Saturday, December 27, 2008

God Rest You Merry Gentlemen

On Christmas morning I found myself singing (in the last line of the last verse of God Rest You Merry Gentlemen) "This holy tide of Christmas all other doth deface" but, realising that everyone round me was singing "all other doth efface", I felt rather stupid. Because, after all, Christmas doesn't deface things. (Well, it does but that can't be what the song is talking about). Momentarily, I wondered why I'd made that mistake, and then I put it aside and thought no more about it.

Then, this morning, quite out of the blue and unprompted by me, Robin observed that, oddly, King's had "all other doth deface" in the Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas eve. And I said well, I found myself singing that on Christmas day, so for sure it is not a mistake in the King's version. It must be what is in the Green Carols for Choirs Book I, and that's why it's what we sing when we're not thinking.

Now, God Rest You is not a modern hymn with an author, but a traditional carol dating back to probably the fifteenth century if not earlier, and it exists in a lot of versions, so it's hardly the case that there's a "correct" text for it. But still it is possible to ask whether the traditional words were more likely to be "all other doth deface" or "all other doth efface". And is the variation a traditional divergence resulting from different transmission in oral tradition, or is it an intervention by well-meaning editors trying to make us understand an archaic word?

Wikipedia suggests (rather plausibly) that the more authentic word is "deface". It is true (as the OED confirms) that, besides the meaning that we currently know for it, "deface" was also in use from Chaucer's time in a sense that is equivalent to "efface", what Wikipedia calls the "Middle English" use. The word "efface" also appears not significantly later in written sources, from around the fourteenth century, but seems to be rather more rare and rather more pretentious or esoteric. So I'd think it very likely that the version with "deface" is the earlier one.

So perhaps "efface" is a well-meaning editorial intervention to help us to understand a text that was once in archaic English. It's hard to be sure, from the sources I have to hand, whether "efface" is really a quite modern intervention or whether it's in the earliest written sources already. The New Oxford Book of Carols by Keyte and Parrott (Oxford 1992), which is fairly meticulous about explaining the transmission, is not very helpful here. Its note on page 527 begins "Text I is from William Sandys's Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833; see appendix 4), where it is associated with tune III. This has now become the standard text. Text II is from an early nineteenth century broadside (see The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928, no.12). Text III is a shortened version of I. Both have minor emendations." That's all very well, but their versions I and III have 'efface' in the last line, which makes it not true that version I has become the standard text, since, as Wikipedia correctly notes, in practice Willcocks's text in Carols for Choirs has become the standard text and that has "deface". And their version II doesn't have that line. So according to them "efface" is the word.

Is the substitution of "efface" one of their so-called 'minor emendations'? It looks as though it is, for the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, which also claims to have Sandys's version (at number 11), definitely has "deface", and reckons that the only corrections it has made are in verse 6 ('whereat this infant lay' instead of 'whereas'). They have also retained "friends of Satan" in verse 4, which is what Sandys had, but the editors of the OCB (that is, Dearmer, VW and Martin Shaw) posit that it's highly likely that originally the word was not 'friends' but 'fiends'.

So, on the whole, looking at what I've found, I reckon Wikipedia is right in suggesting that the substitution of "efface" is one of the New English Hymnal's attempts to interfere with some lovely thirteenth century English that we were all merrily singing well into the 20th Century with no problem. They started the rot in 1986, followed by the New Oxford Book in 1992. I have not found any publication before 1986 that has 'efface' in place of 'deface', and I am deeply unimpressed by the suggestion in the New Oxford Book that this counts as a "minor emendation", when it actually wilfully misrepresents the authentic tradition.

I think I need a second post on this subject perhaps, regarding God rest you, God rest ye, and the grammar of the first line.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The words of well known carols

A little flurry of messages from friends distressed by being presented with rubbish words at advent carol services round the world alerts me to the fact that the creeping habit of ignorant and offensive interference has now become so prevalent that even the words of things everyone knows off by heart are being messed up. Now what is the point of that? If people really know the words by heart, then either they will blithely sing what they know and you might as well have printed that in the booklet, or they will be upset that the words don't mean what they should mean, or you will draw attention to things that are not in fact offensive and misleadingly give the people to understand that there is something wrong with them, so that they'll then be worried by them when they meet the proper words on some later occasion and will come to believe that those who sing the real words are corrupt.
Tenon-Saw reports on the carol service from Clare College, with comments on their badly adjusted version of Hark the Herald Angels, here. Annie has sent me a puzzle about "On Jordan's Bank" which I will need to investigate, but it looks like the unfamiliar version is actually the more authentic one in that case (which is actually the theme of several posts I'm about to work on, so watch this space).

