The starting point for this great classic hymn is a song by Venus, the goddess of love, from the play King Arthur
by Dryden, for which Purcell wrote the music in 1691. That begins ‘Fairest Isle, all isles excelling’, and Venus is about to leave Cyprus for the British Isles. Charles Wesley leads our thought to the love of God which surpasses all other love and which is come to dwell with us. As with all Wesley’s hymns, references and echoes abound; another classical reference may be to a story by the poet Ovid in ‘Never more thy temples leave’. Certainly there is a reference to St John 10: 10, ‘I am come that they may have life and have it more abundantly’. The hymn reaches its climax in the last line with the amazing word ‘Lost’, but which proves to be ‘in wonder, love, and praise’.
It has been sung to a version of Purcell’s original tune. Many Anglican congregations know the hymn divided into four-line verses and sung to a graceful tune by John Stainer. Much better to keep the original eight-line verses and to use one of a number of suitable tunes. Here the tune is that by a Welsh school teacher and choral conductor that was composed in the heady times of the 1904–5 Revival.
from notes by Alan Luff © 2004