Another good old hymn : Holy God we praise thy name

The matter of words

I like hymns with good words. A hymn ought to be able to be prayed without its music, which is very handy at the moment when we aren’t allowed to sing in many of our churches. A lot of modern hymns are disappointing in this aspect, not able to sustain the weight of prayerful attention and lacking in solid theology, but older hymns are a wonderful resource which it is a shame to neglect.

a hymn book without the music is a prayer book
Words and/or music

The best hymns, of course, are those memorable for both words and tune, but a set of really good words or a really good tune can keep a hymn going on its own. Here is a hymn with good words and an excellent tune, from the Germans who gave us so many of our best tunes (and a couple of beloved composers as well).  Holy God, we praise thy name (with more or fewer capital letters) was a staple in all the hymn books we used at school and growing up.  In later life, I discovered it was a favourite with many American friends, who had even chosen to sing it at their weddings.  I hadn’t gone that far, but I loved the fine rolling tune and the way the words followed the roll so exactly, especially in the second verse.

A version of the Te Deum

As so often, the story is more complicated than at first appears.  The words are an adaptation of the Te Deum laudamus, one of the oldest Church hymns, so old that we don’t even know who was responsible for it.  Both St Ambrose and St Augustine have been suggested, but the hymn is thought to be even older than those names would indicate.  As a text, I find it a little unwieldy, in both Latin and English.  It feels like a set of sentences laid out on the page with minimal organisation.  It is a hymn of sorts, but it’s written in prose.  The last part is a collection of what we would nowadays call ‘arrow prayers’, taken from the psalms.  The Te Deum divides antiphonally with ease. This probably led to the myth of Saints Augustine and Ambrose creating it spontaneously together, like a two-man rap, but its rhythms are not patterned until it comes out of the Latin , and the standard English version in the Book of Common Prayer keeps stopping and starting.  It has been a part of the liturgy for centuries, and is one of the prayers which is really useful ecumenically : most Anglicans are more familiar with it than Catholics, as it plays a central role in Matins.

The translator (into German)

The version we have in our (older) hymnbooks has three or usually four verses, but the Te Deum is quite a bit longer than this.  Our version comes via a German paraphrase of the Latin, in twelve verses, by Ignaz Franz (a Catholic priest), in 1771.  He does a fine job, metrical without being forced, and even elegant in places.  He edited it later down to eleven and then eight verses and it occurs in several different hymnals in several different versions.  It was a Catholic hymn originally, and then was adopted by the Protestants.  It became frequent in Protestant hymnals only in the twentieth century, according to wikipedia, but the tune is slightly different (it goes up instead of down at the end of lines 1 and 3, which makes a surprising amount of difference).

Protestant hymnal 1901, with the variant in the tune
Classic Mitteleuropean

It then went through a bad patch, acquiring an extra verse in praise of Hitler, and being adopted as a military machismo hymn, which is unfair if you read the lyrics.  The Poles have a version; the Swiss have an extra pacifist verse;  and I’m certain that I have sung it in Czech.  This happens with a lot of the good German hymns : their words fit the tune so well that they can often be translated into related languages with minimal adjustment, and the tunes export with no problems at all.  The tune we sing was actually written for the (German) words; you can tell because it’s named from the first words of the verse, like a Bach chorale.

Moving into English

The German words are solid and straightforward.  The English ones are not always quite so felicitous, but when the number of verses was reduced, we lost most of the awkward lines.  I regret the loss of two parts in particular, though it was probably a wise decision.   First this one, because it sounds completely Gilbert and Sullivan, the tune emphasizing ‘tri-bu-tary’ just like ‘tutelary’ in The Mikado  (and it just means ‘subject’):

Thou art King of glory, Christ:
Son of God, yet born of Mary;
For us sinners sacrificed,
And to death a tributary:
First to break the bars of death,
Thou hast opened Heaven to faith.

The Lord himself as the first of the ‘startled dead’

and then these lines:

When Thy voice shall shake the earth,
And the startled dead come forth.

because I like that ‘startled dead’ so much.  It is not in the German.

