Page 9, 30th April 1999

30th April 1999
Page 9
Page 9, 30th April 1999 — In praise of Polyhymnia

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In praise of Polyhymnia

Good poems often make bad hymns (and vice versa), argues Brian Brindley rifHE EDITORS OF THE Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, in preparing their third edition of 1979, decided "with some regret" to exclude songs — which included hymns. Their reason was that "if the words cannot be said without the tune... coming to mind, they are not quotations in the same sense as others". Their reasoning was, of course, absurd: for any Englishman (and I am sure for Welsh, Scots and Irish too, but I cannot speak for them) a large proportion of the phrases that are buzzing about in his mind will have been learned as songs, and — even today — as hymns. "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide" or "Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more" are just as likely to occur as "You'll never walk alone" or "I did it my way". If I half-remember such a phrase and wish to repeat it, then it is a quotation: I am afraid that the editors were

— being aesthetically snobbish, excluding song and hymnody as being essentially "folk-art", forgetting that poetry, and indeed literature, began in song, and that Polyhymnia was one of the nine muses, with particular responsibility for religious song. By the fourth edition of 1992 they had climbed down from their proud position, saying "hymns and songs make a welcome reappearance".

The use of hymns in worship varies from country to country and from denomination to denomination. Who that has been to a Sunday Mass in Germany or Austria has not endured the endless singing of hymns in German, sung though to noble melodies — in the most stodgy way. Here in England, the nonconformists have made hymns as important in their services as the sermon; in the Church of England most people like to sing a lot of hymns — especially in preference to psalms; in the Catholic Church until 10 years ago vernacular hymns played a very small part, though those that were sung at Benediction or Rosary were hugely popular.

It is a commonplace observation that a good hymn does not have to be good poetry: when it comes down to it, the tune is all. The words (beginning "The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want") sung to the well-loved tune "Crimond" are nothing more than doggerel; and I am afraid that the words of "God bless our Pope" verge on the nonsensical. This is exaggerated to "a good poem makes a bad hymn" or even "the better the hymn, the worse the poem". Mark Bryant calls his book literary Hymns; I am not altogether sure what is implied by the term "literary"; it is not quite the same thing as "poetic", and I fear it may mean "appealing to literary people" as opposed to ordinary folk who like a good sing-along: a reversion to the intellectual snobbery of the Oxford editors. Let us charitably assume that it means "hymns that reach a decent literary standard and are good enough to print without music". As a convert, I have a long and wide experience of hymns. Reading through this book I found, on most occasions, a tune springing unbidden to my head. If no tune came, I would say to myself "That's not a hymn!" Mr Bryan treats us to a very brief introduction of two pages, in which he doesn't do much to explain his purpose or method. His offerings fall into four categories. First, there are hymns, like those of Watts and the Wesleys, that were written as hymns and have been sung in worship from the beginning. Secondly, poems, like those of George Herbert or Newman that were early seized on by the editors of hymn-books and set to music. Thirdly, the very large and important collection of "Hymns Ancient" written originally in Latin, occasionally in Greek, that have been turned into English, often by J. M. Neale, and have become part of our inheritance. And lastly a number, too many, of poems that have been hijacked by composers and turned into hymns regardless of their unsuitability. There are two sonnets, one by Spenser ("Most glorious Lord of Life that on this day") which makes a passable hymn, and one by Shakespeare ("Poor Soul, the centre of my sinful earth") that does not; Walt Whitman's "Pioneers! 0 pioneers!" is found in Songs of Praise, but is surely very seldom sung; Shelley's "The world's great age begins anew" is not Christian at all; and I cannot imagine how Matthew Arnold's "Stagirius" could be sung as a hymn.

Catholic authors are not, of course, excluded; quite apart from the pre-Reformation continental writers (St Augustine of Hippo is quaintly described as "Roman clergyman and theologian" and St Gregory the Great as "Italian Pope") you will find Crashaw, Dryden, Hopkins, Newman, Pope, and Southwell — but no Faber: I suppose he is not "literary" enough. You will look in vain for "Sweet Sacrament Divine" or "Soul of my Saviour" or "Ave Maria, 0 Maiden, 0 Mother".

IAM SURE THE BOOK will be most popular with members of the Church of England, and with converts, who will find many opportunities for religious "emotions recollected in tranquility". For their purposes, however, Mr Bryant has made one big mistake: the poems are arranged by author in alphabetical order; this is of course useful in a reference book, though it is rendered superfluous by the 14page index of authors; it is not satisfactory in an anthology. In Palgrave's Golden Treasury "the most poeticallyeffective order has been attempted"; this is roughly chronological; in the various Oxford Books of Verse a chronological order has been used. In this way the reader gains valuable insights into the way poetry develops. For likely readers of this anthology, a similar insight into the development of hymnody would have been invaluable.

When all is said, however, this is a handsomely printed book full of religious poetry of a high standard, and it will give much pleasure.

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