Sunday, October 28, 2007

Who on earth thy name confest

In the English Hymnal there was an excellent hymn for the feast of St Simon and St Jude (October 28th). It's by J. Ellerton and begins "Thou who sentest thine apostles two and two before thy face...". Sung to Brintyrion (in the EH) or alternatively Oriel vel sim, it is (as far as I can see) unexceptionable, indeed perfectly fine.

For some reason this has been banished from the New English Hymnal. So in order to provide a hymn for the feast of St Simon and St Jude, the EDITORS have (alas) felt themselves called upon to write some appropriate doggerel. The result is a set of three verses beginning "Lord of all the saints, we praise thee for those two apostles blest", followed by a standard doxology in the NEH's favourite form (i.e. the one that includes 'one in love and one in splendour...').

The first two verses of this hymn are pure stuffing: a kind of metrical rhyming kapok. They might be about anyone, or no one, though they have some vague relevance to the celebration of a pair of saints (any two would do, except for the description of them as 'apostles' in verse 1, which is clearly intended to try to limit the applicability and make it seem as if the hymn is about S and J).

The only specific stuff about S and J is in verse 3. Here the editors have started from the reference to Simon in Luke 6:15, as "the one who was called the Zealot" and the reference to Jude in John 14:22 as "Judas (not Iscariot)" and tried to construct a hymn on the basis of those rather minimal bits of information. The result is not exactly imaginative, and probably has virtually nothing to do with either character. First we have a reference to Simon's "zeal" ("Simon, may thy zeal inspire us Christ our Lord to serve with might") and then we have a reference to Jude as a "true disciple" ("Blessed Jude, thou true disciple, we thy faithfulness recite"), on the assumption that whereas the other Judas Iscariot was a false disciple, this one was a true one. But then so, presumably, were ten others. So this hardly picks out our Jude very effectively, does it. And I somehow doubt that the zealot Simon was actually named for his zeal, as opposed to his association with the Zealot resistance to Roman rule (though clearly the title is primarily given just to distinguish him from the other Simon Peter; if one were to describe one disciple as marked by zeal perhaps it would have been Simon Peter, no?). Apparently the Simon who was called zealot in Luke is the same one as the Simon called Canaanite in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:4.

Anyway, be that as it may, the fact is that despite the appearance of saying something specific here, nothing whatever that is not vacuous is actually said. Besides the two lines just mentioned (both of them badly marred by having to have the word order distorted to get the verbs at the end so as to adhere to the metre and achieve a rhyme between 'might' and 'recite') the verse finishes with this wholly fatuous request: "May God grant us grace to follow till, with thee, faith ends in light." Do we perhaps just a teeny bit get the sense that we just had to have the word 'light', in order to rhyme with might and recite? And that the rest of this wish was just constructed in order to get something that would finish with the word 'light' and could plausibly, if pointlessly, follow an address to an otherwise obscure Jude?

And when you think about it, wouldn't it have been better and more artful to have the verse finish with a couplet addressed to the two of them together (two lines for Simon, two lines for Jude and then two lines to both), rather than this four line set of trivial thoughts apparently addressed just to Jude (the 'thee' of the last line)?

One would like to say that this is not among the editors' best work as poets. Unfortunately I know of no better work by them.

By contrast, Ellerton's poem did a very good job on the basis of what little evidence we have for these two disciples. First, it refers to Simon's zeal, but cleverly suggests that he had already been a zealot before joining Jesus, and that Jesus had converted him from terrorism to a nobler cause ("One, whose zeal by thee enlightened, burned anew with nobler flame") and secondly it picks up on the idea that Jude (who may also be Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddeus) is sometimes said to be the brother of James the son of Alphaeus, and this James is perhaps taken by the poet to be the same person as James the brother of the Lord. Hence the claim that "One, the kinsman of thy childhood brought at last to know thy name." I suppose this slightly speculative genealogy may have been too much for the NEH editors to bear. But when you have no information, why not say something about what might be true, especially if it can be turned to edifying effect?

In Ellerton's second verse there is a nice construction with two lines for the two together, and then each apostle gets two lines to himself. Then in verse three the whole verse is devoted to praising God for the two of them together, attributing signs and wonders to them as well as examples of love and stern advice to the early church. All of this seems appropriate and probable, and if you need to write a hymn about two apostles who are scarcely more than names but must have played a role in establishing the very early church communities, this is at least an attempt at reconstructing a likely scenario.

And, finally, as far as I can see the spelling 'confest' in line 4 of verse 1 is probably disallowed by the OED for the meaning in question. And in any case is certainly an affectation, given the hymn was presumably cobbled together in the twentieth century, and not apparently from any archaic or archaising sources. Why not just write 'confessed'?

All in all, I can see no good reason to reject the existing hymn by Ellerton. I can see no value whatever in the new hymn by the EDITORS.

How sad.

How very sad.


Tiger said...

Why not just write 'confessed'?

Why not, indeed? But the false archaic spelling is also used in "For all the saints", which many of us will be singing over the next few days. This hymn was written by Bishop Walsham How towards the end of the 19th century, when "before the world confest" would have been as self-consciously and ridiculously antique as "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe" on the fascia of a mock Tudor café. Both the "old" and New English Hymnal retain this spelling – or did they deliberately introduce it? Songs of Praise also uses the spelling with -t, whereas Coomon Praise (successor to Hymns Ancient & Modern) and Church Hymnary use the modern spelling. I suspect the hand of Percy Dearmer as the common mediævalising factor here.

KeyReed said...

BBC Songs of Praise has the correct spelling! I'm teaching it in Hymn Pracice tomorrow so I thought I'd better check.

Tiger said...

That, of course, is not the same as the original Songs of Praise edited by Dearmer, which we knew and loved at school.

Presumably the "correct" spelling is the modern one? I very deliberately avoided the Dearmeresqe archaism when rhyming "confessed" with "west" in the third stanza of this translation.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of an article I read last year entitled "No more hims of praise," which lamented hymns which are "botched, lobotomized or castrated" by editors, in the name of modernity.

Anonymous said...

My dad, at an English prep School in the 1930s, remembered singing:

Lord can we be very good,
Like Saint Simon and Saint Jude?
Ever constant in our aims,
Like Saint Philip and Saint James.

The certainly don't make them like that any more!

Virginia said...

Your usual format of commenting on changes made to a hymn you've recently sung doesn't allow for an answer to the following question: which hymn dropped from EH in the NEH do you most miss? You've made comments in passing about some of these, and perhaps it's a blog entry in itself.

When the Methodists revised their hymnbook in the 1980's a group in Oxford organised a sing-through of all the hymns which had been dropped from the new one.


Catherine Rowett said...

Good idea. The lack of posts of late has been partly due to the diminishing number of new experiences not already discussed, and partly due to the nightmare that is life at the moment...