Monday, August 27, 2018

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds

There is a hymn by John Newton, dating from 1779, that begins "How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer's ear!". We sang it this morning, which is an odd coincidence because I had just woken up in the night last night trying to remember which hymn it was that I thought still deserved a blog post in relation to the messing up of its words.

The original seems to be like this:

1 How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
in a believer's ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
and drives away his fear.

2 It makes the wounded spirit whole,
and calms the troubled breast;
'tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.

3 Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
my Shield and Hiding Place;
my never failing Treas'ry, fill'd
with boundless stores of grace!

4 By Thee my pray'rs acceptance gain,
altho' with sin defil'd;
Satan accuses me in vain,
and I am own'd a child.

5 Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
my Prophet, Priest, and King:
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
accept the praise I bring.

6 Weak is the effort of my heart,
and cold my warmest thought;
but when I see Thee as Thou art,
I'll praise Thee as I ought.

7 'Till then, I would Thy love proclaim
with ev'ry fleeting breath;
and may the music of Thy name
refresh my soul in death.

In the English Hymnal the hymn is presented as above, except without verse 4. In the New English Hymnal it is presented not only without verse 4, and also with a change to the first line of verse 5 (though with no indication that there has been an alteration). It is that change to verse 5 line 1 that I am interested in.

In verse 5, the poet gives a string of descriptors of Jesus, indicating how he stands to the speaker. The first thought is that he is my shepherd, and the second thought is that he is my husband. What, if anything, is wrong with that second thought? The New English Hymnal has decided that it would be better to excise that thought, and replace it with the idea that he is my 'brother'. (Other hymnals have done this for a long time. 'Brother' is quite common, and others choose 'guardian').

One worry might be that John Newton is a man and cannot have thought of himself as having a husband. But this is surely a very silly thought. There are several reasons for thinking that it is silly. One is that poems are not written to be sung only by their author. This poem is written for anyone to sing, and at least half the content of the pews in his day as well as ours, would be women. It is perfectly possible for a man to write a hymn that is designed to make sense for women to sing. Of course many hymns are not designed to make sense for women to sing, and some use language that tends to assume that we are all brothers and so on. I don't tend to mind that language, but it would be odd to object to a hymn that managed to avoid that, and wrote in a way that is OK for women to sing.

A second reason for thinking that it is silly is this. If the poet wants to indicate that I stand in a spousal relation to Jesus, then the correct term for describing who Jesus is needs to be either "my wife" or "my husband". If, as John Newton quite reasonably assumes, the Jesus we know is presented as of masculine gender, then the correct term would seem to be "husband", not "wife". So finding oneself wanting to say that Jesus is the beloved other to whom we are spiritually married, one should indeed say that he is "my husband", and we should say that even if the speaker is a man. One would only find this odd if one has a fixed idea to the effect that marriage—even spiritual marriage— is, and could only ever be, between a man and a woman, and a man could never speak of his "husband". John Newton shows us that this was not so in 1779, and it is certainly not so in 2018.

A third reason for thinking that it is silly is that it's clear that Newton was not doing this by accident. Indeed the first verse speaks of the believer as "he", so he's not pretending to be a she. Nor is he writing from the point of view of the church or of the soul (both potentially female images who can be conceived of as the bride of Christ). The verse speaks in the first person (accept the praise I bring), and has mentioned the spirit, the soul and the heart in other verses as other parts of oneself. So it is not the soul speaking.

Of course, the image is striking and makes you sit up and think. But is it that the hymnal editors think that it is inappropriate? Or they (male editors) can't stomach encountering language they wouldn't themselves use? Just what exactly is their problem, and why do we even find the image a surprise? We're happy with the thought that Jesus loves us, and that we are his children, his brethren, or his friends (none of which is literally true in the normal sense of those words). Why exactly would we baulk at the idea that he is also our husband?

One option is that marriage and spousal relationships seem to be one-to-one, and therefore claiming Jesus as my husband might seem to exclude you and others from having the same relationship. But it has always been a normal part of entering a convent for the novice to be imagined entering into a marriage with Christ, and if we can cope with that idea for the monastic life, the objection that Christ could have only one spouse is no longer a sound one.

I suggest that we leave Newton's poem as he wrote it and stop trying to enforce a false image of what the church means by marriage, and the false dogma that, for the traditional church, the term "marriage" can only be used of a relationship between one man and one woman.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Friends and followers may be interested in this hymnathon at St Michael and All Angel, Bedford Park:

which has been brought to my attention by one of our followers.

Since they are singing the whole of the New English Hymnal, it will include the editors' mishaps (as so often reported on this Blog) and omissions (occasionally also lamented here). But lovers of hymns may still wish to go or to sponsor it none the less.

Perhaps someone should do a similar hymnathon for the real words of hymns we love from the real English Hymnal? Then we could publish the book of words too.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

For Mary Mother of the Lord

There is a hymn beginning "For Mary Mother of the Lord", which is set in the NEH (number 161) for the Annunciation (March 25th), though we sang it today because we were doing Mothering Sunday, it seems. This hymn was not known to me before I started going to a church afflicted with the New English Hymnal. It wasn't included in the English Hymnal.

In fact there's only one place that I can find it before the NEH. It appears in 100 Hymns For Today, which was a 1969 supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern, which was then incorporated into more recent editions of Hymns A&M, such as Hymns A&M New Standard (where this hymn— or rather its predecessor —is number 360). Peacey died in 1971, and presumably this is one of the "great" 20th century hymns that 100 hymns for today were trying to add to our repertoire in the sixties.

The hymn has a double dagger in the NEH which made me think there must be a better one somewhere, that has been messed with. It is true that the version in 100 hymns for today/A&M New Standard has quite a lot of verses that seem to bear no relation whatever to what's in the NEH. Indeed I would say, looking at the two side by side, that this is not simply a case of a few small alterations, but rather the omission of one verse, and the re-writing of three of them, in two of which they have reused some of J.R. Peacey's words.

Verse 1 is largely agreed by both sources (NEH version in brackets):
For Mary, Mother of our (the) Lord
God's holy name be praised,
Who first the Son of God adored,
As on her child she gazed.
Verse 2  seems to be a different text in the two sources. 100 Hymns for today had the following:
Brave, holy Virgin, she believed,
though hard the task assigned,
and by the Holy Ghost conceived
the Saviour of Mankind.
while the NEH has this:
The angel Gabriel brought the word
She should Christ's mother be;
Our Lady, handmaid of the Lord,
Made answer willingly.
Verse 3 has been changed in the first two lines. 100 hymns for Today, which is presumably the original, sings:
God's handmaid, she at once obeyed,
by her 'Thy will be done';
the second Eve love's answer made
which our redemption won.
By contrast the NEH sings:
The heavenly call she thus obeyed,
And so God's will was done;
The second Eve love's answer made
Which our redemption won.
Whoever did this revision, I would say it has improved things (yes, I know, this is uncharacteristic, but here is an improvement). In fact both verses have been improved. For the original had several pretty dire moments (as with many hymns of its period, I suspect). After all, Mary didn't say "thy will be done", but rather "be it unto me..." so it is rather better and clearer to say that God's will was done, than to say that she obeyed by her "Thy will be done". Perhaps that was supposed to be a kind of complicated allusion to the idea that she had uttered the archetypal prayer before her son ever taught us to say it? But it's too rushed in this awkward verse isn't it?

Still, the second half of the verse is fine, and thankfully the editors of the NEH have managed to keep it, and its rhyme.

After this, Peacey's original has another verse about the birth of Jesus, which has been omitted by the NEH, probably wisely:

The busy world had got no space
or time for God on earth;
a cattle manger was the place
where Mary gave him birth.
I think the faults in this verse include not only the word "got" which is hardly poetic at the best of times, but also the word "space" where we obviously need "room". It's not that there wasn't space for Jesus, but that there was no room for him. But Peacey has used "space" so as to rhyme with "place". Evidently there was a place, space, whatever... namely, in the manger. It's kind of odd to say in one line that the world had no space, and in the next but one that there was a place where Mary gave birth. There are some rather infelicitous words chosen for the rhymes in the other verses as well ("Jesus Christ was slain" is not what you would expect of a 20th century hymn, but then you have to rhyme with "pain", right?). And the rhyme of "Galilee" and "family" is a bit extreme.

One further improvement has been made in the last verse. Here is the original:

Hail Mary, you are full of grace,
above all women blest;
and blest your Son, whom your embrace
in birth and death confessed.

