A hymn is not a poem. Even though hymns have an outward resemblance to formal poetry, they actually function very differently. A successful poem works because it expresses a unique individual viewpoint. A successful hymn works because it speaks for the congregation.
As a result, there isn’t much crossover between the categories of hymnist and poet. Historically, few renowned poets have been able to produce good hymns. Even in cases where this has happened, like Whittier’s “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, the hymn may well be sung because worshipers take it in a very different way than the poet originally intended. We read “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” as a plea for refuge from the stress of our daily lives, but Whittier originally wrote it as part of a complaint about loud, brassy church music, “The Brewing of Soma”.
The problem, I think, is that poets generally aren’t willing to submerge their individual voices in the corporate voice of God’s people. They want to speak for themselves, not for the church. The “I” in a poem is the poet’s, and it never becomes the worshiper’s, even in religious poetry. We may read and benefit from such poems, but we always remain at a distance from them. We never adopt them for ourselves.
By contrast, we do adopt the “I” of great hymns. When we sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, we aren’t thinking about Isaac Watts’ experience of contemplating the crucifixion. We are thinking about our own experience. His identity has been subsumed in ours. Indeed, the expression of a great hymn must always be generic enough that we can claim it as our own without self-consciousness. A great poem is a great poem, a great hymn is a great hymn, and never shall the twain meet.
Most hymnists don’t struggle with this. Because of their personalities, they are much less concerned with preserving their unique “I” than poets are. Arguably, this is connected with the yearning of the disciple to be lost in Christ (contra, for instance, the religious poetry of the likes of Herbert and Donne, who struggled with losing themselves in Jesus).
In fact, my observation and experience is that many hymnists struggle with the opposite problem. Rather than flaunting a unique “I”, they want to conceal it entirely. They want to get out of the light so completely that there’s nothing observably human in their work.
I think this tendency exists for two reasons. The first is a praiseworthy affection for the Scripture. Good hymnists are good writers, and any writer gut-level gets that the Bible is good writing. The Bible is true and beautiful, and from that recognition, it’s awfully easy to jump to the conclusion that the more Bible a hymn contains, the better. Hymnists like this search the Scriptures, eagerly seeking related phrases that are metered and may even rhyme. Then, once you have constructed a hymn that is a pastiche of such phrases, you have accomplished something. You have succeeded!
The second, less praiseworthy motivation is the desire to hide. As my Facebook feed reveals, I am the chief of sinners here. I like talking about my ideas (“Read my blog post!”), but I don’t like talking about myself. Rarely to never do I say something because I feel like saying it. In almost everything I say, whether online or in person, I am guarded and reserved. If you offend me, you will probably never know it unless I see some benefit in bringing the subject up.
As a result, when I’m writing a hymn, I am eager to hide behind the Bible. I can stitch all those little Scriptural quotations together as well as anybody, never dropping a hint about the actual life of the one who is doing the stitching. The result is a technically perfect composition, a veritable sermon in song.
There is, however, a problem, and the problem is that hymns like this simply don’t work. Rather than having a generic “I”, where the “I” speaks for everybody, they don’t have an “I” at all. The viewpoint they express is the Bible’s, and even though we love and study the Bible, the Bible’s viewpoint is not the viewpoint of the Christian. It’s what we ought to be, but it isn’t what we are. As a result, sermons in song leave the worshiper cold. Despite their technical merits, nobody wants to sing them, and they aren’t sung.
Hymnists like this, then (many of whom are men), have to learn the exquisitely painful art of not hiding. Even if you are not completely candid in any other area of your life, you must learn to be so in what you write. Frankly, I hate it. There are hymns that I’ve written that make me squirm with embarrassment when they are sung, particularly in the presence of those who could realize that no, they’re not so vain, and this song really is about them.
Thankfully, what is screamingly obvious to the writer is usually not at all obvious to the congregation. Indeed, this is due to the nature of hymns. Unless the hymnist has actually produced a poem (“What Brother So-and-So said to me last Wednesday night really hurt my feelings la la la!”), the singer will apply their words not to the hymnist, but to themselves.
We have, after all, experienced no temptation but such as is common to man. Every Christian knows joy, fear, frustration, regret, and all the other emotions that the follower of Christ may experience. Consequently, a hymn about these things will resonate with all of us. When the hymnist doesn’t hide, the congregation can/will buy in to what they have written.
A good hymn contains lots of Scripture, yes, but it has to be Scripture that the hymnist has taken and made their own. If I am speaking through the words of Jacob or Leah or David, well and good, but I still have to be the one doing the speaking. Only then can I, or anyone else, speak for the church too.