1 When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
2 Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
3 See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
4 Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Psalter Hymnal, 1987
|First Line:||When I survey the wondrous cross (Watts)|
|Title:||Crucifixion to the World by the Death of Christ|
|Author:||Isaac Watts (1707)|
|Notes:||Spanish translation: See "La cruz excelsa al contemplar" by W. T. T. Millham|
|Liturgical Use:||Communion Songs|
One Sunday afternoon the young Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was complaining about the deplorable hymns that were sung at church. At that time, metered renditions of the Psalms were intoned by a cantor and then repeated (none too fervently, Watts would add) by the congregation. His father, the pastor of the church, rebuked him with "I'd like to see you write something better!" As legend has it, Isaac retired to his room and appeared several hours later with his first hymn, and it was enthusiastically received at the Sunday evening service the same night.
Although the tale probably is more legend than fact, it does illustrate the point that the songs of the church need constant infusion of new life, of new generation's praises. With over 600 hymns to his credit--many of them classics like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"--Isaac Watts has rightfully earned the title, "the father of English hymnody." This hymn, which is known as Watts' crowning achievement, was first published in this "Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707" and was matched with such tunes as "Tombstone" and an altered version of Tallis' canon called "St. Lukes." For many years it was sung to "Rockingham" by Edward Miller, the son of a stone mason who ran away from home to become a musician, later becoming a flutist in Handel's orchestra. In recent history the hymn text has settled in with Lowell Mason's "Hamburg," an adaptation of a five note (count them!) plainchant melody. Besides writing thousands of hymn tunes he was a church choir director, the president of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, and a leading figure in music education.
Though "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" was intended originally as a communion hymn, it gives us plenty to contemplate during Lent as our focus is on the cross Christ. The hymn is said to be based on Galatians 6:14 (May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.) which is evident in a verse that Watts' eliminated from later editions of the hymn:
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o'er his body on the tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
Perhaps Watts eliminated this verse in order to focus more attention on our response to Christ's crucifixion than the crucifixion itself. Notice how he starts with contemplation of the cross and the fact that all our worldly achievements and possessions pale in comparison. Next he shows that Christ went to the cross out of love for us. In the most powerful image of the hymn, he affirms the deity of the suffering Christ with the brilliant juxtaposition: "Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?" And the last verse shows that the only proper response to this amazing love is complete devotion. --Greg Scheer, 1997
When I survey the wondrous Cross. I. Watts. [Good Friday.] This, the most popular and widely used of Watts's hymns, appeared in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707, and in the enlarged edition 1709, as:—
"Crucifixion to the World, by the Cross of Christ. Gal. vi. 14.
1. “When I survey the wond'rous Croƒs
On which the Prince of Glory dy'd,
My richest gain I count but Loƒs,
And pour Contempt on all my Pride.
2. ”Forbid it, Lord, that I ƒhould boaƒt
Save in the Death of Christ my God;
All the vain Things that charm me moƒt,
I ƒacrifice them to his Blood,
3. "See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down!
Did e'er ƒuch Love and Sorrow meet,
Or Thorns compose ƒo rich a Crown!
4. "[His dying Crimƒon, like a Robe,
Spreads o'er his Body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the Globe,
And all the Globe is dead to me.]
5. "Were the whole Realm of Nature mine,
That were a Preƒent far too ƒmall;
Love ƒo amazing, ƒo divine,
Demands my Soul, my Life, my All."
The first to popularize the four-stanza form of the hymn (stanza iv. being omitted) was G. Whitefield in the 1757 Supplement to his Collection of Hymns. It came rapidly into general use. In common with most of the older hymns a few alterations have crept into the text, and in some instances have been received with favour by modern compilers. These include:
Stanza ii. 1. 2. "Save in the Cross," Madan, 1760.
Stanza iii. 1. 2. "Love flow mingling," Salisbury, 1857.
Stanza iv. 1. 2. “That were a tribute," Cotterill, 1819,
Stanza iv. 1. 2. "That were an offering," Stowell, 1831.
The most extensive mutilations of the text were made by T. Cotterill in his Selection 1819; E. Bickersteth in his Christian Psalmod, 1833; W. J. Hall in his Mitre Hymn Book 1836 ; J. Keble in the Salisbury Hymn Book 1857; and T. Darling in his Hymns for the Church of England, 1857. Although Mr. Darling's text was the only one condemned by Lord Selborne in his English Church Hymnody at the York Church Congress in 1866, the mutilations by others were equally bad, and would have justified him in saying of them all, as he did of Mr. Darling's text in particular:—
“There is just enough of Watts left here to remind one of Horace's saying, that you may know the remains of a poet even, when he is torn to pieces."
