Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom

Representative Text

Lead, kindly Light, amid the gloom of evening.
Lord, lead me on! Lord, lead me on!
On through the night! On to your radiance!
Lead, kindly Light!
Lead, kindly Light, kindly Light!

1 The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Direct my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
So lead me onward, Lord, and hear my plea. [Refrain]

2 Not always thus, I seldom looked for you,
I loved to choose and seek my path alone.
In spite of fear, my pride controlled my will,
Remember not my past, but lead me still. [Refrain]

3 So long your pow'r has blest me on the way,
And still it leads, past hill and storm and night!
And with the morn, those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost a while. [Refrain]

Source: One in Faith #770

Author: John Henry Newman

Newman, John Henry , D.D. The hymnological side of Cardinal Newman's life and work is so small when compared with the causes which have ruled, and the events which have accompanied his life as a whole, that the barest outline of biographical facts and summary of poetical works comprise all that properly belongs to this work. Cardinal Newman was the eldest son of John Newman, and was born in London, Feb. 21, 1801. He was educated at Ealing under Dr. John Nicholas, and at Trinity College, Oxford, where he graduated in honours in 1820, and became a Fellow of Oriel in 1822. Taking Holy Orders in 1824, he was for a short time Vice-Principal of St. Alban's Hall, and then Tutor of Oriel. His appointment to St. Mary's, Oxford, was in the spring of… Go to person page >

Text Information

First Line: Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Author: John Henry Newman (1833)
Language: English
Copyright: Public Domain


Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom. Cardinal J. H. Newman. [Evening. Divine Guidance Desired.] This exquisite lyric has been the cause of much controversy, arising from the facts that, first, the statement has been made that it was the passionate outpouring of the author's soul when perplexed with doubt as to his duty with regard to entering the Roman Communion or no; and the second, that the closing lines—

“And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since and lost awhile,”

through their ambiguity, have led to several ingenious interpretations, some of which appeared in Notes and Queries in 1880. The answer to each of these statements must be given, as far as possible, in Cardinal Newman's own words.
i. Cardinal Newman, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864, pp. 94-100, sets forth his attitude at the time this lyric was written, both towards the Church of England and the Church of Rome, in a most careful and laborate manner. His statements, in a condensed form, but in his own words, are:—

While I was engaged in writing my work on the Arians [1832], great events were happening at home and abroad, which brought out into form and passionate expression the various beliefs which had so gradually been winning their way into my mind. Shortly before, there had been a Revolution in France; the Bourbons had been dismissed: and 1 believed that it was unchristian for nations to cast off their governors, and, much more, sovereigns who had the divine right of inheritance. Again, the great Reform Agitation was going on around me as I wrote. The Whigs had come into power; Lord Grey had told the Bishops to set their house in order, and some of the Prelates had been insulted and threatened in the streets of London. The vital question was how were we to keep the Church from being liberalized? There was such apathy on the subject in some quarters, such imbecile alarm in others; the true principles of Churchmanship seemed so radically decayed, and there were such distractions in the Councils of the Clergy......With the Establishment thus divided and threatened, thus ignorant of its true strength, I compared that fresh vigorous power of which I was reading in the first centuries......I said to myself, ‘Look on this picture and on that'; I felt affection for my own Church, but not tenderness; I felt dismay at her prospects, anger and scorn at her do-nothing perplexity. I thought that if Liberalism once got a footing within her, it was sure of the victory in the event. I saw that Reformation principles were powerless to rescue her. As to leaving her, the thought never crossed my imagination; still I ever kept before me that there was something greater than the Established Church, and that that was the Church Catholic and Apostolic, set up from the beginning, of which she was but the local presence and organ. She was nothing, unless she was this. She must be dealt with strongly, or she would be lost. There was need of a second Reformation.
"At this time 1 was disengaged from College duties, and my health had suffered from the labours involved in the composition of my volume......I was easily persuaded to join Hurrell Froude and his father, who were going to the south of Europe for the health of the former. We set out in December, 1832. It was during this expedition that my verses which are in the Lyra Apostolica were written; a few indeed before it; but not more than one or two of them after it.....The strangeness of foreign life threw me back into myself; I found pleasure in historical sites and beautiful scenes, not in men and manners. We kept clear of Catholics throughout our tour......I saw nothing but what was external; of the hidden life of Catholics I knew nothing. I was still driven back into myself, and felt my isolation. England was in my thoughts solely, and the news from England came rarely and imperfectly. The Bill for the Suppression of the Irish Sees was in progress, and filled my mind. I had fierce thoughts against the Liberals. It was the success of the Liberal cause which fretted me inwardly. 1 became fierce against its instruments and its manifestations......Especially when I was left to myself, the thought came upon me that deliverance is wrought, not by the many but by the few, not by bodies but by persons....I began to think I had a mission....When we took leave of Monsignore Wiseman, he had courteously expressed a wish that we might make a second visit to Rome: I said with great gravity,‘We have a work to do in England.' I went down at once to Sicily, and the presentiment grew stronger. I struck into the middle of the island, and fell ill of a fever at Leonforte. My servant thought that I was dying, and begged for my last directions. I gave them, as he wished; but I said ‘I shall not die.' I repeated, 'I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light, I have not sinned against light.' I never have been able to make out at all what I meant. I got to Castro-Giovanni, and was laid up there for nearly three weeks. Towards the end of May I set off for Palermo, taking three days for the journey. Before starting from my inn in the morning of May 26th or 27th, I sat down oh my bed, and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, 'I have a work to do in England.' I was aching to get home; yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the Churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. I knew nothing of the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament then. At last I got off in an orange boat bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed a whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio. Then it was that I wrote the lines 'Lead, kindly light' [June 16, 1833], which have since become well known. I was writing verses the whole time of my passage. At length I got to Marseilles, and set off for England. The fatigue of travelling was too much for me, and I was laid up for several days at Lyons. At last I got off again and did not stop night or day till I reached England, and my mother s house. My brother had arrived from Persia only a few hours before. This was Tuesday. The fol¬lowing Sunday, July 14th, Mr. Keble preached the Assize Sermon in the University Pulpit. It was published under the title of «National Apostasy.' I have ever considered and kept the day as the start of the religious movement of 1833."

In writing of further changes of thought which he underwent during the succeeding six years, Cardinal Newman says, Apologia, p. 214:—

"Now to trace the succession of thoughts, and the conclusions, and the consequent innovations on my previous belief, and the general conduct, to which I was led, upon this sudden visitation [stated previously]. And first, I will say, whatever comes of saying it, for I leave inferences to others, that for years I must have had something of an habitual notion, though it was latent, and had never led me to distrust my own convictions, that my mind had not found its ultimate rest, and that in some sense or other I was on journey. During the same passage across the Mediterranean in which I wrote ‘Lead, kindly light,' I also wrote verses, which are found in the Lyra under the head of ‘Providences,' beginning, ‘When I look back.' This was in 1833; and, since I have begun this narrative, I have found a memorandum under the date of September 7,1829, in which I speak of myself, as now in my room in Oriel College, slowly advancing, &c, and led on by God's hand blindly, not knowing whither He is taking me.'"

This, then, is the author's account of the state of his personal feeling, and the circumstances which surrounded him at the time that he wrote what must be regarded as one of the finest lyrics of the nineteenth century. Angry at the state of disunion and supineness in the Church he still loved and in which he still believed; confident that he had "a mission," "a work to do in England;", passionately longing for home and the converse of friends ; sick in body to prostration, and, as some around him feared, even unto death; feeling that he should not die but live, and that he must work, but knowing hot what that work was to be, how it was to be done, or to what it might tend, he breathed forth the impassioned and pathetic prayer, one of the birth-pangs, it might be called, of the Oxford movement of 1833:—

"Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on; The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O'er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile."

ii. The ambiguity of the two closing lines has caused much speculation and controversy. Summarised, the principal interpretations
1. The troubled and hesitating spirit finds itself "amid encircling gloom"; "the night is dark"; and the soul has lost awhile the "angel faces," not only of Fancy and Hope and Youthful Confidence, but of those divine forms of faith and assurance, which it had "loved long since," which had accompanied the believer during the early fervour of his belief.— Notes and Queries, April 3, 1880.
2. A second interpretation is that "those angel faces" are the faces of the ministering spirits, "sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation."
3. A third Interpretation is that these lines are expressive of the Christian's hope of being re-united on the resurrection morn with those loved and lost by death on earth. (Notes & Queries, April 3, 1880.) This application of the lines is set forth in a window of one of the churches of Clevedon. An angel is represented as soaring upwards, bearing away from earth two infants in his arms, and these two lines are quoted underneath.-- Notes and Queries, 6th S. I., Aug. 7, 1880, p. 118.
4. A fourth interpretation is, "When all the absorbing business, and care and pleasures of life are beginning to weary us, when the world is losing something of its hold on us, and we once more catch glimpses as it were of that other life which most of us here at some time dreamed, and perhaps, though all too feebly, striven for, then the better soul wakes from its slumbers ; the night is gone, "And with the morn those angel faces smile," &c. —-Notes and Queries, 6th S. I., May 8, 1880, p. 385.
5. Another explanation is suggested in the question, "Do these lines refer to the more intimate communion of infants with the unseen world of spirits which was lost in later years?"— Notes and Queries, 6th S. I., June 12, 1880, p. 480.
To all which, and to all other interpretations that have been made or may be made, Cardinal Newman gives answer in a letter to Dr. Greenhill, printed in the Guardian, Feb. 25, 1880, p. 257, and repeated inNotes & Queries, 6th 8. I., March 20, 1880, p. 232.

