Bad Poetry, Bland Theology: Let’s Write a Hymn!

Few parishes can afford to replace or restore the lost art so many pastors ripped out on the pretext that it was “pre-conciliar.”  In some cases – I’m thinking of a church in Appalachia with hand-carved relief sculptures of the local flora and fauna – the loss is irreparable.  But poetry doesn’t cost a thing. People might not have the money for stained glass windows.  But they don’t need money for stained glass poems.  All they need is for the publishers of missals and hymnals to restore those poems in their original integrity.

Here I’m not criticizing the show-tunes and lounge music that stuff the hymnals.  They’re bad enough.  But there’s an honesty to their badness.  They come by it naturally.  It’s as if someone were to paint Jesus on black velvet, playing ball with the children of Palestine.  But defacing someone else’s art is another matter.  That’s vile.  Yet that’s been done for decades by editorial committees, marring and mutilating and garbling and whitewashing poetic art of high quality.  We should demand that it end, now.

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Why did they deface the art in the first place?  The editors of Glory and Praise give three reasons.  Two are absurd, and one is flatly false.  The absurd reason that seems justifiable is that “contemporary language” should be adopted “in place of antiquated words or phrases, unless popular usage dictates otherwise.”  All that means, practically, is that the second person singular pronouns thou, thee, thy, and thine, and the plural nominative ye, that in English have long been relegated to a sacral use, or to love poetry, must go, along with a few grammatical forms for the verb: thou hast, He leadeth, thou shalt, thou art, and so on.

Why?  They’re not hard to understand.  After all, they have been retained for the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and for such well-known songs as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  How long would it take a child to figure out the meaning of the title, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”?  A minute?  Even if it were difficult, there aren’t many of these forms, and their usage could be explained in one page.  After all, people have been singing them long after they passed out of colloquial language.  Are old-time Baptists smarter than Catholics?

But the point is that you can’t alter these forms without messing up the poetry where they appear.  Thee, Thy, and thine were especially convenient, because they corresponded so neatly with me, my, and mine, giving the poets the chance to relate the singer and his characteristics to God.  Consider these splendid verses from “Take My Life”:

Take my will and make it Thine:
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own;
It shall be Thy royal throne.

Take my life, my Lord; I pour
At Thy feet its treasure-store.
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.

This is abandonment to God’s providence, expressed with noble simplicity.  Revision can only mar the verses.  So the vandals have three choices.  They can jumble them; I’ll give examples below.  They can give it up as hopeless, and omit the hymn entirely.  Or they can let it be as is. The same thing goes for the beloved hymn that begins thus:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
Even though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

The verse gives us a stunning image, in deceptively simple language.  The poet is playing upon the pronouns thee and me, and the relation between them, here presented by the metaphor of distance.  We are encouraged to pray that God will draw us nearer to Him, higher, by raising us – even upon a cross!

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

Now if you want to eliminate antiquated forms of expression – and if you are allergic to the sacral – the whole poem has to go.  We simply do not say, “Ponder nothing earthly minded.”  But the committee wanted to keep the poem.  The word descendeth had to be altered.  We can’t have an eth. Unfortunately, the melody emphasizes that word more than any other; it is the locus of an extraordinary five-note run.  What to do?  Here is Canada’s Catholic Book of Worship III:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descending,
Our full homage to demand.

Quick, people, on to the next verse!  Don’t look!  There are only two possibilities here.  Either the committee vandals were incompetent hacks, too stupid or inattentive to notice that they have written a clause without a verb (Christ our God, what?), or they believed that the people in the pews would be too stupid or inattentive to notice it.  It’s no typo.  They did the same thing to the third verse, with the same result.

Sometimes a harmless thy in the middle of a line is replaced with the ho-hum and possibly vague (because it can be singular or plural) your. Sometimes a hast is replaced with have, or hath with has. It doesn’t improve anything; often it spoils the sound.  But most of the time the alterations are drastic.  They butcher the grammar, garble the meaning, or snuff out the poetry.

The tagged poems are everywhere.  Here’s a little hymn: “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”  It’s sometimes sung at a springtime feast.  Behold the final verse:

Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!
Praise eternal as his love; Alleluia!
Praise him, all ye heavenly host, Alleluia!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Alleluia!

That last line sums up the hymn.  It is as glorious as it is inevitable.  But the vandals of the Canadian Worship III could not abide the old-fashioned name, Holy Ghost.  What to do?  Garble:

Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!
Praise eternal as his love; Alleluia!
Praise him, now his might confess, Alleluia!
Father, Son and Spirit bless.  Alleluia!

