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History of Hymns: “My Song Is Love Unknown”

by C. Michael Hawn

"My Song Is Love Unknown"
Samuel Crossman
The Faith We Sing, No. 2083

“My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My God should take
Frail flesh and die?”


Seventeenth-century devotional poetry provided a nurturing environment that enriched hymnody in the days before such 18th-century hymn writers as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. 

Congregational singing beyond metrical psalms was not widely practiced during the 17th century. Though devotional poetry during this era was not typically written to be sung by congregations, verse from this century found its way into hymnals later on. 

Samuel Crossman (1624-1684), an Anglican minister, received a bachelor of divinity at Penbroke College, Cambridge. He then served both an Anglican parish at All Saints, Sudbury, and a Puritan congregation. 

Crossman sympathized with the Puritan cause as a dissenting religious body within the context of the Anglican Church of England. He participated in the 1661 Savoy Conference, which attempted to revise the Book of Common Prayer so that it could serve both Puritans and Anglicans. 

The Conference was unsuccessful, and the 1662 Act of Uniformity expelled some 2,000 Anglican ministers, including Crossman. He recanted and was soon ordained in 1665, becoming a royal chaplain. He was called to a position in Bristol in 1667 and became Dean of Bristol Cathedral in 1683. 

This poignant meditation of the Passion of Christ was published just before Crossman’s ordination, in The Young Man’s Meditation (1664). This short book of poems was reprinted in 1683, and the poem appeared for the first time as a hymn in the Anglican Hymn Book in 1686, just two years after the author’s death. 

The original poem has seven stanzas, taking the singer from Palm Sunday through the crucifixion. But its purpose is not simply to retell the events of the Passion. From the beginning we find that this is a love song—sung to the Savior who demonstrated pure love, even to the “love-less” so that they might be “love-ly.” 

The poet freely inserts his own perspective into the story:

“But O my friend,
My friend indeed,
Who at my need
His life did spend.”
[Stanza two]

The final stanza continues the metaphor of song introduced in stanza one:

“Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine:
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine!
This is my friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.”


Hymnologist J.R. Watson notes that Crossman, “like other seventeenth-century hymn-writers... wrote in the shadow of George Herbert’s The Temple: the phrase, ‘Never was grief like thine’ [stanza seven in the original] is an echo of Herbert’s poem ‘The Sacrifice.’”

“Oh all ye, who passe by, whose eyes and minde
To worldly things are sharp, but to me blinde;
To me, who took eyes that I might you finde:
Was ever grief like mine?”


What might seem like plagiarism today was in the 17th and 18th centuries the technique of imitation—a way of demonstrating one’s knowledge of the great poets, paying homage to them and anchoring one’s own work in their heritage. 

Each of Herbert’s 61 stanzas concludes with the refrain: “Was ever grief like mine?” Crossman dares to answer that rhetorical question in the final stanza of his meditation, boldly stating, “Never was grief like thine!” 

The powerful use of irony comes into play in the original stanza four, which begins with two questions: “Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite?” His only crime was that he healed those in need—“He made the lame to run” and “gave the blind their sight.” 

In stanza five of the original, the ultimate paradox comes into play: The King, the Lord, the “Prince of Life” becomes a powerless victim in death. 

The Faith We Sing (and several other hymnals) omits the original stanzas five and six. Regretfully, the editors have unnecessarily “updated” much of Crossman’s language throughout the hymn, making a rather jarring juxtaposition of 17th and 21st century language, and losing the nuance discussed above. 

Those who can locate the original poem online will find it is one of the finest devotional poems in helping us meditate on the Passion.
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns