Simple truth requires us to state that A. B. Simpson does not rate high as a writer of hymns. The effort on the part of some of his admirers to place him along with Watts and Wesley is simply absurd.
A hymn, to be great—to be a hymn at all—must meet certain simple requirements. 1. It must have literary excellence. 2. It must be compact enough to be sung easily. 3. It must express the religious feelings of the Universal Church. 4. The music must have dignity and reserve.
On none of these counts could Mr. Simpson’s compositions qualify. His poetry lacked literary finish. The central idea might be poetic, but his craftsmanship was not equal to the task of expressing it. His singing heart sometimes betrayed him into attempting to sing things that simply were not lyrical and could not be sung. The virtue of brevity also was lacking in most of his songs. He sometimes rambled on into eight and ten verses, and if by happy chance he got through before the eighth verse he was sure to append a chorus that would run down over the next page. The minister in him overcame the poet, so that when he attempts to write a song the sermonic division is apparent at once. With few exceptions his songs are simply sermons in verse, the whole thing being there before us in plain sight, the introduction, the various “points'” and the conclusion. But it is in the music that his songs suffer the most. A few of his compositions can be sung, but the most of them can be negotiated by none except trained singers. The transitions are too abrupt and the range too great for the ordinary congregation.
There can be no doubt about it, Mr. Simpson wrote too much poetry, or at least too much of it has been published. He could produce good strong, if ordinary, verse, and it is to be regretted that so much got into print which is not only very poor but is certainly far below what he was able to do at his best. In rushing into print with certain of his casual poems his friends have done him no small disfavor. Much is said there in bad verse which he could have said in beautiful prose at a great saving to his reputation as a writer.
“Scorn not the sonnet,” wrote Wordsworth, “with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” “The less Shakespeare he,” replied the forthright Browning. The less Simpson for some of his poetry. Only a big man could live down such a failure. And he has done it triumphantly.
After saying all this I would yet confess that hardly a day goes by that I do not kneel and sing, in a shaky baritone comfortably off key, the songs of Simpson. They feed my heart and express my longings, and I can find no other’s songs that do this in as full a measure. Of his songs—there are 155 of them in the old Hymns of the Christian Life alone—only about three have attained to anything like wide popularity, and not above a dozen are heard even in the gatherings of The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Yet it is my sober judgment that Simpson has put into a few of his songs more of awful longing, of tender love, of radiant trust, of hope and worship and triumph than can be found in all the popular gospel songs of the last hundred years put together. Those songs are simply not to be compared with his. Simpson’s songs savor of the holy of holies, the outstretched wings of the cherubim and the Shekinah glory. The others speak of the outer court and the milling crowd.