Songs of the Saved and the Bland

This is the third article in a series by Prof. Esolen on the mutilation of hymn lyrics. The edition of “Worship III” referred to throughout is the Canadian one.


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To complete my holiday autopsy of the musical corpus left to us after forty years of tinkering, I’ll highlight how recent hymnal editors have botched both the sound and sense of a papal hymn for Lent, and managed (somehow) to make the beloved 23rd Psalm monotonous.

The editors of Worship III often prefer new translations, and when they use one,we can be sure that what moved the original poet will be muted or eliminated, if it refers too clearly to human weakness, or sin, or obedience, or the need to mortify the body, or such things that offend the delicate modern ear.  Consider the Lenten poem attributed to Saint Gregory the Great:

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Our Lent has been established by Christ, who, even though He made the world, humbled Himself for forty days to fast and pray.  If He has done so, who are we to demur?  Indeed, He has but confirmed the deeds of the prophets of old, who gained by fasting and prayer the vision of heavenly things, culminating in the great work of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ:

Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lions’ might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The herald of Messiah’s name.

Those verses are stunning.  The word fasting is repeated in the second stanza, linking Moses and Elijah, the prophets who appear beside the transfigured Christ; and Daniel, with his spare meal of beans and grain, for he refused to eat the food of the Babylonians or to worship their emperor, sees visions of Christ to come, as John sees Christ already in the world, John whose food was wild honey and locusts.

The following stanza applies those lessons to us:

Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
Full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
And give us joy to see thy face.

We pray that we may follow the example of Moses and the rest, and more: to be one with Jesus in His retreat into the desert.  Moses fasted, and was given the Law; Elijah fasted, and saw the chariots of fire; we fast with Jesus, and pray for something far more wondrous, the vision of the face of God Himself.

In Worship III, these four stanzas are collapsed into three, the allusions to Scripture eliminated, the sense of joining Jesus in His forty days muted, and the connection between fasting and vision severed:

Again we keep this solemn fast,
A gift of faith from ages past,
This Lent which binds us lovingly
To faith and hope and charity.

The law and prophets from of old
In figured ways this Lent foretold,
Which Christ, all ages’ Lord and Guide,
In these last days has sanctified.

More sparing, therefore, let us make
The words we speak, the food we take,
Our sleep, our laughter, every sense;
Learn peace through holy penitence.

Which Lent was foretold by the law and the prophets?  Where?  We don’t know.  Which are the last days in which Christ has sanctified this Lent?  His own forty days in the desert?  These last days now?  We don’t  know.  Why should we make our food more sparing?  Who did that before us?  What did they gain?  We don’t know.  Why did we need a new translation?  We don’t know.

If we’re going to have new verse translations – of the Psalms, let’s say – genuine poets must write them, not editors.  Even when the new translation is not theologically objectionable, if it obscures the beauty of the Hebrew poetry, we should reject it.  Here is Psalm 23 from the famous Scottish Psalter (1650):

The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want,
He maketh me down to lie
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

My soul he doth restore again
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness
E’en for his own name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear none ill:
For thou art with me, and thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

My table thou hast furnished
In presence of my foes;
My head thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me:
And in God’s house forevermore
My dwelling place shall be.

That’s a brilliant versification of the Psalm.  It preserves the images, the tenderly lyrical language, and, most important, the form and the emphases of the verses.  We begin where the Psalmist begins, and we end where he ends: for His name’s sake; they comfort me; my cup runneth over.

Here is the new translation in Worship III:

The Lord, my shepherd, rules my life
And gives me all I need;
He leads me by refreshing streams;
In pastures green I feed.

The Lord revives my failing strength,
And makes my joy complete;
And in right paths, for his name’s sake,
He guides my faltering feet.

Though in a valley dark as death,
No evil makes me fear;
Your shepherd’s staff protects my way,
For you are with me there.

While all my enemies look on,
You spread a royal feast;
You fill my cup, anoint my head,
And treat me as your guest.

Your goodness and your gracious love
Pursue me all my days;
Your house, O Lord, shall be my home,
Your name, my endless praise.

There’s nothing wrong with this anglicized psalm.  It’s simply flat.  It misses the haunting beauty of the original.  The remarkable sentence, “my cup runneth over,” which concludes verse five, is tucked away mid-stanza, and the image of overflowing is gone.  Not one of the stanzas above builds to the climax we find in the corresponding verse of the psalm.

It’s not easy to write good religious poetry.  Good poetry of any sort is rare.  The task is the more difficult when we wish to write poetry for music, in meter.  We have to be steeped in the religious lyrics of English tradition.  We must cherish the devotional poetry of Donne, Herbert, Milton, Vaughan, Cowper, and Hopkins; we must hear the ringing psalms of Isaac Watts, and the verses of John Mason Neale, the shrewdest English translator of Latin hymns; we should study the poetic prayers of the Wesleys, and John Henry Newman, and many others.  Then, if we have the talent – and few do – we might try writing a modern “Abide With Me,” or “There Is a Land of Pure Delight.”  I have no objection to new poetry, and new translations!  I object to the vandalizing of old poetry and old translations, and their replacement with what is pallid, banal, effete, ungrammatical, or imbecilic.  We may not have among us a modern Caravaggio.  Is that any reason to settle for crayons and cardboard?


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