There's something odd in the last two lines, though perhaps only because we have to understand the verb "is" from the earlier occurrence of "are", and the idea that an embrace can "confess" the Son (confess what about him?). The NEH has adjusted this to a claim about Mary instead of a claim about the Son:
Hail Mary, you are full of grace,
Above all women blest;
Blest in your Son, whom your embrace
in birth and death confessed.
But the puzzle still remains about what exactly it is that the embrace confesses (faith in her Son? some truth about her Son? that he is the Son of God?).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My God I love thee

There is a hymn that begins "My God I love thee not because" which has always been something of a source of amusement, because so far as the words themselves go, you can't exactly tell, by the end of the first line, whether you are about to explain to God what exactly is the reason why you don't love him, or what exactly is not the reason why you love him. Indeed the text remains unclear about which is your intention, even when you've added that it is because you hope for heaven thereby—obviously we all know that it would be odd to not love him because that way you hope to get to heaven, so we can make sense of the hymn by bringing our own knowledge to the interpretation. But the words themselves, in the translation we are accustomed to, do not manage to get the sense clear.

There is nothing to choose between the NEH and the EH as regards authenticity of the words of this hymn. Both give the same words and attribute them to Edward Caswall (1506-1552), as a translation of a Latin original beginning "O Deus ego amo te".

  1. O Deus, ego amo te,
    Nec amo te, ut salves me,
    Aut, quia non amantes te
    Æterno punis igne.
  2. Tu, tu, mi Jesu, totum me
    Amplexus es in cruce;
    Tuliste clavos, lanceam,
    Multamque ignominiam,
  3. Innumeros dolores,
    Sudores, et angores,
    Et mortem, et hæc propter me,
    Ac pro me peccatore.
  4. Cur igitur non amem te,
    O Jesu amantissime,
    Non, ut in cœlo salves me,
    Aut ne æternum damnes me,
  5. Nec præmii ullius spe;
    Sed sicut tu amasti me?
    Sic amo et amabo te,
    Solum quia Rex meus es,
    Et solum, quia Deus es.

Notice that the Latin has the advantage of indicating that the singer declares that he/she does love God, and does not add "not because" in the first line. In English, because "God" and "I" and "love" are monosyllabic in English, you can't complete the line in the same metre by just saying "O God I love thee".

My interest in this hymn is two fold. First it has an interesting history: the Latin is not the original but is a translation of a Spanish original beginning "No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte" (and notice that this line does exactly what the English version does, and starts by saying that I am not moved to love God...)

The author of the Spanish original is not known, but is thought to be St Francis Xavier, who is also credited with the Latin translation, though it seems very doubtful that the Latin is actually by him. Several Latin versions are known (see the account in the Catholic Encyclopedia) starting with one  by Joannes Nadasi in his "Pretiosæ occupationes morientium" (Rome, 1657) which follows the Spanish by beginning "Non me movet, Domine, ad amandum te". The one that begins "O Deus ego amo te" is of unknown authorship and appeared in "Cœleste Palmetum" (Cologne, 1696).

What about Caswall's English translation? I am unsure what the last line of the first verse should be. EH and NEH both make us sing "are lost eternally". This is all very well (a nicely delicate way of describing the fate of those who don't love God) but the rhyme between "eternally in line 4, and "thereby" in line two is not great.

Oremus Hymnal agrees with EH and co. The Nethymnal (aka Cyberhymnal) gives "may eternally die" which rhymes with "thereby" but doesn't scan. This seems implausible.

The Catholic Cornucopia (along with a few other sources I've checked) gives "must burn eternally" which appears to be closer to the Latin, and plausibly what Caswall wrote, though it still suffers from the half rhyme. I can imagine that some editors thought "lost" was a more comfortable phrasing for modern sensibilities. My guess would be that Caswall wrote that, and that it's been altered due to the fashions of theological squeamishness, because we don't much dwell these days on the hell fires that are supposed to torment those who are "lost eternally".

Friday, January 02, 2009

God rest you merry (again)

The first line of that carol deserves a comment regarding grammar and punctuation.

People comment on two things about it. First, that the word is always "you" and not "ye", and second, that there should be a comma after the word merry, not after the word you, so it goes God rest you merry,... Gentlemen, not God rest you, ... Merry Gentlemen.

The two points are related.

You is the accusative case of the second person plural, so 'you' is the object of the verb 'rest' which is used as a transitive verb. God is the subject of the verb, and the verb is in the subjunctive mood, because it expresses a wish or third person imperative. As you will recall (from such examples as "The Lord be with you" and "Be it this Christmas eve" and "God bless you", or indeed just "bless you") the third person singular of the subjunctive in English looks like the infinitive, and doesn't have an s on the end. That is we say "God bless you", not "God blesses you". The latter is the indicative. The former is the wish (may God bless you) expressed in the subjunctive, so it does not require the "may".

So "rest" in "God rest you merry" is in the subjunctive, and means "May God rest you merry".

"Merry" is the complement of the verb. Rest can (or could in the past) take a number of such complements, such as rest happy, rest content, and it was also used transitively either with a reflexive pronoun (I rest myself content) or with a personal pronoun when you make someone else rest happy or rest merry etc. In this case we ask that God will rest merry the present company (Gentlemen).

"Gentlemen" is in the vocative, and addresses the assembled company. The phrase is exactly comparable to if we were to say "God bless you, Gentlemen" but instead of wishing for blessing we ask for resting merry. Quaint, heh?

If the pronoun were written as "ye" the grammar would be scrambled, because "ye" is really the nominative and would suggest that the assembled company is the subject of the verb. But we've already had the subject, God. Then it would look as though God were the object, and we were saying "May you gentlemen rest God merry, please." But that is not the point.

So although this is an archaic text which preserves a lot of quaint old English, we don't want to go in for any fake archaising, like substituting "ye" in place of "you". No: the text almost certainly should be written with "you", because "you" is quite correct as the second person plural accusative.

I have to say I was a little saddened to discover that the song wasn't addressed to a company of "merry gentlemen" as I'd always supposed. But I suppose that the implications of "rest you merry" is that they are already merry, and God is to keep them so. Perhaps the jolly image of a good company of drinking folk in the inn is not so wide of the mark then.

I'm surprised they haven't tried to make "Gentlemen" more unisex for our current climate. Perhaps some bad hymn books have? Gentlefolk would do the job, I suppose.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

God Rest You Merry Gentlemen

On Christmas morning I found myself singing (in the last line of the last verse of God Rest You Merry Gentlemen) "This holy tide of Christmas all other doth deface" but, realising that everyone round me was singing "all other doth efface", I felt rather stupid. Because, after all, Christmas doesn't deface things. (Well, it does but that can't be what the song is talking about). Momentarily, I wondered why I'd made that mistake, and then I put it aside and thought no more about it.

Then, this morning, quite out of the blue and unprompted by me, Robin observed that, oddly, King's had "all other doth deface" in the Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas eve. And I said well, I found myself singing that on Christmas day, so for sure it is not a mistake in the King's version. It must be what is in the Green Carols for Choirs Book I, and that's why it's what we sing when we're not thinking.

Now, God Rest You is not a modern hymn with an author, but a traditional carol dating back to probably the fifteenth century if not earlier, and it exists in a lot of versions, so it's hardly the case that there's a "correct" text for it. But still it is possible to ask whether the traditional words were more likely to be "all other doth deface" or "all other doth efface". And is the variation a traditional divergence resulting from different transmission in oral tradition, or is it an intervention by well-meaning editors trying to make us understand an archaic word?

Wikipedia suggests (rather plausibly) that the more authentic word is "deface". It is true (as the OED confirms) that, besides the meaning that we currently know for it, "deface" was also in use from Chaucer's time in a sense that is equivalent to "efface", what Wikipedia calls the "Middle English" use. The word "efface" also appears not significantly later in written sources, from around the fourteenth century, but seems to be rather more rare and rather more pretentious or esoteric. So I'd think it very likely that the version with "deface" is the earlier one.

So perhaps "efface" is a well-meaning editorial intervention to help us to understand a text that was once in archaic English. It's hard to be sure, from the sources I have to hand, whether "efface" is really a quite modern intervention or whether it's in the earliest written sources already. The New Oxford Book of Carols by Keyte and Parrott (Oxford 1992), which is fairly meticulous about explaining the transmission, is not very helpful here. Its note on page 527 begins "Text I is from William Sandys's Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833; see appendix 4), where it is associated with tune III. This has now become the standard text. Text II is from an early nineteenth century broadside (see The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928, no.12). Text III is a shortened version of I. Both have minor emendations." That's all very well, but their versions I and III have 'efface' in the last line, which makes it not true that version I has become the standard text, since, as Wikipedia correctly notes, in practice Willcocks's text in Carols for Choirs has become the standard text and that has "deface". And their version II doesn't have that line. So according to them "efface" is the word.

