This favourite hymn comes from Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the great English Dissenting hymnwriter who gave the English-speaking Church its first non-psalm-based hymnody. “When I Survey” was first published in Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707)—the first hymnal (not psalm translations) published in the English language. This hymnal, a copy of which the writer of music notes owns, eventually influenced the Church of England to adopt “hymns of human composure,” as Watts called them, resulting in the great burgeoning of English hymnody in the nineteenth century.
In this great hymn, Watts distills the vast cosmos down to a heartfelt realization of the Saviour’s suffering and death. Consider the following excerpt from “Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and the Evolution of 18th-Century English Congregational Song,” written by the writer of music notes:
According to Bernard Lord Manning, Watts expresses a vastness and universality of faith in his hymns. To Watts, time and space cannot limit God, for “Nature with open volume stands” as a testimony for Christ’s love, and it may involve “Millions of years my wond’ring eyes shall o’er thy beauties rove, and endless ages, Ill adore the glories of thy love.” The Christian’s response to this universality is one of utter futility, for “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.” Although Watts certainly produced profoundly personal texts, they are not so much introspective. These hymns always assume an understanding of the Christian in community—both with God and with neighbor. These hymns may begin personally, but they proceed to remove the thoughts from oneself onto the greatness of God beyond (“survey”—a word frequently used in Watts—best sums up this teleological effect.) Charles Wesley employs plenty of grandeur—the heavenly, herald angels may sing “Glory to the newborn King,” in which all the nations will “joyful rise,” but Wesley brings this cosmic scope down to the heart of every believer, who implores this same Christ to “fix in us a humble home. . . formed in each believing heart.” Whereas Watts is expansive, Charles Wesley is deep. [As Wesley writes:] “Depth of mercy! Can there be mercy still reserved for me? Can my God His wrath forbear? Me, the chief of sinners, spare? I have spilt his precious blood, trampled on the Son of God, filled with pangs unspeakable! I, who yet am not in hell!” © Methodist History (Vol XLII, No 4, July 2004)
Watts’ hymnody frequently employs this word “survey.” One may survey the landscape, or the horizon, or their lawn. One’s eyes represent the point at which the visual surveying radiates outward, as in an arc or cone. The act of surveying always proceeds directionally from the lesser (the individual) to the greater (the landscape, for example.) Watts’ mind comprehended the universality of theology—the word “survey” appears in many of his hymns and can be likened to a person standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, taking in a spatially-vast and aesthetically-wondrous vista beyond the realm of human control or understanding. Watts approaches theology like this—he stands at the border of the cosmos trying to comprehend the vastness of God’s being and actions, realizing humanity’s wisdom is God’s own foolishness (“My richest gain I count but loss. . .”) The world, to Watts, is comprised of “vain things that charm me most,” which he then will “sacrifice them to His blood.”
Watts’ third stanza paints a crucifix in verbal imagery—“His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” echoing Gerhardt’s evocative “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Watts’ final stanza again places the singer of the precipice of eternity—even if the “whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small,” reminding us of Holy Week, as only a Calvinist like Watts can, of our own inability to redeem ourselves. Understanding that makes the events of Easter morning evidence profound, not cheap, grace.