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Henry Francis Lyte

Henry Francis Lyte came from an old Somerset family. The Lyte home had been Lytes Cary Manor near Somerton. The first Lyte to take up residence there was William le Lyt in 1286. However, falling family fortunes had forced the Lytes to leave and Captain Thomas Lyte, Henry Francis’ father, lived in Bath. A certain mystery surrounds his marital affairs, but in about 1890 he married – or, at any rate, eloped with – an Anna Maria Oliver. They settled in Scotland and on June 1st, 1793, Henry Francis was born in “The Cottage”, Ednam, near Kelso. There were three boys in the family, Thomas, Henry and George. Anna Maria seems to have been a good mother and it was from her that Henry received his first religious instruction.

However, family life was rudely disrupted by the threat of war. The Napoleonic wars, which had begun in 1793, threatened to spread across the Channel. In 1796, a French invasion of Ireland at Bantry Bay in County Cork, was prevented from landing only by a prevailing off-shore wind. Two years later, in 1798, rebellion broke out in Ireland. To secure the realm, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, despatched troops from England and Scotland. Among these was Captain Thomas Lyte who was garrisoned in Sligo on the north-west coast of Ireland. Anna Maria and their three sons followed but family life together did not last long. As soon as the rebellion was ended, Captain Lyte, who had a restless disposition and a roving eye, despatched Anna Maria and his youngest son, George, to England. He then took another wife and, in 1803, having sent the two elder boys to board at Portora, went with his partner to live in Jersey.

In 1803, the Royal School of County Fermanagh consisted of only 50 pupils, nearly all boarders. They were housed in a new building which had been constructed in 1777 on a fine site overlooking Enniskillen. The Headmaster, Dr Burrowes, a distinguished scholar, was a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. His wife, who was the daughter of the Bishop of Down, had given birth to three children. The Burrowes’ family lived in the headmaster’s quarters in the school building.

The Headmaster and his assistant teachers gave the boys instruction, largely in the classics, though the curriculum included arithmetic and book-keeping. Masters were also employed to teach dancing and drawing. Lessons began at 6.30 am and lasted until 9.00am, when the boys were given an hour to wash and have breakfast. Classes resumed at 10 am and continued to lunchtime at 1pm. It was a Spartan lifestyle. Breakfast and lunch was bread and milk. However dinner, which was served at 5pm, consisted of meat and potatoes. The boys were required to undertake more study from 7pm to 8.30pm. The day ended with supper, prayers and bed in the dormitories on the top floor.

This academic routine proved beyond the capabilities of Thomas, the elder of the two brothers at Portora, and Dr Burrowes returned him to his father in Jersey. This left Henry Francis Lyte very much on his own. The ten year old boy had effectively been abandoned by his parents. There is no doubt that Henry felt this loss keenly. A poem that he later wrote expresses this loneliness: “Stay, gentle shadow of my mother, stay. Thy form but seldom comes to bless my sleep.” He went on to name his own daughters Anna Maria, after his mother.

But for the kindness of Dr Burrowes, Henry’s schooldays might well have been miserable, his future uncertain. The Headmaster recognised that he had ability. He paid for the boy’s school fees and welcomed him into his own family during the holidays. He was effectively an adopted son. This period of Lyte’s life left a lasting impression on his mind. He never forgot the example of Christian generosity and compassion that had been shown to him by Dr Burrowes. The environment also impressed itself on the young boy’s memory. Portora is set amidst wonderful scenery. The beauty of the lakes and mountains of County Fermanagh found expression in Lyte’s verse, “the winding banks of Erne”.

The benefits of the education that Lyte had received at Portora were shown in 1809 when, at the age of 16, he won a Sizarship to Trinity College, Dublin. This meant that, in return for rooms, he performed menial tasks around the College. His College fees were paid by Dr Burrowes. Lyte’s academic career flourished. He became a Scholar of Trinity and won the Chancellor’s Prize for English Verse in three successive years before graduating in 1814. Lyte had then intended to study medicine but, perhaps influenced by the example of Dr Burrowes, decided to enter the Divinity School. He was ordained in 1815 at the age of 21. Lyte stayed in Ireland until the Napoleonic Wars had ended. He led a Service of Thanksgiving in his first parish, St Munn’s, Taghmon, Wexford, when peace was declared.

