One of the most compelling hymns about the Ascension, “See the Conqueror mounts in triumph” was written by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), Bishop of Lincoln (1869-1885) and nephew of the poet William Wordsworth. Between 1830 and 1836 he was a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. The most celebrated Greek scholar of his day, from 1836 until 1844 Wordsworth was headmaster at Harrow.
As Sheila Doyle explains, this hymn was “First published in The Holy Year (1862), where it was a long hymn of 10 stanzas in the author’s favoured 220.127.116.11 metre. It was originally intended for both Ascension Day and Pentecost, and was subsequently divided to give two separate hymns, five stanzas for Ascension and four, beginning ‘Holy Ghost, illuminator’ for Pentecost, with a doxology to either part.”
Wordsworth explained his choice of meter in the Preface to The Holy Year:
It was an ancient rhythmical principle that the tetrameter trochaic of fifteen syllables should be specially employed on occasions where there is a sudden burst of feeling, after a patient waiting, or a continuous struggle. This metre never finds its place at the beginning, but is reserved for a later period in the drama, both tragic and comic, of the ancient stage. The long, rapid sweep of this noble metre, and the jubilant movement of the verse, render it very suitable for use on the great festivals of the Christian year, such as Easter and Ascension, when, after severe trial or quiet endurance, the church is suddenly cheered by a glorious vision which gladdens her heart and evokes a song of rapture from her lips.
In his 1892 A Dictionary of Hymnology John Julian judged that this hymn was “one of Bishop Wordsworth’s finest compositions, and is the nearest approach in style and treatment to a Greek ode known to us in the English language.” He further observed: “Prophecy, types, historical facts, doctrinal teaching, ecstatic praise, all are here.”
Our Hymnal only includes three of the original ten stanzas. Here are all of the stanzas as the hymn was originally published:
See the Conqueror mounts in triumph, see the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds His chariot, to His heavenly Palace gate;
Hark, the quires of angel voices joyful Hallelujahs sing,
And the portals high are lifted, to receive their heavenly King.
Who is this that comes in glory, with the trump of jubilee?
Lord of battles, God of armies, He has gain’d the victory;
He who on the Cross did suffer. He who from the grave arose,
He has vanquish’d Sin and Satan, He by death has spoil’d His foes.
While He raised His hands in blessing, He was parted from His friends;
While their eager eyes behold Him, He upon the clouds ascends;
He who walk’d with God, and pleased Him, preaching truth and doom to come.
He, our Enoch, is translated to His everlasting home.
Now our heavenly Aaron enters, with His blood, within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan, and the kings before Him quail;
Now He plants the tribes of Israel in their promised resting-place;
Now our Great Elijah offers double portion of His grace.
Thou hast rais’d our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand,
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Thee in glory stand;
Jesus reigns, ador’d by Angels; Man with God is on the Throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine Ascension we by faith behold our own.
Holy Ghost, Illuminator, shed Thy beams upon our eyes,
Help us to look up with Stephen, and to see beyond the skies,
Where the Son of Man in glory standing is at God’s right hand,
Beckoning on His Martyr army, succouring His faithful band.
See Him, Who is gone before us, heavenly mansions to prepare,
See Him, Who is ever pleading for us with prevailing prayer;
See Him, Who with sound of trumpet and with His angelic train
Summoning the world to Judgment on the clouds will come again.
Lift us up from earth to heaven; give us wings of faith and love,
Gales of holy aspirations wafting us to realms above;
That with hearts and minds uplifted we with Christ our Lord may dwell,
Where He sits enthron’d in glory in His heavenly Citadel.
So at last, when He appeareth, we from out our graves may spring,
With our youth renew’d like eagles, flocking round our heavenly King,
Caught up on the clouds of heaven, and may meet Him in the air,
Rise to realms where He is reigning, and may reign for ever there.
Glory be to God the Father, Glory be to God the Son,
Dying, ris’n, ascending for us, Who the heavenly realm has won;
Glory to the Holy Spirit; to One God in Persons Three,
Glory both in earth and heaven, glory, endless glory be!
Here are four stanzas of the hymn sung to the tune REX GLORIAE by the Wakefield Cathedral Choir. This tune is the second tune presented in our Hymnal, but not the one to which we usually sing this hymn. Next year!