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History of Hymns: "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life"

"Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life"
George Herbert
The UM Hymnal, No. 164

George Herbert

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath,
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.


As has often been mentioned in this column, not all texts in hymnals began as poetry for congregational singing. Such is the case of the mystical verse by the famous Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633).

In his nearly 40 years of life, Herbert accomplished much. He held positions at Cambridge University and in Parliament, and later in life became a Anglican priest and one of the leading metaphysical poets of his time.

Herbert was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, with the intent of becoming a priest. But King James I, who shepherded the King James translation of the Bible, was interested in his scholarly skills. So Herbert was called to service in the court until the king died in 1625, followed soon by the death of Herbert’s patrons.

Herbert then returned to his earlier calling in the church, serving for six years in two parishes. According to Adam Nicolson in his fascinating book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003), Herbert’s poetry influenced Lancelot Andrewes, a primary player in the translation.

Herbert was born into an aristocratic family known for supporting the arts, including his mother Magdalen, a patron of the famous John Donne (1572-1631) and other poets.

At the time, the Church of England employed many psalm singers. Donne, Herbert and others contributed to a culture of devotional poetry that later inspired great 18th-century hymn writers like Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788), whose hymnody eventually broke the stranglehold of singing only metrical psalms in worship.

Herbert’s most enduring work was The Temple (1633). The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that The Temple “was popular for a time, then ignored until John Wesley made use of its poems in various collections, including the 1737 Charleston Collection [the first hymnal published in the American colonies], where he altered their meters and subdued their humor.”

Our text comes from a section of The Temple entitled “The Call,” a work published the year after Herbert’s death from tuberculosis. He wrote poetry while serving as a parish priest, partly to supplement his own funds and to help to rebuild the church he was serving at Bremerton, a rural parish about 75 miles southwest of London.

John Wesley included this poem in his Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). Dr. Young notes, “Wesley smoothed out, some say botched, the poetry to make it conform to the foot and meter of a familiar tune.”

Herbert’s text expands John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” by incorporating additional metaphors: Light, Feast and Strength (stanza two), and Joy, Love and Heart (stanza three).

Concerning the hymn’s structure, English literary scholar Richard Watson notes: “The three-fold structure of the first verse is repeated in the other two; there is a trinity in each verse, and three verses, making a trinity of trinities.”

Famous British composer and hymn tune writer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) set several of Herbert’s poems in a song cycle entitled Five Mystical Songs (1911). Vaughan Williams’ tune and harmonization were adapted by E. Harold Geer for congregational singing in Hymnal for Colleges and Schools (1956).

Singing 17th-century metaphysical poetry demands much from the 21st-century singer. However, each time one returns to Herbert’s poetry and Vaughan Williams’ majestic tune, something new is revealed.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.