ohn Mason Neale, an eminent English clergyman and author, the son of Rev. Cornelius Neale, was born in London on Conduit Street January 24, 1818. His father died when he was five years old. As a boy of fourteen, he began a translation (published in 1833-34) of the poetical writings of Coelius Sedulius, who flourished about 450 AD, and was counted among the founders of Christian hymnody.
He was the author of numerous published volumes, many of them evincing his antiquarian and ritualistic tastes. Among his works are fifteen volumes of hymns and translations. He is perhaps the most successful of all modern translators of hymns from the Latin and Greek. In translating the hymns of the Greek Church especially Dr. Neale's work is not only more extensive than, but incomparably superior to, that of any other translator. Indeed, this field is one that he occupies almost alone.
Neale is best known as a hymn writer and translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. He was passionately fond of music, and had an exquisite ear for melody in words, but "he had not a note in his voice."
He was a translator of genius. He may be said to have revealed to the Church the treasures of Greek hymnody. In this field as he said himself he had neither "predecessor nor master." But some of the loveliest of medieval Latin hymns as well, for instance, those of Bernard of Morlaix, were known only to scholars until he took them and so translated them, with an art concealing art, that they are never thought of by those who sing them as having had birth in a foreign tongue.
Of hymns from Greek sources that we owe to Neale, the following are among the best known: -- The day is past and over; The day of resurrection; O happy band of pilgrims; Let our choir new anthems raise. And from the Latin these: -- Christ is made the sure foundation; Come take by faith the body of your Lord; The royal banners forward go; Of the Father's love begotten; The strain upraise of joy and praise; Jerusalem the Golden; Brief' life is here our portion; For thee, O dear, dear county; Jesus the very thought is sweet; All glory, laud, and honor.
Some of his hymns, indeed, such as Those eternal bowers, man hath never trod and Art thou weary, and thou languid are adaptations rather than translations, but others are a very marvel in their faithful rendering of the Greek and Latin into graceful, spirited English.
A copy of the rare 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones was acquired by Thomas Helmore and John Mason Neale in 1853 from G. J. R. Gordon, Her Majesty's Envoy and Minister at Stockholm.. Helmore adapted the carol melodies and Neale either paraphrased the carol lyrics into English or wrote entirely new lines. Both the music and words were published in a dozen Carols for Christmas-tide in 1853 and another dozen Carols for Easter-tide in 1854.