On June 16, 1833, John Henry Newman was finally returning to England, eager to take up a new cause. He had been travelling on the Continent for eight months and had been deathly ill in Sicily. He described the circumstances of writing the poem "Lead, Kindly Light" which he first called "The Pillar of the Cloud" referring to the journey of the Hebrew people guided in the desert thus:
Before starting from my inn, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, "I have a work to do in England." I was aching to get home, yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed for whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead, Kindly Light, which have since become so well known.
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’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.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst 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!
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!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path, Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Savior, lead me home in childlike faith, home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
Newman would find that work to do within a month of writing this poem when he heard John Keble's "National Apostacy" sermon on July 14, 1833: The Tractarian or Oxford Movement! When reading the poem or singing the hymn, the second verse seems crucial to me, as Newman is confessing and repenting of his self-will and pride. Even in his eagerness to get home and get back to work, he has experienced delay after delay--he has to submit and let God lead him home.