A heart for every plea*
Walking an acquaintance’s dog in the Anglican churchyard, I noticed a familiar face more often seen behind the counter of my local post office. He stopped to chat. “You know, I’ve lived here all my life” he confided, “yet I never realised this was here. What a lovely spot!”
You’d have to agree: this graveyard dating from the early 19th century possesses a melancholy beauty in all seasons thanks to lavish – if haphazard – landscaping. Local dog-owners and their pets meet there regularly throughout the day, introducing a flurry of activity and sociability to an otherwise tranquil scene.
My acquaintance pointed at the flimsy fingerpost for Lyte’s grave: “He was a famous Englishman?” I sighed. Weeel … aside from that dreadful dirge, ‘Abide with Me’, Lyte could hardly be called ‘famous’. No sooner had I pronounced those dismissive words than I regretted their ignorance.
“So which is his tomb?” asked the Frenchman.
I pointed at the simple, sober enclosure marked by a large but unadorned marble cross with bright flowers embedded at its foot. And I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the man who’d travelled all this way only to die: surely that could be remedied.
Lyte was the second son of an unhappy marriage (his parents parted company in Lyte’s infancy). He was born in Ednam near Kelso on 1st June 1793, and spent much of his youth in Ireland where he was in the charge of Dr Burrows, Headmaster at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (whose other alumni include Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett). Burrows recognised his intellectual talents and fostered both mind and boy while his father and stepmother – by now living elsewhere – had little to do with him.
Their negligence clearly had nothing to do with Lyte himself, who was clearly personable. In adulthood he was described as modest,
well-read and witty, a compelling speaker and a poet of some ability. Tall (6‘2“), slim and fine-featured with distinctively dark auburn curly hair, Lyte was also generally considered handsome.
Lyte entered Trinity College, Dublin as a ‘sizar’ – permitted to attend the university in exchange for services such as coaching and chores for wealthier students. He didn’t have to endure this for long: his academic brilliance soon won him a scholarship, and he graduated in 1814. He considered a medical career briefly before entering the Ministry, and was ordained – aged 21 – by the Bishop of Kilmore.
Lyte’s career began in Ireland, where he met his first challenge. His best friend died of a lingering illness, and Lyte – while continuing to fulfil other arduous duties – took over the administration of the affairs of his late friend’s widow and young family. Already handicapped by asthma, he worked so hard that his health was affected, and he was ordered to take time off. A spell spent riding in France with a companion restored him. Returning to England, he stayed in Bristol with the Barlow family who helped him obtain the position of Lecturer at the Chapel of Marazion, Cornwall.
This was a fateful move, for there Lyte met his future wife, Anne Maxwell. A clever, serious, kind-hearted woman some seven years older than Lyte, her religious views were to diverge from his; but the marriage endured and by all accounts they were happy together. Their first child, Henry, was born in Marazion on 29 September 1818. And the following year the family moved to Sway, near Lymington in Hampshire, where it was hoped the dryer climate would benefit Lyte’s weak chest.
After two years he was ready for the fray and the family returned to the West Country, this time to Dittisham. Lyte still had no full-time permanent employment, which must have added much anxiety to add to the couple’s grief at the death in infancy of a daughter in Hampshire.
Lyte’s professional situation continued to be uncertain, but the family were delighted at the birth of another daughter, Anna, on 22 April 1822. During this period Lyte’s work consisted of temporary duty at the Chapel of Ease in Lower Brixham, and the Trustees and congregation begged him to become their Minister. Lyte refused – oddly, as on the face of it this seems an ideal offer. But he might have had another iron in the fire, as six weeks after that offer Lyte became Curate at Charleton, near Kingsbridge. And it was there that his preaching so impressed George Canning, then Foreign Secretary, that Lyte was nominated to the living at the new parish of Lower Brixham (then in the gift of the Crown).
So after nearly 20 years in Charleton, the Lyte family moved to Brixham. Lyte immediately became involved in local charities working to provide education to the poor, rapidly becoming Chairman of the Schools Committee.
A firm believer in the importance of education for all, religious differences were irrelevant to Lyte where children’s education was concerned. He prepared 70 or so teachers to run so-called ‘Sunday Schools’, where general education was as important as religious teaching. This was a time and place when children went to sea aged 9 or 10 after little or no schooling. Sundays was one day when the boats were in port and they were free to attend Lyte’s sailors’ Sunday school. Older children and adults keen to learn were also welcomed.
Among Lyte’s communitarian innovations was an annual town celebration involving processions including singing hymns specially written by Lyte, before tea and sports in a field by the vicarage. It probably sounds dull to today’s jaded palate; but it must have been a boon for a community accustomed only to unrelenting hardship. Lyte worked hard for the welfare of the local fishing community as well as for the regularly visiting sailors (Brixham was then an important supply centre for the Royal Navy). Unsurprisingly, Lyte became something of a local hero.
The Lyte family flourished: two more sons, John (2 January 1825) and Farnham (10 January 1828), were born. And Lyte’s interests extended much further than the cure of souls to include active support for the abolition of slavery in the British Dominions (William Wilberforce’s Bill making slavery illegal became law in 1807 but wasn’t effective in the Dominions until 1833). He was also a keen amateur archaeologist, and one of his projects led to the discovery of a Neolithic burial site in a nearby cave.
Not least, there was the poetry – his ‘Tales in Verse’, published in 1826, was followed in 1833 by ‘Poems, chiefly religious’ and ‘The Spirit of the Psalms’ in 1834 (Lyte’s well-known hymn ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’ is a version of Psalm 103). The last of these was used widely in Anglican churches until 1861 when ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ was published.
His was a full life, well-lived; but Lyte’s health was never robust, and it finally began to fail him at some point in 1839 when tuberculosis was diagnosed. He was advised to reduce his formidable workload or at least take a break, but did not do so until the summer of 1842. By 1844 his condition had worsened; Lyte had to leave home for the continent each winter. He was always very sad to go, and spent much of his time away from his beloved Devon writing about what he saw abroad.
During July-August 1847 Lyte put the finishing touches to ‘Abide with Me’ – just before departing to Italy with John, his son, and his daughter-in-law, Emily. Despite his failing health, he sent letters home full of vivid descriptions of the journey. Lyte died on 20 November 1847 at the Hôtel de la Pension Anglaise in Nice. He is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Nice (then known as the English Cemetery), which is where we came in. And maybe I shall think rather differently of ‘Abide with Me’ from now on.
* from ‘Abide with Me’
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