The Life and Art of Charles Wesley

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The following is the text of a sermon preached on February 22, 1998.

CHARLES WESLEY
1707-1788

Part I: The Life of Charles Wesley

Nine thousand poems; 27,000 stanzas; 180,000 lines. The output of Charles Wesley is prodigious: three times the output of William Wordsworth, one of England's most prolific poets. Needless to say, Charles didn't write poetry every day. Still, his output means that on average he wrote ten lines of poetry every day for fifty years.

If Charles were alive today he'd strike us as eccentric. He wore his winter clothing all year 'round, even in the hottest summer weather. Whenever poetic inspiration fell on him he became preoccupied to the point of semi-derangement. Seemingly unaware of where he was or what was in front of him, he would walk into a table or chair or desk, stumbling, lurching, crashing, not helped at all by his extreme shortsightedness. He would stride into a room, oblivious of the fact that a conversation had been underway before he invaded, and begin firing questions at those present, these people now wondering what weird creature was interrogating them. Not waiting for their reply, he would pour out aloud the poetry that was taking shape in his head, turn on his heel and walk out. If he happened to be on horseback when lines fell into place in his head, he would ride to the home of an acquaintance, hammer on the door and cry, "Pen and ink! Pen and ink!" The poetry safely written down, he excused himself and went on his way.

Charles could write poetry for any occasion. When his wife was about to enter upon the rigours of childbirth, for instance (no little rigour in the 18th century), he wrote a poem for her which she could use as a prayer:

Who so near the birth hast brought,
(Since I on Thee rely)
Tell me, Saviour, wilt thou not
Thy farther help supply?
Whisper to my list'ning soul,
Wilt thou not my strength renew,
Nature's fears and pangs control,
And bring thy handmaid through?

At the funeral of George Whitefield, the Anglican evangelist who was a much more dramatic preacher than either John or Charles Wesley, Charles praised his departed friend in a poem 536 lines long! While his poetry concerned chiefly the themes of the gospel message, he also tried, as imaginatively as he could, to empathize with all sorts of people in their manifold stresses and strains and griefs. For this reason he has left us poetry about wives and widows, coalminers and criminals, highschool students and highwaymen, saints and soldiers, particularly soldiers who were loyal to the crown of England during the American War of Independence.

Charles was born in 1707, the 18th of 19 children, eleven of whom survived the ravages of childhood disease. He gained his eccentricity from both his mother and his father. When his mother, Susannah Annesley, was only 13 years-old she defied her father, a learned Puritan minister, and informed the family that she was becoming an Anglican. Now the Anglican Church, the state-church, had persecuted Puritan Dissenters for decades, frequently making martyrs out of men who wanted only to preach the gospel according to their conscience. The 13 year-old voiced no reason for her decision; she was content to tell her hurt and horrified parents that she had her reasons and had written them in her diary. (Years later her diary disappeared in the house-fire that nearly carried her off with her husband and children; therefore no one knows to this day what her reasons were.) Susannah was unyielding; when she married, several years later, her father was not allowed to officiate as no non-Anglican minister could preside at a service of the state-church. (Her father was crushed at this.)

The father of Charles, Samuel Wesley, was eccentric too. Fancying himself a poet, he published a book of entirely forgettable verse. The title of his book of poems was simply Maggots. The single illustration adorning the book was a drawing of Samuel himself with a large maggot sitting on his forehead. The poems are unusual: "The Grunting of a Hog"; "A Box like an Egg"; and my favourite, of course, "The Tame Snake in a Box of Bran".

Samuel and Susannah married, eventually having 19 children. They almost didn't get past the 14th, however. Susannah and Samuel differed sharply as to who was the rightful ascendant to the throne of England. Susannah supported James II, the rightful heir according to birth, while Samuel supported William, Prince of Orange, who had been imported from Holland. "William is no king!", fumed Susannah, "he is but a prince." "If we are going to have two kings in this home", riposted her husband, "then we shall have two beds!" Husband and wife slept apart for a year, during which Susannah complained to the bishop of Lincoln and the archbishop of York that she was maritally deprived. Neither bishop would have anything to do with the dispute. The night husband and wife were reconciled, John Wesley, their 15th child, was conceived. Charles was born four years later.

