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.


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?

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Anthony

    That version of Psalm 23 is not Anglicised it’s Americanized!

  • I saw this article on a Twitter feed and then read it without seeing who its author was. When I hit the last two sentences, I knew I was in the presence of a great writer. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear? A picture of Dr. Esolen! I should have known. His the most perceptive ear and eloquent tongue on matters of translation these days.

    His comment about needing poets, rather than editors, to make these translations is reminiscent of Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” Each year I find myself doing more with comparative translations in my advanced high school Latin class, and this article reminds me why. We need to train our ears to hear the music of good language. Students need to hear and learn to recognize when a translation is good and when it is not.

    The last two lines of Dr. Esolen’s piece need to be put on bumper stickers.

  • Greg

    I once worked for GIA Publications. That was years ago. Nothing surprises me anymore.

  • Sarto

    For better or for worse, Church music is in the hands of what Crisis loves most: The free market. Come on, guys, you can’t have it both ways. The good doctor’s noble vision would depend on select insiders in the Church imposing their will on what has become an economic consideration. Maybe works with official liturgical books. But officially prescribed music? La, la-la in lala-land.

    • G.

      You’ve got a point there, but your suggestion of the way that’s sure not to work is not the only way to go about it.

      No one is going to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle overnight, by fiat. Where we are is the product of several decades, and will take time to work out.

      Of course there is an economic dimension, and a liturgical music business. The free-market aspect only means we have more avenues by which to pursue change.

      Durable change is ultimately going to come from the demand side (clergy, congregations, choirs). Building awareness is the key.

      Talk to your parish’s music director. Tell them what you like, and what you wish there were more of. Give examples. Remember that many or most have a sincere desire to do the right thing, and may feel “stuck” with what they have to work with as well: a church organist I know once described himself as a “musical janitor.” You’ll get a feel for where they are by talking with them for a few minutes.

      You may not get “Gather Us In” cast out in one fell swoop, but you will have started a thought process, especially if they are hearing from more than one parishioner.

    • PhilB

      Seems to me that Anthony Esolen is trying to influence the marketplace through persuasion, not to shut it down by fiat. And do you mean to suggest that all those post-conciliar changes represent an exercise of a free market? Interesting….

  • Mark

    The big bland era with Tommy and Jimmy Dormi

  • I posted on this article at Pray Tell:

    Perhaps it is helpful to know that Esolen’s article is not accurate in every respect.

    Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB

    • Bruce

      Father Ruff, with all due respect, St. Johns and the Pray Tell Blog are incredibly “modernist” and flirt with dissent on a regular basis. There are many of us who are regularly angered by what see coming from St. Johns and posted on the Pray Tell blog.

      Heck, one look at the Behind the Pine Curtain website gives a very negative impression of the university and monastery to which you belong.

      Just as it may be helpful to know that Dr. Esolen’s article may not be accurate in every respect, it is also helpful for everyone to know that your articles are not accurate in every respect either.

      That, and St. Johns has an awful lot of work to do to change its image. Perhaps a long look, and total adherence, to Church teaching regarding human sexuality would be a good start.

      Humane Vitae – dust it off and have a go!

      Brucee Bumchuckles

      • Bruce

        Oh, and God bless the Pope and the hierarchy. We are all praying that they clean up St. Johns and either restore it to being actually Catholic, or close it down.

        Either way, it cannot continue the way it is. It is a total disgrace to the Church and a source of scandal to the faithful.

        In my opinion, the university and modernist monastery cannot be redeemed. St. Johns must close.

    • Bruce

      And another thing, Father Ruff: You and your followers at Pray Tell and elsewhere decry the “authoritarian Vatican” who operated “secretly” and “forced” this translation upon an unwilling population. You cry foul and ask where your input was…where your vote was. Well, Father, where was OUR vote when you and your groovy buddies wrecked our churches? Where was OUR vote when you took away our statues, our crucifixes, and our tabernacles? Where was OUR vote when you danced and frolicked like showgirls during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Where was OUR vote when you made yourselves the center of worship – like TIN GODS? Where was OUR vote when you destroyed the Mass and destroyed my faith and along with many others? Where was OUR vote when you so watered down doctrine and continue to DIVIDE the faithful AGAINST their shepherds? Where indeed, Father Ruff. Where indeed.

