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.

Advent hymns shouldn’t be penitential

Not about psalms this time, but Advent hymns

I’m stepping outside my comfort zone to comment on some of the other music you might be considering using over the Advent season. (I think the only other time I’ve done this was in the blog on wedding music.)  This is because I realised when I was writing my Gentle Guide to the Christmas music that it didn’t really cover Advent, even though I have strong opinions about the hymns we have at this time of year.

Woman at desk, man standing in front
Volmar asking why I’m going off-topic
Advent is not another Lent

Too many people seem to see Advent as a mini-Lent, where the music should be penitential, but there are various clues around indicating that this should not be the case.  In the first place, we don’t lose the Alleluia during Advent.  This is very important!  In Lent it is not allowed to pass our lips from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil, but during Advent, we sing the Alleluia verse every week.  We do not say or sing the Gloria during Advent, just as we don’t during Lent, but I think this is more to make us miss it and be happy to sing it on Christmas or Easter night (though it’s a nuisance for music directors because then the congregation always gives the impression of never having sung it before, which is really not what you want to happen with what is meant to be a shout of praise).

Advent is for getting ready

Advent is a time of preparation, but joyous and very focussed preparation.  I’ve talked before about it being like a mini-pregnancy.  Just as, in our own families, we don’t talk about the coming arrival until it’s obvious or even hard to miss (my mother-in-law’s rule for this was that you make sure you tell people before they tell you), you can’t expect the Church to keep celebrating the growth of the baby until the late stages when the end is in sight.  And anyway, we have to telescope the Lord’s whole life into our annual cycle (even if we have three different sets of readings), so we can’t dwell too long on any bit of it.  So we have the Annunciation in March, and then we don’t think about the baby as such, because we are celebrating and considering his adult life and work,  until Advent, when his arrival becomes our overwhelming consideration.

Practical preparations….

How do we prepare for the arrival of a baby?  We get everything ready, the clothes, the cradle, the towels, the linen.  We start thinking about how it is finally, really, going to happen.  We get our heads round the idea of this new person.  We make arrangements, for the other children, for visitors.  We plan ahead.

Of course, Mary couldn’t do this (though I bet she had a little collection of clothes tucked away somewhere in the donkey’s saddlebags).  She was on the move, unsure when things were going to happen, away from her neighbours and friends, away from Joseph’s home where they were still trying to get used to being married.  But I am sure that she wasn’t spending the time singing mournful songs and beating her breast (painful anyway when pregnant).  We know she trusted God to know what he was doing, so she wasn’t worried or fearful, but she must have been looking forward to meeting this baby who was even more special than all the others.

still knitting even after the baby is born … there’s never enough time to do everything
…and keeping cheerful

Obviously Advent does have some things in common with Lent.  It has purple vestments (except for Gaudete Sunday), and fasting during even six weeks was common at some earlier periods of the Church’s existence.  It’s still the practice of the Orthodox Church.  Even for non-religious people it makes sense to ease up on consumption before the great feast (in all senses) that is Christmas.  But it shouldn’t be mournful.  I think the gloomy aspect of Advent is probably rooted in identifying the arrival of the Lord as the Second Coming, but this can be overdone.  Yes, it’s a secondary meaning, but let’s not lose sight of the primary one.

everyone enjoying themselves; singing sets the mood
Choosing music to match

This is where the choice of hymns is so important.  For the Christmas baby, we get ready our hymns, our Advent carols, our special Alleluias, preparing them with love just like getting all the linen ready.   I am sorry there are so few direct links in the suggestions that follow, but it turned out to be impossible or too time-consuming to find decent recordings on-line.  This is partly because I have decided not to link to choirs that won’t allow women to sing, but also because there aren’t many YouTubes of straightforward choral hymn-singing.  And so many people sing them really ponderously.  But you shouldn’t have any trouble tracking them down, I’ve definitely stuck to mainstream here.

There aren’t very many Advent hymns in common use (it’s only four Sundays, after all).  The greatest of them all, O come, O come, Emmanuel, is in a minor key, because it is focussed on the long yearning for the Messiah.  It’s probably a French tune, fifteenth-century, and based on chant, so modal.  But please note the words of the chorus : Rejoice, rejoice!  This is not meant to be a dirge!

Two figures in a mediaeval frame
Let’s all sing a melodious (happy) song
Carols for before Christmas, and a bit of Latin

There are even a couple of proper carols that you can use specifically during Advent : Angelus ad virginem and Creator alme siderum, if your congregation is up to singing in Latin.  Plus of course the Salve Regina and any setting of the Magnificat that you like.  These are all fine as pre-Christmas music.

Specifically Advent carols and hymns : French..

Moving on into English, we can take a little European tour, grateful for the traditional pre-Christmas music across the Channel.  Outstanding here are Gabriel’s message (French melody again, more specifically Basque, but so well established in English) and O come, divine Messiah (French traditional, and a real toe-tapper;  Charpentier uses it).

..and German hymns are always a good idea

There are (of course) some great German hymns, different versions of Wachet auf, really good for Advent, and old German hymn tunes to familiar English words like Comfort, comfort, O my people (wonderful rhythm, really dancy), The advent of our King, Of the Father’s heart begottenCome thou long-expected JesusWhen the King shall come again (great tune), and so on, plus more modern ones like  The King shall come when morning dawns.

Modal and minor

If you like modal, there’s See how the Virgin waits for him, which is an old Jewish tune, and Let all mortal flesh keep silent, though I’d keep that one for later in Advent.  Hills of the North rejoice is another one that sounds very minor and then mutates, so I’m tucking it in here with the modals.

Follow the readings

You really more or less have to have On Jordan’s bank for the Second Sunday of Advent, given the readings, but you could also have something Holy Spirit-ish, because it’s all about Jesus’ baptism; or even Breathe on me, Breath of God, which always feels appropriate for baptisms and confirmations.

One or two lovely things to sing in Advent

I would like to put in a word for my favourite Advent hymn, because it feels like a carol : People look east, and I defy anyone to sing it at a decent speed and not feel cheered (you may also end up with an earworm, but it’s a good one).   I’d happily sing that more than once in Advent, and as it happens, that is another great old French tune.  You can also be creative in your choice of other carols.    There’s no reason why you shouldn’t sing It came upon the midnight clear towards the end of Advent and before Christmas.  It has such wonderful words, and it takes a wide view of the period that is Christmas, so it doesn’t feel like jumping the gun as so many carols would because of their stress on Christmas night specifically.  And it has glorious big angels.

mediaeval organ with two people
Volmar and me back on the same page

These are only suggestions, and of course you will have your own favourites.  But keep the music joyful, even if some of it is low-key, and don’t sing it slowly and lugubriously.   I was horrified to see one piece of advice for Advent hymns include the Dies irae, on the grounds that it’s about the Lord’s coming.  Yes but no, I feel.  Waiting for a baby is a joyful time.  We need to get ready, within as well as without, but the Lord himself said we shouldn’t be looking miserable even when fasting.  Lent fasting is penitential; Advent fasting is more because we’re so excited.  Love, the Lord, is on the way, people.  Let’s get ready.

And of course you can have a look at my music (psalms and acclamations for the whole season) with the following links :

– the UK and Ireland

US and Philippines

Australia and New Zealand


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.