Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend

Today's hymn is not quite the usual story.

When Percy Dearmer and his companions were inventing the English Hymnal in 1906, they included a version of the poem "Who would true valour see" from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Prior to the English Hymnal no one had used Bunyan's poem as a hymn. It didn't appear in Hymns Ancient and Modern until the second supplement of 1916, ten years after the English Hymnal had invented it.

However, Percy Dearmer didn't exactly include Bunyan's poem just like that. Rather he wrote a new hymn, loosely based on Bunyan's words and rhythm. His hymn goes "He who would valiant be, 'gainst all disaster..." instead of "Who would true valour see, let him come hither...." Dearmer made it into a hymn to be sung by us about our own pilgrimage, rather than a song by Bunyan calling us to admire the steadfastness of Mr Valiant-for Truth (the character in Pilgrim's Progress).

Meanwhile, Ralph Vaughan Williams was also busy adapting an English Folk Song to be the melody for Percy Dearmer's Bunyan-like hymn. He came up with a tune called Monks Gate, based on a song called "Our Captain Calls" which he had collected from a Mrs Verral in the village of Monks Gate (West Sussex, near Horsham). This also went into the English Hymnal. Dearmer's words and VW's tune are what you find at EH 402, although it says there that the words are by "J.Bunyan, 1628-88, and others".

Some of us, who were brought up in good homes, have therefore grown up loving Dearmer's words. However, while we were learning those words at our mothers' knees, others were busy rescuing more or less accurate versions of Bunyan's original. The Hymns A and M second supplement of 1916 has discovered Bunyan's poem (but not VW's tune) and prints it with only one minor intervention in verse 3 (which I'll be coming on to). Presumably this is due to copyright constraints which meant that they couldn't have Dearmer's hymn. So in this case, unusually, we have Hymns A and M to thank for initiating a move towards a text that has had less intervention.

From 1916 onwards the two hymns run in parallel, though Vaughan Williams definitely won on the tune (has anyone ever sung the hymn to Bunyan or Remember O thou Man?). Songs of Praise has Dearmer's hymn; but then, if I remember rightly, Dearmer (1867-1936) was involved in the editorial work on Songs of Praise which was published in 1931, and also by Oxford University Press. The Mirfield Mission Hymn Book (1948) likewise. By contrast The BBC Hymn Book (1951 and also Oxford University Press) has Bunyan's words (unadulterated) with Monks Gate for the tune, as does the Public School Hymn Book in its 1949 edition and its successor, Hymns for Church and School (1965).

The New English Hymnal, therefore faced a choice: to include the Bunyan hymn or to include the Dearmer hymn. They chose the Dearmer hymn, and rightly attributed the words to Dearmer by name (or rather they say that the words are by John Bunyan and Percy Dearmer, which is perhaps true).

What do we miss of Bunyan if we sing the Dearmer version? Well the lion has gone from verse 2. "No lion can him fright; He'll with a giant fight;" has become "No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight". And the hobgoblin and foul fiend have gone from verse 3: "Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit; He knows he at the end shall life inherit" has become in Dearmer's hymn "Since Lord thou dost defend us with thy spirit, We know we at the end shall life inherit," so that it is for us that fancies fly away, not for the pilgrim whom Bunyan was commending to us as our role model.

So the hymn is a little less picturesque: and the "fancies" that fly away are less obvious than they were in Bunyan. For surely the fancies that fly away must include the fantastic fears, such as hobgoblins and foul fiends, that were the subject at the start of that verse in Bunyan's hymn. I think it's also fair to say that Bunyan's "let him come hither" is a great deal more elegant than Dearmer's “’Gainst all disaster”.

Bunyan wrote "Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit." Hymns A and M, in all editions, have continued to change that to "No goblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit." Presumably this is because we have to understand a negative for Hobgoblin to precede the "nor", and that can seem a little confusing (though not very, I'd have thought). I mean it's fairly obvious what it means. And I rather like Hobgoblins. So it's a shame to eliminate that poetical omission of the negative, and lose the hobgoblins with it. That's what I think anyway.

As for whether I think Percy Dearmer did a worthwhile job, well I'm not sure. But what I think we do need to see is that he wrote a different hymn for us, not an adaptation of Bunyan. And we might still occasionally want Bunyan himself instead.