Monday, November 17, 2008

In Christ there is no East or West

"In Christ there is no East or West" is one of the hymns that was not included in the English Hymnal but has made an entrance into the New English Hymnal, having become popular by way of Songs of Praise, Hymns A & M New Standard, and a few other twentieth century books. Or at least a bit of it has got into the New English Hymnal, mutilated but not quite so badly mutilated as in some other books.
As far as I can see, the full and unadulterated version of this hymn appears only in two books that I can find, and they are Songs of Praise (number 537) and The New Catholic Hymnal (no 104). I don't have the Celebration Hymnal to hand, so that may also be in good order. Oddly (and very unusually) the words given in the online hymnals (Cyberhymnal and Oremus hymnal) are corrupted (adjusted for inclusive language, it seems) in both cases.

Here is the original wording, or at least what I believe to be the original wording.

1 In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

2 In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding all mankind.

3 Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whate'er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

4 In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet South and North;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

The words are attributed to John Oxenham (1852-1941), but actually that was a pseudonym. The author's real name was William Arthur Dunkerley, who was, besides being John Oxenham, also a deacon of Ealing Congregational Church (at least so my reference book, A Hymn Companion by Frank Colquhoun, tells me, though the Times obituary of Jan 25th 1941 kindly sent to me by James Yardley makes no reference to that, but only to the fact that he was a reluctant business man). He was best known for a number of novels published under the Oxenham name.

Now this hymn has suffered one almost universal intervention in hymn books both older and more recent. That is, in all cases other than Songs of Praise and the New Catholic Hymnal the word "Christly" in the last verse has been replaced with "Christlike". I can't quite think why anyone would feel the need to do this. It isn't as if Oxenham aka Dunkerley couldn't have chosen to write "Christlike" if he'd wanted to. Why did he write "Christly" then? Well, surely because it's a lot better in terms of poetic feel and more singable, I presume. And also, doesn't it mean something slightly more subtle, something slightly stronger than mere likeness to Christ? So what's the problem with it? Surely not that we find it hard to understand...

The NEH, like the rest, is guilty of that intervention, and it is doubtless for that that Oxenham gets a dagger by his name. What the NEH is unique in doing is mutilating the hymn by removing verse 2. If you use the NEH you get only a three-verse hymn; and to my mind the verse that has gone is the most interesting one.

The damage in other hymn books is worse however. There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for political correctness and inclusive language, resulting in a great rash of interventions by bad poets and editors, with respect to verse 3 in particular. Doubtless someone will be able to tell me what it says in Hymns Old and New (a book I do not allow in the house). The versions on Cyberhymnal and Oremus Hymnal are evidently infected by this habit: in Cyberhymnal we have
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
while Oremus Hymnal has
Join hands, disciples of the faith,
and James tells me that Church Hymnary 4 has
Come, brothers, sisters of the faith.
Meanwhile at the end of that verse, Oremus Hymnal keeps "Who serves my father as a son is surely kin to me" (though having lost the 'brothers' at the start of the verse, the point of this is a bit lost) but Cyberhymnal has
Who serves my father as his child is surely kin to me

but again, what is the point of saying that fellow children are kin to me, if you didn't call them brothers at the start of the verse?

Church Hymnary 4 has seen that problem, evidently, and kept the siblings in the first line of that verse, but then, strangely, loses it loses them in the third line by omitting the notion of sons and children at that point! It has
Whoever does my Father's will...
Notice that this also manages to lose the notion of service into the bargain, with the result that it fails to mark the connection with verse 2 (his service is the golden cord).

The other point that gets the more extreme "inclusive language freaks" worked up is the idea of "mankind" in "close binding all mankind". In Church Hymnary 4 and the Cyberhymnal this has become "Close binding humankind".

Now it seems to me that you might think that the whole sentiment of the hymn is inclusive, and anyone ought to be able to see that "all mankind" means all kinds of people, and that what makes us kin is service of the Father, not anything about our gender, race or anything else. So it does seem to me that there's absolutely no whiff of any kind of political incorrectness in the gendered language, and therefore there's no point in trying to doctor it. If it can't be misunderstood, surely it's a positively good role model for how to read poetry in the right spirit and not get hung up on the idea that a word always means the same in every context. Grrr.

Many thanks to James Yardley for his assistance with the research for this post.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

And did those feet

So, the Dean of Southwark has banned the use of the William Blake Hymn "And did those feet..." from Southwark Cathedral. Time, it seems, to write a protest in defence of that great hymn on this Blog. The campaign is, of course, not helped by the rather ill-informed and badly written article by Julian Lloyd Webber in the Daily Telegraph.

