Sacred Mysteries: Scorching sunbeams and chilly dewdrops for Lent

Christ in the Wilderness by Briton Rivière (1898), now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Christ in the Wilderness by Briton Rivière (1898), now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London - Alamy

In the most popular hymn for Lent, “Forty days and forty nights”, there is a vivid stanza. It’s the second:

Sunbeams scorching all the day; 

Chilly dewdrops nightly shed, 

Prowling beasts about thy way,

Stones thy pillow; earth thy bed. 

I sang it as a small boy at school in a room with bare floorboards and floral swags on the black-painted cast-iron fireplace hood that seemed to me to loop in the same way as the lilting melody of another hymn, “Jesus, good above all other”. I did not know that the latter was by Percy Dearmer, nor that its tune was much older, Quem pastores from a 15th-century carol. We took it aurally, as it came, as we did “Forty days and forty nights”, which went to the undecorated accompaniment of the tune called Heinlein thumped on an upright piano.

The hymn has been even more popular this century than in the rest of its life. Like most well-known hymns, it has been pulled about quite a bit since it was first sketched out in 1856. It is not easy to trace its earliest version before 1861, when it was included in Hymns Ancient & Modern, but it began life as a poem published by a Christian magazine called the Penny Post under the title: “Poetry for Lent: As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”, a phrase coming from the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians.

At the bottom were the initials GHS, standing for George Hunt Smyttan, the 33-year-old rector of Hawksworth, Nottinghamshire. He met a strange end in 1870, a decade after having resigned his living for unknown reasons. Travelling alone in Germany he died a stranger and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

By then his composition had been made famous thanks to Francis Pott, another Oxbridge-educated clergyman. (Pott was the great-grandson of Percivall Pott, a surgeon who in 1765 had invented, or described, a fracture that bears his name and is now popular among footballers.)

What Pott did to the hymn was delete three of Smyttan’s nine stanzas and rewrite the rest. A deleted stanza spoke of “silken ease” and “carousals high”, which perhaps were not common among the churchgoers singing the Lenten hymn. Even the second stanza did not escape, for Pott changed “sand thy bed” to “earth thy bed”.

He published it in his own collection, Hymns Fitted to the Order of Common Prayer (1861). Susan Drain in her account of 19th-century Anglican hymns tells of the anger of Sir Henry Baker, the engine behind Hymns Ancient & Modern, at Pott’s behaviour, having served on Baker’s committee, in using items from A&M it in his own collection. “Not satisfied with what we gave you, you have pillaged wholesale,” he wrote to Pott. “In a word if ever any one infringed copyrights unfairly you have done it.”

“Forty days and forty nights” fitted Pott’s scheme of the Church’s year as reflected by the Book of Common Prayer. The Collect for the first Sunday of Lent is: “O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness.”

The hymn does not explore the temptations of Christ recounted by St Matthew in the Gospel for that Sunday, but follows instead the much sparer account of St Mark: “He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.”