Sunday, June 04, 2006

What is rigid gently bend

Yet another preacher after my own heart!

Today we had a sermon from the Revd Canon Donald Gray (Canon Emeritus of Westminster and former Speaker's Chaplain).

It being Whitsun we'd been singing the Whitsun hymns, including Veni Sancte Spiritus, aka the Golden Sequence, which appears in the New English Hymnal at 139 and also at 520 where it has its proper plainsong tune (pity we didn't sing that if you ask me).

But to get to the point.

Canon Gray observed that the New English Hymnal has (alas) substituted for J.M. Neale's much loved translation (familiarly known by its first line "Come thou Holy Paraclete"), a translation said to be by J.M. Neale and EDITORS. Bad news, that "and EDITORS" you might say, and indeed Canon Gray was lamenting parts of J.M. Neale's translation that have gone missing, lost in a quagmire of editorial "improvements" in verse 4. Since I'd just been contemplating (during the first hymn) writing on the loss of J.M. Neale's verse 4 in this blog this afternoon (as indeed, here I am doing so), my heart warmed to Canon Gray at once.

Here's what he was lamenting. The first three lines of verse 4 used to go like this in the English Hymnal:

What is soilèd, make thou pure;
What is wounded, work its cure;
What is parchèd fructify.

It was the word 'fructify' in particular that seemed to Canon Gray so rich, and so evocative, and not adequately captured in the new version ("bring to life the arid soul") that has been substituted in the NEH. The sermon was, effectively, on how important it is that we be fructified by the Holy Spirit when parched.

But let's look a little more closely at what's happened here.

Here's what the Latin says:

Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium

Literally: "wash what is dirty, irrigate what is dry, heal what is wounded" The rhythm of the short lines with "quod est" in each of them is captured by Neale in the repeated structure "what is ... " which is an exact translation of the phrases. The original Latin leaves open what these items that are dirty, dry or wounded might be. Our imagination can, of course, easily supply possible examples, but I assume that the Holy Spirit is free to apply this treatment to anything and everything that fits the description "what is dirty, what is dry, what is wounded."

Getting rid of the heavy handed repetition of "what is ..." at the beginning of Neale's lines may seem initially attractive. But it does not make for an accurate nor a memorable series of thoughts. For one thing, the NEH editors have seen fit to specify what items the Spirit is to apply his attentions to:

Sinful hearts (not what is dirty) do thou make whole (not clean)
Bring to life (not water) the arid soul (not what is dry)

And (later, postponed to the end of the verse)

Wounded souls (not what is wounded) their hurt allay (not heal).

So instead of a general prayer to the Holy Spirit to treat whatever can respond to these treatments, we now identify that the items are sinful hearts, arid souls, wounded souls. Does this matter? Well, yes, first because it's prosaic, pedantic, boring and dull. And also because it prescribes thoughts, rather than inviting them. The original left us to think theologically and to see applications in all aspects of our lives.

The Golden Sequence comes in sets of three lines. There are three more lines that have gone into verse 4 in the English version. Here they are in Latin:

Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.

Literally, "Bend what is rigid, warm what is cold, correct what is wayward."

J.M. Neale continued his rather heavyhanded lines that begin with the "what is..." phrase as follows for these lines:

What is rigid gently bend;
what is frozen warmly tend;
Straighten what goes erringly.

Now it has to be said that these lines have been a source of much mirth in their day. Many a Pentecost have I seen the King's Choral Scholars crippled with the giggles, even though Neale did not, as he might have done, choose to write "what is frigid warmly tend". But still, I do feel that the substitute in the NEH is not really fit for the job. Here it is:

Make the stubborn heart unbend,
To the faint, new hope extend,

And (going back to the middle line of the verse, because they've done them out of order)

Guide the feet that go astray.

Once again, the editors have seen fit to specify what the object to be treated by the Spirit is: the stubborn heart (for "what is rigid"), the faint, presumably faint people (for what is cold, but why and how is faint a good translation for cold?), and the feet that go astray (for what is wayward).

But "feet"?

Why "feet"?

It's not literally feet that the Spirit is interested in, surely? I mean we're not talking about redirecting us when we've taken a wrong turning on the roads. We're talking about redirecting us when we've taken a wrong turning in life. But it's not our feet that do that, is it? What is it? Wouldn't it be better not to try to cash out the metaphor? Wouldn't it be better to leave the work to the imaginiation?

I presume we couldn't have hearts or souls again because we'd already had those twice each in the wretched new translation, so for the sake of variatio they chose "feet" as the kind of thing that could go astray?

And now again,

Why did they transpose the third and sixth lines of the verse?

I'm mystified.

Since the two lines rhyme with each other and make perfectly good sense in their proper position, this seem a completely random and unmotivated decision. Why? I don't know why.

This week's competition:

Rewrite J.M. Neale's lines for verse 4 in such a way as to avoid using "what is..." as the first words of each line, avoiding the awkward invertion of object and verb, and avoiding the artificial articulation of -éd on past tenses that are normally pronounced as one syllable.
Do that without stipulating what the items that are to be treated are.

The prize: glory everlasting.
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