      The FACT of the matter is that dictatorship is only okay if it comes from St. Johns or other dissident outposts so chock-full of baby boomers and elderly dandies that it is hard to discern whether or not we are talking about a monastery or a Bob Weir concert.

      Well, thank GOD for the Vatican! Thank GOD that they stand against the heresy and dissent that vomits forth from alleged “institutions of higher learning” that claim the Catholic name only because it is expedient for duping students…and nowadays its not so expedient anymore is it?

      Long live the hierarchy and our shepherds! Good bye to baby boomer ex-hippie monks, pants-suit nuns, and not-so-closeted homosexuals in backwoods monasteries.

      • TW


        Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!! You’ve expressed the truth so clearly! I feel as if our church was stolen from us and we are just now beginning to get it back. And I strongly feel that the last 45 years was a not-so-subtle attempt to truly destroy our faith. It didn’t work. They lost.

  • Dr. Esolen must be talking about the newest – fourth? – Edition of the Worship III, containing the new Mass translation. My parish purchased the Worship III hymnal back in ’99, when the NAB had just revised its psalter and the Lectionary had to be adjusted. In that Third Edition of W-III, the text to the hymn *is the original* as given in this article. (I read his piece, thinking, “but those original lyrics are so familiar…”)

    It seems to me that if they’re going to alter a bunch of hymn lyrics, maybe they should just update the name to Worship IV, so people don’t confuse older and newer versions of the “same” book.

  • Tony Esolen

    Father Ruff: You mightn’t have noticed the context. I was speaking about the Canadian Book of Worship III. That was made clear earlier in the piece, which the editors divided into three for the sake of convenience and readability.

    Why the Canadian Book of Worship III? Because that’s what I had available to me, in Canada, where my family and I spend every summer. Had I had the American Worship III, I’d have taken some fine examples from that, too.

    I apologize for the confusion — but I did say, up front, “Canadian Worship III.” Now I presume you’ll do the right thing and rectify things at PrayTell?

  • AndyMo

    Yeah, this was all the more confusing since GIA’s Worship III was used for the picture at the top of the article.

  • Tony Esolen

    John Z, could you place a notice at the head of this piece, that it is the third in a series? And that when I say “Worship III,” I am referring to the Canadian Catholic Book of Worship III, as is clear in the second installment? Not that the American Worship III is much less silly. Thanks!

    • Bruce

      Don’t let “highly acclaimed” modernist monks get you down, Dr. Esolen. You are correct on this.

      Let them eat their sour grapes. Their reign of terror is over.

    • John Zmirak

      Sure. Will do!

  • Bruce

    Perhaps I’m being uncharitable with Father Ruff. But I find it awfully disturbing that he, among others, speak so terribly of our shepherds. They are dividing the faithful from the Vicar of Christ and it is high time we start calling them out on this.

    We either believe that Christ established this Church on the Rock of Peter, and that His vicar continues to rule today, or we don’t.

    And if we disregard that, why not everything else too? Works for protestants….

  • Michael H. Smith

    Please forgive me this awful attempt at poetry! (Can somebody please make this better, and finish it?)

    The New American Bible,
    That Neuhaus aptly called,
    Clunky and banal,
    Sadly remains the only Scripture allowed,
    So displeasing to the Traditionalist crowd.

    Horrible hymnals, err, “songbooks” too,
    Like “Gather” and “Glory and Praise,”
    With NAB scream out for replacement!

    Forty years in the desert of dissent,
    Is this what the pope meant by the long lent?
    Modernists of New Church diocese,
    Shriek with horror (No exaggeration!)
    At mere mention of Latin chanted,
    while refusing to allow Adoremus,
    To us who have an ear be granted,
    he only hymnal that would please us,
    Among the Traditonalist congregation.

