Where is this stupendous stranger?: Robert Canham

Christopher Smart (1722-1771)
Public Domain

Tune: OTTERY ST MARY, Henry George Ley (1887-1962)
© SPCK Publishing, 36 Causton Street, LONDON SW1P 4ST

Robert Canham
Robert Canham

1   Where is this stupendous stranger?
     Prophets, shepherds, kings advise:
     lead me to my Master's manger,
     show me where my Saviour lies.

2   O most mighty, O most holy,
     far beyond the seraph's thought,
     are you then so mean and lowly
     as unheeded prophets taught?

3   O the magnitude of meekness,
     worth from worth immortal sprung:
     O the strength of infant weakness,
     if eternal is so young.

4   God all-bounteous, all-creative,
     whom no ills from good dissuade,
     is incarnate, and a native
     of the very world he made.

Robert A. Canham

In the Preface to his collection of hymns Always from Joy: Hymn Texts 1991-1996[1] (1997) Alan Gaunt quotes the 18th century poet, Christopher Smart (1722-71):

Praise above all, for praise prevails
Heap up the measure, load the scales
     And good to goodness add:
The gen’rous soul her saviour aids
But peevish obloquy degrades;
     The Lord is great and glad.

Alan Gaunt then continues: ‘All true worship arises out of joy and culminates in praise. Happiness is not joy!’

For Christopher Smart, born in 1722, only his youth, growing up in Kent’s Medway valley, was an untroubled time, coming to an end, when eleven, with his father dying suddenly. His mother found herself in financial difficulties, the family was split up, with Christopher and his sister Margaret sent north to live with an uncle.

Academically brilliant, Smart seemed destined for a university career, but this proved uncongenial to him; his emotional volatility, economic profligacy and intemperance militating against it. With a delicate constitution, his health was to decline progressively, possibly due in part to overwork and excess.

In 1757 to early 1763 Christopher Smart was largely confined to mental institutions. Whether he clinically needed this is, apparently, open to question. He was, doubtless, a man of eccentric disposition and emotional extremes, but his incarceration, at the behest of his father-in-law and publisher, John Newbery, could have been in part a contrivance to keep him out of the way. Such abuses were not uncommon, as Wilkie Collins was to draw attention a hundred years’ later in his novel The Woman in White. Samuel Johnson, following a visit to Smart whilst confined in Mr Potter’s private madhouse in Bethnal Green, concluded he ‘should not be shut up.’ He was eventually extricated through the mild deception of a friend in January 1763, never to return. Smart, however, remained incapable of living within his means and his literary output, though prodigious, was under-appreciated and did not sell well. He died, a month after his 49th birthday, in a debtors’ prison. Christopher Smart was a remarkable person, gifted but tragic, brilliant but flawed.

‘Praise above all, for praise prevails…’ and ‘Where is this stupendous stranger…’ were most likely both written whilst Christopher Smart was confined in the mental institution. It makes them all-the-more extraordinary.

‘Where is this stupendous stranger…’ comprises verses 1-3 and 9 of a nine-verse poem. Extraordinarily, their potential was first spotted by the American hymn writer, Francis Bland Tucker (1895-1984) for inclusion in the American Episcopal Hymnal (1940).

 Hymns need to be read as well as sung. Many originate from the life-experience of the author, often sensitive, complex, challenging. They also have to be explored imaginatively, making the links, the connections, either with the bible, other writings, or our own life experiences. That is surely true of this hymn.

 So far as I can recall from childhood, ‘stupendous’ was a sort of slang word, like ‘humungous’—an exaggerative imaginary word. That, of course, is not the case; ‘stupendous’ and its antecedents, stretch back far.

‘Stupendous: that is to be wondered at, amazing; to be struck senseless, be amazed at; such as to cause stupor or astonishment; amazing, astounding; marvellous, prodigious; amazingly large or great.’ (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary[2]). Need one say more?

‘When (the wise men) saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him…’ (Matthew 2:10,11 AV). ‘All true worship arises out of joy and culminates in praise.’ The wise men were overjoyed, they worshipped, and we may imagine that, as the shepherds in Luke 2:20, they returned, praising God.

In verse 1, we are also reminded that God comes in Jesus as a ‘stranger’: ‘He was in the world; but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognize him.’ (John 1:10 NEB). The verse begins with the questioning wise men, but we ourselves are immediately drawn in; how will we respond?

Lead me to my Master’s manger,
show me where my Saviour lies.

Verse 2 broadens the vista to embrace the heavenly realms, musing on the paradox of Incarnation: how can it be that the ‘most mighty’ the ‘most holy’, stretching the seraph’s imagination beyond its limits, can emerge in this world in ‘so mean and lowly’ a form? And the ‘unheeded prophets’? Possibly a suggestion of the ‘Suffering Servant’ poems in Isaiah[3] neglected at the time but which Jesus poignantly embraced.

Verse 3 continues the stupefying contrasts: ‘the magnitude of meekness’; ‘worth from worth immortal’; ‘the strength of infant weakness’; ‘eternal (yet) so young’.

Verse 4 sums up the mystery; God the profligate Giver, the Source of all creation, in God’s-self and in Christ cannot be dissuaded from unswerving good despite the ills yet to be hurled at him; this God is Incarnate, who has become one of us within ‘the very world he made’.

The tune, OTTERY ST MARY, was composed to accompany Cardinal John Henry Newman’s hymn, ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ for use at Eton College where the composer, Henry George Ley (1887-1962), was precentor. Ottery St Mary being a small town on the river Otter, some 11 miles east of Exeter, Devon, the county in which Ley was born and died. It was first published for schools in The Clarendon Hymn Book (1936) and the Eton College Hymn Book (1937).

Prayer

Stupendous God,
do not allow our sense of amazement
ever to be diminished,
or our sense of wonderment
ever to be dulled,
in the presence of the breath-taking mystery
of Incarnation

Rather,
embrace us in the profligacy of that love
revealed through it,
and enable us
to share it with others. Amen.

[1] Alan Gaunt, Always from Joy: Hymn Texts 1991-1996 (London: Stainer & Bell, 1997).

[2] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Book Club Associates by Arrangement with Oxford University Press, 1979).

[3] Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12

Recorded at Christ Church St Laurence Sydney with the choir of Christ Church St. Laurence in Sydney
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