Is the substitution of "efface" one of their so-called 'minor emendations'? It looks as though it is, for the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, which also claims to have Sandys's version (at number 11), definitely has "deface", and reckons that the only corrections it has made are in verse 6 ('whereat this infant lay' instead of 'whereas'). They have also retained "friends of Satan" in verse 4, which is what Sandys had, but the editors of the OCB (that is, Dearmer, VW and Martin Shaw) posit that it's highly likely that originally the word was not 'friends' but 'fiends'.

So, on the whole, looking at what I've found, I reckon Wikipedia is right in suggesting that the substitution of "efface" is one of the New English Hymnal's attempts to interfere with some lovely thirteenth century English that we were all merrily singing well into the 20th Century with no problem. They started the rot in 1986, followed by the New Oxford Book in 1992. I have not found any publication before 1986 that has 'efface' in place of 'deface', and I am deeply unimpressed by the suggestion in the New Oxford Book that this counts as a "minor emendation", when it actually wilfully misrepresents the authentic tradition.

I think I need a second post on this subject perhaps, regarding God rest you, God rest ye, and the grammar of the first line.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The words of well known carols

A little flurry of messages from friends distressed by being presented with rubbish words at advent carol services round the world alerts me to the fact that the creeping habit of ignorant and offensive interference has now become so prevalent that even the words of things everyone knows off by heart are being messed up. Now what is the point of that? If people really know the words by heart, then either they will blithely sing what they know and you might as well have printed that in the booklet, or they will be upset that the words don't mean what they should mean, or you will draw attention to things that are not in fact offensive and misleadingly give the people to understand that there is something wrong with them, so that they'll then be worried by them when they meet the proper words on some later occasion and will come to believe that those who sing the real words are corrupt.
Tenon-Saw reports on the carol service from Clare College, with comments on their badly adjusted version of Hark the Herald Angels, here. Annie has sent me a puzzle about "On Jordan's Bank" which I will need to investigate, but it looks like the unfamiliar version is actually the more authentic one in that case (which is actually the theme of several posts I'm about to work on, so watch this space).

Monday, November 17, 2008

In Christ there is no East or West

"In Christ there is no East or West" is one of the hymns that was not included in the English Hymnal but has made an entrance into the New English Hymnal, having become popular by way of Songs of Praise, Hymns A & M New Standard, and a few other twentieth century books. Or at least a bit of it has got into the New English Hymnal, mutilated but not quite so badly mutilated as in some other books.
As far as I can see, the full and unadulterated version of this hymn appears only in two books that I can find, and they are Songs of Praise (number 537) and The New Catholic Hymnal (no 104). I don't have the Celebration Hymnal to hand, so that may also be in good order. Oddly (and very unusually) the words given in the online hymnals (Cyberhymnal and Oremus hymnal) are corrupted (adjusted for inclusive language, it seems) in both cases.

Here is the original wording, or at least what I believe to be the original wording.

1 In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

2 In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding all mankind.

3 Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whate'er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

4 In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet South and North;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

The words are attributed to John Oxenham (1852-1941), but actually that was a pseudonym. The author's real name was William Arthur Dunkerley, who was, besides being John Oxenham, also a deacon of Ealing Congregational Church (at least so my reference book, A Hymn Companion by Frank Colquhoun, tells me, though the Times obituary of Jan 25th 1941 kindly sent to me by James Yardley makes no reference to that, but only to the fact that he was a reluctant business man). He was best known for a number of novels published under the Oxenham name.

Now this hymn has suffered one almost universal intervention in hymn books both older and more recent. That is, in all cases other than Songs of Praise and the New Catholic Hymnal the word "Christly" in the last verse has been replaced with "Christlike". I can't quite think why anyone would feel the need to do this. It isn't as if Oxenham aka Dunkerley couldn't have chosen to write "Christlike" if he'd wanted to. Why did he write "Christly" then? Well, surely because it's a lot better in terms of poetic feel and more singable, I presume. And also, doesn't it mean something slightly more subtle, something slightly stronger than mere likeness to Christ? So what's the problem with it? Surely not that we find it hard to understand...

The NEH, like the rest, is guilty of that intervention, and it is doubtless for that that Oxenham gets a dagger by his name. What the NEH is unique in doing is mutilating the hymn by removing verse 2. If you use the NEH you get only a three-verse hymn; and to my mind the verse that has gone is the most interesting one.

The damage in other hymn books is worse however. There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for political correctness and inclusive language, resulting in a great rash of interventions by bad poets and editors, with respect to verse 3 in particular. Doubtless someone will be able to tell me what it says in Hymns Old and New (a book I do not allow in the house). The versions on Cyberhymnal and Oremus Hymnal are evidently infected by this habit: in Cyberhymnal we have
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
while Oremus Hymnal has
Join hands, disciples of the faith,
and James tells me that Church Hymnary 4 has
Come, brothers, sisters of the faith.
Meanwhile at the end of that verse, Oremus Hymnal keeps "Who serves my father as a son is surely kin to me" (though having lost the 'brothers' at the start of the verse, the point of this is a bit lost) but Cyberhymnal has
Who serves my father as his child is surely kin to me

but again, what is the point of saying that fellow children are kin to me, if you didn't call them brothers at the start of the verse?

Church Hymnary 4 has seen that problem, evidently, and kept the siblings in the first line of that verse, but then, strangely, loses it loses them in the third line by omitting the notion of sons and children at that point! It has
Whoever does my Father's will...
Notice that this also manages to lose the notion of service into the bargain, with the result that it fails to mark the connection with verse 2 (his service is the golden cord).

The other point that gets the more extreme "inclusive language freaks" worked up is the idea of "mankind" in "close binding all mankind". In Church Hymnary 4 and the Cyberhymnal this has become "Close binding humankind".

Now it seems to me that you might think that the whole sentiment of the hymn is inclusive, and anyone ought to be able to see that "all mankind" means all kinds of people, and that what makes us kin is service of the Father, not anything about our gender, race or anything else. So it does seem to me that there's absolutely no whiff of any kind of political incorrectness in the gendered language, and therefore there's no point in trying to doctor it. If it can't be misunderstood, surely it's a positively good role model for how to read poetry in the right spirit and not get hung up on the idea that a word always means the same in every context. Grrr.

Many thanks to James Yardley for his assistance with the research for this post.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

And did those feet

So, the Dean of Southwark has banned the use of the William Blake Hymn "And did those feet..." from Southwark Cathedral. Time, it seems, to write a protest in defence of that great hymn on this Blog. The campaign is, of course, not helped by the rather ill-informed and badly written article by Julian Lloyd Webber in the Daily Telegraph.

Here are my thoughts:

Sadly, William Blake's great mystical hymn of 1804 has become a rarity. There is a widespread suspicion that something must be wrong with it, clearly aggravated by the fact that it appears as an afterthought in the English Hymnal, numbered 656a, words only without a tune. However, this is not actually a mark of disgrace: rather it stems from the fact that the first edition of the English Hymnal appeared in 1906, ten years before Sir Hubert Parry wrote the tune Jerusalem which turned Blake's poem into an inspiring hymn. The revised edition (1933) had a policy of neither adding hymns nor changing numbers; hence the editors compromised, tacking on the words of 'Jerusalem' at the end. So far from relegating an embarrassing hymn, this was the only new hymn that they saw fit to add in 1933.

So what explains the current reluctance to use it? I guess it stems from a misapplied "political correctness" which takes the hymn to be patriotic in flavour and faintly jingoistic. In fact, that assumption is quite mistaken, in terms both of what Blake was trying to say, and of what the hymn has traditionally stood for. It entered Church use from a quasi-secular use in liberal politics and the fight for votes for women; indeed a socialist message is quite properly at least one of the meanings identifiable in the poem, which calls us to stand up for social justice and freedom, thereby incarnating a New Jerusalem in a transfiguration of our society, where currently the 'dark satanic mills', of injustice, oppression and the dire conditions of industrial workers, take the place of what might have been a 'green and pleasant land' free of oppression, poverty or injustice. The metaphorical weapons (bow, arrows, spear and chariot of fire) are not the weapons of war, but the armour of Christ, the social gospel, prayer and active commitment in the political context where we belong. The poem says 'England', an identity that we rarely give ourselves these days, but we might just as well think of Cambridge, or Liverpool, or London, or Britain, as the context where we hope to realise God's vision for those around us.

There is also another way of reading the poem, which stresses not so much the call to political reform as the importance of aesthetic beauty, love, imagination and poetry. On this reading, our clouded hills and dark satanic mills are the philistine values of an industrial society imbued with utilitarianism: science and economic materialism have excluded intuition and beauty.

Blake deplored the cold logical approach of philosophers such as Bacon and Locke, and here he issues an impassioned plea for vision and beauty to be restored to our lives. What green and pleasant land do we have left, if we no longer encounter the vision of Christ among us?

