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The Midweek Hymn: My Song is Love Unknown


IT IS a great shame that hymns about Eastertide are dusted off only once a year. Perhaps it is because the story is so harrowing that we cannot bear to think about it at other times.

The words of this hymn are among the most beautiful verses I know.

1 My song is love unknown,
my Saviour’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

2 He came from his blest throne,
salvation to bestow;
but men cared not, and none
the longed-for Christ would know.
But oh, my Friend, my Friend indeed,
who at my need his life did spend!

3 Sometimes they strew his way,
and his sweet praises sing;
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then ‘Crucify!’ is all their breath,
and for his death they thirst and cry.

4 Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
he gave the blind their sight.
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these,
themselves displease and ‘gainst him rise.

5 They rise, and needs will have
my dear Lord sent away;
a murderer they save,
the Prince of Life they slay.
Yet willing he to suff’ring goes,
that he his foes from thence might free.

6 In life, no house, no home
my Lord on earth might have;
in death, no friendly tomb
but what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was his home,
but mine the tomb wherein he lay.

7 Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

It was written as a poem in 1664 by Samuel Crossman (1623-1683). During the 17th century congregational singing was largely limited to metrical psalms, but much devotional poetry was written during this era and found its way into hymnals later on. The powerful use of irony comes into play in stanza four, which begins with the questions: ‘Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite?’ His only crime was that he healed those in need – ‘He made the lame to run’ and ‘gave the blind their sight’.

Crossman was born in Suffolk and studied divinity at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He had Puritan sympathies and after his graduation he ministered simultaneously to both an Anglican congregation at All Saints, Sudbury, and to a Puritan congregation nearby. He attended the 1661 Savoy Conference, which attempted to update the Book of Common Prayer so that both Puritans and Anglicans could use it. The conference failed, and the 1662 Act of Uniformity expelled Crossman and 2,000 other Puritan-leaning ministers from the Church of England. During his exile he wrote My Song is Love Unknown, which was among nine poems he published in The Young Man’s Meditations (1664). In 1665 he renounced his Puritan beliefs and was ordained in the Church of England, becoming a royal chaplain. In 1667 he received a post as prebendary at Bristol Cathedral, becoming Dean just before his death in 1683. My Song is Love Unknown appeared as a hymn for the first time in the Anglican Hymn Book in 1686, two years after the author’s death.

Needless to say, like so many great hymns it has been subjected to the attentions of talent-free editors. In The Faith We Sing, a supplement to the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, these lines from the second verse:

He came from his blest throne,
salvation to bestow;
but men cared not, and none
the longed-for Christ would know.

are rendered thus:

God left the richest throne
salvation to bestow;
but Christ as flesh and bone
the world refused to know.

These lines in the third verse:

Sometimes they strew his way,
and his sweet praises sing;
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.


Sometimes they threw down palms
and sweetest praises sang.
Hosannas and glad psalms
through streets and markets rang.

How anyone can perceive this pedestrian doggerel as an improvement on the gorgeous original is beyond me.

I can’t find out what tune the hymn was originally sung to. The usual one today was written by the noted English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) when he was organist at St Luke’s, Chelsea. The story goes that he composed it in 1918 while out for lunch with Geoffrey Shaw, the organist and music editor. Shaw was looking for a tune to go with the hymn, which he wished to include in The Public School Hymn Book of 1919. It is said that Ireland wrote it on the back of a menu in about 15 minutes.

This performance is by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

The video quality here is poor but I have always loved Barbara Dickson’s voice.

Here is a vintage performance by Charles Naylor on an album released by HMV New Zealand in 1962. For once the internet has failed me as I cannot find out anything about the singer.

This is a heartfelt version from Nairobi.

Finally, my favourite: An outdoor performance near Cheltenham with a birdsong accompaniment. To my shame I can’t identify the call (I am not good on bird songs) but maybe a reader can? I am wondering if it is a chaffinch.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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