclude
Unnumber’d pleasures harmlessly pursued;
To study culture, and with artful toil
To meliorate and tame the stubborn soil;
To give dissimilar yet fruitful lands
The grain, or herb, or plant that each demands;
To cherish virtue in an humble state,
And share the joys your bounty may create;
To mark the matchless workings of the power
That shuts within its seed the future flower,
Bids these in elegance of form excel,
In colour these, and those delight the smell,
Sends Nature forth the daughter of the skies,
To dance on earth, and charm all human eyes;
To teach the canvas innocent deceit,
Or lay the landscape on the snowy sheet—
These, these are arts pursued without a crime,
That leave no stain upon the wing of time.
Me poetry (or, rather, notes that aim
Feebly and vainly at poetic fame)
Employs, shut out from more important views,
Fast by the banks of the slow-winding Ouse;
Content if, thus sequester’d, I may raise
A monitor’s, though not a poet’s, praise,
And, while I teach an art too little known,
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.