Sunday, March 05, 2006

Forty Days and Forty Nights


The first sunday in Lent wouldn't be the first sunday in Lent if we didn't have Forty days and forty nights on the hymn list. And this year, being the year of Mark in the Lectionary, it fits quite well, with its emphasis on Christ's superhuman fasting and endurance during his period in the Wilderness, rather than on the more human side of the temptations that we were looking at in connection with Lead Us Heavenly Father Lead Us (see above, January 15th).

The hymn that we know and love is a composite created originally for Hymns A&M in its first edition (1861). It is partly based on some verses by G.H. Smyttan (1822-70) but heavily altered by Francis Pott (1832-1909). Smyttan published his verses in the Penny Post in 1856, but it's hard to discover exactly what he wrote, and what has been re-written by others. Several of the hymnals on the Web claim to be giving us words by Smyttan, but they actually give us words that are identical to the ones we know, revised by Pott. By contrast, the only one I've found that appears to have Smyttan's original words for verse 3 is a powerpoint file of the hymn downloadable at But that claims, rather oddly, that the words it gives are by Smyttan and Pott.

Verse 3 is clearly the one that everyone thinks they must have a go at improving.

Here's what I believe Smyttan wrote for verse 3:

Shall not we thy sorrow share,
Learn thy discipline of will,
And, like thee, by fast and prayer
Wrestle with the powers of ill?

There's actually not much wrong with that. It seems to express something of the idea that the lenten discipline is to be modelled on a discipline that was meaningful to Christ himself, in a life in which fasting and prayer were part and parcel of a struggle against evil. Perhaps the phrase "the powers of ill" is not awfully felicitous, but the point it is making is a good one.

Francis Pott offered a re-write of that verse as follows:

Shall not we thy sorrow share,
And from earthly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Glad with thee to suffer pain?

In the English Hymnal 'sorrow' in the first line of that Pott verse has become 'watchings', and in many hymnals 'sorrow' has become 'sorrows'. In one or other of those variants, this is the verse that most of us habitually sing, if we were brought up on Hymns A&M, the English Hymnal, the Public School Hymn Book or whatever.

Theologically, I think it has to be said that the verse by Pott is less good, than the verse by Smyttan. There is no indication of why we should want to engage in these kinds of abstinence and pain (other than solidarity with the apparently pointless sufferings Jesus was undergoing at the time). There is no hint that it might be part of a programme of wrestling against the powers of evil. So in that sense it does appear just to glorify the fun of pain for the sake of pain, and abstinence from earthly joys as if there was something obviously wrong with them.

But as poetry I think there is much to be said for Pott's verse, especially in the version with 'watchings' that appeared in the English Hymnal. The first line has a pleasing pair of alliterations on the sh and w sounds ("Shall not we thy watchings share"). The juxtaposition of the rejection of earthly joys in line 2 and with the notion of taking up pains gladly in the last line, which points up the contrast between the apparent joys of earthly things and the real joys of spiritual commitment, is nicely done; indeed the very oxymoronic structure of the last line, starting with 'glad' and ending with 'pain' is a treat. And the third line, "fasting with unceasing prayer", is neat and comfortable: it fits the metre and rhyme scheme smoothly and without any grammatical awkwardness.

The New English Hymnal follows Songs of Praise in rejecting both Pott's re-write, and Smyttan's original for verse 3, and susbstituting instead something that was created by Percy Dearmer (though the NEH doesn't admit that). For the last appearance of Percy Dearmer in this Blog see above, 12th February. Actually probably the NEH is right not to name Dearmer, but just to put in a double dagger, because they can't even bring themselves to leave that version alone either.

Here's what Dearmer wrote for verse 3:

Let us thy endurance share
And from earthly greed abstain,
With thee watching unto prayer,
With thee strong to suffer pain.

Here we are not glad to suffer pain with Jesus, but rather strong to suffer our own pain perhaps (and do I sense that we get our strength from him, rather than trying to be strong for him?).

We do not abstain from earthly joys but from earthly greed, which is presumably an excessive desire for earthly pleasures. So this is not asceticism or lenten fasting but merely standard virtue, not being greedy. I think that rather reduces the significance of Jesus's fasting in the wilderness: it was perhaps more than just a rejection of greed, no?

And the watchings or sorrows have gone, and have become 'endurance' instead. So again there is less active engagement in extra disciplines— we are not so much invited to share in Jesus's expedition into the wilderness but rather to see our everyday lives as providing opportunities for endurance of suffering and pain (though this is slightly modified by the idea of watching unto prayer in line 3).

And notice the hiatus in the first line of Dearmer's verse: "thy endurance" is not easy to sing without ending up with a word that seems to be "yendurance".

The editors of the NEH have chosen Dearmer's verse, which seems to me, of the three the worst both poetically and theologically. However, they have eliminated the hiatus in the first line by changing 'thy' to 'thine'.
They've also got rid of the greed and put back the joys by changing line 2 to say "And awhile from joys abstain". But that's a disaster too because surely it isn't all joys we abstain from (after all, as Pott had taught us to sing, we are glad and take pleasure in the spiritual endeavours that we can share with Christ). So we needed that 'earthly joys' phrase because it showed that we are not miserable people and kill-joys—we are just checking ourselves and re-orienting ourselves to the real joys, the joys of being a disciple and taking upon ourselves the discipline that goes with that.

