Sunday, April 02, 2006

There's a wideness in God's mercy

Frederick W Faber, 1814-63 was a follower of John Henry Newman, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1846. He published Souls of men why will ye scatter (a hymn of 13 verses, one of which begins "There's a wideness in God's mercy") in his collection Oratory Hymns of 1854.

Here are the 13 verses. I am unsure of the original order but I think it's correct here up to about verse 6.

1 Souls of men! why will ye scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander
From a love so true and deep?

2 Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Saviour who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?

3 It is God: His love looks mighty,
But is mightier than it seems;
’Tis our Father: and His fondness
Goes far out beyond our dreams.

4 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

5 There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

6 There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour;
There is healing in His blood.

7 There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

8 For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

9 But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

10 There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.

11 ’Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
It is something more than all;
Greater good because of evil,
Larger mercy through the fall.

12 Pining souls, come nearer Jesus,
and O come not doubting thus,
but with faith that trusts more bravely
his great tenderness for us.

13 If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.

Some hymn books print the lines as eight line verses (it depends what tune you want to use whether four line or eight line verses make sense). Some hymn books (including Hymns A and M) have the hymn with its original first verse (so it starts "souls of men why will ye scatter") while many others (including the EH and the NEH) omit the opening verses and start at "There's a wideness in God's mercy". Most hymn books give a maximum of 8 verses; only 7 in the NEH.

The New English Hymnal has also taken the trouble to include the last verse but to corrupt the words for us. Clearly they do not have a sweet tooth, or they think sweetness is bad for our teeth. Faber—doubtless dealing with his poor folk around the Oratory that he established in King William Street in London, and the local schools, for which he composed his hymns—was happy to provide a little beauty and sweetness in their lives. The editors of the New English Hymnal as always prefer to replace something striking with something tedious.

No sunshine, only gladness.

No sweetness, only joy.

Here is the ending of their hymn:

If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all gladness
In the joy of Christ our Lord.

Why not leave that verse out if you don't like what it says? After all there are plenty more to choose from!

Robin has some thoughts on the tune (prompted by Annie) which he may care to share with us. But meanwhile I thought I'd finish by adding an extract from The Guardian of July 14th 2003:

Whoever compiled the order of service for yesterday morning's Eucharist attended by members of the Church of England synod at York Minster - maybe it was "the Management", as senior churchmen tend to call Him Upstairs - clearly has a sense of humour.

The 580 lay, clergy and episcopal members of the synod, deeply divided this weekend over the aborted appointment of Canon Jeffrey John as the church's first openly gay bishop, found themselves singing in nearly perfect harmony the obscure 19th century hymn: There's a Wideness in God's Mercy, Like the Wideness of the Sea.

Its author, FW Faber, could never have realised the relevance his words would have,140 years after his death: "We make his love too narrow/By false limits of our own;/And we magnify his strictness/With a zeal he will not own .../If our love were but more simple/ We should take him at his word;/And our life would be all gladness/In the joy of Christ our Lord."

Well, evidently it wasn't Faber's hymn they were singing but the one in the NEH.

The real one, the one Faber wrote, perhaps is a bit obscure now. But the reason why it's obscure is mostly because it has been obscured by the very widespread use of the corrupt version...


Anonymous said...