In appearance, Henry Francis Lyte was a fine looking young man, over six feet tall and with dark, curly hair. Portraits of him indicate a sensitive disposition. However, Lyte did not enjoy good health. In 1816, he was advised to convalesce from asthma and tuberculosis on the Riviera. On his return, some eight months later, he resigned from Taghmon and settled in England. He served in four different parishes before becoming Rector of All Saints’ Church, Brixham, in Devon. It was there that he met Anne Maxwell, daughter of the Reverend Dr William Maxwell of Falkland, County Monaghan. After their marriage, she inherited a considerable sum of money. This enabled Henry to reimburse Dr Burrowes for the cost of his school and college fees. The Lytes had three sons and two daughters, one of whom died when only a month old.

It was while he was in Brixham that Lyte wrote many of the hymns that have subsequently become famous. Three of the best known are all paraphrases of psalms, taken from Lyte’s book “The spirit of the psalms”, published in 1834. “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” is Lyte’s version of Psalm 103. “God of Mercy, God of Grace” is based on Psalm 67. “Pleasant are thy courts above” is a paraphrase of Psalm 84. His last hymn, written only a few months before his death, was “Abide with me”. Lyte’s health was failing. This famous hymn was written by Lyte after watching the sun set over Torbay. He wrote a tune for it himself, but since 1861 it has been sung to “Eventide”, composed by Dr Monk, Director of Music at King’s College, London.

That autumn, Lyte left England for a period of convalescence. He intended to spend the winter in Sicily but never completed his journey. Henry Francis Lyte died in his hotel room in Nice on November 24th 1847 and was buried in the English cemetery.

In the chapel of Portora Royal School, a tablet records:

“To the memory of Henry Francis Lyte,
a boy at Portora from 1803 to 1809.
The inspired author of
“Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”
and of “Abide with me;
fast falls the eventide,”
the favourite hymn of King George V.

by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) of Ednam, Nr. Kelso, Scotland,
who also composed the words for 'Abide With Me'.

Sweet evening hour! sweet evening hour!
That calms the air, and shuts the flower;
That brings the wild bird to her nest,
The infant to its mother's breast.

Sweet hour ! that bids the labourer cease,
That gives the weary team release,
That leads them home, and crowns them there
With rest and shelter, food and care.

O season of soft sounds and hues,
Of twilight walks among the dews,
Of feelings calm, and converse sweet,
And thoughts too shadowy to repeat!

The weeping eye, that loathes the day
Finds peace beneath thy soothing sway;
And faith and prayer, o'ermastering grief,
Burst forth, and bring the heart relief.

Yes, lovely hour ! thou art the time
When feelings flow, and wishes climb;
When timid souls begin to dare,
And God receives and answers prayer.

Then trembling through the dewy skies,
Look out the stars, like thoughtful eyes
Of angels, calm reclining there,
And gazing on this world of care.

Then, as the earth recedes from sight,
Heaven seems to ope her fields of light
And call the fettered soul above
From sin and grief, to peace and love.

Sweet hour ! for heavenly musing made—
When Isaac walked, and Daniel prayed;
When Abram's offering God did own;
And Jesus loved to be alone.

Who has not felt that Evening's hour
Draws forth devotion's tenderest power;
That guardian spirits round us stand
And God himself seems most at hand?

The very birds cry shame on men,
And chide their selfish silence, then:
The flowers on high their incense send;
And earth and heaven unite and blend.

Let others hail the rising day:
I praise it when it fades away;
When life assumes a higher tone,
And God and heaven are all my own.

by Henry Francis Lyte

Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens: Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, abide with me!

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
Thou, who changest not, abide with me!

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word.
But as Thou dwell'st with thy disciples. Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,
Come, not to sojourn, but abide, with me!

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings;
But kind and good, with healing in thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea,—
Come, Friend of sinners,and thus abide with me!

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile.
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me!

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the Tempter's power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me!

I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee.
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!

Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) - his life and times
by Evelyne Miller (pdf)

The Poetical Works of Rev. Henry Francis Lyte (pdf)

Abide With Me Illustrated (pdf)

Audio 1 of Abide With Me (mp3)
Audio 2 of Abide With Me (mp3)

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