Sunday, 29 January 2012

Expressing the Ineffable

Anne Steele (1717-1778) was a leading eighteenth-century evangelical poet. Although largely forgotten today, Steele's hymns were among very popular in her day, and included in best-selling anthologies such as John Ash's and Caleb Evans's A Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (1769) as well as John Rippon's Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended as an Appendix to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns (1787). Much more gloomy than Charles Wesley's hymns, and less didactic than the compositions of Isaac Watts, Steele's writings provide a sobering look at the Christian life from the perspective of an often-troubled mind.

In her book, To Express the Ineffable: The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne Steele, Cynthia Aalders argues that Steele's hymns offer "a surprising and appealing spiritual honesty, together with an acknowledgement of human loss and limitation" (2). Born into a wealthy timber merchant's family in Hampshire, England, Steele witnessed the death of several key family members, including her mother Anne Froude in 1720, her step-mother Anne Cator in 1760, and her beloved father William Steele in 1769. Throughout her life, Steele was plagued by health-related problems such as headaches and bouts with "the ague." These emotional and physical pains are evident in her poetry.

In her 1760 (republished in 1780 with an additional third volume) Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional, Steele shows signs of self-doubt, grief, and melancholy. Aalders writes that "her experiences of earthly suffering and her perception of the absence of God prompted her to use her hymns as a means of probing and questioning the divine-human encounter... Steele's hymns are more often introspective, characterized by doubt and uncertainty, sometimes bordering on despair" (3-4). While acknowledging that God has given her certain "powers," or literary talents, Steele doubts her abilities to reach her full potential. Her Calvinistic upbringing taught her that all mankind is tainted by sin, which affects the whole of one's efforts at being godly. Indeed, language itself is corrupted and incapable of expressing in any conceivable terms the true glory and character of God. Aaders sums it up this way: "Steele accepts her God-given vocation--the task of writing hymns and poetry about God and the religious life--but she also acknowledges her requisite failure, hindered as she is by the limitations of human language" (78). Several of Steele's hymns demonstrate the ineffability of God: "Desiring to Praise God" (I.1-2), "Imploring Divine Influence" (I.2-3), "Humble Worship" (I.37), and "The Condescension of God" (I.65).

Yes, despite the doom and gloom in Steele's poems, Aalders denies the conclusions of most scholars, who have typically judged Steele as a recluse consumed with personal loss. Aalders claims that Steele's poems exhibit signs of optimism amidst perceived despair, and that many of the supposed devastating episodes in her life are based on unsubstantiated myths. Tradition has it that Steele fell off a horse as a teen and became a lifelong invalid, and that her fiance drowned hours before the wedding. From Aalders's research, she finds no evidence that Steele was permanently incapacitated and that she was ever engaged to a man named James Elcomb. Aalders admits that many of the trials that Steele experienced influenced her writings. Evidence of her pain can be found in poems like "Wrote in an Ill State of Health in the Spring" (II.60). Nevertheless, Aalders is adamant that amidst the dark clouds, Steele looked to God as the source of her hope, and the only one who could bring sunnier days ahead. Aalders states, "Steele begins many of her hymns tentatively, conscious of the limitations of human language and the challenges of articulating praise to a God who, in his incomprehensible sovereign will, allows suffering to burden frail humanity. Yet this hesitancy does not fully represent her hymnody nor adequately encapsulate her spirituality, for Steele concludes just as many of her hymns by making faithful affirmations about God and her experience of the spiritual life" (136). Her struggles to find happiness and look to God for salvation can be seen in "God My Only Happiness" (I.142), "Desiring to Trust in God" (I.78), "Mourning the Absence of God, and Longing for His Gracious Presence" (I.143), and "The Faithfulness of God" (II.85). Steele places complete trust in God's will, assuming that the Almighty will do what is good and just.

Aalders's book is a finely written analysis of Anne Steele and her writings. Aalders reinstates Steele as a talented poet who deserves to be placed alongside the more recognized hymnists Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper. The books also serves as reminder that much of the Christian life is marked by intense periods of pain and suffering. The good news, according to Aalders's study, is that one can always find hope of better times thanks to the trustworthiness of God.

Jonathan Yeager

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