What’s the word now doing there?  Nothing.  It’s a space filler.  What’s the business about might?  Don’t know.  It doesn’t connect to the theme of the last two verses, which is the love of Jesus.  The vandals needed some object or other for confess, to rhyme with bless. So we discard a verse that is perfectly clear, and on grounds that “Ghost” is obsolete, write a verse that is disconnected with the rest of the hymn and that employs obsolete sentence-structure in any case.

One of the ironic things about mangling the old language is that the result is often less personal, less intimate.  Here is a radiant verse from another hymn the reader may have heard of, “For All the Saints”:

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

The pronouns are essential to the poetry, and embody a profound spiritual truth.  We on earth, in the Church Militant, are comrades in arms with the saints in heaven, in the Church Triumphant.  That is the fellowship that cheers us.  We struggle – the fight is with us still – while they shine in glory, but we and they are one.  How?  By the unity that Jesus revealed to His apostles at the Last Supper.  We are united from above: only God can make us one.  That truth is clinched by the turn in the verse, as we move from we to they to thee: it is a verse brimming with love.  All are thine, says the poet.

What did the vandals do?  The vandals of Worship III spattered paint over everything.  Fellowship had to go; too martial, or too masculine (“fellow”).  Feebly struggle had to go; not smiley enough.  Then the last line had to go, because of the pronouns:

O blest communion, family divine!
We live and struggle, they in glory shine:
Yet all are one within God’s great design.

The absurdity of the second line!  William How, the poet, was contrasting our state on earth with that of the saints in heaven.  They don’t have to struggle anymore.  But the vandals now have it that we’re alive, while the saints are – what?  Not alive?  What does the word live add to its clause, anyway?  If one is struggling, doesn’t that imply that one is alive?  Then the last line thuds.  God’s great design includes plants and animals, the permission of evil, and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with our relationship to the saints, and our being united with one another in the Lord.  Why did they plug in the word design? They needed a rhyme, that’s all.

Often the old language provided the vandals the occasion to whitewash the substance of the line.  In other words, updating the language is the excuse for expunging something else that is frowned upon.  Consider this verse from the mighty All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name:

Crown him, ye martyrs of our God,
Who from his altar call;
Praise him whose way of pain ye trod,
And crown him Lord of all!
Praise him whose way of pain ye trod,
And crown him Lord of all!

Quick, class.  Which line in that stanza is most striking?  The first two are an allusion to the martyrs of Revelation, crying from beneath the altar, “How long?”  But that third line sets their martyrdom in high relief.  They are the saints who have most manifestly walked the road to Calvary.  The alliteration of praise and pain is particularly fine.  They have borne their Cross!

No English speaker would be baffled by those lines.  They are clear.  But that’s the problem.  The vandals didn’t like what the clarity illuminated; too penitential, too martial, too much Cross.  So they got rid of it.  They needed a rhyme with God, though, and since clod, shod, sod, and quad wouldn’t do, they hit upon rod. “Hey, that’s in the Bible somewhere, isn’t it?” said their chief:

Crown him, ye martyrs of our God,
Who from his altar call;
Extol the stem of Jesse’s rod,
And crown him Lord of all!
Extol the stem of Jesse’s rod,
And crown him Lord of all!

People often think that poets conceive of words in a fuzzier way than do ordinary mortals.  The reverse is true.  Poets are instead more attuned to the physical, to things that can be touched and heard and seen.  The poet hears the word extol and thinks straightaway of something being lifted high, since that’s what the word literally means.  All right then – how do you extol a stem? What does that mean?  Or is it the rod we’re extolling?  Is it the rod of the stem of Jesse, or the stem of the rod of Jesse?  And what does the rod of the stem or the stem of the rod have to do with that moment in Revelation, and martyrdom?  Nothing, people; just keep singing and don’t ask questions.

Not content with making hash of that verse, the vandals decided to botch the last.  It’s simple and straightforward in the original:

Let every kindred, every tribe,
On this terrestrial ball,
To him all majesty ascribe,
And crown him Lord of all!

The repetition of every is effective, and points toward the climax in the phrase all majesty. But majesty was too high a term to ascribe to God.  Or perhaps kindred was obsolete, harking to a time when people had children.  Or maybe it was just the old libido dumbinandi:

O that with every tribe and tongue
We at his feet may fall,
Lift high the universal song
And crown him Lord of all!

Yes, I want to fall at the feet of Jesus with every tongue.  Are they panting?  Licking the dust?  Whatever they’re doing, they must be acrobats, those fallen tongues, because they’re simultaneously lifting high the universal song. What’s that?  We don’t know.  We needed a rhyme with tongue, or maybe tongue is there to rhyme with song. Does it matter?  Poems aren’t supposed to make sense, are they?

