Poetic Traditional Hymns Put Alternatives to Shame

I often hear that since most of what is produced in any age is garbage, the quality of the hymns in a compilation such as the Hymnal 1940 is partly an illusion, because the earlier bad stuff would have been tossed aside. This observation is by way of excusing the bulk of church songs composed since 1965; time has not yet done its winnowing.

There are four reasons why I reject this conjecture.

First, if it were true, we would find songs in the old hymnals that had fallen out of favor because of their slovenliness, incoherence, silliness, or linguistic or metrical incompetence. These would be the singletons, so to speak—songs you might only find in one hymnal.

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However, I do not find this to be true. The singletons are not notable for their failures. Sometimes they are marked by an excellent peculiarity. This is the case with the deeply moving litany “The Story of the Cross,” which I have only found in The English Hymnal. Its 24 stanzas tell the whole tale of Christ’s carrying the cross, and his death, from the point of view of a Christian sinner accompanying him on the sorrowful way. It is written in five sections, with the first, second, and fifth sung to a beautiful and solemn English melody which I have found only in this hymnal (i.e., the Bridgwater), and the third and fourth sung to a melody that echoes the first (in the Langport).

The stanzas approach the sublime in their sad irony. Here is a representative selection, stanzas 13-15:

Shadows of midnight fall
Though it is day;
Friends and disciples stand
Far away.

Loud scoffs the dying thief,
Mocking thy woe;
Can this my Savior be,
Brought so low?

Yes, see the title clear,
Written above—
‘Jesus of Nazareth,’
Name of love!

You can comb through our hymnals today and find nothing written since 1965 that can stand comparison to those stanzas for their deftness and simplicity, suggesting more than they say.

This brings me to the second reason why I do not buy the Garbage Conjecture. The analogy, drawn from mass production, is wrong. The author of “The Story of the Cross” was E. Monro, otherwise unknown. How could he have written something so fine?  Did he get lucky just once?

I don’t think so. Let’s change the analogy: hand-crafted furniture. Most tables made by carpenters in 1800 were not garbage. The skills required to make something that would not fall apart in a day made this impossible. We can make garbage tables now because we have the materials and the machines for it; we can afford the cheap, the rickety, and the tasteless. This wasn’t possible, when a man needed to make tables that would last for many decades, and when every dovetail and mortise was shaped by hand, using tools he had grown accustomed to, working upon wood he would have chosen for its character—cherry or oak, or maple or cedar.

Not every carpenter in 1800 could make tables fit for Windsor Castle. But he made what would stand the test of time, because it required great skill and practice to make any kind of table at all. The sifting would already have occurred when the man was a boy, learning the feel of wood and tool.

So, too, with the old hymns. A person would have needed certain skills not only to write a good poem in meter and rhyme, but to write any such poem, and he would have been accustomed to writing such poetry from his youth. Poetry was a big part of the ordinary person’s life. For some people it was only the poetry in folk songs and hymns, but for literate people—and I am not talking about college graduates—it was far more. I would like to illustrate this with two anecdotes. One is of some boys who called upon Longfellow, whom they had never met, to congratulate him on his 75th birthday, because they treasured his poetry. Longfellow always liked children, so he invited them in for tea and sweets, and they spent the afternoon together, chatting about poetry and other boyish things. This was Longfellow’s last birthday on earth. The other is of Ma Ingalls, tucking into a drawer a present she had ordered for her daughter, Laura: a collection of the poetry of Tennyson. The Ingalls were hard-luck farmers in South Dakota.

Thus in those old hymns many basic skills are evident. The authors didn’t have to be great poets, just as your cook does not have to be Jacques Pepin to give you a good meal. They may have only sometimes been great, but they were always good and solid, and the severe simplicity of that which they set out to accomplish—the hymn—kept bad taste at bay and flights of ambition in check. It was not necessary that Harriet Auber be great, only solid and good, to give us these stanzas in a poem for Pentecost:

He came in tongues of living flame,
To teach, convince, subdue;
All-powerful as the wind he came,
As viewless too.

And every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness
Are his alone.

This second reason leads me to the third. It wasn’t just that the carpenter in 1800 had spent years in an apprenticeship, he had also been set to school in the centuries of mastery attained by others. He worked in a living tradition.

This is not to say that he was making tables just as people five hundred years earlier had also made tables, so that there was a “tradition” of making tables. A tradition is such by virtue of specific things handed down. Caravaggio learned from the example of Michelangelo, and Rembrandt learned from Caravaggio. Milton learned from the ancients—from Dante and the poets of the Italian Renaissance, and from Spenser and Shakespeare; later Blake, Wordsworth, and Byron learned from Milton. When you work in a living tradition, the excellence of others long dead is alive in your mind and your hands. You do not reinvent wheels.

