A hymn is a lyric poem of devotion or reverence, typically written as a prayer addressing a deity, deities, or personified subjects.
From A Poet’s Glossary
The following definition of the term hymn is reprinted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch.
From the Greek hymnos: “song in praise of a god or hero.” In the classical world, odes were composed in honor of gods and heroes and chanted or sung at religious festivals and other ceremonial occasions. One thinks of the ringing hexameters of the so-called Homeric hymns, which provided models for the hymns of Callimachus (c. 305–c. 240 BC), and the Orphic hymns chanted by initiates in the Orphic mysteries. Hymns were also a major genre in ancient Egyptian literature, where they served as poems worshipping a deity or a divine king, or, more occasionally, praising a city, such as Thebes, or an object, such as the Red Crowns of Egypt. Charles Boer explains that the word hymn derives from the East. The Greek hymnos is connected to the word woven or spun: “In its primal sense, a hymn was thought of as what results when you intertwine speech with rhythm and song.” Bacchlides refers to “weaving a hymn.”
Songs in praise of gods and heroes became in Christianity “Praise of God in song.” Hymns as scriptural texts, shared songs, came into the church in the fourth century (early examples include the nativity song “Gloria in excelsis” and the three Gospel canticles) and have been part of devotional services ever since. Latin hymns were written throughout the Middle Ages, Isaac Watts (1674–1748) rote modern hymns that have a radiant clarity and take great joy in God’s created world. He envisioned the Promised Land, as on a clear day, and dramatically adapted the Psalms to his own purposes, as when he “translated the scene of this psalm–67–to Great Britain”:
Sing to the Lord, ye distant lands,
Sing loud with solemn voice;
While British tongues exalt his praise,
And British hearts rejoice.
Charles Wesley (1707–1788) had a gift for transposing and adapting Holy Scriptures into memorable metrical verses, and his hymns have a powerful devotional urgency. He brought a stately grace to the hymnal stanza as in this passage from Psalm 17:
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come.
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
The hymnal stanza, also known as common measure, is traditionally the same as the ballad stanza, but has the stricter rhythms and rhymes found in the hymnal. The poet and scholar Susan Stewart explains:
The phrase common meter joins with the terms from music, common measure and common time, to signify the two pulses to a measure, 4/4 rhythm, under which the entire musical system is coordinated and out of which variations proceed. Common meter presents itself as the most suitable for group singing—the coordination of song and the integration and solidarity.”
The hymn has accrued terrific liturgical importance as a source of communal devotion. Think, then, of what it meant for Emily Dickinson to fracture the common measure, thus invoking the hymn tradition and responding to its communal nature with a radical individuality of her own. We hear the distinctiveness of her voice against a traditional nineteenth-century social and religious backdrop.