Strong Son of God, Immortal Love: Alfred Tennyson
Bible Study by David Wright
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was born in 1809. He was the third son of the rector of Somersby, Lincolnshire. He was educated at the local grammar school in Louth, and at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1850 he became Poet Laureate, and his poems are widely read and studied. He died, much revered, in 1892.
Tennyson never wrote a hymn. These verses are taken from the eleven verses that form the Prologue to his long poem In Memoriam. This was published in 1850, and written in memory of his close friend Arthur Hallam, who but for his early death would have become Tennyson’s brother-in-law. There are two various versions in different hymn books, ranging from four verses to seven, while Songs of Praise has made two hymns from the verses. The author once said, ‘A good hymn is the most difficult thing in the world to write.’
Most Long Metre hymns rhyme as couplets ‘aabb’, or in alternate lines ‘abab’; the ‘abba’ rhymes of this hymn add to its distinctiveness.
This hymn contains profound ideas, and the meaning of several phrases is not immediately obvious. The first phrase, ‘Strong Son of God’, must refer both to Luke 2:40 (‘the child [Jesus] grew and waxed strong in spirit . . . ‘) and to Psalm 89:8 (‘O Lord, who is a strong Lord like unto thee?’). After that, the whole of verse 1 is a subordinate clause, and the main sentence continues in verse 2. The theme of the whole hymn is faith. It is only through faith that we can come to the Son of God (v.1.3) because proof is impossible – as the writer to the Epistle to the Hebrews recognised (Hebrews 11:1). The rest of the hymn explores how faith is interlinked with feelings.
Verse 2 of both the poem and the hymn is printed as part of the same sentence as verse 1. But verse 2 of the poem has been omitted, and verse 2 of the hymn is really a separate sentence. Originally it formed verse 3 of the poem. The sudden change of theme is explained by reading the original verse 2:
Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.
The emphasis on the Son of God as Creator in this omitted verse is perhaps the chief ground of faith, leading also to reverence and humility, but sustaining hope beyond death. Thus the poet can make the confident assertion (v2.1), ‘Thou wilt not leave us in the dust’.
The grounds for this assertion are threefold: our belief that God made us (v.2.2); our feeling that life must have a purpose (v.2.3); and our belief that God is just (v.2.4).
Verse 3 explores the puzzle of man’s will: we have a mind of our own. While we cannot know how this can be (v.3.3), we can indeed discover a reason: we are able to decide to make our wills ‘Thine’ (v.3.4). Our wills can do many other things, such as create great systems, which, in the light of eternity, are merely little and ephemeral (v.4.1-2). Even the greatest and best are only ‘broken lights’ of God.
Thus, in verses omitted from some hymn books, we return to faith (v.5.1). We believe faith comes from God (v.5.3) and thus we pray for faith to grow (v.5.4). ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8). The prayer widens (v.6.1-2) to ask for knowledge and reverence to grow too: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 1:7); ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God . . . ‘ (James 1:5). This unity of mind and soul, creating ‘one music; but vaster’ (v.6.3-4; v.7.1) is a concept that needs to be central to one’s whole life. The hymn is thus a true prayer of faith.
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