Home History of Hymns: "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing"

History of Hymns: "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing"

George Herbert

“Let All the World in Every Corner Sing”
by George Herbert;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 93.

The poem with its original spelling and spacing appears as follows:

Cho. Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing,
My God and King.

Vers. The heav’ns are not too high,
His praise may thither flie:
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Cho. Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing,
My God and King.

Vers. The church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out:
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Cho. Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing,
My God and King.

The life and literary work of the English poet George Herbert (1593-1633) was contemporaneous with William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608-1674). Herbert received his education from and taught at Trinity College, Cambridge. John Wesley reaffirmed Herbert’s most famous work, The Temple (1633), which was published shortly after Herbert’s death.

George Herbert - The Temple title page“Let all the world in every corner sing” is from The Temple, and it appeared in the section “Christian Life” under the title “Antiphon (I).” The Temple was a very popular work, published in thirteen editions between 1633 and 1679, a total of more 20,000 copies – an amazing publication run in the mid-seventeenth century!

It is said that Herbert, on his deathbed at age 39, gave this collection of religious poems to a friend to take to Nicholas Ferrar, a member of the Anglican community at Little Gidding, with the following inscription:

“Tell him, he shall find in it a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom; desire him to read it: and then, if he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul, let it be made publick: if not, let him burn it: for I and it, are less than the least of God’s mercies.”

The title “Antiphon” is a distinct form. One definition states that it is “ a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle.” In this case, however, hymnologist Richard Watson proposes a more literary definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: “a composition in verse or prose, consisting of verses or passages sung alternately by two choirs in worship.” The original layout of the poem presented above better fits this definition.

Professor Watson, a scholar of English literature, notes a characteristic of Herbert’s poetry: “. . . his emphasis on the heart: although the Church sings (or “shouts”) psalms, it is the heart which must ‘bear the longest past,’ continue the praise even longer that the Church does.”

King James I (1566-1625), who initiated the translation of the Bible popularly known as the “King James Version,” respected Herbert and considered appointing him an ambassador. The King died before these hopes were fulfilled, so Herbert pursued his original career plans. Herbert was ordained in 1626. Next he was appointed vicar, then rector, of the parish of Bemerton and Fugglestone.

Herbert was strongly influenced by fellow metaphysical poet, John Donne (1572-1631), a friend of the family. Their poetry was compared more recently by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), who found, in general, that Donne was more the “orator,” while Herbert’s poetry was more intimate. This is perhaps evident in another Herbert text in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” (The UM Hymnal, 164). The worldwide vision expressed in “Let All the World” coincides with the expansion of the British Empire at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the chartering of the British East India Company (1601).

What are we to make of the lofty and dominant monarchial language – “God and King” – in the twenty-first century? We cannot (or should not) rewrite history. On the one hand, this language bears little connection to the American experience and psyche. On the other hand, this hymn bears witness to a part of the history of the Christian church. It is unlikely that we will suspend the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah (1714) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). The repeated “King of kings and Lord of lords” (from Revelation 19:16) is unlikely to be modified by any church musician for fear of significant reprisals. While not the preferred characterization for God by many in this century, Herbert’s reference is one of a wide range of ways to address the Deity … and it would be regrettable to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath in such a magnificent devotional expression.

The famous English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) helped to bring “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing” back to public awareness when he included it as the final movement of his Five Mystical Songs (1911) – all poems by George Herbert. First published in the 1935 Methodist hymnal, the tune All the World was yoked to this text by hymnal editor, Robert G. McCutchan – a pairing that continued in the 1957 and 1966 Methodist hymnals.

Then, in 1960, hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982) set this text to its present tune, AUGUSTINE. The tune is named for the Edinburgh parish, Augustine-Bristo Congregational Church, where Routley served as minister from 1959 to 1967, and it was first published in Hymns for Church and School (1964). Routley said, “The present tune happens to be the only one in circulation which preserves the original form of the text [antiphon, stanza, antiphon, stanza, antiphon].”

Following the age-old form of the antiphon, this setting sits in great contrast to the many strophic (hymns written in poetic stanzas) hymns found in the United Methodist tradition. Routley’s setting of Herbert’s text exemplifies the majesty of the text. Between each robust proclamation of the singing of God’s people to their “God and King,” Herbert writes of the vastness of God’s creation and the greatness of God’s power.

This text is aptly placed toward the beginning of our hymnal among hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God. Its triumphant message calls the world to sing praise to our God and King. “The church with psalms must shout, no door can keep them out.”

In this hurting, broken world, the church cannot stop proclaiming the good news. People need to hear about Christ and the Christian life. People all over the world, as well as those in our own neighborhoods, are yearning for hope and healing. It is the message of reconciliation, grace, hope, and Resurrection that we have to offer them. People all over the world need to hear the gospel message. May all the world “in every corner sing”!

Written by Michael Hawn and Michelle Mizell Corazao, a graduate of the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology, ‘06, Southern Methodist University, where she was a student of Dr. C. Michael Hawn. C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.