Rescuing Hymnody from Stupidity

Hunkering down during the latest snowstorm, my family and I had to attend Mass via television. We saw a nationally broadcast Mass that wasn’t heretical, but that was an emblem of just about everything that I have criticized in my last two articles, on vocations. In particular, the little girl (and one boy) choir sang tuneless stuff that was downright infantile. There was one altar boy in pajama robe, with almost nothing to do. You won’t get any vocations out of that congregation, because the young men are not there.

Now you may say, “But we at least sing real hymns at our parish.” Well, yes and no. If you think you’re singing traditional hymns, but you’re using Worship III, the even worse Worship IV, or any other hipster hymnal, you are singing something grammatically garbled or poetically mangled. That’s quite aside from theological amputation. In Worship III, it’s the work of a person or persons I’ll denominate as Mr. Muddlesome.

Since most of the great hymns in English were written when poets used the archaic pronouns thou, thy, thine, thee and ye, especially for address to the Almighty, Muddlesome had quite a task ahead of him. He disliked the old pronouns because we don’t use them in common address anymore. It hadn’t occurred to him that in real use, by ordinary people, those pronouns gain in intimacy as they are restricted in range. That’s why ordinary people cherish them in their most beloved prayers, the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

To Muddlesome, “the vernacular” meant the colloquial: an office memo ending with an amen. That’s all. He’s no linguist; just as the people who vandalized our churches were not painters or sculptors. He can’t imagine that a mother tongue might “contain multitudes,” including the register of the sacred. He’s a subtractor. If peasants want to be courtly in their oral poetry and folk hymns, too bad for them. Drag them into Future Church for their own good.

 

So he had to eliminate those pronouns, and that put the hymns in danger. Nor was it a matter of easy substitution. Thine and thee are euphonious words for the end of a verse. Their vowels are clear and bright. They rhyme with a wealth of words that are useful for a hymn: mine, divine, wine, sign, fine, incline, me, we, be, see, tree, plea, knee, and words ending in -cy, -ty, and -ly, such as constancy, eternally, and piety. So Muddlesome had to meddle with the rhymes.

He also had to rub out a few old verbal inflections: the occasional third person -eth (he leadeth me), the occasional second person -est (thou gavest)and a few variants: thou art (you are), thou wast (you were), thou wert (you were), thou shalt (you shall), thou wilt (you will), he hath (he has), he saith (he says), he doth (he does).

That’s it. Not many, not difficult. Anyone who prays the Our Father and the Hail Mary would have no trouble with thou, thy, thine, thee, art. Everyone knows thou shalt. Christmas carols, whose pronouns and verbs even Muddlesome sometimes dared not touch, are full of them: O come all ye faithful.

And it’s not as if he could be consistent. He keeps the vocative O, and even inserts it sometimes to replace thou, one archaic element for another. He keeps word-order inversions once common in English poetry. So we end up with neither flesh nor fowl, poetic monsters, always less eloquent and usually less understandable than the originals.

Often it’s not even grammatical. Here’s the true first stanza of For All the Saints:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.

The pronoun Thee is the object of confessed. The sentence means, “O Jesus, may Thy name be forever blessed, for all the saints who rest from their labors, who by faith confessed Thee before the world.” The object of the verb is crucial. It explains the stanza. The name of Jesus should be blessed for the sake of those saints who proclaimed Jesus to all the world, and who often suffered for it.

Muddlesome couldn’t tolerate Thee, and he didn’t want the ugly collocation who you. So he dumped the object and hoped nobody would notice:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
All who by faith before the world confessed,
Your name, O Jesus, be forever blest.

The saints confessed, did they? Whom, what? It makes no sense. In English, if you confess with no direct object, you’re confessing a sin. But that’s not what’s going on in the stanza. Perhaps Muddlesome was nodding—or snoring.

Or take the should-be-lovely hymn The King of Love My Shepherd Is. It’s a rendering of Psalm 23, seen in the light of the New Testament. This is the fine second stanza in the original:

Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

Muddlesome broke out in hives at leadeth and feedeth. He couldn’t substitute leads and feeds, because he needed two syllables. So he made hash of the meaning and the grammar. English verbs have a progressive form, to denote actions in progress. I love her denotes a settled condition. I’m loving her—well, we’re married! He gives me my medicine denotes a habit. He’s giving me my medicine suggests that he’s sticking the teaspoon in my mouth right now. So Muddlesome is giving us our medicine:

Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he’s leading,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feeding.

Feeding right now, munch. As bad as the absurd change in meaning is the awkward he’s, required in order to get that progressive leading in there. It botches the parallelism. The ear and the mind have to “hear” the suppressed verb is in he’s, and it has to survive the next two lines, and be understood as applying to feeding. But English doesn’t work that way. When we hear feeding in the last line, we assume that it’s a present participle, modifying the nearby noun food, which makes no sense, or pastures, which also makes no sense. Plain awful.

The job he did on a later stanza was worse: he dispensed with grammar entirely. Here’s the original:

Thou spreadst a table in my sight,
Thy unction grace bestoweth,
And O what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

Recall the psalm: “Thou spreadst a table in the sight of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” We have the Eucharistic table and the sacramental oil that bestows grace upon us, and the ravishing delight flowing from the holy chalice.

Yes, unction had to go, along with the old pronouns and verb forms. Witness the wreckage:

You spread a table in my sight;
Your saving grace bestowing;
And O what transport of delight
From your pure chalice flowing!

Say what? Gone is the oil of anointing. The word saving is inserted to take up two syllables. But after the semicolon following sight, there’s nothing but sentence fragments. What or who is bestowing? Where’s the verb for the clause beginning with and? There’s none. It’s gabble.

Maybe Muddlesome didn’t care. Consider this stanza from Jerusalem, My Happy Home:

There David stands with harp in hand,
As master of the choir:
Ten thousand times that man were blest
That might this music hear.

See the offending word? Yes, it is man. Fetch the smelling salts, Nellie—Mr. Muddlesome has the vapors! He erases that dirty word man wherever it appears. Here he substitutes we. But that makes no sense. The sentence means this: “That man would be blest ten thousand times over, should he hear this music.” That is a demonstrative adjective: that individual man, as opposed to somebody else. Were is subjunctive, expressing the result of a hypothetical: How blessed were that man!

Here is Muddelsome’s revision:

Ten thousand times that we were blest
That might this music hear.

What the heck is the subject? “I seen the robber” is bad grammar, but quite understandable. This here is not bad grammar. It’s beneath grammar.

These are typical examples; and I haven’t gotten to the diluted theology, where most of the deviltry appears. Reader, you may remember the dust-up a few years ago, about the new English translation of the Mass—a translation, not a paraphrase or abbreviation or distortion. The same people who complained about periodic sentences then have been selling us this garbled mess for forty years. I do mean “selling.” The hymnals aren’t free.

Anybody can put up with one bad verse here and there, or one foolish excuse for a modern hymn now and then. What’s the cumulative effect, week after week, year after year? Stupidity, said Jacques Maritain, is always a vice. We can disagree about pragmatic measures for attracting young men to the priesthood. Can we begin to agree that stupidity repels?

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels” painted by Bernardino Luini and commissioned in 1523.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Northeast Catholic College. Dr Esolen has authored several 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).

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