"The Oratory, January 18, 1879.
"My dear Dr. Greenhill,—You flatter me by your questions; but I think it was Keble who, when asked it in his own case, answered that poets were not bound to be critics, or to give a sense to what they had written, and though I am not like him, a poet, at least I may plead that I am not bound to remember my own meaning, whatever it was, at the end of almost fifty years. Anyhow there must be a statute of limitation for writers of verse, or it would be quite tyranny if in an art, which is the expression, not of truth, but of imagination and sentiment, one were obliged to be ready for examination on the transient states of mind which came upon one when home sick, or sea sick, or in any other way sensitive, or excited.
"Yours most truly, John H. Newman."

We may add that in thus forgetting the meaning of a passage written so long before, the author is not alone. Coleridge, Goethe, and other poets have confessed to the same infirmity.
iii. The history of the publication of this lyric is very simple, the only noticeable feature being the changes in the motto which may be taken as setting forth the meaning Cardinal Newman attached to it at various periods in his history. It was first published in the British Magazine, March, 1834, with the motto "Faith-Heavenly Leadings;" again in Lyra Apostolica, 1836, p. 28, the motto reading, "Unto the godly there ariseth up light in the darkness": and again in the author's Occasional Verses, 1868, the motto being "The Pillar of the Cloud."
iv. Alterations in, and additions to, the text are not numerous. Bishop Bickersteth's additional stanza reads in the Hymnal Companion

"Meantime along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in Childlike faith
Home to my God,
To rest for ever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life."

To this stanza Bishop Bickersteth has added this explanation in his Notes of 1876:—

"The last verse, which is founded on the Collect for St. John the Evangelist's day, and which it is hoped will be found in unison with those that precede it, was added by the Editor from a sense of need and from a deep conviction that the heart of the belated pilgrim can only find rest in the Light of Light."

Alterations of the text are few. In Dr. Bonar's Bible Hymn Book, 1845, No. 116, it begins, "Lead, Saviour, lead, amid the en¬circling gloom"; and "the garish day” is changed to "the glare of day." Two or three books have also adopted this reading. In the Hmymns for Church and Home, Compiled by Members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, 1860, it begins, "Send, Lord, Thy light amid th’ encircling gloom." “I loved the garish day," reads, “I loved day's dazzling light"; and stanza iii., lines 1-4:—

“So long Thy power hath bless'd me, surely still
'Twill lead me on
Through dreary hours, through pain and sorrow, till
The night is gone."

In the Unitarian Hymns of the Spirit, Boston, U. S. A., 1864, the original first line is restored; "day's dazzling light” is retained; and the lines above are repeated with "dreary hours" changed to “dreary doubts." Another alteration is "Send kindly light," &c. (H. W. Beecher's Plymouth Collection, 1855). The weakness of all these amendments is the surest safeguard against their general adoption.
The hymn has been rendered into several languages. The Latin versions are:—"O Lux benigna duce," by the Rev. H.M. Macgill, 1876; and "O Lux alma, bono protinus auspice," by the Rev. Jackson Mason, and "Alma Lux, inter media tenebras," by "C. G. G.," both in the Guardian of Jan. 3, 1883.

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)


Lead, kindly Light, p. 669, i. Another rendering into Latin is "Almâ Luce semper duce," in Blackwood's Magazine, Jan. 1887, p. 80, and signed, "J. P. M."

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, Appendix, Part II (1907)


Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, pp. 667, i.; 1577, i. To the translations of this hymn into Latin we have to add (1) "Due me benigna lux tenebrarum precor," by "W. F. R. S.," in the Guardian, Jan. 17, 1883; and (2) "Lux ades alma: per hanc, qua. nox circumvolat umbram," by Richard Horton Smith in Notes & Queries, Ninth Series, Vol. X., p. 425.

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, New Supplement (1907)



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