The story of ‘O love that wilt not let me go’

Posted in Blog, Hymns

The wonderful hymn ‘O love that wilt not let me go’ was probably written in 1881 and first published in 1882. It author was George Matheson (1842-1906) who was the minister at Innellan, on the Firth of Clyde. He said that he wrote it after a period of mental suffering. What is interesting is that he also said later that ‘I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes.’

What George Matheson wrote so quickly became an extraordinary hymn, with memorable imagery: ocean depths, blazing sun, rainbow and rain, dust and blossom. Hymns often describe self‐sacrifice but rarely with such an intensity as this hymn. In every verse, there is a giving up, which ends (verse 4) in the laying down of life: and in each case, the loss is followed by gain. The pattern of self‐surrender followed by reward ends at the foot of the Cross, where the glory of earthly life is laid down. The result is the flowering of eternal life. It is a hymn which goes beyond enthusiasm into an almost ecstatic self‐surrender.

There is an equally interesting story behind the tune. The metre, 88.88.6., is unique, and the tune, St Margaret, was written for these words. It was also written in the Firth of Clyde, at Brodick Manse on the Isle of Arran, where A. L. Peace (1844–1912), then organist of Glasgow Cathedral, was staying. Peace wrote the tune in 1884 for the committee compiling The Scottish Hymnal where the hymn was first published in a hymnbook. By yet another coincidence, it seems to have been composed with the same kind of instantaneous inspiration that gave the words to Matheson. Peace wrote: ‘After reading the hymn over carefully, I wrote the music straight off, and may say that the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.’

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,

I yield my flickering torch to thee;

My heart restores its borrowed ray,

That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day

May brighter, fairer be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be.

O cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from thee;

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.

Note: I have drawn on information put together by J.R. Watson