The poem starts with a rhetorical question: 'And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountains green?'. The question is never answered: Blake does not say that we certainly did once have a society in which the holy lamb of God appeared, as we now hope that he will. We might answer that perhaps we never did (the story is based on an old legend according to which Jesus did visit England, but the hymn doesn't say we are supposed to believe the legend); but all the same, whether we did or not, the legend that, perhaps, once it was so can inspire us to hope that that vision is still realistic, and that we have strength and will-power to see it made real.

All falls into place if we locate this hymn in the context of Christ's transfiguration, for the poem is about transfiguration: transfiguring our world, so that Christ himself can appear, as formerly he did upon the mountain. The countenance divine did not just appear once-upon-a-time on the Mount of Olives, nor is it confined to ancient and curious legends about Jesus sailing with Joseph of Arimathea (supposedly a tin-merchant) to Cornwall. It can be here now, if only we are prepared to see it shine forth among us.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A thing most wonderful

This year, unusually, I was at Little St Mary's on Ash Wednesday, and we sang the hymn that begins "It is a thing most wonderful". Unfortunately we sang the badly corrupted version of it that appears in the New English Hymnal, so I was not sure whether to be delighted (because it's one of my favourite hymns that I first learnt at Little St Mary's in the good old days before they burned their copies of the English Hymnal) or to be distressed because it was so far from being the hymn I knew and loved.

The original words are by Bishop W.W. How, from his Children's Hymns of 1872. They were included in the English Hymnal under the "At Catechism" section, but evidently their success at conveying some profound theology by way of childish words has earned them a place in the grown-up repertoire too, and they now figure in the passiontide section of the NEH.

Or rather a sadly debased construction appears there, attributed quite unfairly to W.W. How (without any obelus at all). It looks as if they suppose that if you leave out the verses that had asterisks in the English Hymnal you have not done any damage to the hymn. But of course, it might be that if you leave both the asterisked verses out, the hymn doesn't really say much any more, or indeed doesn't actually make sense.

Here's how the verses should go:

1 It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from Heav’n,
And die to save a child like me.

2 And yet I know that it is true;
He chose a poor and humble lot,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died,
For love of those who loved Him not.

3 I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.

4 I sometimes think about the cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

5 But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His heart.

6 It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My love for Him so faint and poor.

7 And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
Oh, light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.

The important thing to notice here is the progression between verse 4 and verse 5. When verse 5 says "But even could I see him die", it refers back to the imaginary attempt to see him die described in verse 4 ("I sometimes... shut my eyes and try to see"). Without that, the idea that "even if I could see him, it would be only a small part" makes no sense. Alas, verse 4 has gone from the NEH.

You could almost make some sense of it if you had verse 3 instead ("His love must be most wonderful, if he could die my love to win") because then there's some progression to thinking that in reality the love is even more wonderful than just what the death alone reveals. But, alas, verse 3 has gone too.

But still, even if you had verse 3, too much is lost if you don't precede verse 5 with the vision in verse 4 of what it would be like to undergo the cruel nails and crown of thorns. For it is those—importantly, those terrible things— that would be only a small part of the real love, the real love that we can't see even if we successfully imagine the crucifixion in all its excruciating misery.

So, although the rest of the hymn, apart from verses 3 and 4, is there intact at 84 in the NEH, it seems as if the heart of it has been amputated. What is the good of verse 5 if all you've got is the trivial stuff mentioned in verse 2 "And wept and toiled and mourned and died" as the antecedent of "But even could I see him die"? There's nothing there to ground the argument that the love that we inevitably can't see is so immense, given that what we can see, when we try hard and use our imagination to its uttermost, is just a small part of it.

Another sad case.

I mean, what's so wrong with leaving all How's verses in and supplying the asterisks, in case anyone feels queasy about it? I assume there's some ideological queasiness at work here, no?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Conquering Kings their titles take

A year ago I promised that I would one day write a bit about "Conquering Kings their Titles Take" which is one of the two hymns for the circumcision/naming of Jesus that is missing from the New English Hymnal. Today seems a suitable day to do so (since I did the other one last year).

Here's how it goes in the Latin (Anonymous Latin of the eighteenth century, from the Paris Breviary of 1736, now easily found in the Penguin Book of Latin Verse, ed. Frederick Brittain, page 345) and, in parallel, the English translation by John Chandler which is number 37 in the English Hymnal:

Victis sibi cognomina
Sumant tyranni gentibus;
Tu, Christe, quanto dignius
Ab his capis quos liberas.
Conquering kings their titles take,
From the lands they captive make;
Jesu, thine was given thee
For a world thou madest free.
Non alterum mortalibus
Aegris quod invocent datum
Resurgerent quo mortui,
Perenne per quod viverent.
Not another name is given
Power possessing under heaven,
Strong to call dead souls to rise
And exalt them to the skies.
Tanti quod illi constitit,
Toto quod emptum sanguine,
Nostrone rursum crimine
Insana gens delebimus?
That which Christ so hardly wrought,
That which he so dearly bought,
That salvation, mortals say,
Will ye madly cast away?
Sacro pati pro nomine
Summi sit instar muneris:
Amara non mors amplius,
Fit mors per hoc amabilis.
Rather gladly for that Name
Bear the Cross, endure the shame;
Joyfully for Him to die
Is not death but victory.
Tu, qui vocari sustines,
Jesu, salus mortalium,
Audi vocantes nos, tuo
Qui gloriamur nomine.
Jesu, if thou condescend
To be called the sinner's Friend,
Ours the joy and glory be
Thus to make our boast of thee.
Qui natus es de Virgine,
Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Cum Patre, cumque Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.
Glory to the Father be,
Glory, Virgin-born, to thee,
Glory to the Holy Ghost,
Ever from the heavenly host.

I don't want to say much about it since it stands very well on its own. But I would like to observe that there seems to be a great deal of sound theology there. The motif of being given a name, because of the power that one holds, is a good one. The idea that mortal kings try to exercise their power by enslaving others is nicely contrasted with Jesus who exercises his power by setting the enslaved people free, and earning his title for that act.
This is then developed in the idea that in fact there is only one name that carries any power so the supposedly powerful names given to earthly kings are in fact not powerful names at all. There is no other name that possesses power. But we invoke the power of Jesus's name and it does indeed have an effect. This is so powerful that it can effect the resurrection of the dead.

Why have the editors of the New English Hymnal chosen to cut this splendid hymn, and its lovely tune "Innocents", out of the Hymn book? Well one can look for evidence of ideological censorship. In this case, I suppose it may be one of those cases where the hymn is condemned because it appears to indicate that we go happily to death for Christ's sake. You'll see that, in verse 4, we say "Joyfully for him to die is not death but victory". Now you might think that it was clear that this was not a death wish, but rather a denial that death is death, an affirmation that it is a way to life. But still, the thought is vaguely reminiscent of the one in Children of the Heavenly King, where we used to say "Lord obediently we go, gladly leaving all below". And, as we noticed with that hymn, it seems that such sentiments were eliminated by the twentieth century thought police, who wanted to clean up the Church of England of any hint of other-worldliness or enthusiasm for death.

So I fear that this wonderful Latin hymn and its gorgeous English counterpart (did you notice how neatly the English translation tracks the Latin sentiments?) has been eliminated not just because the editors didn't recognise its merits, but perhaps because they were afraid of its sentiments. They couldn't stomach it, perhaps?

PS I should add here the comment relating to this hymn supplied this time last year by Tiger. He reported this: Apparently the only spoonerism that Spooner himself admitted was to announce this hymn in New College Chapel as "Kinquering kongs their tikles tate".

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hark a Herald Voice is calling

There are many Advent hymns that remain to be written about. It so happens that Advent tends to be a busy time and I don't get round to writing about them. Here's one that we sang this morning:

Hark a herald voice is calling; "Christ is nigh" it seems to say.

It's a translation by E. Caswall from the Latin sixth century original Vox clara ecce intonat. Or rather, the translation by Caswall was what we used to get in the English Hymnal. It went like this (Latin on the left, Caswall on the right):
VOX clara ecce intonat,
obscura quaeque increpat:
procul fugentur somnia;
ab aethere Christus promicat.
Hark! a herald voice is calling:
'Christ is nigh' it seems to say;
'Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day!'
Mens iam resurgat torpida
quae sorde exstat saucia;
sidus refulget iam novum,
ut tollat omne noxium.
Startled at the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her Sun, all sloth dispelling
Shines upon the morning skies.
E sursum Agnus mittitur
laxare gratis debitum;
omnes pro indulgentia
vocem demus cum lacrimis,
Lo! the lamb so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heaven;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven;
Secundo ut cum fulserit
mundumque horror cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.
So when next he comes in glory,
Wrapping all the earth in fear,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.
Summo Parenti gloria
Natoque sit victoria,
et Flamini laus debita
per saeculorum saecula. Amen.
Honour, glory, virtue merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit
While unending ages run. Amen.

