|Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;||Luke 24:29|
|the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:|
|when other helpers fail, and comforts flee,||Ps. 69:20|
|help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.||Ps. 10:14|
|Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;|
|earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;||James 1:11|
|change and decay in all around I see;||Rom. 8:21; James 5:2–3|
|O thou who changest not, abide with me.||Mal. 3:6; James 1:17|
|I need thy presence every passing hour;|
|what but thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?||1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 4:16|
|Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?||1 Sam. 2:2; Matt. 6:13|
|Through cloud and sunshine, oh, abide with me.|
|I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:||Ps. 118:6|
|ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.|
|Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?||1 Cor. 15:55|
|I triumph still, if thou abide with me.||2 Cor. 2:14|
|Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;||Gal. 6:14|
|shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:||Col. 3:1–2|
|heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:|
|in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.||Rom. 8:38|
It is a common practice to measure a man’s faith, not by how quickly he turns to God during difficult times, but by how regularly he turns to God during times of security. There is, no doubt, some value in this well-tried measurement. Henry Lyte’s hymn gives us a communal voice for turning to God during difficult times and then shows us how we are to stay with our face towards the cross, even when it becomes clear to us that the cross has been effectual—as our faith becomes sight.
Lyte begins with the imperative phrase “abide with me,” which will become a refrain to end each stanza. Like a child, who has no way of amplifying the urgency of his petition except to repeat it, so the hymn turns us with repeated pleas to our Father. It is no coincidence that the dangers besetting us are first expressed as “eventide” and then “darkness.” These are things which frighten little children. The darkness here represents demonic abodes (one thinks of the “outer darkness” to which our Lord alludes in Matthew 22:13) or perhaps even diabolical forces (as expressed in John 1:5—“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”). These forces are as frightening to us as the boogies are to the little child, but our heavenly Father has as much control over them as earthly fathers do over a light-switch.
The besetting dangers around us become clearer as the hymn progresses, as does our dependency on the Lord. The second stanza suggests that the fear of death is one of the dangers around us. As the day of life goes, so go the joys of this life. And as they grow dark, we can see the transient nature of so much that surrounds us. If the danger presented in the second stanza is the transient nature of this life, then the succor from that danger is God. The danger exposed in the third stanza, however, is spiritual temptation and again God is the succor. However transient this world may be, it is filled with temptations which beset the immortal soul nonetheless. Just as in the second stanza God was our shiftless rock in a world of change, so in the third stanza God is the guide who leads us away from temptation.
The last phrase of the third stanza, “Through cloud and sunshine, oh, abide with me,” may seem digressive. Certainly it does not relate to the topic of the stanza, which is temptation. But this is no digression added in to fill metrical space. In fact, the “cloud” relates back to the first stanza’s imagery of darkness and the second stanza’s imagery of dimness. The “sunshine” will point us forward to the remainder of the hymn, with its focus on victory over oppression and death, and especially to the last stanza’s “heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.” What at first seems extraneous is really a pivot, for at this point the hymn turns more victorious.
The tone of the hymn may change after the third stanza, but our dependence on the Lord does not. In some ways, the hymn places increased dependence on God even as it becomes more victorious. Notice that neither of the first phrases of the first two stanzas includes a pronoun for God, whereas the first phrases of the final three stanzas all do. The final stanza returns to the imperative of the hymn’s opening line, this time with two concrete petitions even as the hymn moves closer to glory.
The poem is built of stanzas made of four lines of equal length. This may not seem very hopeful as a poetic form, since the best poetic forms have at least one line which is longer or shorter than the others to build metrical suspense or give metrical resolution. The potential problem is overcome, however, through the repeated “abide with me” of the last line of each stanza. Arriving on it, the reader feels some sense of completion, as if a secure and solid old idea has come back to settle the score of all which came before it. This sense of completion is strongest in the first two stanzas which focus mostly on the dangers of this life. When the reader returns to “abide with me” he is aware that the petition (addressed to God) has already been answered before it was asked. If the fourth line functions as a phrase of resolution, then each of the first three lines builds successively up to that resolution, with the third line being the point of highest tension. It is no surprise, therefore, to find the clearest biblical quotation arriving as the third line of the fourth stanza. Likewise, the clearest picture of glory comes in the third line of the fifth stanza.
The hymn-tune EVENTIDE was composed some fourteen years after the poem, obviously with the poem in mind. The tune supports the text’s child-like voice and repeated pleas. The first three phrases of the tune are made of the same rhythm:
After three statements of this rhythm, the singer is surprised to find the last phrase somewhat altered:
The change, essentially swapping the second and third measures, creates a rhythmic emphasis on the final four syllables of the text—“abide with me.” The repetitive rhythm is assuring and simple. The change in that repetition lends force to the plea. Moreover, it is worth comparing those last three notes of the tune with the first few notes. The hymn begins with the words “abide with me,” sung on “mi, mi, re, do.” The hymn ends every stanza with the words “abide with me” on “fa, mi, re, do.” The parallelism in the melody complements the parallelism in the text, to tie the opening of the hymn with its ending well. This is especially poignant as we move from texts about darkness to, in the last verse, texts about light. Even in the light of glory, with earth’s dim shadows fading, we will still beg our Father to abide with us. The textual repeat at each stanza’s end, along with a tune that forcefully sets this repeated idea, helps us to remember our increasing interest in the cross, even as we experience victory through it.