(published in TOUCHSTONE September 2004)
Part I: The Life of Charles
The output of Charles Wesley is prodigious: 9000 poems; 27,000 stanzas;
180,000 lines. Charles wrote three
times as much as William Wordsworth, one of
Was he sane? In Henry
Rack’s recent biography of John Wesley, Charles is described as “seeming[ly]
almost a manic-depressive personality.”
Had Charles suffered from bi-polar affective disorder (i.e., alternated
between psychotic states of floridness and near-immobility) he would never have
been able to accomplish what he did as itinerant evangelist and spokesperson for
the Methodist movement. On the other
hand, mood swings that are non-psychotic yet more extreme than those of most
people are labelled today as “cyclothymiac.”
While psychiatric speculation can never be confirmed, from Charles’
correspondence and journals it appears incontrovertible that he suffered more
than most in this regard. Poets
routinely do. Today he would strike
us as eccentric to say the least. He
wore his winter clothing throughout the year, 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 short-sightedness. 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 startled at the apparent rudeness and effrontery of the man whose
lack of social perception allowed him to continue interrogating people who
couldn’t reply and who weren’t answerable to him in any case. Not waiting
for their response, he would pour out aloud the poetry that was taking shape in
his head, then 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 (made even more rigorous in the Eighteenth Century on account of the
primitive state of obstetrics), he wrote a poem for her which she could use as a
Who so near the birth hast brought,
(Since I on Thee rely)
Tell me, Saviour, wilt thou not
Thy farther help
Whisper to my list'ning soul,
Wilt thou not my
Nature's fears and pangs control,
And bring thy handmaid
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, high school students and highwaymen, saints and soldiers,
particularly soldiers who were loyal to the crown of
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. 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
thirteen year-old voiced no reason for her decision; she was content to tell her
hurt and horrified parents that she was convinced of the soundness of her
position and had inscribed it 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 reasons she had advanced.)
Susannah was unyielding. When
she married, several years later, her father wasn’t allowed to officiate,
since no non-Anglican minister could preside at a service of the state-church.
Her father was crushed at his being excluded.
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, perhaps the most unusual, "The Tame Snake in a Box
Samuel and Susannah married, eventually having nineteen children. John
was the fifteenth, Charles the eighteenth. (Ann,
named after the British monarch, was the last of that generation.)
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 stymie
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
Following his ordination to the Anglican priesthood Charles ministered in
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour's
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death
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 like the Wesleys,
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
they addressed crowds of up to 25,000.
In 1740 Charles visited
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
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.
Extraordinarily beautiful, Sarah sat for several portrait painters.
She had been married for only two years when smallpox overtook her.
She lingered near death for days. Her
eighteen month old son, “Jacky,” succumbed.
Sarah regained her health even as her face, hideously disfigured now, was
more than many people could bear to look at.
When someone who hadn’t seen her since her illness blurted to Charles
that his wife’s appearance was repulsive, Charles commented, “I find her
beautiful.” Theirs was a marriage
of storybook romance. Ultimately
eight children were born to them, five of whom died in infancy or early
childhood. Two sons, Samuel and
Charles II, would distinguish themselves as musical performers and composers.
(Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the best-known of the musical Wesleys, has
tunes in every denomination’s hymnal. In
addition he wrote twenty oratorios.)
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 heavy-handedness, was desperately
lonely, and lacked utterly the intellectual company she craved.
She wrote John vowing that she would never return home.
She was home in less than a year, five months pregnant.
Her father, heavy-handed 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 as well.
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, “To an Infant Expiring the Second Day of its
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,
Oh, regard a mother's moan!
Anguish deeper than thy own!
Fairest eyes, whose dawning light
Late with rapture blessed my sight,
Ere your orbs extinguished be,
Bend their trembling beams on me.
Drooping sweetness, verdant flow'r,
Blooming, with'ring in an hour,
Ere thy gentle breast sustains
Latest, fiercest, vital pains,
Hear a suppliant! Let me be
Partner in thy destiny!
John was irate
at his father's callousness and preached a sermon, "Showing Charity to
Repentant Sinners." The sermon
excoriated father Samuel and was meant to acquaint him with his cruelty.
The older man remained unaffected, however, his heart hardened against
his daughter forever.
When Hetty fell mortally ill while still a young woman, 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 Hetty died John
was absent in
While Charles had no dispute with his sisters, he had several with John.
They disagreed sharply over the matter of lay-preachers.