The hymn is not all of it a very close or literal translation, but if you look at the fourth verse about the second coming, you will see that it is quite closely rendering the original Latin words. It's about Christ's second coming, because Advent looks forward to that as well as the birth of Jesus. And it's about the idea of judgement, which is the cause of the fear in "wrapping all the earth in fear".

That's the verse that the New English Hymnal editors have interfered with, and for which the hymn gets a double obelus in that book. They didn't mind the idea that we might need to run with tears of sorrow to be forgiven, but for some reason they don't imagine that the second coming will wrap the earth in fear. Why not? I don't get this.

Here's what they give us instead:

So when next he comes in glory,
And earth's final hour draws near,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.

Defender from what? If you cut out the fear of punishment, you cut out our need for a defender. Doesn't that ruin the whole motif? And isn't there something deeply unpoetic and unpictorial (unimaginative) about "and earth's final hour draws near".

What will that final hour be like? Wouldn't it be helpful to picture something of the awe and fearfulness of it? Wouldn't that help us to see why we are running for forgiveness and looking for a defender coming on the clouds. I think so.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Who on earth thy name confest

In the English Hymnal there was an excellent hymn for the feast of St Simon and St Jude (October 28th). It's by J. Ellerton and begins "Thou who sentest thine apostles two and two before thy face...". Sung to Brintyrion (in the EH) or alternatively Oriel vel sim, it is (as far as I can see) unexceptionable, indeed perfectly fine.

For some reason this has been banished from the New English Hymnal. So in order to provide a hymn for the feast of St Simon and St Jude, the EDITORS have (alas) felt themselves called upon to write some appropriate doggerel. The result is a set of three verses beginning "Lord of all the saints, we praise thee for those two apostles blest", followed by a standard doxology in the NEH's favourite form (i.e. the one that includes 'one in love and one in splendour...').

The first two verses of this hymn are pure stuffing: a kind of metrical rhyming kapok. They might be about anyone, or no one, though they have some vague relevance to the celebration of a pair of saints (any two would do, except for the description of them as 'apostles' in verse 1, which is clearly intended to try to limit the applicability and make it seem as if the hymn is about S and J).

The only specific stuff about S and J is in verse 3. Here the editors have started from the reference to Simon in Luke 6:15, as "the one who was called the Zealot" and the reference to Jude in John 14:22 as "Judas (not Iscariot)" and tried to construct a hymn on the basis of those rather minimal bits of information. The result is not exactly imaginative, and probably has virtually nothing to do with either character. First we have a reference to Simon's "zeal" ("Simon, may thy zeal inspire us Christ our Lord to serve with might") and then we have a reference to Jude as a "true disciple" ("Blessed Jude, thou true disciple, we thy faithfulness recite"), on the assumption that whereas the other Judas Iscariot was a false disciple, this one was a true one. But then so, presumably, were ten others. So this hardly picks out our Jude very effectively, does it. And I somehow doubt that the zealot Simon was actually named for his zeal, as opposed to his association with the Zealot resistance to Roman rule (though clearly the title is primarily given just to distinguish him from the other Simon Peter; if one were to describe one disciple as marked by zeal perhaps it would have been Simon Peter, no?). Apparently the Simon who was called zealot in Luke is the same one as the Simon called Canaanite in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:4.

Anyway, be that as it may, the fact is that despite the appearance of saying something specific here, nothing whatever that is not vacuous is actually said. Besides the two lines just mentioned (both of them badly marred by having to have the word order distorted to get the verbs at the end so as to adhere to the metre and achieve a rhyme between 'might' and 'recite') the verse finishes with this wholly fatuous request: "May God grant us grace to follow till, with thee, faith ends in light." Do we perhaps just a teeny bit get the sense that we just had to have the word 'light', in order to rhyme with might and recite? And that the rest of this wish was just constructed in order to get something that would finish with the word 'light' and could plausibly, if pointlessly, follow an address to an otherwise obscure Jude?

And when you think about it, wouldn't it have been better and more artful to have the verse finish with a couplet addressed to the two of them together (two lines for Simon, two lines for Jude and then two lines to both), rather than this four line set of trivial thoughts apparently addressed just to Jude (the 'thee' of the last line)?

One would like to say that this is not among the editors' best work as poets. Unfortunately I know of no better work by them.

By contrast, Ellerton's poem did a very good job on the basis of what little evidence we have for these two disciples. First, it refers to Simon's zeal, but cleverly suggests that he had already been a zealot before joining Jesus, and that Jesus had converted him from terrorism to a nobler cause ("One, whose zeal by thee enlightened, burned anew with nobler flame") and secondly it picks up on the idea that Jude (who may also be Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddeus) is sometimes said to be the brother of James the son of Alphaeus, and this James is perhaps taken by the poet to be the same person as James the brother of the Lord. Hence the claim that "One, the kinsman of thy childhood brought at last to know thy name." I suppose this slightly speculative genealogy may have been too much for the NEH editors to bear. But when you have no information, why not say something about what might be true, especially if it can be turned to edifying effect?

In Ellerton's second verse there is a nice construction with two lines for the two together, and then each apostle gets two lines to himself. Then in verse three the whole verse is devoted to praising God for the two of them together, attributing signs and wonders to them as well as examples of love and stern advice to the early church. All of this seems appropriate and probable, and if you need to write a hymn about two apostles who are scarcely more than names but must have played a role in establishing the very early church communities, this is at least an attempt at reconstructing a likely scenario.

And, finally, as far as I can see the spelling 'confest' in line 4 of verse 1 is probably disallowed by the OED for the meaning in question. And in any case is certainly an affectation, given the hymn was presumably cobbled together in the twentieth century, and not apparently from any archaic or archaising sources. Why not just write 'confessed'?

All in all, I can see no good reason to reject the existing hymn by Ellerton. I can see no value whatever in the new hymn by the EDITORS.

How sad.

How very sad.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Christ is the King, O Friends Rejoice!

A hymn starting "Christ is the King, O friends rejoice" was written by Bishop George Bell in 1931 for Songs of Praise. It doesn't appear in the English Hymnal—naturally since that preceded Songs of Praise.

However, I doubt many people know it in the original form in which it appeared in Songs of Praise. What we sing from the New English Hymnal bears rather little relation to it and clearly some other versions with additional bowdlerisation are also circulating.

Take this, for example, from the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, February 2003:
Christ is the King, O Friends rejoice
Brothers and Sisters, with one voice,
Tell all the earth he is your choice,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia...

Notice that the third line here differs from that in the NEH (and in Songs of Praise) which has
"Make all men know he is your choice."
Other versions of this line seem to include
"Tell all the world he is your choice"
(from the Enthronement of the Archbishop of York) and
"Make all things living know your choice".
I presume these changes (which have not been thought necessary by the NEH) are to substitute inclusive language for the "all men" of the original.

But it isn't as if the NEH has adhered to Bell's original.

Not at all.

Verse 1 in the NEH is the first three lines of the original, with an alleluia added. But the original was in six line verses, with no alleluias. The second half of verse 1 went thus:
Ring out ye bells, give tongue, give tongue!
Let your most merry peal be rung,
While our exultant song is sung.
Those lines no longer appear in our hymn books. The next verse began thus :
O magnify the Lord and raise
Anthems of joy and holy praise
For Christ's brave saints of ancient days...
These are familiar because they appear as verse 3 in the NEH, but in the original it continued without a break:
... who with a faith for ever new
Followed the King, and round him drew,
thousands of faithful men and true.
Instead of leaving those there, the NEH has moved them up to form verse 2, like this:
The first apostles round them drew
Thousands of faithful men and true
Sharing a faith for ever new.
Verse 3 in the original began
O Christian women, Christian Men
All the world over, seek again
The way disciples followed then...
—a thought that followed well after the second half of the original verse 2 (which is now our verse 2), but not so well after the revised verse 3 which is where it now comes (as verse 4).

The next three lines were what we now know as verse 5 ("Christ through all ages is the same..."), so their position has not changed, and what we know as verse 6 ("Let Love's unconquerable might...") followed, again no change. The second half of that verse, however, has gone altogether in the NEH. In the original it went thus:
So shall God's will on earth be done,
New lamps be lit, new tasks begun,
And the whole Church at last be one.
Interestingly that verse was included in the Archbishop of Canterbury's enthronement, so for that service they weren't just using the NEH version. Perhaps they were using the one from 100 hymns for today (I don't have access to that)? Or perhaps they were devising their own. Anyway, the fact is that much tampering has occurred all over this hymn, and the single dagger in NEH is a bit little to indicate the level of intervention. Arguably the change to three line verses and alleluias are an improvement, and the tune Vulpius is what has made it popular (whereas in Songs of Praise it was set to Llangoedmor, for which see 539 in the English Hymnal).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Angel harps for ever ringing rest not day nor night

This is the second line of the hymn by Francis Potts that begins "Angel voices ever singing round thy throne of light."

