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.