Sunday, May 13, 2007

Who is this so weak and helpless?

A while back I did a post on "Who is this with garments gory" wherein I promised to say something about the hymn whose first line is in the title of this post. Here I am, and here I am going to say something.

"Who is this so weak and helpless" is a hymn by Bishop William Walsham How 1823-97. Now I've got nothing against Bishop W. W. How, but he does bear responsibility for a number of fairly awful hymns. Not all of them are awful: his best seems to be "For all the Saints who from their labours rest" and we certainly wouldn't want to live without that. Another good one (I think) is "It is a thing most wonderful" (at least that is good if it's sung to Herongate as in the English Hymnal and New English Hymnal: it has some other terrible tune in Mission Praise, I recall, which turns it into a trite hymn). But alas the other six hymns by How in the English Hymnal are rather less than great (surprisingly, the NEH has kept five out of the eight).

"Who is this so weak and helpless?" was written in 1867. That's 23 years after Coxe wrote "Who is this with garments gory?" and one can't help thinking that there's some intertextuality here. Both hymns are in the same metre and both begin "who is this..." But Coxe's (as we saw) is rich in complex biblical symbolism. How's, by contrast, is rather uninspired. I mean, it's true that How has picked up on the idea that we can't easily recognise the Godhead in the strange and rather powerless circumstances of Jesus's birth and life and death: that's the theme of the hymn. But it lacks the spectacle, and the density of imagery of Coxe's reflections on the one who trod the winepress all alone.

William How constructs his hymn by starting each verse with four lines describing something in the life of Jesus (first his birth, then his homeless wandering, then his trial and passion, then his crucifixion). Then in the second half of each verse, beginning in each case "'Tis the Lord" vel sim, he tells us that this is really God himself (despite appearances), and goes on to say something about the divine power that is so far from apparent in the scene just described. As you will see, the last four lines of each verse are really quite bad:

Who is this so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
rudely in a stable sheltered,
coldly in a manger laid?
'Tis the Lord of all creation,
who this wondrous path hath trod;
he is God from everlasting,
and to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of sorrows,
walking sadly life's hard way,
homeless, weary, sighing, weeping,
over sin and Satan's sway?
'Tis our God, our glorious Saviour,
who above the starry sky
now for us a place prepareth,
where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold him raining
drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
'Tis our God, who gifts and graces
on his Church now poureth down;
who shall smite in holy vengeance
all his foes beneath his throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying
with the thieves on either side?
Nails his hands and feet are tearing,
and the spear hath pierced his side.
'Tis the God who ever liveth,
'mid the shining ones on high,
in the glorious golden city,
reigning everlastingly.

If you think this isn't bad, just look at the rhymes...

Why did this unimaginative string of doggerel survive into the New English Hymnal, while its better predecessor didn't? One may well wonder.

One telling fact is that in the NEH this hymn is set to Ebenezer or Tôn-y-Botel, that fantastic Welsh hymn tune of 1890 that we've talked about before, which used to be set for "Who is this with garments gory" (whereas "Who is this so weak and helpless" had another Welsh tune called Llansannan, or, in other books, Eifionydd).

It makes you wonder whether the EDITORS still wanted to keep that great tune Ebenezer, but had some prejudice against that great hymn, so they put in this weak hymn instead, thinking we'd feel it was similar, or maybe we wouldn't even notice the difference, since it begins with the same words. Certainly it seems that must be what happened at Little St Mary's, where this hymn was set this year for evensong on Palm Sunday, as a sort of lame substitute for the wine-treading hymn that used to belong there.

I wonder what hymn Ebenezer was written for? In 1890 it could have been written for either of these things, but perhaps it was for a Welsh hymn we don't know. I'm beginning to regret that I didn't buy the Welsh Hymn book I found last summer in Hay on Wye (was it Hay on Wye? Can't recall now). It might have settled this question.


Tiger said...

I wonder what hymn Ebenezer was written for?

Well, if you really want to follow this up there's a copy of the 1890 edition of Llawllfyr Moliant in Westminster College Library in Cambridge. I'll email you the catalogue details.

