One of the great Holy Spirit hymns in The Hymnal 1982 is “Come down, O Love divine,” with its tune Down Ampney composed by the English master Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). We sing this hymn most Pentecost Sundays, as the text extols our desire for the Holy Spirit to burn within us. This text is captivating, with its vivid images of verse: freely burning, kindling holy flame, heat consuming, glorious light, path illumining.
The text originated as the poem Discendi amor santo by Italian mystic poet Bianco of Siena (ca. 1350-1399), then appeared in a collection of Italian poetry in 1851, and was subsequently translated and included in the Anglican hymnal The People’s Hymnal (London, 1867) by Richard F. Littledale.
Vaughan Williams composed Down Ampney for The English Hymnal (1906), one of the most important hymnals of the 20th century and for which he served as editor along with the great hymnist Percy Dearmer. The hymn tune was originally attributed to “anonymous” (Vaughan Williams’ own personal joke), but the tune was correctly attributed to Vaughan Williams in 20th-century hymnals that followed. Vaughan Williams enjoyed these playful moments: for the great hymn “For all the saints,” he titled his tune Sine Nomine, Latin for “without a name.”
As many composers choose hymn tune names that are personal to them or represent an important place, Vaughan Williams named Down Ampney after his birthplace, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England. Likewise, composer William Bradley Roberts named our new parish hymn, “Come, new heav’n, new earth descending” after the street location of this parish, Walnut Grove.
While the final stanza is the culmination of the text, I believe the literary pinnacle is found in the phrases of stanza 2:
O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
Photo of Ralph Vaughan Williams from The Telegraph