Friday, May 06, 2011

Hymnals, Pt. 3: "Thee We Adore"

What with all the whining in that last post, you might very well walk away with the idea that old Fr. Anonymous is one of those clerics with a constitutional objection to novelty, of the sort who in Victorian times encouraged their parish children to chant "If it's new, it isn't true."

On the contrary, your humble blogger takes an almost childlike pleasure in new things: the smell of a dealer-fresh automobile, the latest issue of Detective Comics, kittens. And of course that sunrise thing he writes about, despite seeing it so rarely. Thus also with hymns. We live in an age when a great many new hymns are written, and some of them make us very happy. To be sure, there are plenty of recent hymns for which we do not care, but that would be true in any age, if only because of Sturgeon's Law.

In fact, all this blather about hymnody has reminded us of two things: first, that writing (or translating) hymns is very demanding work, requiring the skills of both a poet and a theologian, not to say some acquaintance with music; and second, that editing a hymnal is no less demanding, in its own way. Editors are required to make a long series of decisions -- what hymns to include or exclude, what textual variants to choose or blend, what emendations to make in diction, and on and on down to the order in which the hymns appear in the bound volume. (And all that is before they come to the question of which tune to prescribe for a given hymn, given the number that can be sung to the same melodies. One of the faithful once remarked that "there are really only six hymns," and she wasn't far wrong.)

It is a tough job, and no editor has much hope of pleasing everybody.

We were moved to think about all this by the simplest thing: choosing our own parish hymn for this coming Sunday, Easter 3. Given the powerful Eucharistic message of the Emmaus story, we were for some days settled upon Adoro te devote, attributed (with some uncertainty) to Thomas Aquinas, and generally known in English as Thee We Adore. It's a beautiful song, and when you slur the words a bit it sounds like the proper name of Preschooler Anonymous.

But which version? We Lutherans have two hymnal versions readily available to us. One from the SBH and the Lutheran Book of Worship is by James Woodford (1820-1885). Another, printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is attributed to Woodford "and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1885)," followed by the dreaded "alt." So which to choose? The first has been in regular use since the 1950s, and is well-known to many people. The other has contributions from one of the best known poets of his generation. We may not care for Hopkins, but we are snobs, so that's a very tempting option. And the two versions are noticeably different:


Woodford and Hopkins

Thee we adore, O hidden Savior, thee,

who in thy sacrament art pleased to be;

both flesh and spirit in thy presence fail,

yet here thy presence we devoutly hail.

Thee we adore, O Savior, God most true,

thy glory clothed in bread and wine anew;

our hearts to thee in true devotion bow,

in humble awe, we hail thy presence now.

O blest memorial of our dying Lord,

who living bread to us shall here afford:

oh, may our souls forever feed on thee,

and thou, O Christ, forever precious be.

O true remembrance of Christ crucified,

the bread of life to us for whom he died;

lend us this life then; feed and feast our mind,

be thou the sweetness we were meant to find.

Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God:

cleanse us, unclean, with thy most cleansing blood;

increase our faith and love, that we may know

the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.

Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God,

cleanse us, O Christ, with thy most cleansing blood:

increase our faith and love, that we may know

the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.

O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see:

may what we thirst for soon our portion be,

to gaze on thee unveiled, and see thy face,

the vision of thy glory, and thy grace. Amen

Jesus, by faith we see thee here below;

send us, we pray thee, what we thirst for so:

someday to gaze upon thy face in light,

blest evermore with thy full glory's sight. Amen.

(We should mention that the second version is surely copyrighted by Ausgburg-Fortress, and the first one may be as well.)

All this made us wonder what Hopkins actually wrote, and it isn't much like the Lutheran hymnal version. We found a text here and a more complete one here. His try -- and we say this as mortal enemies of The Windhover -- is quite good:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I adore,
masked by these bare shadows,
shape and nothing more,
see, lord, at thy service low
lies here a heart
lost, all lost in wonder
at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting
are in thee deceived;
how says trusty hearing?
That shall be believed;
what God’s Son hath told me,
take for truth I do;
truth himself speaks truly,
or there’s nothing true.