In the 1857 Appendix to Murray’s Hymnal; in the Salisbury Hymn Book 1857; in Hymns Ancient & Modern, 1861 and 1875; in the Hymnary, 1872; and in one or two others a doxology has been added, but this practice has not been received with general favour. One of the most curious examples of a hymn turned upside down, and mutilated in addition, is Basil Woodd's version of this hymn beginning "Arise, my soul, with wonder see," in his undated Psalms of David, &c. (circa 1810), No. 198.
The four-stanza form of this hymn has been translated into numerous languages and dialects. The renderings into Latin include: “Quando admirandam Crucem," by R. Bingham in his Hymno. Christiana Latina, 1871; and "Mirabilem videns Crucem," by H. M. Macgill in his Songs of the Christian Creed and Life, 1876. The five-stanza form of the text as in Hymns Ancient & Modern (stanza v. being by the compilers) is translated in Bishop Wordsworth's (St. Andrews) Series Collectarum, 1890, as "Cum miram intueor, de qua Praestantior omni." In popularity and use in all English speaking countries, in its original or in a slightly altered form, this hymn is one of the four which stand at the head of all hymns in the English language. The remaining three are, "Awake, my soul, and with the sun;" "Hark! the herald angels sing;" and "Rock of Ages, cleft for me."
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)
The Lutheran Hymnal Handbook includes this little narrative about the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:” “With regard to the practical application of the final stanza, Father Ignatius of St. Edmund’s Church in London is reported to have blurted to his congregation: ‘Well, I’m surprised to hear you sing that. Do you know that altogether you put only fifteen shillings in the collection bag this morning?’”,
While Watts might not have been talking explicitly about money in the last line of his text, there is the expectation that we dedicate ourselves entirely to God, for God demands not just a piece of who we are, but “our soul, our life, our all.” This can be an incredibly difficult line to sing with any sense of honesty. Devotional author Jerry Jenkins writes in his book Hymns for Personal Devotions, “Perhaps it’s the distance between where Watts encourages me to be and where I truly am that makes this hymn so hard to sing. It’s a lofty and worthy spiritual goal to say that ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all,’ but how short I fall!” (Jenkins, 44). And so as we sing this hymn of love and awe, we must sing it with a prayer in our hearts, asking God to enable us each day to live our life wholly for him.
Watts’ original text, published in 1707, consisted of five verses. He later took out his original fourth verse, which read,
Greg Scheer speculates that perhaps Watts eliminated this verse to focus our attention on our own response to Christ’s crucifixion rather than the actual event itself. This would make sense since Watts wrote the text for a collection of hymns for the Lord’s Supper, an act in which we remember and respond with gratitude to Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Apart from this verse being omitted, not much else has changed in this text, and for good reason: the Psalter Hymnal Handbook writes that “Watts’ profound and awe-inspiring words provide an excellent example of how a hymn text by a fine writer can pack a great amount of systematic theology into a few memorable lines.” The only slight differences you can find between texts are changes of a few words, such as “present/tribute/offering” in the fourth verse.
The first tune used to accompany Wesley’s text was HAMBURG, composed by Lowell Mason in 1824, and based on a chant in the first Gregorian tone. The whole melody only consists of five notes. Some argue that this allows us to focus entirely on the text. Others, like hymnologist Erik Routley, wrote that “the attempt to square up Gregorian chant into a regular 4/2 rhythm and to harmonize it with straight chords was fatal to the enterprise…as a hymn tune it has no merit whatever and claims none” (Westermeyer, Let the People Sing, 299). Westermeyer adds that while this tune might be “dull to the analyst,” it is often much appreciated and loved by the congregation.
Another tune option is ROCKINGHAM, but this also comes under critique. Westermeyer quotes Robert Bridges who “thought the ‘grandeur’ of Watts’ text was ‘obscured’ by this melody” (Let the People Sing, 197). It is perhaps too jaunty for this hymn of awe. Thus, another tune option is O WALY WALY, a traditional English melody which fits the text rather well. Greg Scheer has an arrangement of this tune for strings and piano that he’s used for other texts such as “As Moses Raised the Serpent Up” and “O Blessed Spring.”
HAMBURG is the most commonly used tune, however, and there are a number of good arrangements of the tune. A well-known medley was arranged by Chris Tomlin and combines Watts’ text with a refrain, “O the wonderful cross, o the wonderful cross, bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.” When using this medley, build into those refrains instrumentally and pull back on each of the verses.
Originally written for The Lord’s Supper, this hymn can be used at this point in a service throughout the year. Our remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection through Watts’ text also makes this a much-loved and often-used hymn for Lent, especially Holy Week. On Good Friday, consider singing it at the very end of a Tenebrae or Good Friday service as a reflection on the rest of the service and the events of Holy Week.
Laura de Jong, Hymnary.org