Francis Lyte came from an old Somerset family. The Lyte home had
been Lytes Cary Manor near Somerton. The first Lyte to take up
residence there was William le Lyt in 1286. However, falling family
fortunes had forced the Lytes to leave and Captain Thomas Lyte,
Henry Francis father, lived in Bath. A certain mystery surrounds
his marital affairs, but in about 1890 he married or, at any rate,
eloped with an Anna Maria Oliver. They settled in Scotland and on
June 1st, 1793, Henry Francis was born in The Cottage, Ednam, near
Kelso. There were three boys in the family, Thomas, Henry and
George. Anna Maria seems to have been a good mother and it was from
her that Henry received his first religious instruction.
However, family life was rudely disrupted by the threat of war. The
Napoleonic wars, which had begun in 1793, threatened to spread
across the Channel. In 1796, a French invasion of Ireland at Bantry
Bay in County Cork, was prevented from landing only by a prevailing
off-shore wind. Two years later, in 1798, rebellion broke out in
Ireland. To secure the realm, the Prime Minister, William Pitt,
despatched troops from England and Scotland. Among these was Captain
Thomas Lyte who was garrisoned in Sligo on the north-west coast of
Ireland. Anna Maria and their three sons followed but family life
together did not last long. As soon as the rebellion was ended,
Captain Lyte, who had a restless disposition and a roving eye,
despatched Anna Maria and his youngest son, George, to England. He
then took another wife and, in 1803, having sent the two elder boys
to board at Portora, went with his partner to live in Jersey.
In 1803, the Royal School of County Fermanagh consisted of only 50
pupils, nearly all boarders. They were housed in a new building
which had been constructed in 1777 on a fine site overlooking
Enniskillen. The Headmaster, Dr Burrowes, a distinguished scholar,
was a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. His wife, who was the
daughter of the Bishop of Down, had given birth to three children.
The Burrowes family lived in the headmasters quarters in the
The Headmaster and his assistant teachers gave the boys instruction,
largely in the classics, though the curriculum included arithmetic
and book-keeping. Masters were also employed to teach dancing and
drawing. Lessons began at 6.30 am and lasted until 9.00am, when the
boys were given an hour to wash and have breakfast. Classes resumed
at 10 am and continued to lunchtime at 1pm. It was a Spartan
lifestyle. Breakfast and lunch was bread and milk. However dinner,
which was served at 5pm, consisted of meat and potatoes. The boys
were required to undertake more study from 7pm to 8.30pm. The day
ended with supper, prayers and bed in the dormitories on the top
This academic routine proved beyond the capabilities of Thomas, the
elder of the two brothers at Portora, and Dr Burrowes returned him
to his father in Jersey. This left Henry Francis Lyte very much on
his own. The ten year old boy had effectively been abandoned by his
parents. There is no doubt that Henry felt this loss keenly. A poem
that he later wrote expresses this loneliness: Stay, gentle shadow
of my mother, stay. Thy form but seldom comes to bless my sleep. He
went on to name his own daughters Anna Maria, after his mother.
But for the kindness of Dr Burrowes, Henrys schooldays might well
have been miserable, his future uncertain. The Headmaster recognised
that he had ability. He paid for the boys school fees and welcomed
him into his own family during the holidays. He was effectively an
adopted son. This period of Lytes life left a lasting impression on
his mind. He never forgot the example of Christian generosity and
compassion that had been shown to him by Dr Burrowes. The
environment also impressed itself on the young boys memory. Portora
is set amidst wonderful scenery. The beauty of the lakes and
mountains of County Fermanagh found expression in Lytes verse, the
winding banks of Erne.
The benefits of the education that Lyte had received at Portora were
shown in 1809 when, at the age of 16, he won a Sizarship to Trinity
College, Dublin. This meant that, in return for rooms, he performed
menial tasks around the College. His College fees were paid by Dr
Burrowes. Lytes academic career flourished. He became a Scholar of
Trinity and won the Chancellors Prize for English Verse in three
successive years before graduating in 1814. Lyte had then intended
to study medicine but, perhaps influenced by the example of Dr
Burrowes, decided to enter the Divinity School. He was ordained in
1815 at the age of 21. Lyte stayed in Ireland until the Napoleonic
Wars had ended. He led a Service of Thanksgiving in his first
parish, St Munns, Taghmon, Wexford, when peace was declared.
