Sunday, February 05, 2006

And prove thine acceptable will

"Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go" is one of the best hymns in the book. Better still in partnership with Gibbons's lovely tune (Angel's Song) which has a particularly interesting structure: a change of time signature that speeds it up from a stately 4/4 in the first line, to some kind of skipping triple time (or better still, one in a bar) for the last three lines. And then there's a dramatic syncopation in the last line (well, James called it a hemiola this morning, which it kind of is because it turns a 6/8 into three bars of 2/4). I've never forgotten being taught how to perform this tune correctly, at a choir practice of the Anglican Choir for one of the annual conferences of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, at St Swithun's School Winchester in the summer of 1990—but unfortunately the name of the choir mistress to whom I owe this revelation temporarily escapes me.

There are three problems with what the hymn books do to this hymn, though only two of them afflict the New English Hymnal.

The one it is not guilty of is cutting out my favourite verse, the one that goes:

Preserve me from my calling's snare,
And hide my simple heart above,
Above the thorns of choking care,
The gilded baits of worldly love.

Apparently, even Charles Wesley's brother John Wesley saw fit to omit that verse when he included the hymn in his collection The Large Hymn Book in 1780 (the hymn had originally been published, with all its verses, in Charles Wesley's Hymns and Sacred Poems of 1749). You'll find that it is missing from the text in the online Oremus Hymnal ( but it is there in the Cyberhymnal ( I suppose John Wesley thought that this verse was just about Charles Wesley's own calling, and the snares that he encountered? But surely it is something that all of us need to say, for all of us who work can be tempted into the choking care of a day job, and the baits of worldly love that go with ambition and the desire for money, not to mention the snares of being in a highly respected position, and the temptation to think that one is important for that reason. That's why we need to hang onto a simple heart, to have it held high above these thorns that will entangle it.

But, as I said, the NEH allows us to keep that verse. So let's get onto the things that it doesn't do right.

First there's the music. I said above that Gibbons's tune starts in four time and then becomes a lilting series of triplets from the second line. The poem cleverly matches this rhythm. (Was it written for this tune? I don't know but it seems difficult to believe it was not). Each verse begins with a rather slow and ponderous thought (Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go... The task thy wisdom hath assigned... Preserve me from my calling's snare... Thee may I set at my right hand... Give me to bear thy easy yoke... etc) but then as the tune skips on at one and a half times the speed, it betrays a kind of enthusiasm and joy about the task of skipping out into the world of work with God's support: My daily labour to pursue... O let me cheerfully fulfil... whose eyes my inmost substance see... etc. And then, with the hemiola in the last line we get a disruption of the skipping, and a confusion of the metre, as we slow down dramatically into two time again. Well that's how it should be. Although the English Hymnal prints the second part in 3/4 and not as triplets or 6/8 time, it does indicate that one should hold a pause on the last note of the first line and then go "slightly faster" in the 3/4 section. The NEH does nothing of the sort. Instead it tries to write the second half of the tune in the same 4/4 time signature of the first half, with no change of tempo. It adds a rest at the beginning of each line, so that the three notes of the first bar become not a triplet but the second third and fourth beats of a 4/4 bar. And then (without a word) it gives a mixture of 6/4 and 2/4 bars for the remainder, including the hemiola, so as to conceal as far as possible any sense of the compound time, triplets or syncopation. How to eliminate a joyful tune and make it into a boring one, in one easy move.

Well, of course it's clear that they don't understand the rhythm, or what makes it exciting. And that shows up in their treatment of line 4 of verse 2. Wesley wrote
In all my works thy presence find
And prove thine acceptable will.
(I think: more on this later).
According to Ian Bradley "All hymn-books substitute the phrase 'thy good and perfect will' for 'thy acceptable will' in the last line of the second verse, a change which was made partly for musical and partly for theological reasons." He doesn't say who made up this new text. Nor (apparently) is he aware that the English Hymnal did not make that substitution, which is why those of us brought up in good homes still automatically sing what Wesley wrote. I have just discovered that of all the other hymn books that I currently have in my possession, those that have this hymn and include this verse do without exception substitute "thy good and perfect will", and that goes for the online hymnals too.

