Abide with Me, by Henry Francis Lyte, is, by one measure, the most popular English hymn in the world (according to this table [PDF] from Christianity Today—online version here, behind a paywall). I first learnt it as a child—in the 1933 Finnish hymnal. It was so popular that when the new hymnal came out in 1986, the editors decided to (or were made to, who knows?) keep it as hymn number 555. That’s a testament to popularity if ever there was one.
But both the CT statistics and my little anecdote attest to a particular facet of this hymn’s popularity: that it has remained well-loved pretty much since its original publication. It has lasted.
And hardly anything will ever last unless it has substance.
Abide with me has substance.
However, there is more to this well-loved and well-known hymn than is known. I recently downloaded the first edition of Remains of the Late Henry Francis Lyte, M.A., a collection first published in 1850, three years after the author’s death. It would seem that the popularity of the hymn mushroomed as a result of its inclusion in this collection, which came with a Prefatory Memoir by his daughter.
I was not surprised to discover that there were more stanzas in the original work than there are in modern usage. Alas, we have become impatient with long hymns.
The text of the poem wasn’t immediately fixed however. The version of ‘Abide with Me’ given in Poetical Works (pub. 1907) is transcribed from Lyte’s own manuscript (a facsimile of which is produced in the book itself), and varies somewhat from the one given in Remains. Perhaps Lyte himself worked on the text on his ill-fated final journey to Nice, in the vain hope of improvement in his poor health.
Even then, some of the lines that have become obsolete are weaker poetically than the more popular ones. “Familiar, condescending, patient, free,”—had Lyte lived longer, he may have improved on this. The final line of the fourth stanza has one too many syllables in the manuscript version, which Remains fixes by changing ‘abide’ to ‘bide’. The later alternative of removing ‘thus’ seems to be a better judgement.
Yet, whatever criticisms one may have, this hymn is Lyte’s final work, presented to his daughter on the evening after his final sermon to his congregation, before his ill-fated journey to the Mediterranean coast in the vain hope of improved health. Therefore, it’s worth hearing the words of this dying man of God in the form he gave them.
So here it is, in its original glory:
Abide with Me
Henry Francis Lyte (–)
“Abide with us: for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent.” —Luke xxiv.
Abide with me ! Fast falls the Eventide ;
The darkness deepens. Lord, with me abide. [Manuscript: "The darkness thickens"]
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee ,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me !
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day ;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away :
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me !
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word ;
But as Thou dwellst with thy disciples, Lord ;
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,—
Come, not to sojourn, but abide with me.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings ;
But kind and good with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.
[Manuscript: "and thus abide with me", mistranscribed in Poetical Works as "then abide with me"]
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile ;
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me !
I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the Tempter’s power ?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be ?
Through cloud and sunshine, O, abide with me !
I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless :
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is Death’s sting? Where, Grave, thy victory ?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold then Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies ; [Manuscript: "Speak through the gloom"—an allusion to Sinai?]
Heaven’s morning breaks, and Earth’s vain shadows flee !
In life and death, O Lord, abide with me ! [Manuscript: "For life, in death"]
P.S. According to his daughter, Lyte also gave “an air of his own composing adapted to the words” with the text. That tune has not fared well. However, at a time of great personal sorrow, the English organist and hymn composer William H. Monk composed ‘Eventide’, apparently in 10 minutes, and that melody has become indelibly associated with Lyte’s poignant words.
Here is the manuscript of (click for full version):