On the cross thy Godhead
made no sign to men;
here thy very manhood steals
from human ken;
both are my confession,
both are my belief;
and I pray the prayer
of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas,
wounds I cannot see,
but can plainly call thee
Lord and God as he;
this faith each day deeper
be my holding of,
daily make me harder hope
and dearer love.

O thou our reminder
of Christ crucified,
living Bread, the life of us
for whom he died,
lend this life to me then;
feed and feast my mind,
there be thou the sweetness
man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what Thy bosom ran
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at
shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me
what I long for so,
some day to gaze on thee
face to face in light
and be blest for ever
with thy glory’s sight.

It's really very good as poetry, although we're not sure it begs to be sung. Nor are we sure that the ELW editors have done favors for anybody by merging the two. If, indeed, that is what they have done. Is it our imagination, or does the the version that ELW attributes to Woodford and Hopkins look very much as though it were written by neither one? Hopkins, in particular, is responsible only for a few lines mutilated in the final stanza. Perhaps some editor was simply trying to be humble, but that "alt." seems significant enough to justify naming a third author.

Now, there is another problem, at least for those of us lacking proper library access. Here on the web, you can find another translation -- also good -- which some people attribute to Hopkins. It appeared in the Monastic Diurnal in 1932, and Episcopalian hymnals in 1940 and 1982

But how do Woodford, Hopkins, or the curious ELW mashup compare with the Latin original? Funny you should ask, because (as we learn from Fr. Edward McNamara at Zenit, who incidentally seems to mis-attribute the Monastic Diurnal version to Hopkins) there are two distinct Latin versions, equally well-attested. They differ principally in the opening -- "hidden truth" is the reading of the so-called critical edition, and "hidden God" that of the popular one.

ELW, for reasons we cannot easily guess, chose to split the difference -- "God most true" is present in the Eucharist, but latens, normally translated as "hidden, concealed, secret, lurking" becomes "clothed."

So the poor hymnal editor is faced with some difficult decisions. There are several fine renderings already used in current hymnals, not to mention two distinct base texts. Which to choose? Only rarely are all the stanzas included -- the poor pelican, editors surely assume, would confuse those dummies in the pew who can't even handle "thee," "thou" or "veil." So again, which to choose? And even of those stanzas that are sung, several are may contain images or language that will stop pewsitters in their proverbial tracks. What, they may ask after service, does Christ's Godly head steal from a human named Ken? So, finally, which to dumb down? Yes, an editor has many difficult decisions to make.

And yet, as those of you who struggled through Part 1 already gather, we are irritated by this entire process, and all its implicit assumptions. Why not sing the songs as their authors intended them to be sung, or else write new ones which please you more?

Better yet, and we intend no sarcasm whatsoever, why don't they commission some new hymns and translations of classic texts, deliberately written in what is called "global" or "simple" English, the grade-school style of the Good News and CEV Bibles? We have used these translations ourselves, and to good effect -- but they are emphatically not appropriate for a room full of educated native speakers. The creation of a "simple" hymnal might be a great boon to some congregations, while leaving others free to enjoy the pleasures of complexity in language and thought.

We understand the argument -- frequently made by those who work for publishing houses -- that these songs are not the property of their authors, but of the church which uses them for its own purposes. It is, on its face, and setting aside copyright concerns, a reasonable argument. But we have also seen that argument made ad nauseam through increasingly idiosyncratic renderings of the liturgy and psalter. These days, its implications frighten us. What began as a typical conviction of the modern liturgical movement -- that worship was the work of the gathered assembly, not a slavish imitation of some past model -- has become a license for chaos masquerading as concern.

1 comment:

DR Dan said...

Thanks for the Pelican reference. We were confounded by the Pelican statue at the altar of a Hungarian Unitarian church, where other churches have a cross. Wondered why they worship a sea bird.