    The lay announcers, can we dump?
    Who cheerily tell us who they are,
    What day it is, what we are doing here?
    Who our “main celebrant” is,
    What our “gathering song” will be,
    And if I complain I’ll be called the grump!

    And something seems downright sinister,
    With so few in the congregation,
    And Father, behind the meal table surrounded
    By so many women you cannot see him
    With so many extra-ordinary ministers
    The only thing more hidden is the Tabernacle in the corner.

    • Bruce

      Outstanding! Bravo!

  • Anthony Esolen has informed me that his article is about the Catholic Book of Worship III, not the hymnal “Worship III,” though only the latter term is used. Apparently the problem is with editing of his piece into three parts, so that this excerpt does not have the full name of the hymnal, which was given only in a previous excerpt.

    I regret the misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is compounded by the picture above the article… of GIA’s Worship III!

    I hope the editors of Crisis can clarify all this, out of fairness to Anthony Esolen, with a better graphic and at least one full reference to the hymnal he’s actually talking about.

    I will pull down my post at Pray Tell, since it was based on a misunderstanding.

    I also hope the editors of Crisis can moderate the comments – there are some ad hominems here and attempts to change the subject that really don’t contribute to the discussion.

    I’m sorry this misunderstanding happened. I wish everyone a blessed Christmas.

    Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB

    • Bruce

      Fair enough and I apologize if my comments were “ad hominems.”

      That being said, I do disagree with you vehemently with how you have seemingly trashed the Vatican concerning the new translation. Many of us absolutely love it and feel like it was long overdue. Many of us have spent the last several decades waiting patiently and even giving up hope as we saw our churches turned into drab storefronts and meeting halls.

      At the end of the day, I (with many others) follow our Shepherds and not theologians.

      Have a Merry Christmas and know that even though I am an incredible A-hole, I do love you because that is what I am called to do.

  • Victor Wowczuk

    I am not sure that this post has any more ad hominem attacks than PrayTell has, even without a “moderated” intervention which is usually a form of the censorship of contrary ideas and opinions on other blogs.
    In fact, the original post at PrayTell, now deleted, was a pure ad hominem attack against Dr Esolen, linking his perceived errors with supporters of the new Missal translation, implying a stupidity in both.
    Bruce above is quite right. St John’s Seminary as evidenced by their blog has been a source of considerable divisiveness in American Catholicism. There constantly seems to be an inability to distinguish between the sacred and profane and perhaps the seminary should be investigated by the superior in charge for a possible shut down if not cleansing.
    Dr Esolen’s comments about hymnals have been superb, by the way. I am in Canada very frequently, and it is often a test of my patience to have to attend a Novus Ordo Mass there. There are some churches that are exceptions, but they are exceptions. Worship, because of its semi-official status is widely used and the previous versions of it all seem to have suffered from similar attempts at trying too hard to be with the “in crowd”.

    • Bruce

      Thank you! I get passionate about this because I don’t want my children to sit through clown Masses and other abuses and then stop going altogether.

      I want my children to have Catholicism – not dumbed down, watered down, protestantism.

  • Sarto

    This series of articles had me looking at the Oregon Catholic Press hymnal used in the parishes around here. I confess I had never heard of most of the hymns! Each parish seems to have their favorites, repeated over and over. I realize I am not poet enough to judge poetry. Many of the hymns did seem to be biblically based, which makes complaints about their theology a little strange.

    I also wish I could play the piano or something so I could see how the other hymns sound. But there are so many of them in the book I worry about oversimplification.

  • Bruce, have you considered trying a Tridentine Mass? We attend a parish staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and it’s wonderful. (There’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s well worth it.)

    And Tony, I just have to say hello! We haven’t run into each other on the internet in quite some time! Wonderful article, as usual.

  • Mark Kirby

    Something I’ve noticed – a musician could probably address the placement of resonators and such: “you” and “yours” are less singable than “thee” and “thine.”

    A consciousness of how a line sings would be natural in a singing culture; ours is not one. I’d bet that few of the revised hymns sing as well as the ones they replace; my impression formed over these many years with these bowdlerized and emasculated hymns is that they are sins not only literary and theological but also musical.

