Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Ch. 1 Annotation – Phineas Fletcher’s “An Hymn”

Gaskell Blog ©
Guest Contributor:
Kim Egolf

Prominent on the original title page of Ruth is a curious epigraph by poet Phineas Fletcher.

Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat:
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears:
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

Phineas Fletcher (born 1582) was an English poet and clergyman. He was a highly educated man who was ordained in 1615 and became rector of a Norfolk parish in 1621, where he remained until his death in 1650. Both Fletcher and his younger brother Giles – also a poet and clergyman – became known for their verses, highly imitative of Edmund Spenser (whose most famous work was The Faerie Queene) in both style and theme.

Phineas Fletcher’s principal work, The Purple Island, deals with the ongoing struggle between the body and the mind. The body is usually characterized as worldly and sinful, while the mind turns to loftier and more holy thoughts.

This theme is echoed in Fletcher’s later poem – and the epigraph for Ruth – called “An Hymn”. The poem is about the repentance of Mary Magdalen, the former prostitute turned follower of Christ. The “slow tears” dropping are those of Mary as she kneels at Christ’s feet and cries for forgiveness. It will be interesting to see how this image resonates throughout the pages of Ruth. Will she also experience a fall and cry out for repentance?

Gaskell made “An Hymn” famous as the epigraph of Ruth, but its story continues to the present day. In the twentieth century, almost four hundred years after its first publication, Kenneth Leighton, a noted British choral music composer, used Fletcher’s text as the centerpiece of his majestic work on the passion of Christ, Crucifixus pro nobis. The last movement features a stunningly beautiful and haunting melody, which has since become a very popular church hymn. Listen to The Blenheim Singers’ haunting interpretation:

  • How well does the hymn fit the book, even though it was composed almost two hundred years later?
  • What are your thoughts about how this poem fits with the novel?
  • What does this lead us to expect from the novel and the character of Ruth?
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Diane says:

    The poem/song implies a “fallen women” who is repentant for her behavior. Ruth is the story of a “Fallen women” – whether through her own actions or those of pthers. Using this as an epigraph we could assume that Ruth will also be a repentant “sinner” falling at the feet of Christ seeking forgiveness but there is also the line about crying for vengance. IT will be interesting to see how Ruth handles her status as a “fallen woman”/ sinner as the novel goes on.

    But, since I’ve only read Chapter 1 there hasn’t been any bad behavior yet.

    1. Kim says:

      Yes! It is hard not to reveal what happens, but I thought this poem made some ominous predictions for Ruth’s future. I’m looking forward to possibly revisiting this poem as we progress through the novel.

      P.S. Oh just wait, there’s some bad behavior coming 😉

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