My song is love unknown

My song is love unknown,
my Saviour's love to me,
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
O who am I,
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?

The text for this hymn is from one of nine poems by Samuel Crossman for The Young Man's Meditation or some few Sacred Poems upon Select Subjects and Scriptures (1664). Crossman (1624-1684) had a non-conformist background until 1665; in 1682 he became Treasurer and subsequently Dean of Bristol Cathedral. The words first appeared in the Anglican Hymn Book (1868). The hymn is based upon accounts of the Passion, particularly in Matthew 27, but there are also references to John 1:1-14 in the first two verses. Other references include: verse 1, 1 John 4:8-11; verse 3, Matthew 21:9 and Mark 11:10; verse 4, Matthew 11:5; verse 6, lines 1-2, Matthew 8:20; verse 6, lines 3-4, Luke 23:50-53.

Tune - Love Unknown

Until the early part of this century, Crossman's words were sung to the tune Psalm 47 by Henry Lawes (1596-1662). However at this time, Geoffrey Shaw the music editor of the Public School Hymn Book (1919) and Songs of Praise (1925) asked the composer John Ireland (1879-1962) to provide a tune for his new hymnals. It is from this time that the hymn has become a favourite amongst worshippers. The story, often quoted, is that Ireland wrote the tune on a scrap of paper in a quarter of an hour. The melody is skilful, especially for the setting of the phrase "O, who am I?" in the first verse which is set to "Then 'Crucify!'" in verse 3; the sense of the words is captured in both cases. John Ireland was a pupil of Stanford at the Royal College of Music. He composed much music in his early life, but destroyed all his early compositions in 1908. He was organist of St Luke's Chelsea (1904-1926) and taught at the Royal College of Music from 1923-1939.

Nigel Day
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 17th April 2006