As Methodism gathered more and more people it found itself without
sufficient preachers. While John and
Charles were Anglican priests and intended being nothing else, relatively few
Anglican clergy sided with the Methodists, knowing that to do so would render
them suspect to Anglican officialdom. As
a result, the Methodist movement had to use more and more lay-preachers.
These lay-preachers were zealous, sincere men whose dedication entailed
enormous personal sacrifice but who lacked formal academic training.
Oxford-educated himself, John had insisted that they study five hours
each day. His mandate here was
unrealistic in view of their lack of academic formation and even lack of time.
Admittedly, their theological under-exposure tended to foster doctrinal
imprecision, this in turn occasionally giving 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.
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.
insisted that Methodism couldn't survive without lay-preachers and sharply
rebuked Charles for his fussiness. (In
this regard John was vindicated conclusively.
Methodism wouldn’t have survived its first flowering without lay
preachers whose sacrifice was nothing less than exemplary.
While the British Crown guaranteed Anglican clergy an annual income of
thirty pounds, lay preachers – John was careful never to call them
“clergy” or “ministers” and thereby violate not only canon law but even
the law of the land – were paid only fifteen pounds per year.)
Charles was forced to tolerate the preachers whose utterance frequently
grated on him.
The doctrine of Christian perfection, however, remained the area of
sharpest contention between the brothers. John
insisted, in conformity with the tradition of the church catholic, that there
was no limit to the scope of God’s delivering his people from sin’s guilt and
grip in this life.
To deny that God could “break every fetter” now
was to condemn the habituated to life-long bondage, offering them only the faint
comfort of release in articulo mortis.
While always reading the word “perfection” as “single-minded” –
the meaning it had in the King James Version of the bible, John never thought it
to mean “flawless” or “faultless.” Charles
riposted that Eighteenth Century people invariably heard “perfection” as
“faultless.” Charles found
“perfection” unhelpful; worse, disastrous, spawning as it did (he
maintained) unrealistic self-estimation and insufferable spiritual pride, only
to be followed by unforeseen vulnerability and embarrassing collapse.
John thought Charles held out too little for people struggling with
sin’s addiction; Charles thought John held out too much.
Charles reiterated that if by “perfection” John meant something less
than what others generally understood, he should stop using the term.
John insisted that the term was scriptural.
Mordant pen in hand, Charles
scripted some of his sharpest exchanges with his brother:
If perfect I myself profess,
My own profession I disprove:
The purest saint that lives below
Doth his own sanctity disclaim,
The wisest owns, I nothing know,
The holiest cries, I nothing am.
perhaps is his
Longer than all should forward press,
Should see the summit with his eyes,
Impatient for his own success
BE PERFECT NOW, the preacher cries!
He ruins by his headlong haste,
The wheat is choak’d with tares oer’run,
And Satan lays the lunacy and waste.
By 1756 Charles no longer had the stamina for an itinerant ministry on
horseback . He was 49 years old, had
spent years being rain-soaked, frozen, poorly-fed and assaulted by angry mobs.
He gave up the travelling ministry and established residence in
By 1780 Charles was 73. 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,
He lived another eight years. John
My company before is gone
And I am left alone with Thee
He staggered back into the pulpit chair, weeping profusely.
The congregation waited for him, and he recovered enough to finish the
Sarah, Charles's widow, moved to
Part II: The Art of Charles
To be sure, Charles Wesley was a genius, yet “genius” wasn't the only
ingredient in his poetic mastery. His
classical education and his unrelenting assiduity were equally important.
Charles left home for high school when he was eleven years old.
On Monday mornings the lower form boys wrote an English prose précis of
the sermon they had heard the day before; the middle form boys wrote a Latin
prose précis; the upper form boys, a Latin verse précis.
(Is there a high school student in
After high school Charles moved on to
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 of scripture.
Subsequently his hymn-poems became conduits whereby the Methodist people
were steeped in scripture as they hummed tunes in the course of their daily
affairs. Generally Charles embedded
one scripture text at least in each hymn line:
With glorious clouds encompassed round
Ex. 24:16, 17; Ps. 97:2; Ez. 10:4
Whom angels dimly see,
Will the Unsearchable be found,
Job11:7; 23:3,8,9; 1 Tim. 6:16
Of God appear to me?
Isa. 59:2; Hab.1:13; 1 Cor.15:8
Come, then, and to my soul reveal
The heights and depths of grace,
The wounds which all my sorrows heal
Isa. 53:4-5; 1 Pet.
