Sunday, April 03, 2011

For Mary Mother of the Lord

There is a hymn beginning "For Mary Mother of the Lord", which is set in the NEH (number 161) for the Annunciation (March 25th), though we sang it today because we were doing Mothering Sunday, it seems. This hymn was not known to me before I started going to a church afflicted with the New English Hymnal. It wasn't included in the English Hymnal.

In fact there's only one place that I can find it before the NEH. It appears in 100 Hymns For Today, which was a 1969 supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern, which was then incorporated into more recent editions of Hymns A&M, such as Hymns A&M New Standard (where this hymn— or rather its predecessor —is number 360). Peacey died in 1971, and presumably this is one of the "great" 20th century hymns that 100 hymns for today were trying to add to our repertoire in the sixties.

The hymn has a double dagger in the NEH which made me think there must be a better one somewhere, that has been messed with. It is true that the version in 100 hymns for today/A&M New Standard has quite a lot of verses that seem to bear no relation whatever to what's in the NEH. Indeed I would say, looking at the two side by side, that this is not simply a case of a few small alterations, but rather the omission of one verse, and the re-writing of three of them, in two of which they have reused some of J.R. Peacey's words.

Verse 1 is largely agreed by both sources (NEH version in brackets):
For Mary, Mother of our (the) Lord
God's holy name be praised,
Who first the Son of God adored,
As on her child she gazed.
Verse 2  seems to be a different text in the two sources. 100 Hymns for today had the following:
Brave, holy Virgin, she believed,
though hard the task assigned,
and by the Holy Ghost conceived
the Saviour of Mankind.
while the NEH has this:
The angel Gabriel brought the word
She should Christ's mother be;
Our Lady, handmaid of the Lord,
Made answer willingly.
Verse 3 has been changed in the first two lines. 100 hymns for Today, which is presumably the original, sings:
God's handmaid, she at once obeyed,
by her 'Thy will be done';
the second Eve love's answer made
which our redemption won.
By contrast the NEH sings:
The heavenly call she thus obeyed,
And so God's will was done;
The second Eve love's answer made
Which our redemption won.
Whoever did this revision, I would say it has improved things (yes, I know, this is uncharacteristic, but here is an improvement). In fact both verses have been improved. For the original had several pretty dire moments (as with many hymns of its period, I suspect). After all, Mary didn't say "thy will be done", but rather "be it unto me..." so it is rather better and clearer to say that God's will was done, than to say that she obeyed by her "Thy will be done". Perhaps that was supposed to be a kind of complicated allusion to the idea that she had uttered the archetypal prayer before her son ever taught us to say it? But it's too rushed in this awkward verse isn't it?

Still, the second half of the verse is fine, and thankfully the editors of the NEH have managed to keep it, and its rhyme.

After this, Peacey's original has another verse about the birth of Jesus, which has been omitted by the NEH, probably wisely:

The busy world had got no space
or time for God on earth;
a cattle manger was the place
where Mary gave him birth.
I think the faults in this verse include not only the word "got" which is hardly poetic at the best of times, but also the word "space" where we obviously need "room". It's not that there wasn't space for Jesus, but that there was no room for him. But Peacey has used "space" so as to rhyme with "place". Evidently there was a place, space, whatever... namely, in the manger. It's kind of odd to say in one line that the world had no space, and in the next but one that there was a place where Mary gave birth. There are some rather infelicitous words chosen for the rhymes in the other verses as well ("Jesus Christ was slain" is not what you would expect of a 20th century hymn, but then you have to rhyme with "pain", right?). And the rhyme of "Galilee" and "family" is a bit extreme.

One further improvement has been made in the last verse. Here is the original:

Hail Mary, you are full of grace,
above all women blest;
and blest your Son, whom your embrace
in birth and death confessed.

There's something odd in the last two lines, though perhaps only because we have to understand the verb "is" from the earlier occurrence of "are", and the idea that an embrace can "confess" the Son (confess what about him?). The NEH has adjusted this to a claim about Mary instead of a claim about the Son:
Hail Mary, you are full of grace,
Above all women blest;
Blest in your Son, whom your embrace
in birth and death confessed.
But the puzzle still remains about what exactly it is that the embrace confesses (faith in her Son? some truth about her Son? that he is the Son of God?).
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