In appearance, Henry Francis Lyte was a fine looking young man, over
six feet tall and with dark, curly hair. Portraits of him indicate a
sensitive disposition. However, Lyte did not enjoy good health. In
1816, he was advised to convalesce from asthma and tuberculosis on
the Riviera. On his return, some eight months later, he resigned
from Taghmon and settled in England. He served in four different
parishes before becoming Rector of All Saints Church, Brixham, in
Devon. It was there that he met Anne Maxwell, daughter of the
Reverend Dr William Maxwell of Falkland, County Monaghan. After
their marriage, she inherited a considerable sum of money. This
enabled Henry to reimburse Dr Burrowes for the cost of his school
and college fees. The Lytes had three sons and two daughters, one of
whom died when only a month old.
It was while he was in Brixham that Lyte wrote many of the hymns
that have subsequently become famous. Three of the best known are
all paraphrases of psalms, taken from Lytes book The spirit of the
psalms, published in 1834. Praise, my soul, the King of heaven is
Lytes version of Psalm 103. God of Mercy, God of Grace is based
on Psalm 67. Pleasant are thy courts above is a paraphrase of
Psalm 84. His last hymn, written only a few months before his death,
was Abide with me. Lytes health was failing. This famous hymn was
written by Lyte after watching the sun set over Torbay. He wrote a
tune for it himself, but since 1861 it has been sung to Eventide,
composed by Dr Monk, Director of Music at Kings College, London.
That autumn, Lyte left England for a period of convalescence. He
intended to spend the winter in Sicily but never completed his
journey. Henry Francis Lyte died in his hotel room in Nice on
November 24th 1847 and was buried in the English cemetery.
In the chapel of Portora Royal School, a tablet records:
To the memory of Henry Francis Lyte,
a boy at Portora from 1803 to 1809.
The inspired author of
Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven
and of Abide with me;
fast falls the eventide,
the favourite hymn of King George V.
by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) of Ednam, Nr. Kelso, Scotland,
who also composed the words for 'Abide With Me'.
Sweet evening hour! sweet evening hour!
That calms the air, and shuts the flower;
That brings the wild bird to her nest,
The infant to its mother's breast.
Sweet hour ! that bids the labourer cease,
That gives the weary team release,
That leads them home, and crowns them there
With rest and shelter, food and care.
O season of soft sounds and hues,
Of twilight walks among the dews,
Of feelings calm, and converse sweet,
And thoughts too shadowy to repeat!
The weeping eye, that loathes the day
Finds peace beneath thy soothing sway;
And faith and prayer, o'ermastering grief,
Burst forth, and bring the heart relief.
Yes, lovely hour ! thou art the time
When feelings flow, and wishes climb;
When timid souls begin to dare,
And God receives and answers prayer.
Then trembling through the dewy skies,
Look out the stars, like thoughtful eyes
Of angels, calm reclining there,
And gazing on this world of care.
Then, as the earth recedes from sight,
Heaven seems to ope her fields of light
And call the fettered soul above
From sin and grief, to peace and love.
Sweet hour ! for heavenly musing made
When Isaac walked, and Daniel prayed;
When Abram's offering God did own;
And Jesus loved to be alone.
Who has not felt that Evening's hour
Draws forth devotion's tenderest power;
That guardian spirits round us stand
And God himself seems most at hand?
The very birds cry shame on men,
And chide their selfish silence, then:
The flowers on high their incense send;
And earth and heaven unite and blend.
Let others hail the rising day:
I praise it when it fades away;
When life assumes a higher tone,
And God and heaven are all my own.
ABIDE WITH ME
by Henry Francis Lyte
Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens: Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, abide with me!
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
Thou, who changest not, abide with me!
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word.
But as Thou dwell'st with thy disciples. Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,
Come, not to sojourn, but abide, with me!
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings;
But kind and good, with healing in thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea,
Come, Friend of sinners,and thus abide with me!
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile.
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me!
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the Tempter's power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me!
I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee.
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!