Both boys possessed awesome academic talent. When he was still a teenager Charles competed in what was known as a "Challenge", a scholarly joust wherein one fellow tried to "stump" another on any of a hundred subtle questions concerning Greek grammar. The competition began early in the morning and continued until nine at night, three or four nights a week, for eight weeks. Much was at stake, since the winner would be named a "King's Scholar" and guaranteed entrance to Oxford or Cambridge University. Charles triumphed and moved on to Oxford.

Following his ordination to the Anglican priesthood he ministered in Georgia for six months where he proved himself to be a most obnoxious clergyman: prickly, opinionated, self-righteous, condescending, prying. Upon his return to England he rejoined his sister Kezia, the youngest of the nineteen Wesley children. Kezia's adolescent frivolity had infuriated Charles earlier, for Kezia used snuff, the 18th century equivalent of marijuana. Her frivolity behind her now in her new-found maturity, Kezia told Charles she believed that God could and did work a work of grace in the human heart. Believers, she said, were granted new standing before God, a new nature, new outlook, new motivation, new affections. Then on 21st May, 1738, Kezia's conviction and experience the truth became his. Charles wrote in his journal, "...by degrees [the Spirit of God] chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced.... I saw that by faith I stood." Whereupon he wrote a hymn that Christians still sing:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour's blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That thou, my God, should'st die for me?

Three days later John came to the same awareness. Methodism was born. In the meantime their friend George Whitefield (unlike the Wesleys, George Whitefield had not been born to the privileged clergy class but rather was the illegitimate child of an English barmaid); Whitefield, an Anglican priest too, had been expelled from Anglican pulpits. Like John the Baptist, Whitefield never left any doubt as to where he stood. "I am persuaded", he wrote, "that the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and an unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is because they have had dead men preaching to them. How can dead men beget living children?" Soon Whitefield was joined by the Wesleys in outdoor preaching, where thy addressed crowds of up to 25,000.

In 1740 Charles visited Wales for the first time. The Welsh people loved him; at least most of them did. In Cardiff, however, he had his first taste of violent (although by no means his last.) A bystander who heard him was incensed at being told that moral rectitude was no substitute for clinging in faith to the sin-bearing Christ. Angrily he demanded that Charles recant. Charles refused and replied to him,"You cannot endure sound doctrine...you are a rebel against God, and must bow your stiff neck to him before you can be forgiven." Whereupon the angry man assaulted Charles with his cane. In the ensuing melee a Mrs. Phipps was struck as well, and is remembered to this day only because she was struck accidentally by the man who was beating Charles.

Not only was Charles a forceful evangelist, he was a diligent pastor. Like any good pastor, he spent much time at deathbeds. His journal entry of 4th March, 1741, reads, "I saw my dear friend again, in great bodily weakness but strong in the Lord.... I spoke with her physician who said, `She has no dread upon her spirits...I never met such people as yours.'" In the same year he buried a young woman, Rachel Peacock, and subsequently wrote, "At the sight of her coffin my soul was moved within me and struggled as a bird to break the cage. Some relief I found in tears, but still was so overpowered that unless God had abated the vehemence of my desires, I could have had no utterance. The whole congregation partook with me of the blessedness of mourning."

When Charles was 39 years old he married Sarah Gwynne, daughter of Marmaduke Gwynne, a Welsh magistrate. Sarah, known to everyone as "Sally", was 20. Before she married him she told him he had to take better care of himself physically. To this end she urged him to stop getting up every morning at four and to sleep in until six; to stop sleeping on boards and begin sleeping in a bed; and lastly, if she was going to marry him he would have to take off his clothes when he slept. Sarah's hideously disfigured face, the result of smallpox, Charles always found beautiful. Theirs was a marriage of storybook romance. Eight children were born to them, five of whom died in infancy or early childhood.