That dear disfigured face.
Isa. 52:14; 53:2
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., "hit", "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.
means "never-fading.") Charles
was especially fond of Latinisms ending in -able, -ible, -ably and -ibly.
Note 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.
(It might be
noted in passing that William Tyndale, the master of early-modern Saxon
vocabulary, never used Latinate polysyllabic words, always preferring the force
of monosyllables; e.g., “My sin is more than I can bear.”)
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.
dint of his 9-year immersion in classical poetry Charles absorbed thoroughly the
poetic conventions used so very tellingly by the classical poets.
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.”
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.”
four devices are forms of repetition used to lend emphasis, continuity or
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
E.g., “The good die young;
The bad live long.”
many more rhetorical devices as well.)
Some examples of CW's vocabulary.
(He liked to retain or recover literal meanings.)
expressed: shaped by a strong blow (as from a die)
secure: free from care
virtue: manliness or power (Latin:
vis, power; vir, man)
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
Synecdoche: one aspect of a person
represents the whole of the person.
“The mournful, broken hearts rejoice.”
Antonomasia: a proper name is used as
a general epithet.
“Come, all ye Magdalens in lust.”
Hypotyposis: lively description.
E.g., “See! He lifts his
shews the prints of love!”
Hyperbole: exaggerated language used to express the
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!”)
(/ = accented syllable; ' = unaccented syllable.
chiefly in iambic metre. Isaac Watts
then shall we for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to
And thine to us so great!” (
While CW preferred iambic, he also wrote significantly in trochaic and
anapestic, sometimes 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 “
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
And know our prayer is heard.”
He preferred 6
lines with 8 feet (126.96.36.199.8.8.)
E.g., “Then let us sit beneath the cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream,
All things for him account
And give up all our hearts to him;
Of nothing think or speak
‘My Lord, my Love is
(Note the rhyme
scheme here: ABABCC)
favourite stanza form was 188.8.131.52.8.6. (‘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
United in a bond unknown,
Baptized with heavenly fire.” (AABCCB)
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 hymns in feminine rhymes, 8700 in masculine.
While the native genius and the formal training of Charles Wesley were
important ingredients in his hymn writing, they weren't the most important.
What counted above all was his life in God, in particular his experience
of the Crucified. Repeatedly in his Journal
Charles summarized his ministerial endeavour and its Spirit-authored fruit,
“She received the atonement.” His
hymns sing pre-eminently about the cross. Despite
his 9000 published poems, the depth and wonder and force of his immersion in God
is finally inexpressible. His
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.
H.; Reasonable Enthusiast, p.252
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1992.)
The quotations in the following paragraphs are found in the work cited
eldest brother, Samuel Wesley, never sided with the Eighteenth Century
Awakening. He was ordained to
the Anglican ministry, became headmaster of a boys’ school, and
established a poetry journal. John
and Charles appear to have had little to do with him.
M.; “To an Infant Expiring the Second Day of its Birth”; quoted in
Lonsdale, R., ed.; The New Oxford Book
of Eighteenth Century Verse, pp. 165-6 (Oxford, OUP, 1984.)
in Dallimore, op.cit., p.189.
exception, John Wesley never tired of pointing out, was found in the
churches of the Reformation: they abhorred all discussion of
“perfection” as “fanatical.” John
never denied the danger of fanaticism; at the same time, he knew that the
Eastern Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the west held out to their
people a sanctity that could be realized in this life.
While unquestionably a Protestant and therefore belonging to the
west, he always found the Reformation churches deficient in this regard.
a detailed discussion of this point see Shepherd, V.; “’Can You Conceive
Anything More Amiable Than This?’ A Note on Wesley’s Challenge
Concerning Christian Perfection”; Papers
of the Canadian Methodist Historical Society, 1997-1998,pp.18-43; ed. Semple,
N.; (Toronto: CMHS, 1998)
J,; op.cit., p.389.
Tyson, J,’ op.cit., p.387
Charles was ready to dismount his animal appears to have been ready to have
him do so: Charles had ridden the same mare for fifteen years.
what follows I am largely indebted to Baker, F.; Charles Wesley’s Verse (London: Epworth Press, 1964.)
See Hildebrandt, F., and Beckerlegge, O., eds.; The
Works of John Wesley Vol. 7, “A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The
People Called Methodists”, pp.730-731; (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983.)