Sunday, January 29, 2006

Jesus calls us: o'er the tumult

Here's another hymn we sang two weeks ago: "Jesus calls us! O'er the tumult Of our life's wild restless sea..."

In the New English Hymnal it has a single dagger, meaning that some small change has been made to the author's original. The words are by Mrs C.F. Alexander, and were originally written in 1852. I'm not quite sure what the dagger is for.

It might be for the punctuation in the first line. The NEH have given us the exclamation mark and a new sentence at "o'er the tumult". As far as I can see the original was probably written with a colon there, not an exclamation mark (that's what we get in the Penguin Book of Hymns by Ian Bradley which is the most authoritative source for the original words that I've found so far). Unfortunately the Oremus Hymnal and the Cyberhymnal on the web, which are supposed to give us the original copyright-free words are not very reliable, and are not authentic on this hymn.

Mrs Alexander herself made some other changes to the words which explain some of the small divergences that we find in different hymn books. We're accustomed to "Day by day his sweet voice soundeth" in the third line, but (so Ian Bradley informs us, The Penguin Book of Hymns page 209) Alexander revised the hymn in 1881 and changed that to "Day by day his voice is sounding" which is what the NEH have chosen. I must say that I think the latter is prosaic and plodding, and the former much more fitting and inspired.

There's also a puzzle about verse 5. Originally Cecil Frances Alexander wrote "Give our hearts to thine obedience." In 1881 she revised it to "Give our hearts to thy obedience."

Why do that, I wonder? 'Thine' is more correct before a vowel, as in "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord". It's certainly a whole lot easier to sing: the hiatus between 'thy' and 'obedience' is not easy to maintain on a change from a y to an o, and tends to lead us to put in a consonant 'y'. "Give our hearts to thy yobedience." Not nice.

I suppose that Mrs Alexander thought it was hard to understand 'thine'. Perhaps she thought people could only understand 'thine' to mean 'yours' and not 'your'. But of course, the more you remove the proper use of thine before a vowel, the more the people become unfamiliar with it, and the more degenerate the language becomes. Hymns are a good way to keep such archaic language in the popular vocabulary.

It is to be regretted, I think, that both the EH and the NEH chose 'thy obedience' and not the more correct 'thine obedience'. They are neglecting their duty of educating the public in the full range of English possessive pronouns. Sad.


Anonymous said...

As far as I can see the original was probably written with a colon there, not an exclamation mark...

In the collected edition of Mrs Alexander's poems, published by Macmillan in 1896 (i.e. the year after her death), the punctuation in the first line is a semicolon.

Catherine Rowett said...

Thank you James for this useful piece of information. You've obviously got the right resources to hand!