Historians of the English congregational hymn, focusing on its literary or theological aspects, have usually found the genre out of step with the rationalist era that produced it. This book takes a more balanced approach to the work of four writers and concludes that only eighteenth-century Britain, with its understanding of public verse, common truth, and the utility of poetry, could have invented the English hymn as we know it.
The early hymns sought to inspire, teach, stir, and entertain congregations. The essential purpose shifted slightly in line with each poet's setting and in accord with the poetic thought of his day. For Isaac Watts's Independents, powerful traditional imagery was appropriate. Charles Wesley's enthusiasm proceeded from and served the spirit of the revival. John Newton's prophetic vision particularly suited the impoverished community at Olney. William Cowper's masterful handling of formal conventions and his idiosyncratic personal hymns reflect his poetic, rather than clerical, vocation.
Despite such temporal variations, the great poetry by each man displays themes of general Christian relevance, suggesting common experience, showing normative features of the genre, and bearing a complex and intriguing relationship to secular literature.
"Makes many important observations upon literary method and the strengths and weaknesses of each writer." -- The South Atlantic Quarterly
"A fine, genuinely ground-breaking book.... A fascinating, beautifully-wrought study." -- Studies in English Literature