Here are my thoughts:

Sadly, William Blake's great mystical hymn of 1804 has become a rarity. There is a widespread suspicion that something must be wrong with it, clearly aggravated by the fact that it appears as an afterthought in the English Hymnal, numbered 656a, words only without a tune. However, this is not actually a mark of disgrace: rather it stems from the fact that the first edition of the English Hymnal appeared in 1906, ten years before Sir Hubert Parry wrote the tune Jerusalem which turned Blake's poem into an inspiring hymn. The revised edition (1933) had a policy of neither adding hymns nor changing numbers; hence the editors compromised, tacking on the words of 'Jerusalem' at the end. So far from relegating an embarrassing hymn, this was the only new hymn that they saw fit to add in 1933.

So what explains the current reluctance to use it? I guess it stems from a misapplied "political correctness" which takes the hymn to be patriotic in flavour and faintly jingoistic. In fact, that assumption is quite mistaken, in terms both of what Blake was trying to say, and of what the hymn has traditionally stood for. It entered Church use from a quasi-secular use in liberal politics and the fight for votes for women; indeed a socialist message is quite properly at least one of the meanings identifiable in the poem, which calls us to stand up for social justice and freedom, thereby incarnating a New Jerusalem in a transfiguration of our society, where currently the 'dark satanic mills', of injustice, oppression and the dire conditions of industrial workers, take the place of what might have been a 'green and pleasant land' free of oppression, poverty or injustice. The metaphorical weapons (bow, arrows, spear and chariot of fire) are not the weapons of war, but the armour of Christ, the social gospel, prayer and active commitment in the political context where we belong. The poem says 'England', an identity that we rarely give ourselves these days, but we might just as well think of Cambridge, or Liverpool, or London, or Britain, as the context where we hope to realise God's vision for those around us.

There is also another way of reading the poem, which stresses not so much the call to political reform as the importance of aesthetic beauty, love, imagination and poetry. On this reading, our clouded hills and dark satanic mills are the philistine values of an industrial society imbued with utilitarianism: science and economic materialism have excluded intuition and beauty.

Blake deplored the cold logical approach of philosophers such as Bacon and Locke, and here he issues an impassioned plea for vision and beauty to be restored to our lives. What green and pleasant land do we have left, if we no longer encounter the vision of Christ among us?

The poem starts with a rhetorical question: 'And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountains green?'. The question is never answered: Blake does not say that we certainly did once have a society in which the holy lamb of God appeared, as we now hope that he will. We might answer that perhaps we never did (the story is based on an old legend according to which Jesus did visit England, but the hymn doesn't say we are supposed to believe the legend); but all the same, whether we did or not, the legend that, perhaps, once it was so can inspire us to hope that that vision is still realistic, and that we have strength and will-power to see it made real.

All falls into place if we locate this hymn in the context of Christ's transfiguration, for the poem is about transfiguration: transfiguring our world, so that Christ himself can appear, as formerly he did upon the mountain. The countenance divine did not just appear once-upon-a-time on the Mount of Olives, nor is it confined to ancient and curious legends about Jesus sailing with Joseph of Arimathea (supposedly a tin-merchant) to Cornwall. It can be here now, if only we are prepared to see it shine forth among us.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A thing most wonderful

This year, unusually, I was at Little St Mary's on Ash Wednesday, and we sang the hymn that begins "It is a thing most wonderful". Unfortunately we sang the badly corrupted version of it that appears in the New English Hymnal, so I was not sure whether to be delighted (because it's one of my favourite hymns that I first learnt at Little St Mary's in the good old days before they burned their copies of the English Hymnal) or to be distressed because it was so far from being the hymn I knew and loved.

The original words are by Bishop W.W. How, from his Children's Hymns of 1872. They were included in the English Hymnal under the "At Catechism" section, but evidently their success at conveying some profound theology by way of childish words has earned them a place in the grown-up repertoire too, and they now figure in the passiontide section of the NEH.

Or rather a sadly debased construction appears there, attributed quite unfairly to W.W. How (without any obelus at all). It looks as if they suppose that if you leave out the verses that had asterisks in the English Hymnal you have not done any damage to the hymn. But of course, it might be that if you leave both the asterisked verses out, the hymn doesn't really say much any more, or indeed doesn't actually make sense.

Here's how the verses should go:

1 It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from Heav’n,
And die to save a child like me.

2 And yet I know that it is true;
He chose a poor and humble lot,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died,
For love of those who loved Him not.

3 I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.

4 I sometimes think about the cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

5 But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His heart.

6 It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My love for Him so faint and poor.

7 And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
Oh, light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.

The important thing to notice here is the progression between verse 4 and verse 5. When verse 5 says "But even could I see him die", it refers back to the imaginary attempt to see him die described in verse 4 ("I sometimes... shut my eyes and try to see"). Without that, the idea that "even if I could see him, it would be only a small part" makes no sense. Alas, verse 4 has gone from the NEH.

You could almost make some sense of it if you had verse 3 instead ("His love must be most wonderful, if he could die my love to win") because then there's some progression to thinking that in reality the love is even more wonderful than just what the death alone reveals. But, alas, verse 3 has gone too.

