Home  »  The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century  »  John Mason Neale (1818–1866)

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

By Critical and Biographical Essay by William Garrett Horder

John Mason Neale (1818–1866)

DR. NEALE, to whose labours as a translator of ancient hymns, especially from the vast stores of the Eastern Church, we owe so much, was born in London, on the 24th of January, 1818. His parents were remarkable for their intellectual endowments—his father—the Rev. Cornelius Neale—having been Senior Wrangler, Second Chancellor’s Medallist, and Fellow of St. John’s College. His mother, to whom, as he said just before his death, he owed more than he could express, was the daughter of John Mason Good, a man of mark in his day. Like most of the men who became leaders in the Anglican Revival, Neale was brought up in an Evangelical atmosphere, in which he gained that religious fervour which marked his whole career, though it assumed so different an ecclesiastical and theological form. He was educated first at Sherborne Grammar School, and later in a more private way by the Rector of Shepperton, the Rev. William Russell, and Professor Challis. In 1836 he took a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was reckoned the best man of his year. His ability, however, was almost entirely classical—he hated mathematics; and since these were necessary to obtain classical honours, he had to be content with an ordinary degree. A year later the coveted honours might have been his, since the University changed the regulation, making the Mathematical Tripos unnecessary to aspirants for classical honours. He gained, however, such distinctions as were not barred by the hated Mathematics. The Seatonian prize he won no fewer than eleven times.

During Neale’s Cambridge days the Anglican Movement was stirring Oxford life to its very depths; but its influences reached the sister University, and found there no more congenial spirit than in John Mason Neale, who soon became one of the founders of the Ecclesiological Society. In 1842 he married Miss Webster, and in the following year was presented to the Incumbency of Crawley in Surrey. Affection of the lungs prevented his institution to that living, and sent him to Madeira as the only chance of saving his life. In 1846 he was made Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead. Here the outward history of his life ends, for he remained at East Grinstead till his death. As his close friend Dr. Littledale has said—“he spent nearly half his life in the position of Warden of an obscure almshouse on a salary of £27 a year.” But in this quiet place his labours were incessant, and their influence reached out in different ways. We have tried again and again to discover in Dr. Neale’s original verse lines worthy of the august name of poetry; but we have not succeeded. “Songs and Ballads for the People” is poor doggerel inspired by a bitter partisan spirit. The “Hymns for Children” are not picturesque enough, not quick enough in movement for their purpose. His best original work is in “Sequences, Hymns, and other Ecclesiastical Verses” and “Hymns for the Sick,” from which we give what seem to us the best specimens of his original writing in verse.

It is on his Translations that Neale’s fame will ultimately rest. Indeed at the present moment it is from these the Church at large has almost exclusively drawn. His original hymns have passed, with a few exceptions, only into Hymnals edited by men who reverenced the writer, or who belonged to his particular school of ecclesiastical and theological thought. Indeed, Dr. Neale’s capacity for translation amounted almost to genius. The Rev. Gerard Moultrie gives an amusing instance which shows his facility in such work: “Dr. Neale was invited by Mr. Keble and the Bishop of Salisbury to assist them with their new Hymnal, and for this purpose he paid a visit to Hursley Vicarage. On one occasion Mr. Keble, having to go to another room to find some papers, was detained a short time. On his return Dr. Neale said, ‘Why, Keble, I thought you told me that the “Christian Year” was entirely original.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘it certainly is.’ ‘Then how comes this?’ and Dr. Neale placed before him the Latin of one of Keble’s hymns. Keble professed himself utterly confounded. He protested that he had never seen the ‘original,’ no, not in all his life. After a few minutes Neale relieved him by owning that he had just turned it into Latin in his absence.”

From the Latin Neale has given us “Mediæval Hymns and Sequences,” and “Hymns chiefly Mediæval on the Joys and Glories of Paradise,” and from the Greek, “Hymns of the Eastern Church.” In these Dr. Neale is at his best, since he seems to have needed some flame at which he could kindle his torch. We have spoken of his Translations, but they were more—they were not mere rendering in English of what had previously been in Latin or Greek. In turning these from the one language to the other they had passed through Dr. Neale’s own mind, and took a certain colour therefrom. This was markedly so in the case of the “Hymns from the Eastern Church,” which are adaptations rather than translations. In this department he had no predecessors nor examples, and it is no small triumph that in a work so new and difficult he should have so succeeded that nearly every section of the Church has welcomed his versions, and that they have become amongst the most favourite hymns of recent days.