The point about the tunes for 'Souls of men'/There's a wideness' is that all the standard tunes, whether it is the EH's 'Zum Frieden' [Bach] (great tune!), NEH's 'Cross of Jesus' [Stainer] (or its alternative tune, 'Stuttgart', [Witt]), A&M's 'Clarion' [Sloane-Evans] (alternative again 'Stuttgart'), the Congregational Hymnal's 'St Mabyn' [A.H. Brown] or 'Mahon' [Knowles], the BBC Hymnbook's 'Animae Hominum' [Blanchet], the Mirfield Mission Hymnbook's alternative (to 'Animae Hominum') Llansannan [Welsh], Hymns for Church and School's alternative (to 'Cross of Jesus'), 'Rustington' [Parry], just all of them are in four beats, variously marching, or plodding, along, and all but one starting on the first beat of the bar. So the main stress falls on 'There's', 'in', 'Like', 'of', 'There's', 'in', 'Which' and the 'lib' of 'liberty'. Pretty clearly this is daft. There would be a marginal improvement if the tunes started on the third beat of the bar, so the stress would be on 'wide', 'mer', 'wide', 'sea', 'kind', 'just', 'more' and 'ty'. This is what Parry's 'Rustington' does.
The real problem, though, is that Faber's words really have the rhythm, 'di - di - dum - di, di - di - dum -di, di - di- dum - di, di - di - dum. Much of the appeal of the hymn derives from this unusual rhythm. This isn't a set of verses which march along, let alone plod, this is a set of verses which skips along. The closest that these four beat tunes get to capturing that is in starting lines with dotted rhythms (as 'Rustington' (again), 'Clarion', 'St Mabyn' and 'Mahon' do).
There are only two signs in these hymn books that any editors have seriously grappled with this problem. Or rather two signs, but only one sensitive editor. The Public School Hymn Book as revised in 1949 with the advice of Vaughan Williams decides to set Faber's hymn to Pritchard's melody 'Hyfrydol', familiar as set to 'Alleluia, sing to Jesus'. This is a three-beat tune, and gets the stress falling on 'There's', 'wide', 'in', 'mer', 'Like', 'wide', 'of', 'sea', 'There's', 'kind', 'in', 'just', 'Which', 'more', 'lib' and 'ty'. This is certainly a bit better, but it doesn't do the trick, and though the swaying about suits being at sea, the mood of the tune doesn't really suit the words.
Vaughan Williams had earlier had a better idea. The EH has a wonderful rubric: 'This hymn, when used at Mission Services, may be sung to DAILY, DAILY'. (Not the only sign that the EH doesn't like Mission Services: when you get to 'Part VIII FOR MISSION SERVICES' you are immediately warned 'Not for ordinary use'.) 'Daily, Daily' (a French tune adapted for Baring Gould's 'Daily, daily sing the praises of the City God hath made', but well known to some of us from its use for 'Ye who own the faith of Jesus') is not only in three beats, but begins on the third beat, so we get the stress on 'wide', 'mer', 'wide', 'sea', 'kind', 'just', 'more', 'ty' (well, you can't have everything). That's the right stress, and you get plenty of bounce to dance to at the same time. This has the incidental advantage that it doesn't make it seem that Faber was terribly serious: the words which editors have found to grate (like the 'sunshine') become perfectly natural when accompanied by a sunny tune.
So, there's simply no choice. The mystery is why all these hymnbook editors have had the good sense to see that existing tunes aren't satisfactory, as they show by every time trying out a new tune, but not the ability to see what is wrong, or to see that the EH had grudgingly drawn attention to the perfect answer.

Catherine Rowett said...

By the way, that comment was from Robin only he forgot to sign it. Also he should have acknowledged that it was Annie who observed (after last Sunday's Mass, while Robin was away) that the tune should be Daily Daily. Now we are wondering where it was that Annie became used to singing this hymn to that tune. Oxford presumably. What is it set to in the Celebration Hymnal we wonder. I must get myself a copy of the Celebration Hymnal.

Catherine Rowett said...

PS, another thought. In verse 2 I've written "was there ever kinder shepherd half so gentle half so sweet?". But a lot of the hymn books have "Was there ever kindest shepherd...".
My first thought was that that must be wrong (that's why I went for "kinder shepherd"). But when you go on with half so gentle half so sweet the grammar of kinder doesn't really make sense.
It's one of the features of this hymn that the lines look as if they mean one thing if you read just one line, and you feel you know where you are, and then it's undercut by enjambement to the next line where it turns out that we're talking about something else. This is one of those examples.
Another is the one that goes "There is grace enough for thousands.... of new worlds as great as this." And "Tis not all we owe to is something more than all."
So maybe we think the grammer of "was there ever kinder shepherd" makes sense by itself, but then "half so gentle half so sweet" presupposes that there was no comparative in the first line (Was there ever a shepherd half so gentle etc). So we have to change our grammatical construal of the line we just read one way and read it differently instead.
Is that good poetry? Or a bit of a tease and a joke? Or both?