But still, even if you had verse 3, too much is lost if you don't precede verse 5 with the vision in verse 4 of what it would be like to undergo the cruel nails and crown of thorns. For it is those—importantly, those terrible things— that would be only a small part of the real love, the real love that we can't see even if we successfully imagine the crucifixion in all its excruciating misery.

So, although the rest of the hymn, apart from verses 3 and 4, is there intact at 84 in the NEH, it seems as if the heart of it has been amputated. What is the good of verse 5 if all you've got is the trivial stuff mentioned in verse 2 "And wept and toiled and mourned and died" as the antecedent of "But even could I see him die"? There's nothing there to ground the argument that the love that we inevitably can't see is so immense, given that what we can see, when we try hard and use our imagination to its uttermost, is just a small part of it.

Another sad case.

I mean, what's so wrong with leaving all How's verses in and supplying the asterisks, in case anyone feels queasy about it? I assume there's some ideological queasiness at work here, no?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Conquering Kings their titles take

A year ago I promised that I would one day write a bit about "Conquering Kings their Titles Take" which is one of the two hymns for the circumcision/naming of Jesus that is missing from the New English Hymnal. Today seems a suitable day to do so (since I did the other one last year).

Here's how it goes in the Latin (Anonymous Latin of the eighteenth century, from the Paris Breviary of 1736, now easily found in the Penguin Book of Latin Verse, ed. Frederick Brittain, page 345) and, in parallel, the English translation by John Chandler which is number 37 in the English Hymnal:

Victis sibi cognomina
Sumant tyranni gentibus;
Tu, Christe, quanto dignius
Ab his capis quos liberas.
Conquering kings their titles take,
From the lands they captive make;
Jesu, thine was given thee
For a world thou madest free.
Non alterum mortalibus
Aegris quod invocent datum
Resurgerent quo mortui,
Perenne per quod viverent.
Not another name is given
Power possessing under heaven,
Strong to call dead souls to rise
And exalt them to the skies.
Tanti quod illi constitit,
Toto quod emptum sanguine,
Nostrone rursum crimine
Insana gens delebimus?
That which Christ so hardly wrought,
That which he so dearly bought,
That salvation, mortals say,
Will ye madly cast away?
Sacro pati pro nomine
Summi sit instar muneris:
Amara non mors amplius,
Fit mors per hoc amabilis.
Rather gladly for that Name
Bear the Cross, endure the shame;
Joyfully for Him to die
Is not death but victory.
Tu, qui vocari sustines,
Jesu, salus mortalium,
Audi vocantes nos, tuo
Qui gloriamur nomine.
Jesu, if thou condescend
To be called the sinner's Friend,
Ours the joy and glory be
Thus to make our boast of thee.
Qui natus es de Virgine,
Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Cum Patre, cumque Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.
Glory to the Father be,
Glory, Virgin-born, to thee,
Glory to the Holy Ghost,
Ever from the heavenly host.

I don't want to say much about it since it stands very well on its own. But I would like to observe that there seems to be a great deal of sound theology there. The motif of being given a name, because of the power that one holds, is a good one. The idea that mortal kings try to exercise their power by enslaving others is nicely contrasted with Jesus who exercises his power by setting the enslaved people free, and earning his title for that act.
This is then developed in the idea that in fact there is only one name that carries any power so the supposedly powerful names given to earthly kings are in fact not powerful names at all. There is no other name that possesses power. But we invoke the power of Jesus's name and it does indeed have an effect. This is so powerful that it can effect the resurrection of the dead.

Why have the editors of the New English Hymnal chosen to cut this splendid hymn, and its lovely tune "Innocents", out of the Hymn book? Well one can look for evidence of ideological censorship. In this case, I suppose it may be one of those cases where the hymn is condemned because it appears to indicate that we go happily to death for Christ's sake. You'll see that, in verse 4, we say "Joyfully for him to die is not death but victory". Now you might think that it was clear that this was not a death wish, but rather a denial that death is death, an affirmation that it is a way to life. But still, the thought is vaguely reminiscent of the one in Children of the Heavenly King, where we used to say "Lord obediently we go, gladly leaving all below". And, as we noticed with that hymn, it seems that such sentiments were eliminated by the twentieth century thought police, who wanted to clean up the Church of England of any hint of other-worldliness or enthusiasm for death.

So I fear that this wonderful Latin hymn and its gorgeous English counterpart (did you notice how neatly the English translation tracks the Latin sentiments?) has been eliminated not just because the editors didn't recognise its merits, but perhaps because they were afraid of its sentiments. They couldn't stomach it, perhaps?

PS I should add here the comment relating to this hymn supplied this time last year by Tiger. He reported this: Apparently the only spoonerism that Spooner himself admitted was to announce this hymn in New College Chapel as "Kinquering kongs their tikles tate".