As for the musical reasons, Bradley does not explain what they are, but we may guess from what the editors of the New English Hymnal say in their introduction: "Occasionally minor adjustments have been made to secure a better musical accentuation." Well, yes, if you don't understand how the three time breaks into two time at that point in the music, you might think there was a problem with the accentuation of 'acceptable' (first beat of the bar on 'ac' and 'ab' and an extra long note on 'ble'). But if, instead of giving up, you think about how to accentuate 'acceptable' and then look at the music, you can see how the music should be sung—which is not, of course how it looks on the page in any of the notation we have with bar lines—and then the whole thing becomes thrilling, instead of dull. Actually, 'acceptable' is probably a better fit with the music than any of the other last lines.

What about the theological reasons for changing these words? I must admit I'm a bit in the dark here. Any suggestions would be most welcome. I take it that Charles Wesley means to say that we test whether God's will is acceptable by putting it into practice and finding that it is indeed so. So effectively the line means "And prove (test) the acceptability of thy will, and find it acceptable." That it is 'acceptable' I take it means that it is possible to live by it, that is that it is a physical possibility to put it into practice. I don't see a theological problem with that thought.

I do see a theological problem with the replacement text however. I do not see any way in which we can test the goodness and perfection of the will of God. That, it seems to me, we must take on trust. It is neither tested nor proved to be good and perfect by the fact that we put it into practice in our lives. So the line no longer says anything. It becomes empty. we no longer understand what we are asked to prove about it, or why we are asked to prove it, since nothing that we can do will be relevant.

"Thy acceptable will," or "Thine acceptable will"? The EH gives us "thine". The Penguin Book of Hymns gives us 'thy'. That's why I said "I think" Wesley wrote "Thine acceptable will." But there seems to be no consistency on these things: EH gives "my inmost substance" and "thy easy yoke", but the Cyberhymnal gives "mine inmost substance", and since that seems to be the lectio difficilior I'm suspicious that there might have been more 'thine' and 'mine's than they're telling us about.
But on the loss of 'thine' and 'mine' see my last post.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Catherine, for featuring Hymn 259 (as "those of us brought up in good homes" still automatically think of it). "One of the best hymns in the book", indeed; as regards the marriage of text to music, it surely has no peer in the English Hymnal, old or New. And the tune is justly called Angels' Song; the very angels should not disdain to sing it, for each of the four parts is equally endowed with beauty of line and turns of sheer wonder. The delicious suspension in the alto towards the close of the third line (appropriately underlying "choking", "eternal" etc.) is just one of those magical moments.

I can't confirm whether Wesley wrote his verses to fit the tune; the usual sources of information, such as the Historical Supplement to Hymns A&M and the Companion to the Church Hymnary, are silent on this point. But I wouldn't put it past him; many of the Wesleys' hymns were "made to measure" for existing tunes, and as scions of an intensely musical family they would have been more than usually conscious of the importance of a good match between words and music.

For all that the [old] EH notates the last line in 3/4 time throughout, musicians will instinctively recognise the hemiola implicit in the middle two bars (to be read as a single bar of 3/2). Only a proparoxytone tetrasyllable wil fit the true rhythm here: "acceptable" is eminently acceptable, but "good AND per-FECT" simply won't do metrically. You have done us a great service by arguing that it won't do theologically either; the task assigned to us is not to prove the goodness or perfection of God's will, but simply to accept it.

Catherine Rowett said...

Thank you, James, for these comments. Rather better put than mine! It's helpful to point out that what's needed is a proparoxytone tetrasyllabe in that hemiola place in the fourth line, though one should perhaps observe that Gibbons's tune is designed for an ending with a dactyl and spondee in the last two feet of the line (length wise, not stress wise) so even when one gets the stress right there's something odd—not just with verse 2 but with all of them: In all I thiiiink or speak ooooor do; And prove thine aaaacceptabuuuul will; the gilded baaaits of worldlyyyyy love. But that's part of the charm of it. And what one needs to resist is reading with additional stress on long syllables, as though the metre that goes by lengths was to be read as a metre that goes by stress.
If the stress pattern in verse 2 is this,
And prove thine acceptable will
then in verse 1 it should be this:
In all I think or speak or do
and in verse 4 like this:
And offer all my works to thee.
This seems to me to make an interesting exercise: it shows up something about the sense Wesley is trying to convey: not "I offer all my works" nor "I offer all my works", but "I offer all my works to thee". And that is surely the point.