In any art, and any genre of the art, we judge the competence, the skill, perhaps the genius of the composer by generally understood directives that govern that art. These directives vary from age to age and from culture to culture, but the variance is not unlimited, and it is not difficult for a lover of an art to make appropriate adjustments.
Someone who has grown up with Monet will find the watercolors of Hokusai, in some ways appearing as from a different world, easy to learn to love. The epic of Gilgamesh should resound in the soul that loves Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
High art and low art play together on the town green. See what the genius of Brahms could make of Hungarian dances. Dvorak came to America and, in his New World Symphony, made the sounds of this brash young nation immortal. When Ralph Vaughan Williams sought melodies to arrange for sacred poems, he combed the British countryside, seeking the music of the common folk. We do not always want the Messiah. We cannot always want it, nor is it always and everywhere most fitting.
Still, there is an art to the hymn, and I wish to show a little of what it is, and not from the heights of such Latin works as the Pange lingua. I will take a typical effort of the most popular hymnodist in English for more than three centuries, Isaac Watts, set to the sweet English melody Capel, one of those that Vaughan Williams found and saved. (You may listen to it here.)
The poem is “There is a Land of Pure Delight” (1709), written in Common Meter, that is, the 8-6-8-6 meter most favored in English ballads and love songs (“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” “America the Beautiful”). Here is the first stanza:
There is a land of pure delight
Where saints immortal reign;
Eternal day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.
It is simple and straight, and it sets the scene. We are led to imagine, to want to be in that land: day, and no night; pleasure, and no pain, and the delight all pure, as are the holy souls who reign there.
We want to see more, and Watts tells us, without strain, without gushing; and he tells us something we know already but don’t always wish to hear:
There everlasting spring abides,
And never fading flowers;
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heavenly land from ours.
How simple, and how human. What separates us from that land we long for? The thing we fear the most, death, which is a sea, not a gangway, but a narrow sea – a strait. To cross this sea once is never to return.
The third stanza has the same form as the second. In the first two lines we behold what invites us on; in the last two lines, expressed with great tenderness, we are met with the fearful divide, the crisis:
Bright fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed in living green;
So to the Jews fair Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.
A brilliant touch. To cross the waters of death, for the faithful Christian, is like crossing the Jordan with that first Joshua, the son of Nun. But those Jews feared to cross, even though the land flowing with milk and honey stood within their vision on the other side.
So do we fear:
But timorous mortals start and shrink
To cross the narrow sea;
And linger, trembling on the brink,
And fear to launch away.
Watts calls us timorous, but the weakness is one he shares. It is common to mankind, even to the Christian who remembers the promises of Jesus.
The final two stanzas make a single sentence, and place us with the old man of God on Mount Pisgah, whom God did not permit to cross into the Promised Land. Now with the greater light of the New Covenant we see the salvation that Moses himself could conceive but dimly:
O could we make our doubts remove,
Those gloomy doubts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With faith’s illumined eyes:
Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood
Could fright us from the shore!
And with that, the hymn is complete. It is a prayer for greater faith, a prayer that acknowledges the doubt, the hesitation we cannot help but feel; yet it is also a prayer of quiet confidence, and in the simple drama of it, we are made to sing like souls no longer doubtful but eager to go, regardless of the cold narrows of death.
Watts doesn’t need to pound away with a hammer. His allusion to Moses and the children of Israel is unexpected, but simple, and it lights up the land for us. We say, “Of course, it’s just that way,” but until he made that connection, we had not thought of it. His language is not a tissue of abstractions or slogans. It’s not piety-salad.
We see the fields, we see the flowers. He feels and thinks at once, and the thought of the poem, organizing every image in it, directs the feelings as by a hand lightly felt. Most of all, he tells a story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end – an end left to our imagination and our faith, because we stand yet on this side of the sea, but now we stand with more courage. Let the hour come, then! It is but a little passage.
See what a good hymn does? It’s not Dante. It doesn’t purport to be. It doesn’t have to be. It is good solid craftsmanship, solid sense, plain speech, yet powerfully understated. Ordinary people once had hundreds of such songs by heart. Those songs formed the Christian imagination.
Riches, lying in the attic. Discover them again.
*Image: Isaac Watts by George Vertue, after an Unknown Artist, 1722 [National Portrait Gallery, London]