Robin pointed out the day before yesterday that although angel voices sing, it doesn't seem that harps ring. The bells in heaven ring, that's for sure. But do harps ring?

This hymn calls for some emendation. My proposal is "Angel harps for ever pinging..."

Annie says harps don't ping either, but I think they do.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Children of the Heavenly King

I have fond memories of the hymn "Children of the Heavenly King".

I first learnt it at LSM in the days when we still had the English Hymnal and sang real hymns as they should be sung. It's a wonderful hymn for singing on journeys, and it particularly takes me back to a rather peculiar holiday we had in Cornwall with Rowan Williams and Jane and their baby Rhiannon. They had a car, we didn't; so we all piled in together like sardines into the Williams's not-very-big yellow car; in those days you didn't have to have seat belts or car seats for children. And then, once we were in, we had to sing hymns constantly because that was the only thing that could prevent our Annie, then 3 years old, from being travel sick within minutes of getting on the road.

"As ye journey sweetly sing" we all yelled, four adults two children and a baby, squeezed in with the windows shut to keep out the howling wind and rain of the most miserable week in a miserable early spring. "Jesus Christ your father's son bids you undismayed go on."

People might be forgiven for thinking that we still sing that hymn at Little St Mary's, and that we sang it this morning. But they would be sadly wrong.

We did sing the first two verses as John Cennick wrote them, and also his fourth (out of five). But the point of the hymn lies in the last verse of the hymn, which begins "Lord obediently we go...". That verse has quietly gone from the New English Hymnal.

John Cennick (1718-55), who wrote the real hymn, including its last verse and several others that we don't usually sing, was a Methodist lay preacher, friend of the Wesleys. Besides 'Children of the heavenly king', he also composed a rather less successful poem that began
Lo he cometh, countless trumpets
blow before his bloody sign!
Midst ten thousand saints and angels
see the crucified shine.
Welcome, welcome bleeding lamb!
It was Charles Wesley who, in 1758, turned that unpromising start into a great Advent hymn (Lo he comes with clouds descending...).

Perhaps the editors of the New English Hymnal thought that because Wesley could improve upon Cennick then they, a committee of uninspired twentieth century Anglicans with little poetry but a great many sociological prejudices, must be able to do so too.

This is what they did.

They cut out the last verse, and put in, in its place, a piece of sexist doggerel based loosely on the fifth verse of Cennick's original (which the English Hymnal editors had wisely omitted—for they too evidently thought that Cennick could be saved from some of his worst errors of judgement). This is what Cennick wrote at verse 5:
Lift your eyes, ye sons of light,
Zion’s city is in sight:
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord we soon shall see.
The editors of the New English Hymnal have come up with the following adaptation of that verse (in lieu of the last verse):
Lift your eyes ye sons of light
Sion's city is in sight;
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord in glory see.
You might have a sense that the grammar and syntax of the last two lines don't work.

You'd be quite right.

There's no subject for the verb 'see' in the last line . To make it right, you'd need a 'we shall' somewhere in the sentence: "There our Lord in glory we'll see", but of course that won't scan. Cennick had "we soon shall see" which works perfectly well. You could get away with having the 'we' in the previous line (There our endless home we'll see, there our Lord in glory see) but of course you don't want 'see' twice, and, as it is, the subject in line 3 is 'our endless home' not 'we' so that can't serve as the subject of 'see' (unless our endless home is what sees, which I don't think is intended).

So the last two lines as written in the NEH are nonsense. That's odd because when Cennick wrote the verse, the last two lines made perfect, if somewhat uninspired, grammatical sense. As we saw, he wrote "There our endless home shall be, There our Lord we soon shall see." There's no problem with that.

So the NEH editors have garbled the syntax in order to replace "we soon shall see" with "in glory see." We'll come back to why they might want to do that in a minute.

What about lines 1 and 2 of that verse? Those are (alas) unadulterated Cennick, though he didn't put them at the very end of the poem as the editors have mysteriously chosen to do. Sadly they are not among Cennick's most lucid lines. Notice that the 'children' that we had in the first verse have now become 'sons'. OK, so we've always been happy to sing 'Fear not, brethren' in verse 6 (which we know as verse 3), for though "brethren" is officially masculine, it's a warmly inclusive term and women brethren are usually happy to be included. But 'sons' is less comfortable: it seems gratuitously exclusive, for men only. What's more, 'sons of light' is not really a very clear idea. I think we know why we believe ourselves to be (by adoption) children of the heavenly king, but I'm not sure on what basis we think we're 'sons of light'. And why are the first two lines of this verse in the second person plural while the last two are in the first person plural? Who's speaking to whom? Part of the problem with the lack of a 'we' in the last line is due to the fact that the verse started by talking about 'you' and then suddenly switched to 'us'. That would be bad enough as Cennick originally wrote it, but by the time the editors have intervened as well, we now have the impossible situation in which the verse has to change the subject from "you" to "us" without ever mentioning 'us'.

So really, the more you think about it, the more it seems that the English Hymnal was wise to omit that verse.

So why did the NEH committee think they needed to bring it back, and rewrite it to boot?

You'd think, wouldn't you, that there must have been something really awful and non-pc about the last verse of Cennick's original, if it's to be amputated in favour of this piece of drivel. For what heinous sin did the NEH thought-police see fit to garble it so?

Here's the last verse that belongs in that place (this one I shall have at my funeral, please):
Lord, obediently we go,
Gladly leaving all below:
Only thou our leader be
And we still will follow thee.
It's about our readiness to follow Christ, without heed for the things of this world, and our readiness to die, gladly, as followers of Jesus. With this verse in place we can see that there is an overall pattern to the hymn: the first verse addresses us "Children... as ye journey, sweetly sing!"; in the second verse we reply "We are travelling home..."; two other verses in the original intervene at this point in which the speaker addresses the children again, before the one which begins "lift your eyes ye sons of light" which we've just looked at. Then in the penultimate verse again the speaker addresses us "Fear not brethren...Jesus Christ your father's son bids you undismayed go on..."; and in the last verse we reply again.

We reply "Lord..." because it is Our Lord who bids us have courage as we stand on the borders of this world and prepare to go on to the next world, as our fathers went before. For, as the penultimate verse insists, "Jesus Christ, your father's son, bids you undismayed go on".

Now it is in response to that bidding that we say "obediently we go".

Jesus bids us go. We go, obediently, gladly.

What exactly is wrong with this? It's evidently not a problem of exclusive language since the editors have replaced a perfectly inclusive verse with an exclusive one.

So is there a theological problem?

Perhaps we're not supposed to be glad to leave the world below?

That seems a possible twentieth century hang up: asceticism and other worldliness weren't perhaps very fashionable in the eighties? But there's hardly anything very negative about readily leaving our earthly attachments when called away by God. After all, I presume that we sang the hymn today precisely because the Gospel reading was about leaving everything without a thought and not looking back when we hear the call to follow. So it's ironic that the relevant verse has been taken out.

Another possibility is that they have a worry about going gladly to death. This could explain the otherwise mystifying attempt to change the words of the verse we discussed above, the one that begins "Lift your eyes". Why did they so desperately want to get rid of "There our Lord we soon shall see" and replace it with "in glory see". Is it because the former suggests (correctly) that we, as believers and followers of Christ, look forward to death being before long, and greet it with some eagerness? That's not fashionable perhaps, living one's life as a preparation for something greater to come, and genuinely affirming the relative unimportance of physical death.

Or is it the idea of obedience? I must say, I rather suspect that the editors do have a sociological horror of obedience. We've already noticed that they bowdlerised 'Once in Royal David's City' to eliminate the idea that children might be supposed to be obedient. It seems clear that the NEH editors don't believe that obedience is a virtue, they don't think that Jesus's obedience to his parents is a proper model for our children, and they don't think it's appropriate for us to obey God when he calls us home.

Why not?

Do I detect, perhaps, a hint of the idea that it would be patronising for God to ask for obedience? The editors want to think that God treats us as grown ups, capable of acting autonomously, not under instructions. They think it is patronising of God to expect us to do things because he tells us. So obedience is a no-no word.

"Patronising." A word we use when we mean that we consider ourselves superior and the person who had the presumption to talk down to us was not (as he/she thought) actually as superior as she or he supposed. It is a word used only by the proud, those too proud to take advice, or to consider that others might have something to say to them. If we use it of God, it is because we are too proud to respond to the Lord's gentle bidding and his words of comfort to the dying.

