Cecil Frances Alexander
April 1818(?)–12 October 1895
Wife of Dr. [William] Alexander, Archbishop of Armagh, who thus dedicated to her his Bampton Lectures, The Witness of the Psalms to Christ: “To Cecil Frances Alexander, in remembrance of twenty-seven years of helpful love and example, with full assurance that his own estimate of her hymns and sacred songs is that of the Church and of English-speaking Christians generally.”
That her poetry is esteemed by English-speaking-Christians generally is shown by the fact that her Hymns for Little Children, the first edition of which appeared in 1848, is now (1897) in its sixty-ninth edition. The volume contains hymns on Baptism, The Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer. John Keble in the Preface expressed the opinion that the hymns contained in it would “win a high place for themselves in the estimation of all who know how to value true poetry and primitive devotion.” The profits of the publication were applied to the support of an Irish school for mutes. Certainly no writer for children has given us so many hymns that have “won their way to the hearts of the young and found a home there,” such as: “Do no sinful action”; “All things bright and beautiful”; “Once, in royal David’s city”; “Day by day the little daisy”; “There is a green hill far away”; “We are but little children weak.” Of hymns other than for the young, her best known are “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult”; “Spirit of God, that moved of old”; “Forgive them, my Father”; “His are the thousand sparkling rills.”
But it is not by English-speaking Christians and children only they are valued and loved. The Bishop of Tasmania and missionary bishops in South Africa and India bear testimony to their usefulness in the mission field as teaching in a form easily remembered the elements of Christianity.
Mrs. Alexander—unlike Dr. Neale who owned that some alterations in his hymns were alterations for the better—was impatient of supposed “improvements.” “You see what I wanted to say is just so and so, not something else.” “She disliked with an amusing intensity changes made in hymns to suit a fitful fancy or to humour party spirit,” regarding this as “literary sacrilege—sacrilege against the dead in that which was best and noblest of them.” Of her longer pieces, the Burial of Moses is best known; Lord Houghton calls it the “finest sacred lyric in the language.” No one can read it without profound emotion, and once read it can never be forgotten; it so fastens on the imagination by its stately rhetoric, and on the heart by its deep pathos. It ends thus:
O lonely grave in Moab’s land!
O dark Beth-Peor's hill!
Speak to these curious hearts of ours
And teach them to be still.
God hath His mysteries of grace,
Ways that we cannot tell;
He hides them deep like the hidden sleep
Of him he loved so well.
This lyric probably represents Mrs. Alexander’s highest literary reach, though little inferior to it is the hymn, “There is a green hill far away,” one of a series on the Apostles’ Creed written to illustrate the clause “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified.” The language here is childlike in its simplicity. “It is a hymn any one might have written,” some one has said, yet only a poet of genius, in a moment of inspiration, could have composed it. In no other hymn for the young is the Gospel of the glory of the blessed God told so touchingly. Gounod has set it to music.
Mrs. Alexander was deaf to applause, but when some one wrote to tell of a great change in heart and life that had come to a worldly man through hearing this hymn sung, she sprang from her chair exclaiming, “Thank God! I do like to hear that.” Those, however, who knew her best felt that, beautiful as her hymns are, her life was more beautiful still.
by Duncan Campbell
Hymns and Hymn Makers (1898)
Poems, ed. William Alexander (London: MacMillan & Co., 1897), p. xvii.
Publications of Hymns & Poems:
Verses for Holy Seasons (1846): PDF
Hymns for Little Children (1848)
Moral Songs (1849)
Poems on Subjects in the Old Testament
Narrative Hymns for Village Schools (1853)
Hymns Descriptive and Devotional (1858): PDF
The Legend of the Golden Prayers (1859): PDF
The Sunday Book of Poetry (1864): PDF
The Writings of St. Patrick (ed. Charles Wright, 1889): PDF
Poems (1896): PDF
Lyra Angelicana (ed. Robert Baynes, 1862): PDF
Church Hymnal, Ireland
Selected Poems of William Alexander & Cecil Frances Alexander (1930): WorldCat
Edwin Hatfield, “Cecil Frances [Humphreys] Alexander,” The Poets of the Church (NY, 1884), pp. 9-10: HathiTrust
James Davidson, “Cecil Frances Alexander, née Humphreys,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 38: Google Books
Duncan Campbell, “Cecil Frances (Humphreys) Alexander,” Hymns and Hymn Makers (1898), pp. 127-129: Archive.org
Vincent A. Lenti, “Hymns for Little Children: The Life and Legacy of Cecil Frances Alexander,” The Hymn, vol. 50, no. 3 (July 1999), pp. 32-36: HathiTrust
“Cecil Frances Alexander,” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 4 (NY: University Press, 2002).
“Cecil Frances Alexander,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
Leon Litvack, “Cecil Frances Alexander,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Cecil Frances Alexander at Hymnary.org: