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“Abide With Me,” a hymn of enduring beauty and comfort

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Throughout history, people have sung the song when faced with sorrow.

“Abide With Me” was written by Reverend Henry Francis Lyte, an Anglican hymnist and poet. The simple melody contrasts against the deeply poetic and reverent lyrics and has remained popular since it was first published.

There is some debate as to when it was written. Some believe that Lyte wrote it shortly after his final sermon — Lyte was suffering from tuberculosis and was setting out for a therapeutic holiday in Italy — but others believe that it was written as much as 25 years earlier and forgotten in a drawer, until he rediscovered it while packing for the trip.

It is quite possible that the real story is a mixture of these two events. Lyte could have found the piece and reworked it on his way through France. He sent the final revisions to his wife while in Avignon, but unfortunately he never reached Italy, as he succumbed to his illness in Nice, just three weeks later.

While it was written with its own tune, today the text is set to the 19th-century hymn melody called “Eventide,” written by the organist William Monk in just 10 minutes. As Monk’s wife tells it, he didn’t even have to sit at the organ to compose this sweet music:

“Hand in hand,” Public Domain Review reports she wrote, “we were silently watching the glory of the setting sun (our daily habit) until the golden hue had faded … Then he took paper and penciled the tune which has gone all over the world.”

Together with Monk’s melody, Lyte’s text — rooted in the words of the disciples on the road to Emmas in their invitation to the Risen Christ to break bread with them — has persisted as one of the most popular in the world. Throughout history, people have sung the song when faced with sorrow. It was a popular tune to sing in the trenches of WWI, and Nurse Edith Cavell is reported to have sung it the night before she was executed by German soldiers for aiding the English. It is played at the commencement of every FA Cup final and was played at the site of Ground Zero, just 10 days after the attacks of 9/11.

We have a choral version above, but this rendition, performed by Audrey Assad, is also worth a listen.

They title and opening line of the hymn come from Luke 24:29, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” The complete lyrics are as follows:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
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 dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terror, 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, thus 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, Lord, 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 Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

 

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