If I'm right that this is why we don't like obedience any more, then it surely correlates with the attitude of a society that cannot accept death, cannot hear the call to go home singing for joy, and would rather shut its ears to that call and pretend it knows better; a society that seeks everything possible to usurp God's right to call us to die.

That's a sick society, and one that has lost its faith in God.

Boo for pride and hurrah for obedience, I say.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ut queant laxis

There's a famous hymn for the feast of St John the Baptist, written by Paul the Deacon in the 8th Century A.D., which begins "Ut queant laxis resonare fibris".

It's famous mainly because it is the origin of the names ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la to name the notes of the musical scale (the plainsong tune to this hymn, which, alas, we did not sing this morning, starts on the tonic with the word "ut", and then "re-" of resonare occurs on the second note of the scale, and so on with each new five or six syllable phrase starting one note higher). This way of naming the notes was apparently invented by Guido of Arezzo in the tenth century. "Ut", for the tonic, was changed to "Do" in the sixteenth century by someone called Hubert Waelrant.

Paul the Deacon's hymn came in three parts. "Ut queant laxis" is the first part, five verses, and is set for vespers on the eve of the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist; the second part "Antra deserti teneris sub annis" is set for Matins, and the third part "O nimis felix, meritique celsi" is set for Lauds.

Translations of two of these parts were included in the English Hymnal, with Ut queant laxis set as office hymn for evensong and Antra deserti set as office hymn for matins (Hymns 223 and 224, both to the same tune though, oddly, the plainsong tune given in EH was not ut queant laxis.) The EH version, translated by R. Ellis Roberts, presumably specially for this hymnal, begins with a verse that goes like this
Let thine example, Holy John, remind us
Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,
Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us
Broken asunder.
It's true that this is not entirely effective as a translation of the Latin, which is a plea to Saint John himself to cleanse our polluted lips of the sin (reatum) so that we can sing with loosened vocal cords (laxis fibris) the wonders of his deeds. It's said that this verse was composed by Paul the Deacon after he'd had some trouble intoning the Exsultet at the Easter service, and the verse is a prayer to avert such an affliction. Given how the hymn goes on, he's evidently adverting to the affliction that silenced Zechariah when he doubted the word of the Lord, and he's asking that our vocal cords won't be seized up in the same way; so, pace Ellis, it's not John's example that needs to remind us of this risk, but Zechariah's. Here's the Latin for verse 1.
Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Joannes.
Still, Ellis proceeds to give us the rest of the hymn pretty accurately, with beautifully formed stanzas that rhyme first and third, second and fourth (although Paul the Deacon didn't use rhymes in this hymn). I won't bore you with the details now, but will add them at the foot of the post.

By contrast the New English Hymnal has done some of its dastardly deeds.

First, notice that it no longer claims that this hymn is actually "Ut queant laxis" at all. No Latin is given at the head of the hymn. Yet it does have that metre and it is set to that tune.

Instead they say that it is a hymn by the "EDITORS based on the Latin of Paul the Deacon 730-99".

This is always a bad sign. It means they've decided they can improve on Paul the Deacon's sentiments with some drivel of their own.

So what heinous crimes have they committed on this ancient and famous text?

Well, predictably enough the first and oh-so-famous verse about not having our voices silenced has gone altogether.

Perhaps they didn't see that it is about the story of Zechariah's silence?

Perhaps they couldn't find a way to put it into good English in sapphics?

Anyway, what they've done is invent a kind of introductory verse in the form of one of those abbreviated death announcements in the newspaper:
On this high feast day honour we the Baptist,
Greatest and last of Isreal's line of prophets,
Kinsman of Jesus, herald of salvation,
Chosen forerunner.
Then they give us two verses that are translations of verses 2 and 3 of the Latin original, though of course, in the absence of verse 1, it's now become rather pointless to narrate the story of Zechariah's dumbness.

Verse four in the original was an extremely clever composition recalling the occasion when Mary visited Elizabeth; and John, then still in the womb, recognised the babe in Mary's womb as king, hence acting already as a prophet revealing hidden mysteries to the two mothers even before his birth. This verse has gone entirely from the EDITORS' substitute, even though it was an eminently suitable event to recall on this particular day, celebrating the birth of the Forerunner.

Instead we have what appears to be a set of completely random ramblings about John the Baptist, mostly without foundation, some positively false as far as I can see. On what basis, for example, do they say "Greater art thou than all the sons of Adam"? Presumably this is supposed to reflect Luke 7:28 "For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Well, first what Jesus says there is nothing at all about sons of Adam, but rather about those born of woman. And since Jesus himself is born of a woman, this has got to be a paradox, since many texts testify to John saying that "He who comes after me is greater than I " and so on. And second, even if we took it straight, that among those born of woman, John is greater than any other prophet, Jesus's next saying undercuts it by saying that that's no big deal since anyone in the kingdom of God is greater than that. I suppose the editors may have been prompted by verse 8 of the complete text (see below) but they haven't really got it right, have they? In fact Ellis Roberts does it better, don't you think? (see verse 7 of the English translation at the end of this post)

The rest of their verse 'Lowly in spirit, faithfully proclaiming Israel's Messiah, Jesus our Redeemer, Thus we exalt thee"— all this is just bubble wrap to fill up the space in the verse. It has no theological import or profundity and adds no spiritual uplift. Rather, downlift.

All hymn books add a trinitarian doxology as the last verse, at the end of part one. The NEH has given us a version that presumably purports to be a translation of the last verse of Paul the Deacon's hymn.

But overall, the result is a very sad hymn, because the two really distinctive verses with some theological stuffing have been cut and replaced with a sorry mess. Oh how sad! How very sad! How twentieth century...

Read to the bottom of the post for this week's competition.

Here, for interest, is first the complete Latin text of all three parts of Paul the Deacon's work:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes!
Nuntius celso veniens Olympo
te patri magnum fore nasciturum,
nomen et vitae seriem gerendae
ordine promit.

Ille promissi dubius superni
perdidit promptae modulos loquelae;
sed reformasti genitus peremptae
organa vocis.

Ventris abstruso positus cubili
senseras regem thalamo manentem,
hinc parens nati meritis uterque
abdita pandit.

Antra deserti teneris sub annis
civium turmas fugiens, petisti,
ne levi saltim maculare vitam
famine posses.

Praebuit hirtum tegimen camelus,
artubus sacris strofium bidentis,
cui latex haustum, sociata pastum
mella locustis.

Caeteri tantum cecinere vatum
corde praesago iubar adfuturum;
tu quidem mundi scelus auferentem
indice prodis.

Non fuit vasti spatium per orbis
sanctior quisquam genitus Iohanne,
qui nefas saecli meruit lavantem
tingere limphis.

O nimis felix meritique celsi
nesciens labem nivei pudoris,
prepotens martyr heremique cultor,
maxime vatum!

Serta ter denis alios coronant
aucta crementis, duplicata quosdam;
trina centeno cumulata fructu
te, sacer, ornant.

Nunc potens nostri meritis opimis
pectoris duros lapides repelle
asperum planans iter, et reflexos
dirige calles,

ut pius mundi sator et redemptor
mentibus pulsa luvione puris
rite dignetur veniens sacratos
ponere gressus.

Laudibus cives celebrant superni
te, deus simplex pariterque trine,
supplices ac nos veniam precamur:
parce redemptis!

And now here's the EH translation:

Let thine example, holy John, remind us,
Ere we can meetly sing thy deeds of wonder,
Hearts must be chastened, and the bonds that bind us
Broken asunder!

Lo! a swift angel, from the skies descending,
Tells to thy father what shall be thy naming;
All thy life’s greatness to its bitter ending
Duly proclaiming.

But when he doubted what the angel told him
Came to him dumbness to confirm the story;
At thine appearing, healed again behold him,
Chanting thy glory!

Oh! what a splendour and a revelation
Came to each mother, at thy joyful leaping,
Greeting thy Monarch, King of every nation,
In the womb sleeping.

E'en in they childhood, mid the desert places,
Thou hadst a refuge from the city gainèd,
Far from all slander and its bitter traces
Living unstainèd.

Often had prophets in the distant ages
Sung to announce the Daystar and to name him;
But as the Saviour, last of all the sages,
Thou didst proclaim him.

Than John the Baptist, none of all Eve's daughters,
E'er bore a greater whether high or lowly,
He was thought worthy, washing in the waters
Jesus the holy.

Angels in orders everlasting praise Thee,
God, in Thy triune majesty tremendous,
Hark to the prayers we, penitents, upraise Thee:
Save and defend us.

And finally, this week's competition. Can you produce a better translation of verse 1 of this hymn, retaining the metre of the original, but not necessarily the rhyme scheme introduced by Ellis Roberts? Answers in a comment please....

