This poem, formally titled “the Pillar of the Cloud,” constitutes a heartfelt prayer to the Holy Spirit imploring light at his time of sadness, while pointing to a coming struggle.
It has been set to several tunes and is found in many hymnals; as a hymn, it has been sung around the world and in many notable occasions, including aboard the Titanic. The regular meter, or beat of this poem, which makes it well suited to hymnody, also gives the poem a reassuring rhythm. This reassurance is a good example of “sound echoing sense,” which means not only do the words themselves give reassurance, but the very sound of the words in their verses, the cadence, add to the soothing nature of the poem.
This poem’s success and popularity as a hymn also results from the meaning of the poem. It can be understood on a literal level, the longing for one’s earthly home, and as an allegory of a soul yearning for heaven — the archetypical longing for “a homecoming.” Lastly, it can be read as expressing Newman’s doubt in his secular age, and his seeking for firm direction in his faith.
As a young Anglican clergyman, Newman was traveling in the Mediterranean with friends and became very ill, to the point of death. During his illness and slow recovery, he had the strong conviction that God had spared him for something important which would be revealed to him. He was homesick but above all was calling God to guide him in the mission entrusted to him, a mission then only vaguely revealed:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home —
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene, — one step enough for me.
In the first stanza, Newman calls on the Kindly light, the Holy Spirit – to rescue him from his triple gloom … of homesickness, of apprehension in the face of his mission in the Anglican church, and of his desire to reach his true home, heaven. He expresses his unquestioning dependence on God, to whom he gives his “feet” – his very path forward … he follows without question.
I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Should’st lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
In this second stanza, Newman recalls with a sadness and remorse times from his past, when he had been proud and willful. While lying on his sickbed, Newman had much time to think about his earlier ways, and with the true possibility of death in his mind, it is small wonder that he’d be given to sorrow over past sins.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
In this final, glorious and triumphant last stanza, we see Newman’s faith and hope vanquish the gloom. He throws his cares to Christ, remembering that ever has he been blest. And though he knows there might still be rough spots in the path ahead, crags and torrents … nevertheless, the night is gone. And the heart’s thrill of hope in the reality of the heavenly homecoming, at once gives meaning to all the homecomings – and the angel smiles serve to represent as well, both earthly and heavenly consolation – which Newman recalls with renewed happiness, and though he lost sight for a time, his eyes are again, surely and firmly, gazing upward.
Within a week of his return to England together with John Keble and a few other friends he was led by God’s light to begin the Oxford Movement, a renewal movement in the Anglican Church. God led him through one difficulty after another until at last he was led to the Roman Catholic Church.