The translator into English

However, let me get back to the version that we actually sing.  The English version was translated by Clarence A. Walworth in 1858.  He was an American (note the spelling of ‘scepter’) lawyer who studied for the Episcopal ministry but then later converted to Catholicism and became a priest.  He wrote poems (which Oscar Wilde was rude about), and translated the German version  into English, which was then published in the Catholic Psalmist, Dublin 1858.  The long text is in the wiki article, but here are the verses in our modern hymnals.  Sometimes they are slightly modernised (you/your instead of Thee/Thy, which works easily because it’s an unstressed syllable). 

1. Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.

2. Hark! the loud celestial hymn
Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising,
Fill the heavens with sweet accord:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord.

3. Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.

4. Spare Thy people, Lord, we pray,
By a thousand snares surrounded:
Keep us without sin today,
Never let us be confounded.
Lo, I put my trust in Thee;
Never, Lord, abandon me.

Matching the words to the music

I think the power of this hymn comes partly from the complete correspondence of tune and words.  The words roll on, like the waves of the sea, measured and rhythmic, each verse apart from the first being a single sentence (spot the German influence, although there are more full stops in the German version).  The rhymes are solid and show little strain, alternating simple and composite very effectively (apart from the unconvincing ‘claim’ in the first verse, which has always niggled at me; sometimes it’s replaced by ‘own’, but that messes up the rhyme).   In the second verse, the singers accumulate as the lines roll out, culminating effortlessly in the first line of the Sanctus, and by then we too are singing with the angels, as part of the mighty chorus.  It works beautifully.

Angel choir
angel choirs enabling a singalong

On the whole the English translation is more self-conscious and affective, certainly more adjectival,  than the German.  I would almost say ‘more Counter-Reformation’, except I’m not sure how much to ascribe to that movement in the Chuch and how much Father Walworth’s version is coloured by an American rather than a European idiom.  The whole hymn would be too much, but the reduced version works well. 

The last verse as a contrast

The last section of the Te Deum, the short collection of arrow prayers or one-liners, is much reduced in the translations.  Even in the German, it is limited to a single verse, and Walworth does the same.  I particularly like the way that the orotund majesty which informs the first three verses contrasts with the simplicity of the petitions in the last verse.  The English version is more acute and emphatic, mainly because it changes from the plural to the singular in the last two lines.  The German, like the Latin, uses the plural throughout,  but the sudden change here in the English version to the specific and individual is arresting.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
I need help here
Changing the focus from ‘we’ to ‘I’

The psalms that use the plural throughout tend to be the more ceremonial ones, the Songs of Ascents, the Temple celebrations, the laments.   The psalmist is singing to God; about various things, about his life, about what’s going on.  He’s not singing to other people, but sometimes he sings about the group to which he belongs.  By the rivers of Babylon/ there we sat and wept (Ps 136/137).  In the same way, the Te Deum is almost like the Creed or the Gloria.  It is a set of statements of belief, and the people are plural.   The singular on the other hand tends to be for the more intimate psalms, the penitentials, the yearning psalms.  The Lord is my shepherd (Ps 22/23).   Any dialogue is between God and the individual, never two human beings, one reason why the psalms belong to anyone who reads them.

David and tongue
just the psalmist and God in this conversation
From risk to reassurance

Often the narrative in a psalm is of the individual set against an undifferentiated crowd of enemies, and that is what is evoked here in the last verse of the hymn.  The first four lines are a simple statement of being beleaguered, or ‘tempested, travailed and afflicted’, as Julian of Norwich puts it.  But then the last two lines move from the political to the personal, with a cry for help : Lo, I put my trust in Thee,/ Never, Lord, abandon me.  This sudden shift to the first person singular, in the last two lines and falling on the last, heavy note of the whole hymn, is very striking, and paradoxically comforting, because we can all instantly identify with it.

