A SQUALLY AFTERNOON at Little Henny, a neighbouring village on a hilltop rising high out of streams. Every kind of weather chases each other across Suffolk. We can watch it coming in, as they say: the hail, the rain, the surprising bursts of sunny warmth, the windy curtains of cloud and the bouts of iciness.
Having sung “My song is love unknown” at a Lenten service (a frisson of delight whenever this hymn is announced), Alan and I have gone in search of its author, Samuel Crossman, who was rector here ages ago. We tramp through the March mud of what was not a happy living. The locals soon got rid of him. His church is now no more than a dent in a field, but the deep lanes through which he would have walked just take the car. Huge bosses of primroses stare out from the ditches and magpies rush ahead. There are a handful of houses and the Big House, nothing more.
If you want excitement you must go to Great Henny. When I was a boy, the Sudbury Boat Club rowed down the Stour to the pub there to have hot cross buns and beer on Good Friday morning. But we, Alan and I, companion on many a sacred ramble, are at this blowy moment above such sprees. We are where an unhappy young clergyman may have found solace in Herbert’s The Temple, his own congregation having turned him out. Herbert’s poems contain “Love Unknown” and “The Sacrifice”, the last line of which, “Never was grief like mine”, is clearly echoed in Crossman’s hymn.
Except it wasn’t a hymn for centuries. It was part of a handful of verses called The Young Man’s Meditation; and since this little pamphlet was published soon after its author fled Little Henny, one may presume that these youthful meditations took place in its lanes, and in that now disappeared parish church.
It being such exhilarating weather, and the water glinting and the birds singing against the gales and calms, I granted us both licence to hear Parson Crossman’s glorious hymn drowning out the ubiquitous quarrellings of the parish. “My song is love unknown” is one of the strongest and most uncomfortable statements ever made on the world’s ability to turn on what is right, on what is good. Priestly poets in remote livings would have been alarmed by the enlightenment they continue to shed.
Samuel Crossman bided his time for some 300 years. Shortly after the First World War, when The English Hymnal was being edited, Geoffrey Shaw took the composer John Ireland out to lunch, the purpose of which was to startle the latter with a “I want a tune for this lovely poem . . .”, handing a slip of paper across a table. Ireland read it, became lost in it, took the menu, and wrote on the back of it for a few minutes — “Here is your tune.” The words and the music now possess that hilltop, whether it knows it or not.