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The Hymns of Timothy Dudley-Smith

If Timothy Dudley-Smith is known to Protestants in the United States, it is more likely as the biographer of theologian John Stott than as a poet. In nations more greatly influenced by Anglicanism, however, he is renowned as a hymnist who has written many excellent texts.

Dudley-Smith has stated in various that, although he had written and published several poems prior to the early 1960s, he had no real aspiration to be a hymn writer. He had tried a couple times at the behest of friends or of his own initiative, with dubious results. He says

I did not think of myself, therefore, as having in any way the gifts of a hymn writer when in May 1961 I jotted down a set of verses that began, “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.” I was reading a review copy of the New English Bible New Testament, in which that line appears exactly as I have put it above. I saw in it the first line of a poem and speedily wrote the rest.

The resulting hymn, is a fine metrical paraphrase of Mary’s song of joy, often, of course, referred to as the Magnificat.

Tell Out, My Soul, The Greatness of the Lord!*

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice;
tender to me the promise of his word;
in God my Savior shall my heart rejoice.

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his Name!
Make known his might, the deeds his arm has done;
his mercy sure, from age to age to same;
his holy Name–the Lord, the Mighty One.

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
the hungry fed, the humble lifted high.

Tell out, my soul, the glories of his word!
Firm is his promise, and his mercy sure.
Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
to children’s children and for evermore!

This text demonstrates two facets of Dudley-Smith’s work which I would like to highlight.

The first is his heavy use of Biblical allusion. Obviously a paraphrase of a particular passage will rely heavily on the structure and content of the source, but a brief perusal of some of his other hymns reveals that he consistently grounds his tropes in the truth of revelation. Indeed, many of his titles (which are often the same as the hymn’s first line) refer to or echo a line of scripture. Yet his allusions are not mere quotes. Notice how, in the example above, he rephrases Mary’s original line “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” in a way that retains the original meaning but freshly engages the imagination: “Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight.”

Secondly, and of particular interest, I would think, to any present day hymn writer, is his diction, which is at once elevated and accessible. Never is the syntax wrenched in order to properly place a rhyme. No archaic terms are used. When he addresses the Lord directly (many of Dudley-Smith’s texts refer to Him in the third person), he favors “you” and “your” rather than “thee” or “thy”. Nevertheless, through his mastery of various meters, his command of rhyme (both exact and approximate), and his gift for subtle yet effective imagery, Dudley-Smith’s hymns never seem common or trite; instead they allow the worshipper to express His praise in a form both contemporary and timeless.

While I encourage you to investigate the work of Timothy Dudley-Smith for yourself, I should offer a minor word of caution to pastors and church musicians eager to find new pieces to include in their services. Because it has been written in the last 50 years, Dudley-Smith’s output is still restricted by copyright. This, coupled with the fact that his hymns tend to appear in Anglican hymnals, means that it may be difficult to find copies for legal use in a corporate setting. One potential solution is to obtain license to specific hymns–Hope Publishing administers these rights n the United States. One may then print the words as a bulletin insert and pair them with tunes in the public domain (“Woodlands“, the tune most often paired with “Tell Out, My Soul” is, happily, so available).

In parting, I’ll leave you with the best youtube version (despite the vertiginous camera work) of “Tell Out, My Soul” I could find. Let your heart rejoice in God, your Savior.

* © 1962, Ren. 1990 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.