Beautiful tents
my enemies encamped around about me
The power of the personal

It reminds me specifically of Psalm 118/119, the longest psalm in the Psalter, which I have written about before, a long, mainly tranquil, even rather smug treatise-poem on the beauties of the Law and how much the psalmist loves it.  It’s an alphabetical psalm, and it just keeps on moving on letter by letter, explaining to God how virtuous and remarkable the speaker is,  until the last stanza, where suddenly the psalmist, this great and eminent jurist, this expert in the Law as given, blurts out ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant/for I remember your commands’ , and the psalm ends abruptly.  Just as in the psalm we move from the majesty of the Law to the rescue of one individual, so we move in the hymn from the enormous majesty of God in mighty chords of music (and you really do need an organ for this hymn) to the singer’s own complete dependence upon him.  In contrast to the tune, the words here are broken and almost breathless, with those two commas : this is entirely down to the English translation, as the German words here are sonorous and smooth.  Breathless but not desperate, because the singer here is as confident as the one in Psalm 62/63 : ‘My soul clings to you;/your right hand holds me fast’ (v.9).  Very personal; very close; very comforting.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A hymn for our times : O God of earth and altar

A Victorian hymn for today

G.K. Chesterton’s O God of earth and altar is a hymn which deserves to be better known, and one which feels particularly relevant to the time we are living in.  He wrote it for The English Hymnal which was published in 1906, as a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and it has been rightly described as ‘vigorous’.

The text

1 O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

2 From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

3 Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

The tune

It is the perfect length for a hymn, three verses of eight short lines.  Even if you don’t know the tune of a hymn, three verses gives you a chance to join in : one to listen, one to attempt and clarify, and the last to sing with conviction.  This is just as well, as O God of earth and altar is sung to two possible tunes among the Anglicans, King’s Lynn by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Llangoffan, a Welsh folk melody.  With typical Catholic stubbornness, we usually sing it to a different tune, Willsbridge by R. L. de Pearsall.  He is himself a very colourful character, if you look him up,  and his tune does fit the words well.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard any version of this hymn sung, however.

Long rolling sentences

I have a particular weakness for hymns where each verse is one sentence.  I think it can give them great strength and cumulative power.  Of the Father’s love begotten is my usual example (though its two last verses each contain an extra full stop).  It’s something that you can do with a translation from the Latin (which Of the Father’s love begotten is), as Latin has so many grammatical ways of extending a sentence without ambiguity.  Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle and O Godhead hid are other examples.  It is also not unusual in translations from German;  Now thank we all our God for example.  But it’s not just translations; there are several English originals, including the much-loved Dear Lord and Father of mankind (mostly),   Thou, whose almighty wordO Jesus Christ, remember, and so on.

Elegant prosody

Technically, Chesterton’s poem is superb, alternating a double rhyme with a single one.  This could sound affected or comic, as English is not so rich in double rhymes as some other languages (it’s easier to do in French or Italian, for example), but here it simply flows.  Some effort is evident in the third verse, where Chesterton has to use the archaic ‘thrall’ to make the rhyme, but he pulls it off because so much of the language of the hymn is in straightforward monosyllables, and the reverberations of the archaic word are precisely what he is emphasizing.  The plainness of nearly all the vocabulary is a very fine example of art to hide art.  The language is simple and direct, another reason why it has not dated, and it is built, like Jerusalem, strongly compact, with no words wasted.

Analysis : first verse (and a quibble)

The first verse is a direct appeal to God, and here I would like to make a tentative suggestion.  The apostrophe is ‘O God of earth and altar’, and I am not sure what it means.  Then it occurred to me that it might be an error of transcription (incredibly common, as anyone who ever copies anything will know : this is why people are so attached to the copy and paste function, whose inventor died recently).  I think it’s meant to be ‘O God of hearth and altar’, i.e. both a private and public God, both intimate and ceremonial;  but the mistake occurred because ‘earthly’ is written just two lines down. (I also think that having ‘earthly’ there is another reason why Chesterton would not have used ‘earth’ in the first line.)  I can’t go hunting for manuscripts to check in the current lockdown, but Chesterton himself once wrote a poem about how bad his writing was, and if you look at some examples of his handwriting, you can see how the confusion might have crept in.