Those thoughts, about the worthless joys that we give up and the worthwhile joys that we obtain thereby, were put into this hymn by Francis Pott. They were not the work of Smyttan (it seems, if I've reconstructed this correctly). But they do have something to tell us about the meaning of the lenten fast. But do I detect in the NEH editors' preference for the verse by Dearmer some kind of inability to understand either the poetry of Pott's version, or its delight in ascetic commitment?

Do they perhaps think that abstaining from joy is what it's all about?

How sad! No wonder they think we only want to do it for a while.



Anonymous said...

At least the awful habit of singing the last two verses to the tune 'Buckland' seems to have died out, at least in places I've encountered the hymn recently. It always made me feel that the wilderness was preferable to heaven, because 'Aus der Tiefe' is musically so superior.

Virginia Knight

Anonymous said...

Once more the Muddled Dreamer (crossword clue?) rears his meddlesome head! That oxymoronic suggestion – that we should not merely grit our teeth and bear pain, but actively and gladly embrace it for the sake of the Kingdom – is clearly too radical for Dearmer, so instead he enjoins stoic endurance. That may be the prevalent British philosophy, but it is not the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, where the persecuted are told: "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven." (Matthew 5:12, AV)

Catherine Rowett said...

After I'd posted this entry it occurred to me that I;d forgotten to say anything about the tune. I was going to say what an awful dull tune it is (and that I used to think that it was an awful dull hymn as a result of its terrible dull plodding tune). This about the normal tune Aus der Tiefe about which Virginia is rather complimentary above.
Robin says he thinks he recalls there being a good tune for it in some pink collection of new hymn tunes he used to use. I'll have to get him to find it (can't identify it from the tunes offered on Oremus Hymnal so far).

Anonymous said...

Indeed, re the tune. Every time we sing it I am vaguely disheartened that we have to sing it to that dreary tune rather than the one I grew up singing it to. Unfortunately I'd need some plugin which doesn't appear to exist to find out what the tunes on offer on Oremus actually are, so I can't contribute any facts to this discussion!

Anonymous said...

Aus der Tiefe is (as its name implies) the German De profundis, contributed (probably by Martin Herbst) to the Nuremberg Songbook of 1676. Like the Scottish metrical psalm tunes and the Genevan psalms of Bourgeois and Goudimel, it was doubtless intended for massed congregational singing; given that, and the original psalm text, I suppose a certain foursquareness and dourness (not inappropriate at this season) is only to be expected.

One thing I do enjoy about it is the way the plodding bass suggests "prowling beasts" in verse 2.

Looking up this hymn in Songs of Praise, I found that Dearmer (who edited that hymnal) also got his bowdlerising teeth into verse 4, reducing Satan's sore vexing to mere impersonal evil, and substituting swerving for failure in the last line. Of course these amendments muck up the rhyming scheme, so we end with the following mess:

"Then if evil on us press,
Flesh or spirit to assail,
Victor in the wilderness,
Help us not to swerve or fail."

Almost everything is wrong with that: ungainly inversion and archaic subjunctive in the first line, the forced rhyme requiring an unnatural oxytonic stress on "wilderness" in the third, and lastly the ridiculously ambiguous negative "Help us not ..."

Anonymous said...

The tune *is* dull and plodding, but this is partly because of the general assumption that minims are long notes. It can be somewhat improved by singing it in two-not fast exactly, but definitely not slow…

Catherine Rowett said...

Good point!

Anonymous said...

This comment comes long after the original posting but, having sung this hymn today, I must confess that I find the tune "Aus der Tiefe" a worthy one, especially with the NEH harmony, and, of course, at a good speed and not as marked in the EH, i.e, "Slow". Indeed, this hymn is one my favourites for Lent.

I might feel differently if I had to sing the version in "Hymns Old and New" (subtitled One Church, One Faith, One Lord) published by Kevin Mayhew 2004, ed. Colin Mawby and others. This version is described as adapted by Michael Forster (b.1946) although it must also include the aforementioned contributions by Percy Dearmer. I was alerted to it by a long-suffering organist and Director of Music at a rural Australian Cathedral where the hymn book has been introduced. While the tune is the same, the harmony is a sadly emasculated version of that in the NEH. Sensibly, my friend used the better music but had to endure the words. It is the combination of the original poetry of Smyttan with rather poor alterations that is particularly off-putting, to be polite! I hope I do not trouble your readers by appending the version. Almost every altered line could do with an essay in response.

l. Forty days and forty nights
you were fasting in the wild
forty days and forty nights,
tempted still, yet unbeguiled.

2. Sunbeams scorching all the day,
chilly dew-drops nightly shed,
prowling beasts about your way'
stones your pillow, earth your bed.

3. Let us your endurance share,
and from earthly greed abstain,
with you vigilant in prayer,
with you strong to suffer pain.

4. Then if evil on us press,
flesh or spirit to assail,
Victor in the wilderness,
help us not to swerve or fail.

5. So shall peace divine be ours;
holy gladness, pure and true:
come to us, angelic powers,
such as ministered to you.

6. Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear,
ever constant by your side,
that with you we may appear
at th'eternal Eastertide.

Geoff (it wasn't like that in my day) Adams said...

Catherine's commentary on Forty Days is exemplary. But there is a far worse rewrite of the Smyttan/Pott text in the Mayhew hymnal Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New (the Orange Brick), as well as a characteristic notational illiteracy in the tenor line - A-flat instead of G# (full music edition, uncorrected in the 2008 reprint). Since both words and harmonisation of the Herbst (?) melody are in the PD, I've done a paste-in on, to which everybody is cordially invited (bring a bottle - but not till Lent is done).

Geoff Adams