Yet not everyone among the Wesley brothers and sisters had a marriage like theirs. Mehetabel or "Hetty", the favourite sister of both John and Charles, was intelligent, vivacious, wonderfully gifted as a poet and sensitive to a degree that only her two dear brothers appeared to grasp. When Hetty was 25 years-old a suitor called on her several times. Her father, Samuel, disapproved of the suitor and told him not to come back. Samuel reinforced his decree by sending Hetty to a wealthy family where she worked as an unpaid drudge. She had been wounded by her father's heavyhandedness, was desperately lonely, and lacked utterly the intellectual company she craved. She wrote John vowing that she would never return home, never. She was home in less than a year, five months pregnant. Her father, heavyhanded still and enraged now as well, forced her to marry Mr. William Wright, a coarse, insensitive fellow as unlike Hetty as any man could be, and habitually drunk in addition. Her baby died before it was a year old. A second infant died, and then a third. Hetty was crushed. Her grief found expression in her poem, "A Mother's Address to Her Dying Infant":

Tender softness, infant mild,
Perfect, purest, brightest child!
Transient lustre, beauteous clay,
Smiling wonder of a day!
Ere the last convulsive start
Rend thy unresisting heart,
Ere the long-enduring swoon
Weigh thy precious eyelids down,
Ah, regard a mother's moan!
--Anguish deeper than thy own.

John was irate at his father's callousness and preached a sermon, "Showing Charity to Repentant Sinners." The sermon blasted father Samuel and was meant to shake him up. He remained unaffected, his heart hardened against his daughter forever.

When Hetty fell mortally ill at age 35, Charles attended her. "I prayed by my sister", he wrote, "a gracious, trembling soul; a bruised reed which the Lord will not break." The day she died John was absent in London. Charles conducted the funeral service for his favourite sister, preaching on the text, "The Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended." That night he wrote in his journal, "I followed her to a quiet grave, and I wept with them that wept."

Charles didn't always agree with his older brother, John. In fact they disagreed very sharply over the matter of lay-preachers. As Methodism and gathered more and more people, it found itself without sufficient preachers. While John and Charles were Anglican priests and wished to be nothing else, relatively few Anglican clergy sided with the Methodists, knowing that to do so would ruin their careers in the church. As a result, the Methodist movement had to use more and more lay-preachers. These lay-preachers were zealous, sincere men who did their best but who, of course, lacked formal academic training. Their lack of theological rigour sometimes gave rise to preaching that Charles found to be full of sound and fury yet signifying little. Concerning one such lay-preacher, Michael Fenwick, Charles wrote,

"Such a preacher I have never heard, and hope I never shall again. It was beyond description. I cannot say he preached false doctrine, or true, or any doctrine at all, but pure, unmixed nonsense. Not one sentence did he utter that could do the least good to any one soul."

John, however, insisted that Methodism couldn't survive without lay-preachers and sharply rebuked Charles for his fussiness. Charles would simply have to put up with them.

By 1756 Charles no longer had the stamina for an itinerant ministry from the back of a horse. He was 49 years old, had spent years being rain-soaked, frozen, poorly-fed and assaulted by angry mobs. He gave up the itinerant ministry and established residence in Bristol, preaching there and in London regularly.

By 1780 Charles was 73 years old. Confusion had overtaken him. Poetry no longer leapt to his mind. When he preached now he paused at length between phrases, trying to recall what he wanted to say. In frustration he would thump his chest with both hands while mumbling incoherently. Then, tired, he would lean on the pulpit with both elbows. If he wanted more time he had the congregation sing a hymn; and if more time still, another hymn.

He lived another eight years. John was in Newcastle when he learned of the death of his brother. Next Sunday John was conducting worship, entirely composed, when the congregation happened to sing one of Charles's earliest hymns. When the congregation came to the words

My company before is gone
And I am left alone with Thee

John unravelled. He staggered back into the pulpit chair, weeping profusely. The congregation waited for him, and he recovered enough to finish the service.

Sarah, Charles's widow, moved to London and lived there with her daughter and son. She died in 1822 at the age of 96.

