Sunday, March 05, 2006

Forty Days and Forty Nights


The first sunday in Lent wouldn't be the first sunday in Lent if we didn't have Forty days and forty nights on the hymn list. And this year, being the year of Mark in the Lectionary, it fits quite well, with its emphasis on Christ's superhuman fasting and endurance during his period in the Wilderness, rather than on the more human side of the temptations that we were looking at in connection with Lead Us Heavenly Father Lead Us (see above, January 15th).

The hymn that we know and love is a composite created originally for Hymns A&M in its first edition (1861). It is partly based on some verses by G.H. Smyttan (1822-70) but heavily altered by Francis Pott (1832-1909). Smyttan published his verses in the Penny Post in 1856, but it's hard to discover exactly what he wrote, and what has been re-written by others. Several of the hymnals on the Web claim to be giving us words by Smyttan, but they actually give us words that are identical to the ones we know, revised by Pott. By contrast, the only one I've found that appears to have Smyttan's original words for verse 3 is a powerpoint file of the hymn downloadable at But that claims, rather oddly, that the words it gives are by Smyttan and Pott.

Verse 3 is clearly the one that everyone thinks they must have a go at improving.

Here's what I believe Smyttan wrote for verse 3:

Shall not we thy sorrow share,
Learn thy discipline of will,
And, like thee, by fast and prayer
Wrestle with the powers of ill?

There's actually not much wrong with that. It seems to express something of the idea that the lenten discipline is to be modelled on a discipline that was meaningful to Christ himself, in a life in which fasting and prayer were part and parcel of a struggle against evil. Perhaps the phrase "the powers of ill" is not awfully felicitous, but the point it is making is a good one.

Francis Pott offered a re-write of that verse as follows:

Shall not we thy sorrow share,
And from earthly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Glad with thee to suffer pain?

In the English Hymnal 'sorrow' in the first line of that Pott verse has become 'watchings', and in many hymnals 'sorrow' has become 'sorrows'. In one or other of those variants, this is the verse that most of us habitually sing, if we were brought up on Hymns A&M, the English Hymnal, the Public School Hymn Book or whatever.

Theologically, I think it has to be said that the verse by Pott is less good, than the verse by Smyttan. There is no indication of why we should want to engage in these kinds of abstinence and pain (other than solidarity with the apparently pointless sufferings Jesus was undergoing at the time). There is no hint that it might be part of a programme of wrestling against the powers of evil. So in that sense it does appear just to glorify the fun of pain for the sake of pain, and abstinence from earthly joys as if there was something obviously wrong with them.

But as poetry I think there is much to be said for Pott's verse, especially in the version with 'watchings' that appeared in the English Hymnal. The first line has a pleasing pair of alliterations on the sh and w sounds ("Shall not we thy watchings share"). The juxtaposition of the rejection of earthly joys in line 2 and with the notion of taking up pains gladly in the last line, which points up the contrast between the apparent joys of earthly things and the real joys of spiritual commitment, is nicely done; indeed the very oxymoronic structure of the last line, starting with 'glad' and ending with 'pain' is a treat. And the third line, "fasting with unceasing prayer", is neat and comfortable: it fits the metre and rhyme scheme smoothly and without any grammatical awkwardness.

The New English Hymnal follows Songs of Praise in rejecting both Pott's re-write, and Smyttan's original for verse 3, and susbstituting instead something that was created by Percy Dearmer (though the NEH doesn't admit that). For the last appearance of Percy Dearmer in this Blog see above, 12th February. Actually probably the NEH is right not to name Dearmer, but just to put in a double dagger, because they can't even bring themselves to leave that version alone either.

Here's what Dearmer wrote for verse 3:

Let us thy endurance share
And from earthly greed abstain,
With thee watching unto prayer,
With thee strong to suffer pain.

Here we are not glad to suffer pain with Jesus, but rather strong to suffer our own pain perhaps (and do I sense that we get our strength from him, rather than trying to be strong for him?).

We do not abstain from earthly joys but from earthly greed, which is presumably an excessive desire for earthly pleasures. So this is not asceticism or lenten fasting but merely standard virtue, not being greedy. I think that rather reduces the significance of Jesus's fasting in the wilderness: it was perhaps more than just a rejection of greed, no?

And the watchings or sorrows have gone, and have become 'endurance' instead. So again there is less active engagement in extra disciplines— we are not so much invited to share in Jesus's expedition into the wilderness but rather to see our everyday lives as providing opportunities for endurance of suffering and pain (though this is slightly modified by the idea of watching unto prayer in line 3).

And notice the hiatus in the first line of Dearmer's verse: "thy endurance" is not easy to sing without ending up with a word that seems to be "yendurance".

The editors of the NEH have chosen Dearmer's verse, which seems to me, of the three the worst both poetically and theologically. However, they have eliminated the hiatus in the first line by changing 'thy' to 'thine'.
They've also got rid of the greed and put back the joys by changing line 2 to say "And awhile from joys abstain". But that's a disaster too because surely it isn't all joys we abstain from (after all, as Pott had taught us to sing, we are glad and take pleasure in the spiritual endeavours that we can share with Christ). So we needed that 'earthly joys' phrase because it showed that we are not miserable people and kill-joys—we are just checking ourselves and re-orienting ourselves to the real joys, the joys of being a disciple and taking upon ourselves the discipline that goes with that.

Those thoughts, about the worthless joys that we give up and the worthwhile joys that we obtain thereby, were put into this hymn by Francis Pott. They were not the work of Smyttan (it seems, if I've reconstructed this correctly). But they do have something to tell us about the meaning of the lenten fast. But do I detect in the NEH editors' preference for the verse by Dearmer some kind of inability to understand either the poetry of Pott's version, or its delight in ascetic commitment?

Do they perhaps think that abstaining from joy is what it's all about?

How sad! No wonder they think we only want to do it for a while.