A second reason given for the mutilations in Glory and Praise is that there should be “inclusive references to the people of faith.”  What that means is that the word man is treated like an indecency scrawled on a bathroom wall.  All kinds of troubles arise.  Most important is that there is no word in English that will do the same linguistic work. For man is splendidly inclusive.  It embraces every human being who has ever existed.  It does so not in an impersonal generality, like the human race. It is personal and specific.  It does not corral us into a collective, or a plurality, like people or human beings. It is starkly singular, while at the same time universal.  It does not divide us into sexes, as the phrase men and women does.  Recently the archfeminist and anti-Christian bigot, Margaret Atwood, was interviewed on television by the equally bigoted David Suzuki.  They spoke without blushing of “man’s inhumanity to man.”  Try to “update” that phrase, while preserving its powerful conciseness and the fullness of its meaning.  It’s impossible.

So then, to excise man from the hymnal means that there will be no songs that refer, in that singular, concrete, and universal way, to all of us, whether we are in the “people of faith” or not.  The following hymn must be cast aside:

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim:
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”

Do we not see that not only this poem, but the very thought that requires such a poem for its expression, cannot exist unless we can address, in the singular, and in an intensely personal way, man – the child of earth, whom we call to turn from his foolishness?

Such was the disgust that man aroused in the vandals, the poor word couldn’t survive even when its use was Scriptural and referred to Christ.  Here is the powerful second verse of “Crown Him with Many Crowns”:

Crown him the Son of God
Before the worlds began,
And ye, who tread where he hath trod,
Crown him the Son of man;
Who every grief hath known
That wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for his own,
That all in him may rest.

The resounding and deftly placed phrase Son of man is the key to the stanza.  The Lord came to dwell among us.  We walk devoutly in His paths, because He walked in ours.  He took to His heart every grief we know: the death of loved ones, the betrayal of friends, rejection, disappointment, loneliness, even the feeling of having been abandoned by God.  He bears those griefs as He bore the cross, so that we may find our perfect rest in Him.  It is a beautiful stanza, bringing the glory of the exalted Lamb in the opening verse down into our world and our lives.  But it uses that word man, and not even the cleverest vandals could botch it.  So Glory and Praise and Worship III simply omit the verse.

Sometimes the editors efface the word, only to render the line offensive in a different way.  Consider this verse from the venerable “Holy, Holy, Holy”:

Holy, holy, holy, though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

The vandals of Glory and Praise let the pronouns alone.  But sinful man had to go.  What does the phrase mean?  Man is sinful, and therefore man cannot see God.  The condition applies to everyone together, and to each individually.  Here is the marred version:

Though the eye of sinners thy glory may not see.

It botches the meter – and changes the meaning!  Now it’s sinners who cannot see God’s glory.  Presumably righteous songsters can.

It wasn’t simply the word man that the editors reviled, but anything masculine at all.  How is that “inclusive”?  The hymnals are full of songs that appeal to feelings that women would recognize as their own.  But all the hymns that appeal to the masculine have been excised: Onward, Christian Soldiers”; “Rise Up, O Men of God”; “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”; “God of Our Fathers”; “He Who Would Valiant Be”; “Fight the Good Fight”; “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”; “O God of Earth and Altar”; and many more.  The  few that seem to have remained were emasculated.  Here are two verses from “For All the Saints”:

O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.  Alleluia, alleluia!
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.  Alleluia, alleluia!

Worship III simply omits the first.  Here is what it does to the second:

And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
Then from the distance sounds the triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and courage strong.  Alleluia, alleluia!

It’s not a conflict that the poet imagined, but warfare, and with Scriptural warrant.  See the Book of Revelation.  We are placed at that scene, soldiers slogging through the mire, our bones sore unto death, our sodden clothes clinging to us, our eyes discerning no end to the enemy line.  Then, suddenly, a song – it steals upon the ear – we turn our heads, yes, we hear it!  And the heart leaps up, and the arms are strong again, to fight.  All is rendered vague and impersonal by the vandals.  What does their last line even mean?  And hearts are brave again and, and – hearts are brave?  What else does courage mean?  Why did they put that word in there?  Because it took up two metrical spaces, that’s why.

Women used to write boldly about the masculine virtues of Christ. Here is the fourth stanza of Catherine Marie Noel’s hymn,
“At the Name of Jesus”:

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true:
Crown him as your Captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

Quick: which line holds the stanza together?  Which is the most visible image?  It is of our crowning Christ as our Captain.  It picks up and sharpens the metaphor in the first line.  It suggests both that Christ is our head, and that He leads us in battle.  But the editors of Worship III did not like that word.  They didn’t like it either in “For All the Saints,” and excised it there also.  Here instead of crowning Christ, we call upon Him: May your voice entreat him, say the editors, as if any old prayerish line would do.

