THE P RTAL
Cecil Frances Alexander
by Fr Keith Robinson
HOW MANY couples coming to be married in the Church of England can think of only one hymn? Tey just about remember “All things bright and beautiful.” If this tells us something about the teaching of hymns in English schools in recent decades, and the younger generation’s knowledge of hymnody, it must surely also say something about the durability of the hymn itself.
In spite of chronic political
incorrectness (the rich man in his castle…), and numerous archaisms (the rushes by the water … I don’t know about you, but it’s years now since I gathered rushes on a daily basis!) it is the one hymn that everybody knows. Its author however was a devout and humble woman of considerable spiritual stature.
Hymns for Little Children Cecil Frances was the second
daughter of Major John Humphreys of Dublin. She was born in 1818 into a Church of Ireland family, and encouraged by her father began writing verses at a very early age. It is perhaps surprising to note that as she grew up this young Irish woman became deeply interested in the Oxford Movement.
Her thinking was greatly influenced by men such
as Walter Hook, Dean of Chichester, and especially John Keble who became a close personal friend, and shared her poetic giſts. Tey shared a commitment to what we would call catechesis: communicating the doctrines of the catholic faith, and they did it through their poetry. Cecil was especially concerned that the Faith should be accessible to young children, hence her large preponderance of children’s hymns, which expound the doctrines of the Creed.
Her book Hymns for Little Children first published in 1848 ran through sixty-nine editions within the next fiſty years. It included such enduring favourites as Once in Royal David’s city, Tere is a green hill far away and Jesus calls us . Tese remain substantial hymns, especially by today’s standards.
In October 1850 she married an Irish clergyman,
William Alexander, who subsequently became Bishop of Derry, and later still Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland. He was something of a poet himself, and was in fact the last Irish bishop to sit in the House of Lords before the Disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1871, but overall, she seems to have attained a more lasting name than he.
St Patrick’s Breastplate Mrs Alexander, as she now was,
continued her writing (which included a memorable translation of the important early Irish poem known as St Patrick’s Breastplate)
and increased her existing commitment to charitable works. She was always a most diligent visitor of the sick and the poor. But all the income from her publications was devoted to building of the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (1846) which was in fact a school, and later, the Derry Home for Fallen Women.
She also worked to establish and develop a district
nursing service. She was a humble character, totally committed to the dissemination of the Faith which she so strongly believed herself, and also to numerous practical expressions of that Faith through the generosity of her good works.
Over four hundred hymns She wrote, apart from other forms of poetry, over
four hundred hymns, and her work was much admired by Alfred Tennyson and the French composer Charles Gounod. Having throughout her life placed all her skills and material advantages at the disposal of the Kingdom of God, she died on the 12 October 1895, and is buried in the cemetery in Derry. May she rest in peace!
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