Lead, Kindly Light
John Henry Newman, 1833
Have you ever noticed that hymns of repentance are among the gentlest of all? For with repentance comes the sweetness of restored love and gratitude, drowning all shame. The prodigal son tasted it when his father threw his arms about his neck and kissed him. And when he walked that long way back home from the far country, surely he did not walk in darkness, or in the garish light of those foolish days that he wanted to put behind him, but with the gleam of a hope as his guide. That is what we find, both the sweetness and the glow, in John Henry Newman’s quiet and subtle poem, Lead, Kindly Light:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on; The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead Thou me on; Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me. I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou Shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path; but now Lead Thou me on. I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will; remember not past years. So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still Will lead me on O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till The night is gone; And with the morn those angel faces smile Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Will you let me be a tour guide here, for the artistic features of this poem? Look at Newman’s pauses, placed with great tact, in the middle of the long lines. They give us the effect of lines-within-lines, echoing one another, tinting one another, so to speak, with a different color, a different feeling. In the first stanza, each of the long lines is suspended in the same position, after the fourth syllable:
Lead, kindly Light The night is dark Keep Thou my feet The distant scene
That’s fine indeed. Newman begs the Light to lead him, because the night is dark. What does it mean to be led by the Light? It means we are led in every step we take: Keep Thou my feet. The destination is distant. Newman cannot see it, in the dark. Yet it is there. He does not even pray to see it, now: one step enough for me, he concludes the stanza, a terse, elliptical sentence omitting the verb is. What kind of terrain is he traversing? We don’t know yet. All we know is that a gloom surrounds him, and – now turning to simple language that even a child can understand – he is far from home. That is all we need to know.
The second stanza turns from the present journey to the past, the old days of exile in that faraway land. Again, let’s look at the words before the pause in the long lines. They suggest meditation, a humble admission of the person he used to be:
I was not ever thus I loved to see and choose my path I loved the garish day Pride ruled my will
How powerful and sad the progression is! Newman begins line after line with the personal pronoun I – and it was just because he once led his whole life according to the I, with pride ruling his will, that he went astray.
That pronoun is set against the familiar thou: I once led myself, but I do not wish to do so anymore. Please, God, you lead me now, it’s you I trust and not myself. Notice the ironic power of the verbs: I loved to see and choose; I loved; pride ruled. It’s as Augustine said: Amor pondus meum, My love, my weight: our desire is like a weight on a pulley that throws us in one direction and not another. Newman loved, but he says he loved badly; he loved his own way, his own path. He wanted to see. That doesn’t mean he wanted to understand. He wanted his future to be laid plain before him. He wanted to be the decider of his fate. He wanted to bask in the glare of the day. But now he begs the Lord to forget that foolish past. If we thought that the darkness was merely that of sin, we are mistaken. It is also the darkness of trust in the Lord, giving ourselves utterly to His providence, declining to insist that we know all the specifics of our journey beforehand. And that is truly to trust the light.
The third and final stanza makes the journey more concrete for our imaginations. It’s as if Newman were walking through a vast English wilderness, crossing the moors and the fens, fording the swift rivers. That’s a dangerous thing to do at night. But the night will not last forever. The day will dawn, and when it does, the night will be gone, once for all. The morning will shine with the faces of angels, those which the repentant Newman now tells us he once loved, a long time ago, but which he had lost awhile. The words are simple, and steeped in honest shame. How could he have lost such beauty? But the word awhile tempers the shame. Yes, he did lose them; but he did not lose them forever.
“Lead Kindly Light,” sung by a popular Coast Guard quartet, “The Mariners,” who sang together during the war, toured the South Pacific to entertain the troops, recorded many singles and albums of popular music and hymns, and for a couple of decades enjoyed a post-war career in radio and television.
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The Light continues to lead-- one must but step out of the shadows.
This is one of the poems I THOUGHT I understood! When my husband and I first got married, I copied it out in calligraphy as a gift to him. I am amazed and astonished at how often your choices of words, poems, and songs coincide with events and prayers. Last month I bought a small devotional book entitled Lead, Kindly Light. Then the recording of the poem I know so well by the Mariners [I'd never heard of them] brought me to tears. One of my students lost his beloved Grandpa in the night. So the poem took on still another veil of meaning. Thank you!