Abide with me; fast falls the eventide

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide. Henry Francis Lyte* (1793-1847).

Probably written in 1847, this is one of the world’s best known hymns. Based on Luke 24:49, it is particularly associated with funeral services, but has had wide appeal in secular contexts as well. Its origins are somewhat uncertain. It was originally thought that Lyte had written it in his study on the evening before preaching his farewell sermon in the parish of Brixham, Devon, in September 1847; this account is plausible, given the hymn’s sea and tide imagery (‘Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day’). It is more likely, however, that it was written at Berry Head, near Brixham, in August 1847. An article by his descendant, Walter Maxwell-Lyte (The Times, 1 November 1947) says that a copy of the hymn, ‘my latest effusion’, was sent in a letter to a friend called Julia dated 25 August 1847. He then gave a copy to his daughter, Anna Maria Maxwell Hogg, who published it in Remains of the late Henry Francis Lyte (1850). It was also published in leaflet form in 1847.

Another account (which does not necessarily invalidate that above) is that it was inspired by an earlier experience of Lyte (who was himself terminally ill in 1847) at the deathbed of a friend in 1820: the dying man, Augustus le Hunte, kept repeating the phrase ‘Abide with me’. Lyte may have remembered this more than twenty years later.

The hymn was first sung, to a tune which Lyte had composed, at his memorial service in his old parish; it was also sung early on to the OLD 124th, and to TROYE’S CHANT. It had eight stanzas; The First Edition of A&M (1861) printed a five-stanza text, omitting verses 3-5 of the original:

Not a brief glance, I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea, -
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

These missing stanzas illustrate a more personal relationship between God and humankind: ‘Familiar, condescending [that is, disregarding superiority], patient, free’, ‘Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea’ and smiling on early youth, though it is ‘rebellious and perverse’.

The editors of A&M commissioned the music editor, William Henry Monk*, to compose a new tune, EVENTIDE, for the music edition. It was written, according to Monk’s wife, ‘at a time of great sorrow’ when he had been watching a glorious sunset. It has become famous and much loved, and may be partly responsible for the deep affection in which this hymn is held. 

‘Abide with me’ appeals widely in a religious context because it illustrates effectively, in the interplay of light and dark, the contrast between the degeneration of earthly things and the permanence of God’s care and love. Lyte’s facility with language was appreciated by the Victorian literary establishment, including Alfred Tennyson*, who ranked this hymn ‘among the really perfect poems’ in English. The verses are intensely personal, freely using ‘I’ and ‘me’, and featuring the best aspects of Victorian sentiment. The hymn is also helped by having a tune specifically composed for Lyte’s words. There are significant instances where ‘Abide with me’ has been both secularised and adopted into popular culture. For instance, the current practice of singing it at the English Football Association Cup Final began in 1927, at the suggestion of the secretary, Sir Alfred Wall, and with the approval of King George V and Queen Mary, who shared a particular affection for Lyte’s hymn. The institution of this tradition may partly be explained by the hymn’s encapsulating a shared national sense of loss and remembrance resulting from vivid memories of the recent First World War (interestingly, the hymn was parodied by soldiers in the trenches of Flanders, who sang ‘We’ve had no beer, we’ve had no beer today’). More recently, it was recorded by the pop singer Elton John for the Carnival: Rainforest Foundation Concert album (1997).

Leon Litvack

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