Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 4, 1968
NUMBER 47, PAGE 19b-21a

Writing Hymn Poems

Claude Thomas Lynn

Public schools do not fully equip their graduates for the work of writing hymn poems, even though they teach grammar, rhetoric and the appreciation of poetry. Consequently, many people do not realize the difference between poetry in general and a good hymn poem that is ready to be set to music and sung by a congregation. On one occasion a highly educated and very gifted poet allowed me to look over her work. She could not understand why I had to change some of her words before they could be woven into a song that was singable. Textbooks on writing hymn poems are scarce and mostly out of print. They deal with scansion, a subject broadly related to many kinds of poetry. Scansion deals with, "the analysis of verse into its rhythmic components, regardless of the thoughts expressed." We have a nobler purpose. By the grace of the Lord, and after long, hard study, I discarded numerous terms and unrelated material and worked out a simplified form of scansion useful in writing hymn poems.

A Song Is Born

Songs are born; they do not come by accident or by idle practice. A great German poet said, "Sorrow makes the song." So does joy. Songs express our deepest emotions and waft us, in spirit, to the portals of glory. A sermon may inspire a song (what better way to perpetuate a good lesson?) or an unforgettable experience can inspire a song. When an inspiring thought comes to you — a thought that could be the basis of a good song — do not be afraid to lose a little sleep. Get up and write the words that are racing through your mind. You will probably forget them by morning. Search the scriptures and you will find both truth and suitable figures of speech to help you express yourself.

How Is A Song Born?

God, who commands us to sing, gives us the power to do what is commanded. He can provide us with all the themes we need for our songs through his inspired word. From our spiritual relationship with God we can obtain the burning desire we need to motivate us to create an inspirational song. God has also given us natural abilities and skills for this work, and by developing them with our own efforts, we can give birth to a new song.

The Writer Of The Hymn-Poem

A poet is one who is able to use the shortest and simplest words and figures of speech, so as to convey from one heart to another, our deepest emotions, our most sublime thoughts, and the truth that makes men free. But the writer of a hymn poem is one who does all that a poet does, and in addition to that he also arranges his poem into accented and unaccented syllables, into lines and stanzas, and into a pattern that is singable.

The Musician

A song is also born with the work of a musician. He must write a melody which conveys in the language of music (the language of the heart) the same message borne by the words. He must also write four-part music so that all voices may blend into harmony for the glory of the Lord and the blessing of men.

Technicians Technicians also play a part in the birth of a song. These are the men that make the song into a plate for the printing processes. They also print these songs onto sheets and bind them into books.

Song Leaders

The song leader is the last step in the birth of a song. A new song is not truly born until the singers have discovered it. This requires song leaders who can read music and accurately interpret it and teach it to a congregation. When these men discover the new song and relate it to the congregation — then truly has a new song been born.

We may not be able to participate in all of these aspects of the birth of a new song, but we can prepare ourselves to do whatever we are able to do. If we can only participate in one part, we should seek to do our one part well. It is our hope that if you have any ability whatsoever at writing poetry that you will seek to be able to write good hymn poems for the Lord's glory.

The Difference Between A Poem And A Hymn Poem

Why cannot all inspiring poems be set to music without changing the words? The difference is largely in the form, shape, and rhythmic flow of the poem. A biblical song poem must have a pattern marked by distinct rhythmic flow. A count of syllables, line by line, is one way of testing the uniformity of the pattern, but it is not the only test. There must also be the same recurrence of accented and unaccented syllables.

Words and syllables flow by accented and unaccented pulses. These pulses tend to group themselves in groups of two or three. These pulses will have a strong influence on the length of the notes, the flow of the melody, and the arrangement of the harmony, so we must be very close attention to these pulses. A definite regularity of pattern is required of a good hymn poem. For example, almost without exception, when you establish a good, singable song pattern for one stanza, it must be followed rigidly in exact duplication of the other stanzas. The syllable pattern for the chorus does not have to be identical to that of the stanza, but it must not deviate too much from the established pattern of the stanzas. Let us examine an extremely simple example of this principle in the song, "Jesus Lover of My Soul." JE - sus LOVE - er OF my SOUL LET me TO thy BOS - om FLY, WHILE the NEAR - er WAT - ers ROLL, WHILE the TEMP - est STILL is HIGH, HIDE me, OH my SAV - ior, HIDE, TILL the STORM of LIFE is PAST. SAFE in - TO the HAV - en GUIDE, OH re - CEIVE my SOUL at LAST.

Experience has taught me many good techniques which I use in writing a song. Let me pass along to you ten ideas that I find very helpful.

1. Do not be afraid to express yourself.

Do not be afraid of your emotions. Speak from the depths of your heart and you will reach the hearts of those who sing and those who hear.

2. Seek beauty and eloquence in your choice of words.

You can find many beautiful figures of speech in the Bible, in nature, and in the world about you. Whenever you have developed a symbolic picture, then follow it throughout your song. Do not jump from one figure to another. In "Jesus Savior Pilot Me" the symbol of a pilot is used throughout the song.

3. Do not cover too many subjects.

Some beginners show tendencies to launch forth on one subject and then they tend to jump around to several more before a single song is finished. "Just As I Am" introduces one phase of the subject and then develops that concept throughout the song without changing the subject.

4. Avoid monotony.

The too frequent use of the same word is monotonous. Notice how different words are used to express the same thought: "a land that is fairer than day" — "that beautiful shore" -- "over the way."

5. Use short words.

Shorter words are more easily understood and often much more powerful. Review your work until all your words are "words of life and beauty ... that ... teach us faith and duty."

6. Build to a climax.

Let every line and every stanza lead to a climax. "Work for the Night is Coming" speaks of "morning," "noon," and "sunset skies." Study "Closer to Thee" and notice how it moves toward a climax. Pity the speaker who came too soon to climax, had to pause for applause, and then did not have the heart to resume this speech because the crowd thought he had come to his final climax.

In building toward a climax you are following a logical sequence of thought with a focal point in mind. If you find that you can shuffle your lines of the poem without changing the picture, then you had better start over and tie your thoughts together in a more continuous fashion. It is not necessary to end every line of your hymn poem with a period. Several lines can compose a single thought developed in a logical chain. But, punctuation is permissible at the end of a line where it is needed.

7. Develop your song.

You cannot expect to strike a gusher every time you pick up your pen. Write down your initial thoughts and start form there. Your first thoughts may later develop into an idea that is more appropriate for the last stanza than the first, but at least you have a starting point from which you can develop your ideas.

8. Study good songs.

You can learn more about writing good hymn poems by analyzing the work of good writers. Observe their syllable numbers, their accent flow, their choice of words, their rhyme patterns, and the way they connect their thoughts.

9. Study the bible.

I have decided that one who wishes to write a good scriptural song that will live on must "study" to show himself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed." The more about God's will that you may know, the more you can express in song.

10. Write songs that leave no doubt.

Some songs we now sing are not properly understood. Some brethren feel that some songs are unscriptural. Often this feeling is caused by the lack of understanding of the author's intentions in his choice of words. Seek diligently to make your message plain.

If you are a Christian and a poet, why not learn to write inspiring song poems? These may be a great help to students of music, and they can be a great light unto the world long after you have gone from this life.