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’.
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.
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 word, O Jesus Christ, remember, and so on.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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