Modernism is nearly synonymous with disruption from and dismissal of the past. The modernist says the clock’s hands have turned, that there’s no going back, and we must look to the future. Its results have been meager, and at worst a spree of destruction. I am not speaking merely of quality. Whole genres of poetry, to name one branch of art, have disappeared. This is not to say that modernist poets write poor dramatic monologues, poor epics, poor songs, and poor narratives; they do not write them at all. Poetry has shrunk to the confessional or political lyric, usually in free verse. Never in human history has poetry meant less to the ordinary man. It is a tree torn up by the roots.

So when the call came to write new hymns for a New Improved Church, the writers did not turn to the traditions of sacred poetry, traditions wherein their imaginations had had no formation. They merely slapped tables together with hammer and nails and lumber from the yard. The results—with two or three exceptions among the authors—range from barely passable (the table wobbles) to dreadful (the table collapses when you lean on it).

Consider this stanza, the second from the hymn for the Epiphany, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise,” by the Anglican bishop, Christopher Wordsworth:

Manifest at Jordan’s stream,
Prophet, Priest, and King supreme,
And at Cana, wedding guest,
In thy Godhead manifest;
Manifest in power divine,
Changing water into wine;
Anthems be to thee addrest,
God in man made manifest.

We move from the first showing of Jesus to the world, i.e., his appearance to the Magi, to his manifestation at the Jordan River, and then to his first miracle at Cana; the third stanza takes us to his healing miracles and his defeat of Satan, “bringing good from ill,” to the final stanza, wherein we pray to find the Lord manifest in his word, in the purity of our lives, and in that epiphany beyond which there is no other:

Grant us grace to see thee, Lord,
Mirrored in thy holy word;
May we imitate thee now,
And be pure, as pure art thou;
That we like to thee may be
At thy great epiphany;
And may praise thee, ever blest,
God in man made manifest.

Bishop Wordsworth was the nephew of the great poet William Wordsworth, and it shows, in his sure handling of the progression of motifs building to the climax, and in his sure use of the final lines of each stanza, celebrating the central mystery of our faith, that God should be made manifest in the man, Christ. He could do so not because he was a poetic genius, but because he had in his mind and heart a vast treasury of English poetry.

And he had more, which brings me to my fourth and final point. He worked from centuries of tradition of meditating upon the faith and the word of God, which itself is embedded in tradition; the Letter to the Hebrews is a lesson in how to read the Bible as filled with meanings that cannot be reduced to any one place and time. The old hymnodists inherited that world of signs and wonders. They not only translated hymns from Latin, Greek, Syriac, and the earlier forms of our modern languages, i.e., from before the Reformation (I count about 100 such in Hymnal 1940 and 150 in The English Hymnal). They learned the lessons and the habits of those old poets. They were closer to Prudentius, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux, in their thought and in their immersion in the complexities of the word of God, than they are to us who share their English.

Look at this stanza from “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” by Henry Williams Baker:

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

The writer to the Hebrews would have greeted these words with immediate understanding and joy. They “translate” the verse from Psalm 23—“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”—into the key of the New Testament. What is the rod and the staff of the Good Shepherd, if not the cross? The cross is the shepherd’s crozier to wield against the wolves, and our guiding standard, the post and banner to be followed, through and in suffering. I claim that not one contemporary hymn featured in the missals and hymnals Gather, Glory and Praise, Worship, Breaking Bread, as well as similar expensive furniture made of particle board, glue, plastic veneer, and staples has a line like that. The world of meaning was effectively banished.

Baker’s stanza is by no means a single bright light. Good habits like this may be found everywhere.

In the Easter hymn “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing”:

Where the Paschal blood is poured,
Death’s dark angel sheathes his sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.

In Isaac Watts’s meditation upon death in “There Is a Land of Pure Delight”:

Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood
Should fright us from the shore!

In the distilling of prophecies from Charles Wesley’s well known carol:

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

In Henry Francis Lyte’s wonderful adaptation of Psalm 84, combining Eucharistic imagery with the motif of the journey in “Pleasant Are Thy Courts Above”:

Happy souls, their praises flow
Ever in this vale of woe;
Waters in the desert rise,
Manna feeds them from the skies:
On they go from strength to strength,
Till they reach thy throne at length,
At thy feet adoring fall,
Who hast led them safe through all.

 I could go on indefinitely, for none of the old songs give us the piety-salad of the end of “Eagle’s Wings” with its confusion of metaphors:

And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of his hands.

Or the nonsensical refrain from the kindergarten doggerel “Ancient Words”:

Ancient words, ever true,
Changing me and changing you,
We have come with open hearts:
O let the ancient words impart.

Or the inept opening of “Gather Us In,” with its empty rhymes and its sentiment worthy of a middle-school yearbook:

Here in this place new light is streaming,
Now is the darkness vanished away.
See in this space our fears and our dreamings
Brought to you here in the light of this day.

Come on, priests, musicians, and singers. Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read. You need not feed on slop all your life long when you might enjoy real meat and potatoes and vegetables. And sometimes—more often than you suspect—you might feast like kings.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Choir” painted by Salvatore Frangiamore. 


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