 

Part II: The Art of Charles Wesley

To be sure, Charles Wesley was a genius, yet "genius" wasn't the only ingredient in his poetic mastery. He had been given a fine education in the classics, and he toiled unrelentingly.

Our friend went to high school when he was 11 years old. On Monday mornings the lower form boys wrote an English prose precis of the sermon they had heard the day before; the middle form boys wrote a Latin prose precis; the upper form boys, a Latin verse precis. (Is there any Grade 13 student today who could write a Latin verse precis of last Sunday's sermon?)

After high school Charles moved on to Oxford University where he studied Latin and Greek for 9 years, with concentration in Latin poetry. By age 30 he had written hundreds of poems, even though he had yet penned any of the hymns that would issue from his spiritual awakening. When the awakening did occur, immersing him in a whole new world, it was so huge an event that Charles likened it to the creation of the cosmos. He compared the brooding of the Spirit over him to the brooding of the Spirit over the primeval chaos when the Spirit first brought the world into being. In this regard he wrote

Long o'er my formless soul
The dreary waves did roll;
Void I lay and sunk in night.
Thou, the overshadowing Dove,
Call'dst the chaos into light,
Badst me be, and live, and love.

All poets read other poets and are thereby informed by the poets they read. Charles was no exception. He read chiefly Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Dryden, Pope, Prior and Young. (Prior's poem, "Solomon" , is 100 pages long, and Charles expected his daughter, Sally, to memorize all of it.) Yet none of the poets he read had anything like the influence on him that scripture had. (See appended illustrations of scriptural themes in his hymns.)

While Charles's themes came from scripture, his poetic vocabulary was entirely his own, a fine blend of English words from Latin roots and English words from Anglo-Saxon roots. His basic vocabulary was Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon words are largely monosyllabic; e.g., "hid", "wind", "swept", "thrust". They are more vigorous than Latin words and have greater impact. English words derived from Latin, on the other hand, tend to be polysyllabic. They suggest not action but contemplation. They are capable of greater precision of thought.

Those aramanthine bowers       
Inalienably made ours.

(Aramanthine means "never-fading.") Charles was especially fond of Latinisms ending in -able, -ible, -ably and -ibly. Look at his Christmas hymn on the Incarnation:

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

In this vein we should note his hymn, "O Thou who camest from above":

There let it for thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze.

(In 1904 some Methodist revisers altered "With inextinguishable blaze" to "With ever-bright, undying blaze.") If today we find Wesley's vocabulary difficult to understand in places because strange to us, we should know that his vocabulary is the most modern of all 18th century poets.

By dint of his 9-year immersion in classical poetry Charles absorbed thoroughly the poetic conventions used so very tellingly by the classical poets.

 

(i) Some of the rhetorical devices CW used.

Anaphora: repeating the same word at the beginning of consecutive phrases or sentences. E.g. (with respect to God's grace),

"Enough for all, enough for each,
Enough for evermore."

Anadiplosis: beginning a stanza with the theme (re-stated, but not reproduced word-for-word) of the last line of the preceding stanza. E.g., in "Jesus, lover of my soul",

stanza 3, last line: "Thou art full of truth and grace."
stanza 4, first line: "Plenteous grace with thee is found."
And again, e.g., in "And can it be that I should gain"
stanza 1, last line: "That thou, my God, should'st die for me!"
stanza 2, first line: "'Tis mystery all: th'immortal dies."

Epanadiplosis: beginning and ending a line ("book-ending" the line) with the same word:

E.g., "Come, desire of nations, come."

Epizeuxis: repeating a word or phrase within a line.

E.g., "Who for me, for me hast died."

(The foregoing four devices are forms of repetition used to lend emphasis, continuity or cohesion.)

Aposiopesis: the speaker comes to a complete halt in mid-stanza.

E.g., "What shall I say?"

Oxymoron: inherent self-contradiction.

E.g., "I want a calmly-fervent zeal."

Parison: an even balance in the expressions or words of a sentence.

E.g., "The good die young;
The bad live long."

(Wesley used many more rhetorical devices as well.)

