Home  »  The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century  »  Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)

Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Mackensie Bell

Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)

BORN in Edinburgh on the 19th of December, 1808, Horatius Bonar came of a family which had taken a prominent part on the side of Presbyterianism during Covenanting days. Thomas Chalmers, the eminent Scottish theologian, was at the height of his power when Bonar entered the Edinburgh Divinity Hall. The influence of Chalmers, and of his fellow student Robert Murray McCheyne (whose biography has been written by his brother, Dr. Andrew Bonar), greatly strengthened his “hereditary evangelical sympathies.” He became a minister of the Established Church of Scotland, but seceded in 1843, and was one of those who founded the Free Church. He was settled for many years at Kelso, and subsequently removed to a charge at the Grange, Edinburgh, where he remained until his death on July 31st, 1889. So great was his zeal, and so untiring his energy, that, when long past his seventieth year, he not unfrequently preached on summer Sunday evenings in the open air, after having previously preached twice in his own church. His monthly addresses to children were exceedingly popular, and were attended by children from all parts of Edinburgh.

Dr. Bonar was a voluminous and most successful author, and his works, both in prose and in verse, are too numerous to mention in detail. Perhaps the best known of his prose works is “God’s Way of Peace,” of which, at the time of his death, more than two hundred and eighty-five thousand copies had been printed. His “Hymns of Faith and Hope” have attained an almost world-wide celebrity. Indeed, it was as a lyrist that he reached his highest excellence. He once remarked that “When the Weary, seeking Rest” was his “favourite” among all his hymns, though he added, with true critical insight, “it has less of poetry in it than some of them.” “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” and “A Few more Years shall Roll,” the latter set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, are very successful hymns which appeal to the intelligence of uncultivated people, and moreover, they are beautiful poems with the qualities inseparable from lyrics of a high class. Probably it is not unreasonable to think that Dr. Bonar possessed as much genuine poetic power as any hymn writer of the present century except Cardinal Newman. Tender and graceful occasional poems show, also, that had he sought it, he could have gained a reputation as a secular poet. His long poem, in blank verse, entitled “My Old Letters,” published in 1877, wasn’t altogether successful. The introductory lyric, however, is full of melody and sweetness, and, as an interesting piece of poetic autobiography, may be introduced here.

  • Not written down in haste, but in the quiet
  • Of thoughtful seasons, still to memory dear,
  • When the whole soul was calm, and the world’s riot,
  • Even in its echo, came not to my ear;
  • What I have thought, and felt, and seen, and heard is here.
  • Sometimes the cloud, but oft the happier noonlight
  • Floated above me, as I mused and sung:
  • At times the stars, at times the mellow moonlight
  • Gave ripeness to the fruit of pen and tongue,
  • While o’er my ravelled dreams the years and ages hung.
  • In days of public strife, when, sharp and stinging,
  • The angry words went daily to and fro,
  • Friend against friend the polished missiles flinging,
  • Each seeking who could launch the keenest blow,
  • I went to thee, my harp, and bade thy numbers flow.
  • In hours of heaviness thy solace seeking,
  • I took thee up and woke the trembling tone
  • Of the deep melody within thee, speaking
  • Like the heart-broken thrush, that sits alone,
  • Mourning its spoiled nest and all its nestlings gone.
  • Into these pages peace-thoughts weave their brightness;
  • The peace that has been, is, and is to be,
  • Is here; peace-blossoms in their tranquil whiteness
  • I’ve shaken, as I passed from tree to tree,
  • Relics of many a strange and broken history.
  • Lie there, my pen! Only a little longer,
  • And then thy work shall be for ever done:
  • Death in these pulses daily groweth stronger;
  • Life’s ruby drops are oozing one by one;
  • The dreams that flowed thro’ thee shall soon be dreamed alone!
  • Rest kindly now, beside what thou hast written
  • Let that a little longer linger here
  • By age unwithered, and by time unsmitten,
  • True leaves of health, that never can grow sere,
  • From the great tree of life, plant of a purer sphere!
  • Thou art the lute with which I sang my sadness,
  • When sadness like a cloud begirt my way;
  • Thou art the harp whose strings gave out my gladness
  • When burst the sunshine of a happier day,
  • Resting upon my soul with sweet and silent ray.
  • The sickle thou with which I have been reaping
  • My great life-harvest here on earth; and now
  • ’Mid these my sheaves I lay me down unweeping,—
  • Nay, full of joy, in life’s still evening-glow,
  • And wipe the reaper’s sweat from this toil-furrowed brow.
  • From this right hand its cunning is departing,
  • This wrinkled palm proclaims its work is done:
  • Look back, fond reaper, to thy place of starting,—
  • Days, months, and years, a lifetime past and gone;—
  • Say, which is best, thy rising or thy setting sun?
  • I may not stay. These hills that smile around me
  • Are full of music, and its happy glow
  • Beckons me upward; all that here has bound me
  • Seems now dissolving; daily I outgrow
  • The chains and drags of earth. I rise, I go, I go!
  • THE GRANGE, August 1876.
  • A staunch ecclesiastical Conservative, and one who in public controversies knew how to be bitter, in private life he was always genial, while his scholarship and his knowledge of men and things made personal intercourse with him most pleasant. One could not be in his company, and notice his intellectual face with its massive forehead, without supposing him to be a man of power, and the impression was fully confirmed when one heard him talk.