Sunday, October 01, 2006

The hornèd moon to shine by night

Today was what passes for Harvest Thanksgiving at Little St Mary's. Thankfully not too much of it.

We did sing some of those jolly hymns about how we plough the fields and scatter the seed (singing this hymn is the nearest I've ever got to actually ploughing any fields, and I don't suppose many of the rest of the congregation do these things very often either, but I'm sure the 'we' there is collective for the human race in general and how we as a race gather our food by toiling on the land).

One of those hymns that belongs to this season of praise and thanksgiving is "Let us with a gladsome mind, praise the Lord for he is kind".

There's a verse in that hymn (which is by John Milton, yes I mean the real one) which goes

"The hornèd moon to shine by night, Mid her spangled sisters bright."

The expression "to shine" follows on from the previous verse where we were told "He the golden-tressed sun caused all day his course to run." So we understand that (He caused) the horned moon to shine by night, as he caused the sun to run his course by day.

Unfortunately the editors of the NEH didn't like Milton's poetry. They have tried to improve it.
Here is what they have decided to offer for verse 5:

And the hornèd moon by night
Mid her spangled sisters bright.
Well, you know why they did that... because they thought they needed to "make a minor adjustment to secure a better musical accentuation." In other words we used to have to squeeze in an extra quaver before the first beat of the first bar for the word "the" on that verse, so as to sing 'horn' on the first crotchet. A feat we all learned quite early in life, as I recall. No great effort.

Well, you might say. Perhaps there is a virtue in a line that fits the rhythm of the music? Well no. Not if it is gibberish and ungrammatical. Just take a look at that verse they've constructed. It has no verb. Not only does it have no subject, but it has no verb either. Now the subject can be supplied from the verse before; it is "He", namely God. And we also supply a verb, namely "caused" from the previous verse. But now what did he cause the moon to do? That is no longer specified (according to Milton she was to shine, but according to these editors, what is she to do?). Well, what is she to do? I ask you.

Perhaps we are to supply yet another verb from the previous verse? If so, then what she is to do is to run her course (by night, as the sun ran his by day). But now we have lost the essence of this beautiful motif of the horned moon shining amidst her spangled sisters the stars. For the motif is not supposed to be of running a course, but of giving out light. And even if it did mean run her course, it's ungrammatical without supplying "her course", because you can't supply "his course" and not change the gender for the female moon.

Bad grammar and an acute loss of pictorial imagery. No no no.... Just don't do it, see?

Milton, he wrote poetry. Editors, you write rubbish. Got it?


Anonymous said...

Milton, he wrote poetry.

Well, I'm not so sure. His full versification of Psalm 136 is here. The much-maligned Editors have spared us such gems as

The ruddy waves he cleft in twain
Of the Erythræan main;

(how many of today's congregation would recognise that as the Red Sea?) -

or again

And large-limbed Og he did subdue,
With all his over-hardy crew;

Anonymous said...

Singing 'We plough the fields and scatter', I thought that if the tune were not so well known it would never make it into a hymnbook these days. Even the _English Hymnal_ has to go down to a low A in the treble line to accomodate its range of an octave and a fifth.

Virginia Knight