Sunday, May 20, 2007

And guard and bless our fatherland

More on Bishop William Walsham How. Last week was Rogation Sunday and we sang another of WW How's not very how hymns (see last post for the background on Bishop How). It begins 'To thee our God we fly" and according to the New English Hymnal it is for Rogationtide.

According to the English Hymnal it was under the category "National". There it lived with hymns such as Kipling's "God of our fathers known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle-line...", Chesterton's "O God of Earth and Altar", and some others including the National Anthem. The New English Hymnal has moved it out of the National category and into Rogation, but not without some adjustments.

Unacknowledged adjustments: no daggers.

Let's have a look at what the alterations are.

The first thing to note is that the words of the refrain which comes at the end of every verse have been changed.

In the original, it seems, it went

O Lord stretch forth thy mighty hand
And guard and bless our fatherland.

"Fatherland" is evidently not fashionable these days. Too patriotic?

Instead we have "... and guard and bless our native land".

It's not clear what we are to think if we were not born here, but would still like it to be blessed.

The second thing to note is that it has lost a lot of verses. It had nine in the English Hymnal, four of them with stars. Nine seems to be what William Walsham How wrote. Six survive into the New English Hymnal. They've also been presented in a different order.

One splendid one that has gone is this:

Though vile and worthless, still
Thy people, Lord, are we;
And for our God we will
None other have but Thee.
It's evident that this verse troubled others before the New English Hymnal came on the scene. The compilers of the BBC Hymnal in 1951 decided to change the words of that verse (which is the last verse of the hymn) and substituted this instead:
Though all unworthy, still
Thy people, Lord, are we;
And for our God we will
None other have but thee.

But the New English Hymnal Editors clearly didn't really like this sentiment at all (or maybe they couldn't cope with the inverted sentence structure of the last two lines, who knows). Anyway, for whatever reason they cut that verse out.

Two unobjectionable verses about the Church have also gone (verses 6 and 7 from the complete hymn given below). And verse 5 has been put at the end, for reasons that are not apparent.

I suppose that the end result is a list of petitions with no particular structure, and has a mention of the "land" in the refrain, and it therefore counts as a hymn for rogation. But it was never very great even in its complete and untampered form. It now seems to me to be really quite tedious. Surely English hymnody comes rather better than this?

Anyway, here is the complete thing, as written by How, without editorial intervention.

To Thee our God we fly
For mercy and for grace;
O hear our lowly cry,
And hide not Thou Thy face.


O Lord, stretch forth Thy mighty hand
And guard and bless our Fatherland.

Arise, O Lord of hosts!
Be jealous of Thy Name,
And drive from out our coasts
The sins that put to shame.


Thy best gifts from on high
In rich abundance pour,
That we may magnify
And praise Thee more and more.


The powers ordained by Thee
With heavenly wisdom bless;
May they Thy servants be,
And rule in righteousness.


The Church of Thy dear Son,
Inflame with love’s pure fire,
Bind her once more in one,
And life and truth inspire.


The pastors of Thy fold,
With grace and power endue,
That faithful, pure and bold,
They may be pastors true.


O let us love Thy house,
And sanctify Thy day,
Bring unto Thee our vows,
And loyal homage pay.


Give peace, Lord, in our time;
O let no foe draw nigh,
Nor lawless deed of crime
Insult Thy majesty.


Though vile and worthless, still
Thy people, Lord, are we;
And for our God we will
None other have but Thee.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Who is this so weak and helpless?

A while back I did a post on "Who is this with garments gory" wherein I promised to say something about the hymn whose first line is in the title of this post. Here I am, and here I am going to say something.

"Who is this so weak and helpless" is a hymn by Bishop William Walsham How 1823-97. Now I've got nothing against Bishop W. W. How, but he does bear responsibility for a number of fairly awful hymns. Not all of them are awful: his best seems to be "For all the Saints who from their labours rest" and we certainly wouldn't want to live without that. Another good one (I think) is "It is a thing most wonderful" (at least that is good if it's sung to Herongate as in the English Hymnal and New English Hymnal: it has some other terrible tune in Mission Praise, I recall, which turns it into a trite hymn). But alas the other six hymns by How in the English Hymnal are rather less than great (surprisingly, the NEH has kept five out of the eight).

"Who is this so weak and helpless?" was written in 1867. That's 23 years after Coxe wrote "Who is this with garments gory?" and one can't help thinking that there's some intertextuality here. Both hymns are in the same metre and both begin "who is this..." But Coxe's (as we saw) is rich in complex biblical symbolism. How's, by contrast, is rather uninspired. I mean, it's true that How has picked up on the idea that we can't easily recognise the Godhead in the strange and rather powerless circumstances of Jesus's birth and life and death: that's the theme of the hymn. But it lacks the spectacle, and the density of imagery of Coxe's reflections on the one who trod the winepress all alone.

William How constructs his hymn by starting each verse with four lines describing something in the life of Jesus (first his birth, then his homeless wandering, then his trial and passion, then his crucifixion). Then in the second half of each verse, beginning in each case "'Tis the Lord" vel sim, he tells us that this is really God himself (despite appearances), and goes on to say something about the divine power that is so far from apparent in the scene just described. As you will see, the last four lines of each verse are really quite bad:

Who is this so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
rudely in a stable sheltered,
coldly in a manger laid?
'Tis the Lord of all creation,
who this wondrous path hath trod;
he is God from everlasting,
and to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of sorrows,
walking sadly life's hard way,
homeless, weary, sighing, weeping,
over sin and Satan's sway?
'Tis our God, our glorious Saviour,
who above the starry sky
now for us a place prepareth,
where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold him raining
drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
'Tis our God, who gifts and graces
on his Church now poureth down;
who shall smite in holy vengeance
all his foes beneath his throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying
with the thieves on either side?
Nails his hands and feet are tearing,
and the spear hath pierced his side.
'Tis the God who ever liveth,
'mid the shining ones on high,
in the glorious golden city,
reigning everlastingly.

If you think this isn't bad, just look at the rhymes...

Why did this unimaginative string of doggerel survive into the New English Hymnal, while its better predecessor didn't? One may well wonder.

One telling fact is that in the NEH this hymn is set to Ebenezer or Tôn-y-Botel, that fantastic Welsh hymn tune of 1890 that we've talked about before, which used to be set for "Who is this with garments gory" (whereas "Who is this so weak and helpless" had another Welsh tune called Llansannan, or, in other books, Eifionydd).

It makes you wonder whether the EDITORS still wanted to keep that great tune Ebenezer, but had some prejudice against that great hymn, so they put in this weak hymn instead, thinking we'd feel it was similar, or maybe we wouldn't even notice the difference, since it begins with the same words. Certainly it seems that must be what happened at Little St Mary's, where this hymn was set this year for evensong on Palm Sunday, as a sort of lame substitute for the wine-treading hymn that used to belong there.

I wonder what hymn Ebenezer was written for? In 1890 it could have been written for either of these things, but perhaps it was for a Welsh hymn we don't know. I'm beginning to regret that I didn't buy the Welsh Hymn book I found last summer in Hay on Wye (was it Hay on Wye? Can't recall now). It might have settled this question.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ad cenam Agni providi

Tonight's office hymn was "The lamb's high banquet we await". The translation is by J.M. Neale but has been substantially altered at various points in the New English Hymnal.

I think the one that most annoys me is the fact that they have changed "and tasting of his roseate Blood" to "and tasting of his precious Blood".

Now why do that?

The original in the Latin is

sed et cruorem roseum
gustando, Dei vivimus

Neale's translation renders that exactly, using "roseate" to translate "roseum". "Precious" is not there at all. And the phrase "precious blood" is too common and trite to be striking here. The image is, in any case, not meant to be one of price, but rather of the tasting of red wine. Sometimes these editors seem to be just crass.

The other less serious but apparently unnecessary piece of interference is in verse 4. This is what we have in the Latin:

Iam pascha nostrum Christus est,
agnus occisus innocens;
sinceritatis azyma
qui carnem suam obtulit.

In J. M. Neale's translation this went:

Now Christ, our Paschal Lamb, is slain,
the Lamb of God that knows no stain,
the true Oblation offered here,
our own unleavened Bread sincere.

The NEH editors have (in their wisdom) changed "paschal lamb" to "Passover". They have also changed round the last two lines, rendering them

And he, the true unleavened Bread,
Is truly our oblation made.

I don't think much of the rhyme (Bread and made), nor do I find the lines comprehensible in this approximation to English. Certainly these are no improvement on Neale's. In fact it looks to me as though sinceritatis azyma is a reference to the "unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" from 1 Corinthians 5.8.

So lines 3 and 4 ought to go "Sincerity's unleavened bread, who gave his very flesh instead."