Sunday, February 19, 2006

Let all that dwell above the sky

Today was a good day for hymns with very little noticeable interference from the editors as far as I could see.
However, there was a single dagger on the hymn "Come let us join our cheerful songs" so I thought I'd better look it up and see what had been changed there.

Actually I can't see that they've done anything except leave out one of Isaac Watts's original verses (there were once five but we normally only get four). The missing one, verse 4 out of 5, goes thus:

Let all that dwell above the sky,
And air and earth and seas,
Conspire to lift thy glories high,
And speak thine endless praise.

I'm not sure I'm very impressed with this verse.

I don't think 'seas' rhymes at all well with 'praise'.

And I'm not entirely sure who the creatures are that dwell above the sky (angels, I presume), but it seems unnecessary to add that they also dwell above the air and earth and seas, since the sky is, I think, always above those other things, and hence if you live above the sky it goes without saying that you live above the rest.

Also it would be more appropriate to think that the angels were going to "conspire" with those of us who live on the earth and in the air and under the seas.

That would lead nicely into the last verse (The whole creation join in one...).

So I don't think Isaac really managed to say what he wanted to say in verse 4. Perhaps it is, all things considered, kinder to leave it out.

But of course, I should be more than delighted to hear from anyone who can persuade me that there's more merit in the verse than I'm currently seeing.


Anonymous said...

I don't think 'seas' rhymes at all well with 'praise'.

It would have fitted much better in the early 18th century, when the customary pronunciation of 'sea' and 'say' was almost identical.

In this respect Watts is no worse than Charles Wesley (who rhymes 'Jesus' with 'faces' – see NEH 476 v.3) or even Alexander Pope:

"Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes tea."

The Rape of the Lock, canto 3 (1714)

The 'ay' pronunciation of the 'ea' vowel (particularly 'tay' for 'tea') may still be heard from time to time in Ireland.

(I sense a can of worms looming here regarding the "correct" pronunciation of 'deity' – but you'll probably want to save that up for Christmas!)

Catherine Rowett said...

Thanks for this wise note and the amusing example from Pope. I did wonder when I was writing whether this was a result of the Great English Vowel Shift.

But now I wonder about verse 1: did 'throne' once rhyme with 'one' or did 'one' once rhyme with 'throne'?

Anonymous said...

...did 'one' once rhyme with 'throne'?

I don't know; but I suspect that it did, and that something of the old pronunciation is preserved in 'only' (which is really 'one-ly', and used to have that spelling). The vowel was probably shortened (compare 'gone' and 'scone') before reaching its present value probably as a result of Victorian affectation. On the other hand I very much doubt that 'throne' ever rhymed with 'bun' and 'fun'.