Praise to the Holiest in the height
John Henry Newman (1801-90) was brought up in the evangelical faith of the Church of England. From 1828-42 he was vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the University Church in Oxford. Newman was abroad at the time of Keble's Assize Sermon of 1833, but on his return he rapidly became the dominant figure of the Oxford Movement. He founded Tracts for the Times in 1833, and in No. 90 of the series in 1841 he wrote that the Thirty-Nine Articles were not incompatible with Roman Catholic teaching. Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, and in 1848 he founded the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Edgbaston, where he spent the rest of his life. Despite this appointment, he led a secluded life and considered himself frustrated and a failure, despite having found the haven for his spirit. He was made a Cardinal in 1879, and is now respected as the greatest religious genius of his age.
The Dream of Gerontius was first published by Newman in the Roman Catholic periodical The Month (May and June 1865), and later made famous by Elgar's setting. It traces the journey of an old monk through the gate of death and into the presence of Christ. The hymn is based upon 1 Corinthians 15:20-47. The first verse is repeated at the end and the hymn has remained unaltered since first publication. Newman writes in verse 4 that the Incarnation is a higher gift than grace (mentioned earlier in 1 Corinthians 15:10) and that the supreme gift of God is not grace but the divine presence itself on earth. The first two lines of verse 5 refer to God Incarnate, overcoming evil by his cross and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54, 57); the second two refer to the process of suffering and death which is involved in this. The "double agony" is the secret agony in the garden (Luke 22:44) and the public torture of the crucifixion.
Tune - Gerontius
Gerontius takes its name from Newman's poem, and was written specifically for these words by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-76), precentor of Durham Cathedral. It first appeared, as did the hymn, in the Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern (1868). An alternative tune is Chorus Angelorum by Arthur Somervell (1863-1937). This fine tune, dating from 1902, will always be considered a second choice to Gerontius.