Catherine Rowett said...

Thanks for the details. I'm not sure when I'll have time to follow this up. Maybe you'd like to? Your Welsh is probably better than mine despite my prolonged but rather unfocused attempt to learn it during my years in the land of song.

Virginia said...

Almost certainly it was written for a Welsh hymn not an English one. Vaughan Williams introduced a lot of Welsh hymn tunes to English speakers in the EH; we found out just how many of these tunes there are when we did the sponsored hymn singing from the EH which I referred to in an earlier comment. I agree with 'Tiger's' opinion that the tune got its Welsh name because it was thought up in, or after a visit to, the pub!

[BTW my blog links to yours too]

Tiger said...

I'm not sure when I'll have time to follow this up.

You could email the friendly librarian at Westminster. But I suspect the original words were indeed in yr hen iaith dda, probably the following:

Dyma gariad fel y moroedd,
Tosturiaethau fel y lli:
Twysog Bywyd pur yn marw—
Marw i brynu’n bywyd ni.
Pwy all beidio â chofio amdano?
Pwy all beidio â thraethu’I glod?
Dyma gariad nad â’n angof
Tra fo nefoedd wen yn bod.

Ar Galfaria yr ymrwygodd
Holl ffynhonnau’r dyfnder mawr;
Torrodd holl argaeau’r nefoedd
Oedd yn gyfain hyd yn awr:
Gras â chariad megis dilyw
Yn ymdywallt ymâ ’nghyd,
A chyfiawnder pur â heddwch
Yn cusanu euog fyd.

Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
Throughout Heaven’s eternal days.

On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.

Words: William Rees (1802-1883),
translated from Welsh to English by William Edwards in The Baptist Book of Praise (1900)

Anonymous said...

According to my sources, the tune was originally the second movement of a memorial anthem by Williams, later published as a hymn tune in Llawlyfr Moliant. But which text, I can't say.

Catherine Rowett said...

Another memo from Vic Perry:

You raise the question of Ebenezer in Welsh hymnbooks. You clearly have a good collection of hymnbooks, but in case you do not have access to Christian hymns, which is published by the Evangelical Movement of Wales, I write to say that 'O the deep, deep love of Jesus!' is set to Ebenezer in it. The words are by Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925). It is the only hymn in the book by him. He is too recent for Julian, but a quick check in Google turned up two more, but only one per site.

By the way, our copy of Christian hymns is the first, pre-/non- Kendrick et el. edition. We shan't be updating. And we are not the only ones. I saw an advertisement from a church recently asking if anyone had good copies of the first edition they did not want.

Anonymous said...

Looking at my copy of Caneuon Ffydd* Ebeneser is set there to Felly carodd Duw wrthrychau/anhawddgara' erioed a fu by Gwilym Hiraethog 1802-1883. Who also wrote Dyma Gariad which is just over the page to a different tune but with the suggestion of Ebeneser too. However, for Here is Love,** the tune suggested is Dim ond Iesu which is the tune I know to those words in English (and I think I've sung the Welsh to simultaneously.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus are the English words I know to Ebeneser and they fit better than Who is this so weak and helpless. `rolling as a might ocean' really fits it.

A useful resource for finding out about first uses of tunes and words is the Companion to Hymns and Psalms but unfortunately I don't have a copy, and my friend who does is now in the States (and I'm not sure if the book went!)

*Ecumenical hymnbook first published in 2001.

**There are a few (one page of index's worth) of English hymns at the back.


Angela Rayner said...

I'm currently compiling a list of the differences in hymns between The English Hymnal and The New English Hymnal due to a comment from a friend a few weeks ago.

I just noted the hymn "Who is this with garment's gory?" which I remembered that you wrote about here, so I decided to check back at what you'd written, and then that lead me to click on this post...

Consequently, I wanted to say that I am going to Hay on Wye at the beginning of May. If you can remember the shop in which you thought you saw the Welsh Hymn book, (and give me a few more details), I can see if it's still there and attempt to pick up a copy for you.

If that would be any help, please drop me a note on FB as I might not remember to check this post!