History of Hymns: "Come, Ye Disconsolate"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Come, Ye Disconsolate"
by Thomas Moore
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 510
Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish,
come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Thomas Moore (1779-1852), a friend of the famous poets Lord George Gordon Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, was an Irish Catholic known much more for sentimental romantic ballads of his day, including “The Last Rose of Summer” (1805), “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” (1808), and the patriotic song, “The Minstrel Boy,” written for those who suffered and died in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The son of a prosperous Irish merchant, Moore attended Trinity College in Dublin, but was not permitted to graduate because of his Catholic faith. Though trained to be a lawyer in London, he found no satisfaction in this field. He was awarded an Admiralty in Bermuda, but found this monotonous and resigned, devoting his life to literature. His contribution to hymnody was small, consisting of 32 poems set to Irish tunes, published in Sacred Songs (1816). “Come, ye disconsolate” is by far his best known sacred text, published hundreds of times over the years.
Following his publication of Irish Melodies (1807-1809), Moore was dubbed the “Voice of Ireland,” comparable to and following in the footsteps of poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) in Scotland. Hymnologist Kenneth W. Osbeck notes, “It is said that Moore’s literary skills, both in prose and poetry, contributed much to the political emancipation of his country, for his writings revealed, to the English public, the spirit of a people, whom they had previously found distasteful.” He was one of the few writers of his day to have made substantial profit from his publications through royalties though, because of poor business skills, his latter years were spent in poverty and clouded by mental illness.
One may discern a hint of Irish melancholy in this poem. The pathos of such words as “disconsolate,” “languish,” “wounded,” and “anguish” in stanza one sets a tone of deep despondency. The final line offers hope: “earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.”
Stanza two, in the spirit of the Romantic era, offers an antithesis, contrasting the despondency of the first stanza with comfort in stanza two:
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, in mercy saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.”
A biblical foundation for the hymn is found in 2 Corinthians 1, especially verses 3-7, beginning with, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” (Verses 3-5, KJV).
In spite of the popularity of the poet, it was an American educator, choral conductor, and church musician, Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), who altered the text and added a stanza, saving it from oblivion when it was published in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (1831), edited by Hastings and the famous New England music educator and composer, Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Hastings’ alterations made the hymn much more palpable for general church use, especially among evangelicals.
For example, the first two lines of Moore’s original first stanza read,
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come, at the shrine of God fervently kneel . . .
Hastings changed it to “Come to the mercy seat. . .,” a term drawn originally from Old Testament sources related to the Ark of the Covenant. Early in nineteenth century revivalism, the “mercy seat” was associated with the “mourner’s bench,” or that place where those making a profession of faith would gather at the end of the service for prayer and instruction.
Moore’s original third stanza read as follows:
Come, ask the infidel what boon he brings us,
What charm for aching hearts he can reveal,
Sweet is that heavenly promise Hope sings us—
“Earth has no sorrow that God cannot heal.”
Hastings substitutes the language of the “infidel” with sacramental language of Eucharist and baptism:
Here see the bread of life, see waters flowing
forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast of love; come ever knowing
earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.
The final line of each stanza functions as a quasi refrain with only minor changes:
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. (Stanza one)
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure. (Stanza two)
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove. (Stanza three)
The influence of Thomas Hastings, who with Lowell Mason, was one of the most important shapers of American church music in the nineteenth century, brought Moore’s hymn into widespread use to this day.