 

(ii) Some examples of CW's vocabulary. (He liked to retain or recover literal meanings.)

expressed: shaped by a strong blow (as from a die)
illustrate: illuminate
secure: free from care
tremendous: terrifying
virtue: manliness or power
pompous: dignified (but not ostentatious)

 

(iii) Some of the figures of speech CW used.

Metaphor: an implied comparison between two things.

E.g., "He laid his glory by,
He wrapped him in our clay."

Synecdoche: one aspect of a person represents the whole of the person.

E.g., "The mournful, broken harts rejoice."

Antonomasia: a proper name is used as a general epithet.

E.g., "Come, all ye Magdalens in lust."

Hypotyposis: lively description.

E.g., "See! He lifts his hands!
See! He shews the prints of love."

Hyperbole: exaggerated language used to express in the inexpressible.

E.g., "I rode on the sky
(Freely justified I!)
Nor envied Elijah his seat;
My soul mounted higher
In a chariot of fire,
And the moon it was under my feet."

(Here CW was speaking of his experience of that grace which had pardoned him. ("Freely justified I!")

 

(iv) Metre

iambic '/

trochaic '/

anapestic ''/

dactylic /''

spondaic //

CW wrote chiefly in iambic metre. Isaac Watts did too.

E.g.,
"And then shall we for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And thine to us so great!" (Watts)

(Watts wrote 1000 poems, of which only 22 were in trochaic and 5 in anapestic.)

While CW preferred iambic, he also wrote significantly in trochaic and anapestic, sometime combining them: iambic-anapestic (e.g., "Nor envied Elijah his seat") or iambic-trochaic (e.g., "Jesus! the name that charms our fears" -- trochaic-iambic.) He rarely wrote in dactylic (unlike Longfellow's Evangeline: "This is the forest primeval", or even "Hickory dickory dock.") While most poets can work well in one metre only, CW could write superbly in any.

(v) Stanza Form

CW wrote many fine hymns in 4-line stanzas, the 1st and 3rd lines having 8 feet (syllables), and the 2nd and 4th lines 6.

E.g.,
"Jesus, united by thy grace,
And each to each endeared,
With confidence we seek thy face
And know our prayer is heard."

He preferred 6 lines with 8 feet (8.8.8.8.8.8.)

E.g.,
"Then let us sit beneath the cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream,
All things for him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to him;
Of nothing think or speak beside,
`My Lord, my Love is crucified.'"

(Note the rhyme scheme here: ABABCC)

His next favourite stanza form was 8.8.6.8.8.6. ("romance metre")

E.g.,
"If pure, essential love thou art,
Thy nature into every heart,
Thy loving self inspire;
Bid all our simple souls be one,
United in a bond unknown,
Baptized with heavenly fire." (AABCCB)

(vi) Endings

Lines that end in an unaccented syllable are said to possess feminine rhyme: ("Love divine, all loves excelling"); lines ending in an accented syllable, masculine ("O what shall I do my Saviour to praise?"). Masculine rhymes were thought to be "stronger", imparting greater emphasis. CW wrote 300 poems in feminine rhymes, 8700 in masculine.

 

Conclusion

While the native genius and the formal training of Charles Wesley were important ingredients in his hymnwriting, they weren't the most important. What counted above all was his life in God, his experience of the one of whom he then wrote. One hundred years after his death, many Methodist congregations were reluctant to sing his hymns: they found his hymns exaggerated, extreme, florid even. The truth is, these congregations possessed an experience of God much less intense and intimate than that of Charles. They were shallow where he had been profound, anaemic where he had been rich, bland where he had been vivid.

What about us? Do we stand with him or with his embarrassed descendants? I can only plead for the recovery of his whole-souled commitment and his grace-infused passion. I can only exalt his plunge into the heart of God and his immersion there. Despite his 9000 published poems, the depth and wonder and force of his experience of God is finally inexpressible. His matchless words,

"Depth of mercy, can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?"

point us to the heart of One before whom all of us (Charles too) are ultimately wordless.

 

Victor Shepherd
February 1998

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