Full of charcter, but not the clearest….

Apart from this minor point, Chesterton is starting his appeal here precisely in the same way that the psalmist does so often : O God in heaven, bend down and listen to me.

Then he sets out the difficulties of the situation in which we find ourselves.  This is a hymn of community, one of the reasons why I like it;  he is writing as himself, but for us all.   There is nothing selfish, patronising or high-handed in his distress or his appeal.  Apart from one reference to ‘cruel men’, it is exclusively ‘our’ and ‘us’, with no exceptions made.  It is indeed a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and as true now as it was in 1906.  He is generous; he does not blame ‘our earthly rulers’, but he sees that they cannot solve the problem, and ‘our people’ are dying.  He blames ‘the walls of gold’ which (sharp image) ‘entomb’ us, he sees that we can’t act together because we do not value each other (diagnosis of the last x years of politics), and then he sounds like the psalmist again : ‘take not thy thunder from us,/ but take away our pride’.

fearsome apocalyptic monsters

Like the psalmist, Chesterton values God’s thunder.  He is calling upon the God who rides upon the wings of the wind (Ps 103/104), who has clouds and darkness as his raiment (Ps 96/97, and I could go on).  This is the God who is unassailably Other, and powerful.  This is who we need; no one else has been able to help.  This situation is beyond us and out of our control; we need God to step in.

Second verse

The second verse is a sort of inverted litany, like the old Scottish ‘From ghoulies and ghosties…’, but it’s fascinating to see what Chesterton prays for us all to be delivered from, because it’s so modern.  And he’s a writer, a journalist, so it’s this area of danger he knows best.  He offers us a list which starts with ‘all that terror teaches’ – and this, remember,  in 1906, when the Dark Web was a long way off.  ‘Lies of tongue and pen’ – all the fake cures for corona being spread through social media?   ‘All the easy speeches that comfort cruel men’ is, I feel,  a bit more time-specific, but I’m not sure that I will still feel that if we continue to discuss euthanasia as we seem likely to do.  ‘From sale and profanation of honour and the sword’ – yes, we have seen plenty of that;  ‘from sleep and from damnation’ – this is a tight encapsulation of the Niemoller dictum.  Enough frightening things there to give you nightmares, so from all this, ‘deliver us, Good Lord!’ , with an unusual exclamation point,  for once feeling fully justified.

Third verse

The third verse emphasizes again the importance of community.  In this public health crisis in which we find ourselves, we cannot simply act and hope to be safe as individual atomies, we have to think about the threat and protection of us all.  So Chesterton prays for us to be tied and bound together, those in earthly authority (‘the prince’),  spiritual authorities (‘the priest’), and – the rest of us.  ‘Thrall’ is an Old English word (used very deliberately by the man who wrote The Ballad of the White Horse), with its root in slavery or servitude, and here meaning ‘the ordinary person not in control’, which feels exactly right.  Once we are all wrapped into an indivisible bundle, Chesterton asks God to ‘smite us and save us all’.  Note ‘and’, not ‘or’.  God can do whatever he likes, and we have deserved whatever he does, because he is justice personified; but after the justice comes mercy, as Pope Francis always stresses.  After the terror and the catastrophe, there will be the result.  God will have made us into ‘a living nation,/ a single sword’, which will be ‘aflame with faith and free’ to do what God made it for.

bringing the people together

The best hymns double as prayers, and this is one which clearly does that.  The whole movement of the words follows the gathering together of all the people into a unity, and then lifting this up in supplication.  It is a hymn which does not pretend that nothing is wrong, or that there are easy answers; but it beautifully expresses the hope to which we all cling.  I am sure it already felt prophetic and apposite when it first came out, in the beginning years of the twentieth century, amid so many wars and social upheaval.   I find it amazing that after so long, it still feels as if it were written for us, for now.  I also find it comforting.

the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God  Eph 6.17

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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