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Frances Ridley Havergal, 1836-1879

by Duncan Campbell

Frances Havergal Daughter of the Rev. W. H. Havergal, honourably known for his efforts to improve the metrical psalmody of the Church, and composer of the simple but much-loved tune "Evan." Miss Havergal inherited her father's special gift, and at one time seems to have contemplated a musical career. That she possessed the literary instinct and a vivid appreciation of nature was shown at the age of eight, when, lighting one day on Cowper's beautiful line, My Father made them all, she exclaimed, "That was what I wanted to say." Like Keble she regarded her poetic gift as something sacred—

Poetry is not a trifle...

Tis the essence of existence...

And the songs that echo longest
Deepest, fullest, truest, strongest
With your life blood you must write.

Her writings in prose and in verse have a large circulation, as have also her biography and letters which reveal a very winning and sympathetic nature, and tell the story of an unusually eager spiritual life. Few have more faithfully acted out the aspiration she expressed in one of her hymns, Always, only for the King. Her favourite title for our Lord is Master, "because it implies rule and submission and this is what love craves. Men may feel differently, but a true woman's submission is inseparable from deep love." The hymn, Thy life was given for me, which Bishop How calls " one of our few very delightful meditation hymns," was written in Germany. She had come in weary and sat down opposite a picture with the motto, I gave my life for thee—a copy, perhaps, of the picture which arrested Zinzendorf. The hymn founded on this motto came to her as by a flash. She wrote it in pencil on the back of a circular, but on reading it over said to herself, "This is not poetry anyhow, I won't go to the trouble of copying this," and was about to put it in the fire, but a sudden impulse made her draw it back and put it "crumpled and singed" in her pocket. Visiting an old woman in an almshouse, some time after, she read the lines to her, and they so delighted her listener she thought they might prove helpful to others, as undoubtedly they have been. The version in common use is a recast by the compilers of Church Hymns, approved by the authoress.

Miss Havergal's poetic range was limited, but within that range she is unsurpassed. In a very special sense she is the singer of consecration. One has only to quote the first lines of her best-known hymns as evidence of this— Take my life, and let it be; Lord, speak to me, that I may speak; Jesus, Master, whose I am; True-hearted, whole-hearted; Who is on the Lord's side?; Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King. Her beautiful Advent hymn, Thou art coming, my Saviour, is in a somewhat different strain, expressive of pure direct adoration, but in every "complete" life consecration follows on adoration as "loyal response."

From Hymns and Hymn Makers by Duncan Campbell. London: A & C Black, 1898.


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