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Sound Words: Hymns in Twentieth Century Literature

Masud, Noreen

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Noreen Masud


Why, in the twentieth century, do atheist or agnostic authors write so many hymns into their poems and novels? This essay contends that attending to the frequent-but-overlooked hymn-episodes in early- to mid-twentieth-century literature, and to their historical contexts, can complicate our understanding of literary postures of faith, and of everyday sounds as ‘filler’ in modernist literature. Focusing on Stevie Smith and D. H. Lawrence, with reference to a range of other writers, it draws on unpublished archival material to argue that hymn-history reveals an alternative narrative to that of religious writing as conservative, and literary writing as radical. Hymn-compilers often sought modernity, while poets and novelists tended to privilege older, more dated hymns. This ideological clash led to a literary approach which defiantly accommodated ‘bad old hymns’ through nostalgic reminiscence and extensive quotation. Used in this way, hymn oscillates between a status as textual padding and as focal point: an embarrassingly excessive and solid substance which nevertheless enables embarrassment to be discharged. Ultimately, the muffling, ostensibly authoritative substance of hymn, in twentieth-century literature, fills up gaps in which too much might resound or be revealed: it offers literary writing an opportunity to accommodate and neutralize awkwardness, failure and error.


Masud, N. (2019). Sound Words: Hymns in Twentieth Century Literature. The Review of English Studies, 70(296), 732-751,.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Apr 8, 2019
Online Publication Date Apr 21, 2019
Publication Date Sep 30, 2019
Deposit Date Dec 4, 2018
Publicly Available Date Apr 21, 2021
Journal Review of English Studies
Print ISSN 0034-6551
Electronic ISSN 1471-6968
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 70
Issue 296
Pages 732-751,


Accepted Journal Article (133 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Review of English Studies following peer review. The version of record Masud, Noreen (2019). Sound Words: Hymns in Twentieth Century Literature. Review of English Studies 70(296): 732-751 is available online at:

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