Miss Noel concludes her hymn with a paean to the kingship of Christ:

Brothers, this Lord Jesus
Shall return again,
With his Father’s glory
O’er the earth to reign;
For all wreaths of empire
Meet upon his brow,
And our hearts confess him
King of glory now.

We are brothers because we owe allegiance to the Father; the words of kinship are deftly placed.  We look forward to Christ’s returning again, and therefore we confess Him King of glory now – that last word is not the filler that we find in the vandalized revisions.  But the central image is mighty indeed.  Every wreath of empire the world has ever known belongs to Christ, and we see Him crowned with them, we look upon His brow, and overcome with awe we proclaim Him King.  But the good woman’s poem could not be spared the vandals’ knife.  They depersonalized brothers, they cut that image of the brow, and they shifted the emphasis somewhat from Christ to ourselves:

Christians, this Lord Jesus
Shall return again,
With his father’s glory
O’er the earth to reign;
Love and faithful service
We his subjects vow,
And our hearts proclaim him
King of glory now.

All of which leads me to the third justification for altering the poems.  Glory and Praise presents it as “adherence to the essential theological meaning of the original text.”  That implies that “the essential theological meaning” might be obscured by linguistic change over time, and that the revisers sought to scrub away the soot, to reveal the meaning in its original brilliance.  But this is not true.  In no case were those meanings unclear.  What the revisers often did was to change the meanings, to bring them in line with their own preferences, with the excuse that they were preserving only what was essential.

An example of such tweaking can be found in the Easter hymn, “The Strife Is O’er,” whose lyrics translate a seventeenth century Latin poem.  The third verse is plain and bold:

The three sad days are quickly sped,
He rises glorious from the dead:
All glory to our risen Head!  Alleluia!

What’s “wrong” here?  Hard to tell.  The memory of sorrow?  The specified relationship between the body of Christ and our Head?  Glory and Praise effaces both:

On the third morn he rose again,
Glorious in majesty to reign;
O let us swell the joyful strain: Alleluia!

The final verse too contains a revision that seems unaccountable, unless on grounds of theological preference.  Here is the original:

Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee,
From death’s dread sting thy servants free,
That we may live and sing to thee.  Alleluia!

The stanza is rich in Scriptural allusion.  “By his stripes you were healed,” says Saint Peter (1 Pt. 2:24), recalling Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant (Is. 53:5).  Those wounds have freed the servants of God, those who share in the suffering and the triumph of Jesus, from the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:55).  Then we shall live, and what does that mean?  We live to sing, for as Saint Augustine says, singing is what the lover does.

The Glory and Praise editors could not abide the old pronouns, so of course the stanza had to be rewritten, and most of the richness and the expression of love was lost.  But they made a further alteration:

Lord, by your death on Calvary,
From death’s dread sting your people free,
That we may live eternally.  Alleluia!

Why change servants to people?  Was the word not democratic enough?  Too humble?  But it is a joy to be the servant of God.  We all long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

That’s a smallish revision, but evidence of something more profound: a hesitation to acknowledge the virtue of obedience and our complete dependence upon God.  Here, for example, is the final verse of the thundering hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” It is anticipated by three stanzas that extol Christ as the warrior without whom we would be lost.  A “little word,” we are told, will fell the “prince of darkness grim”:

That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

What a magnificent gesture, that – “let goods and kindred go”!  We recall the words of Jesus, “Fear not those who can kill the body.”  The powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil battle against us, and they may destroy our wealth, slay our kin, and take away our lives, but what does it matter?  The truth of God abides.  “Heaven and earth will pass away,” says Jesus, “but my words will never pass away.”  His kingdom is not of this mortal world.

Now this Lutheran hymn – perhaps the most revered of all Lutheran hymns – could not survive the vandals in the Lutheran camp.  The editors of Glory and Praise, allergic to eth, borrowed their new version from the Lutheran vandals, a version that ranges from Pelagian self-celebration to the ridiculous:

God’s word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes, who fear it;
For God himself fights by our side
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours forever!

The emphasis here is on us. God fights beside us. That is quite different from saying that God is on our side.  We are fighting alongside God, who is wielding – in a bizarre phrase – weapons of the Spirit. Like the hammer of Thor, maybe?  But where is Christ?  The vandals have erased Him, turning the phrase that word, which clearly refers to Christ, into God’s word, which is an it, apparently referring to Scripture.  What that has to do with the fight is not clear.  I won’t expatiate on the banality of the bank foreclosure in were they to take our house. The difference in the hymns is painfully clear in the final line, revised only to alter the theology.  We move from His kingdom is forever to The Kingdom’s ours forever. The last pronoun refers not to God and His triumph but to us and ours.

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