D.H. Lawrence, writing of the poems that had meant most to him, said that they were 'still not woven so deep in me as the rather banal Nonconformist hymns that penetrated through and through my childhood'. It is not easy to account for this, and most writing about hymns has not helped because it has concentrated on their content and function in worship and liturgy. In the present book the author tries to account for feelings like Lawrence's by examining the hymn form and its progress through the centuries from the Reformation to the present day. He begins by discussing the status of a hymn text and relates it to the demands made upon it by the needs of singing. A chronological study then traces the development of the English hymn, from the metrical psalms of the Reformation, through the seventeenth century and Isaac Watts to the Wesleys, Cowper, Toplady, and others, and then to the great flood of hymn writing that occurred during the Victorian period, together with the great success of Hymns Ancient and Modern. There are chapters on American hymnody and women's hymn writing, and sections on gospel hymns and the translation of German hymnody.
A final chapter takes the story into the twentieth century, with a brief postscript on the revival of hymn writing since 1960.
`A book which gives so much enlightenment and pleasure ... It more than fulfils its author's aim of rescuing hymns from their second-rate image in the eyes of the literary establishment, and demonstrates their subtlety and imaginative power.'
`The problem with attempting to discuss a book as rich as Professor Watson's is that it is the illustrations which bring it to life, but space prevents lavish quotation. Two features distinguish this illuminating study: the analysis of the language and the exposition of the structure of the hymns ... superb book.'
The Expository Times, Volume 109, November 1997
`Watson fills a gap left by popular books on the subject. For readers less interested in the scholarly analysis of the poetics of hymns, Watson's provides tantalizing personal glimpses of the poets themselves and the conditions behind their works. Despite its cost, no one undertaking a serious study of English hymnody can afford to neglect this volume whether approaching this subject from a musical. literary, liturgical, or histroical perspective.'
Timothy J. Ralston, Bibliotheca Sacra Vol.157 No.625
`It is a work of distinction, written with eloquence and grace. Watson writes as an enthusiast ... What Watson demonstrates is that competent hymns usually have a distinctive shape and idea, and that their writers have, if not a theology then at least an emphasis and style of their own.'
London Review of Books
`The publication of this scholarly, thought-provoking and enormously enjoyable book is a major event for hymnologists. In scale and scope it is comparable only with Louis F. Benson's The English Hymn ... The new book certainly deserves to achieve the classic status of Benson's earlier work. Those of our members who enjoy deepening their understanding of and response to individual well-loved texts will find some real treasures here. He gives much closer and
more detailed readings than do many deservedly popular writers ... but his critical analyses are always imaginative as well as academic, in the best and oldest sense of that word ... His book is a 'must'
for the library of any university or college which teaches either hymnology or English literature to degree level. It should also give great pleasure and enlightenment to the serious general reader.'
Elizabeth Cosnett, The Hymn Society, 15/5 January 1998
`Watson's ability to apply lit-crit techniques to texts that we usually undervalue makes this an illuminating book ... the uninitiated reader does not need to learn a new vocabulary ... such intelligent enthusiasm for a topic that has been hitherto so taken for granted can only stimulate the reader and, we hope, lead to a new respect (and revival?) for the under-valued hymn.'
Early Music Review - 37 - February 1998
`First-class, penetrating and enlightening book...In the immense detail, Watson is totally sure-footed, but his greatest skill is in the analysis of the firm of hymns.'
`J.R.Watson, who reports towards the end of this meticulous and monumental book that there were some 40,000 hymns in existence in English by the end of the nineteenth century ... deserves our gratitude for having read a good many of them in preparing it ... Scattered throughout The English Hymn there are valuable and memorable passages, the fruits of Watson's long attention to his subject and of his intricate familiarity with it.'
Times Literary Supplement
`rich, full, and ambitious book.'
Isabel Rivers, The Review of English Studies
`Sensitively and thoughtfully he discusses the role of sound and image within the formal limits dictated by the genre and the use of language to stimulate perception and to relate and create experience. ... literary analysis is consistently subtle, delicate and persuasive ... he writes always from a deep love of the form and as one who would resist the wholesale abandonment of pre-twentieth century hymns which he has witnessed in recent decades.'
Jeffrey Richards, Modern Believing
`this is a very fine study which anyone interested in English culture and literature will read with pleasure and instruction. It moves with insight and commanding ease through the detailed history of the art, content and function of the hymn from the metrical psalms of the Reformation to the popular revival of recent decades ... Oxford University Press have produced a truly handsome volume'
Vincent Newey, The Byron Journal
`Dr Johnson famously held that religious poetry receives 'no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression'. It is this neglect, and this dismissiveness, that J.R.Watson's book addresses. It magnificently supplies the deficiency and silences the disparagement. With exemplary attentiveness to textual detail, it demonstrates how misguided the Johnsonian line is ... magisterial book.'
N.H.Keeble, University of Stirling, MLR, vol 94.3, 1999
`A paperback edition of J Richard Watson's 'The English Hymn' has been published by Oxford University Press ... It should make this splendid book available to a wider range of readers.'
The Expository Times, January 2000