Sunday, June 18, 2006

The son of consolation

St Barnabas's day was June 11th. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get round to finishing this post, but I started it some time after the day in question (because I'd forgotten about it, and then I had to put it aside due to other things, and since then I've been away).

The New English Hymnal provides a hymn for St Barnabas, which begins "The 'Son of Consolation', St Barnabas the good". We sang it on June 11th. The words are said to be by "Maud Coote 1852-1935 and EDITORS".

At the foot of the hymn there is a piece of advice to the reader as follows:
See Acts 11.24 'he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.'

Presumably that's to help us to understand why the hymn goes (in lines 2-4) "St Barnabas the good,/ filled with the Holy Spirit/ And faith in Christ the Lord." Those lines do indeed seem to be a slightly prosaic paraphrase of Acts 11.24.

What the hymn book fails to explain for its readers is the first line of each of the three verses of the hymn as presented in the NEH. These lines go "The 'Son of Consolation'" in verse 1; "The Son of Consolation" in verse 2; "All sons of consolation" in verse 3). What is all this about the "Son of Consolation"? Well the answer is that the reference we really needed, in order to understand the hymn, was Acts 4.36:

Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation), a Levite.

That is, the name "Barnabas" was the nickname that the Apostles gave to Joses, and it meant Son of Consolation ("son" is the "Bar" bit, as in Barabbas, Bartimaeus and so on, all of which are patronymics).

It would have been helpful (it seems to me) if the hymn book had supplied that reference. After all, it seems to be the most crucial key to understanding this hymn.

Why did they give the other text, not this one?

Was it merely an oversight?

No, I think not.

It was, I rather think, because they have a guilty conscience...

They're ashamed of what they've done to this hymn and they're trying to justify it, by showing that their new text is a paraphrase—pedantic and prosaic, but paraphrase all the same— of a biblical text... As though any bad poetry is okay if it can be shown to be an allusion to the bible.

The good old English Hymnal had the whole of this hymn (five verses), all of them in Mrs Coote's own words. Verse 1 of the original begins thus:

The Son of Consolation!
Of Levi’s priestly line,
Filled with the Holy Spirit,
And fervent faith divine,
With lowly self-oblation,
For Christ an offering meet,
He laid his earthly riches
At the apostles’ feet.

The second line here, "Of Levi's priestly line", is also (like "Son of Consolation") alluding to the bit from Acts 4.36 that we quoted above:
Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation), a Levite.

That is, Barnabas was a Levite, one of Levi's priestly line.

For some reason, best known to themselves, the Editors of the NEH have replaced that with
St Barnabas the good

and then justified that revision by supplying the reference to Acts 11.24 where Barnabas is said to be "a good man". I suppose that they thought that we needed to be told in the hymn itself that we were singing about St Barnabas. But that's surely not necessary, since the page is headed "St Barnabas". It seems to me that if you've taken the trouble to go to church on St Barnabas's day, and you find yourself singing a hymn headed "St Barnabas, June 11th", you'd have to be very stupid not to realise that the person the hymn was talking about was St Barnabas. On the other hand, it's quite useful to be reminded that he was a Levite (in case you don't know the Book of Acts off by heart).

This is the most significant change in verse 1. The rest of that verse has been subjected to a variety of small alterations of an apparently pointless sort. Verse 2 has gone completely. Mrs Coote wrote as follows about the comforting significance of Barnabas's nick name, and about his ministry to the gentiles:

The Son of Consolation!
O name of soothing balm!
It fell on sick and weary
Like breath of Heaven’s own calm!
And the blest Son of Comfort
With fearless loving hand
The Gentiles’ great apostle
Led to the faithful band.

It seems to me that the omission of that verse is a great mistake, since it is that verse that meditates on the name "Son of Consolation" and asks why it is appropriate. Without that verse, the repetition of that name at the start of each verse is kind of vacuous.

Verse 3 in Maud Coote's original was about Barnabas's martyrdom:

The Son of Consolation!
Drawn near unto his Lord,
He won the martyr’s glory,
And passed to his reward;
With him is faith now ended,
For ever lost in sight,
But love, made perfect, fills him
With praise, and joy, and light.

It survives in the NEH, with trivial alterations, as verse 2.

Maud Coote's fourth verse has, however, been cut out. This verse reflected on the significance of the "Son of Consolation" title, this time as something for us to aspire to. Once again, we might observe that without it, the whole conceit on which the original poem was grounded has been cut away and become empty. It went as follows:

The Son of Consolation!
Lord, hear our humble prayer,
That each of us Thy children
This bless├Ęd name may bear;
That we, sweet comfort shedding
O’er homes of pain and woe,
’Midst sickness and in prisons,
May seek Thee here below.

Finally, the last verse (following on from that idea that we might aspire to the title "son of consolation") thinks about how we too (if we do take on that role) can look forward to eternal life, receiving the same reward as the martyr Barnabas. A version of this last verse survives, badly mutilated in the NEH. But unfortunately its point is completely lost, because the preceding verse that explained how there could be many "Sons of Consolation", and that they would be us, once we'd taken on Barnabas as our role model, has been omitted.

Here's what Coote wrote:

The Sons of Consolation!
O what their bliss shall be
When Christ the King shall tell them,
“Ye did it unto Me!”
The merciful and loving
The Lord of life shall own,
And as His priceless jewels,
Shall set them round His throne.

Here's what the NEH EDITORS have substituted:

All sons of consolation,
How great their joys will be
When Christ the King shall tell them
'You did it unto me':
The merciful and loving
The loving Lord shall own,
And set them as his jewels
Around the Father's throne.

Well, it means much the same (so much so that you can't really see what's the point of interfering), but the real tragedy is that we've lost the point of the hymn altogether. If you think about it, the hymn was designed to reflect on Barnabas, under the description "Son of Consolation", as a role model for us. But without the verses the engineer that set of thoughts, it no longer does that for us.

In the NEH the last verse appears to be about some other people, sons of consolation. These will be Barnabas, we suppose, and anyone else, presumably male, who goes by that name. It doesn't seem to be about us.

In Coote's original by contrast, even though that too was in the third person plural, we already knew that it might and should include us, because we'd already reflected on how one could acquire the name "son of consolation" in virtue of the deeds of love that one might do.

But we've lost all that in the omission of the two crucial verses.

So it doesn't say what it needs to say any more.

Oh dear. How sad.

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