  • Tony Esolen


    I think you are right about the accusative pronouns “you” and “thee,” and the possessives “your” and “thy” and “yours” and “thine,” and the nominative plurals “you” and “ye”. English poetry long retained “thee” and “thine” for the versatility they lent to the poet, rhyming so well, and in parallel grammatical structures, with “me” and “mine”. The long vowel in “me” and “thee” is what linguists call the high front vowel, easy to pronounce, easy to hold, and bright in its effect; it’s the vowel that we in English form affectionate diminutives with, as in the names Joey and Billy and Sally. The long vowel in “you”, however, is the high back vowel, darker in its effect; it’s one of the vowels we in English use to make “scary” sounds, like “boo,” or “halloo”. The vowels in the possessives are still further apart. In “my” and “thy,” what we print with one letter is actually the easy diphthong ah + ee, lightly pronounced in English, and again ending on the high front vowel. (We do pronounce it lightly; in Italian, each element of the diphthong is stressed, which produces quite a different effect.) Now then, “your” employs the back front vowel “oo”, followed by English r. We don’t use a front-of-the-mouth consonant for our r — the lightly trilled r in Italian or Spanish. We use instead a half-swallowed r, pronounced back towards the palate, which “darkens” and lowers all the vowels that precede it.

    If one considers the monosyllabic English words that end with the sound “oor,” one notices that none of them is particularly bright: moor, boor, poor, sure, tour. There also aren’t very many, because it’s a sound combination we don’t like that much.

    So, yes, I do think that the replacement of “thine” with “your”, even in a non-rhyming instance, messes up the music of the verses as they were composed.

  • Mark Kirby

    Doctor, thanks for the lovely analysis. The sonics you write about are only amplified in singing. Any note I’ve ever sung is more easily sustained on “thee” than on “you.” I have made some distressing sounds on high “you’s,” and heard some.

  • Gabriel Austin

    My 76 year old ears have protested against the perversion of Psalm 23. What is wrong with the splendid King James version [slightly different from but more resonant than the Douai version]:

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
    He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

    The changes are fixing what ain’t broke. Far be it from me [well, not too far] to suggest that the changes were made to allow for a new copyright.

    For hymns, since the yuppies seem not be able to sing [one has but to listen to their music, which requires great amplification] I recommend using such hymns as those written by Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and the other great Protestant songsters. And to throw out ON EAGLE’S WINGS which calls to mind Jove as an eagle raping the beautiful shepherd boy, Ganymede.

    • TomD

      Gabriel, look at the 23rd Psalm in the Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition (RSV-CE, otherwise known as the Ignatius Bible). The translation of the 23rd Psalm in the RSV is very similar to the more traditional KJV translation.

      While the RSV is not a perfect English translation, this is just one example of why many Catholics believe that the RSV-CE is a better English translation than the New American Bible for liturgical purpose.

  • Sarto

    Somebody ought to take all the different translations of the Bible and make a compendium of the best, most poetic translations. Nobody has improved on the KIng James pslam 23.

    But the New American’s “for years to come” is actually a more accurate translation than the King James “forever.” But it doesn’t sing.

  • Tony Esolen


    Oh yes, I quite agree. I love the KJV, and admire the attempts of the translators to render exactly and fully everything they found in the original. So, for example, the Hebrew compound tzal-moweth literally means “shadow of death,” and my gosh, why wouldn’t you want to preserve that powerful and moving image? The final verse of the poem means, literally, “length of days,” which I would accept as a translation, though I believe that the Jewish translators of LXX render it as what we’d say as “forever and ever.” That one’s a close call.

    By the way, I’ve written a piece for Magnificat — can’t remember what month it will appear — on the poetry of The King of Love My Shepherd Is. That is really a subtle and profound reading of Psalm 23 in the light of Christ — it is consistently Christological and Eucharistic, without being obvious about it. A sample verse:

    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.

  • Mark Kirby

    I thought the great thing about Vatican II and the Novus Ordo and ecumenism was that we’d get to sing all those great Protestant hymns. Didn’t turn out that way.