Saturday, November 29, 2014

Long Time No Write

Apologies for the lack of posting recently. There are lots of reasons for it but partly it's because I feel like I am at a cross-roads in terms of my writing. I've still been writing my Catholic Voice articles, and my little weekly articles on Chesterton in The Open Door magazine. I also post a lot of thoughts on Facebook (which is very tempting, since it provides an immediate outlet and feedback) and on the Irish Catholic Forum.

I have to admit that, right now, the thing I'm most excited about is hymn-writing. I have a lifetime's experience of how heart-breakingly indifferent the world is to verse of any kind, for the most part. (The kind reception my poetry has received amongst readers of this blog being the solitary and glorious exception.) But when verse of any kind does gain an audience, it seems to mean so much more to people than does prose.

I attended my cousin's funeral yesterday. He was not religious, so it was a secular service, but it included several poems-- Longellow's 'Hymn to Life" and Shakespeare's sonnet that begins "That time of life thou dost in me behold..." It also included the songs Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Days by The Kinks (the latter being one of my own favourites), which are also a form of verse.

The experience also made me more conscious than ever of how brief our lives are-- even when we attain old age, which my poor cousin tragically did not-- and how little time we have to use whatever talents we possess for the glory of God. Eternal rest grant unto Him, oh Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

The hymn that I posted below has actually been put to music, by a lady who came up with a very beautiful air. I haven't had permission to make it public, though. But the experience of having my words set to music was very encouraging in itself.


  1. I'm very sorry to hear about your cousin - Amen to your prayer - may he rest in peace.

    Wonderful to hear that you are writing hymns. I think we need good, new hymn-writers, just as we need good, new poets... A lot of modern hymns have good tunes, but limp words, and that can ruin a hymn! (I feel similarly about many secular songs as well). Perhaps it is because modern hymn-composers seem to come up with a good tune before they turn to words - and it is pretty difficult to fit words retrospectively to a melody, and the composers are not necessarily wordsmiths in any case. Whereas a lot of the old hymns came about the other way around, by setting (often different!) melodies to extant verses.

    That said, I should think that even the plain text of a hymn is more difficult to write than many people imagine, not least because it needs to be singable. I think a congregation could really get its teeth into 'I Saw Twelve Candles Shining'! And it is memorable, too. I think a lot people would open a hymn-book and be struck by the words, and, if they encountered it later, would remember it.

    I wonder whether you have any particular view about who should address whom in a hymn (or whether there is any 'should' about it at all? I find it is quite easy not to notice this, but one could say that there is rather a large difference between a hymn in which, for example 'we' are singing to Thee, God, as in the Te Deum, (and the Our Father and Hail Mary), or in which 'I' am singing about God ('My Song is Love Unknown' or the Magnificat) - which is rather more in tune with the new version of the Creed ('I', not 'we' believe in one God) as if we turn to our neighbours and firm each other's faith up - 'All my hope on God is founded - is yours?'

    On the other hand, any hymn is togetherness in prayer. I think you could well argue that a hymn which refers to God in the third person is nevertheless addressed to Him. After all, He is one in three Persons!!

  2. Thanks for all those kind and sympathetic words, Dominic. I'm glad you liked the hymn.

    And I'm glad you think a congregation could get its teeth into it! The way I approached it was to try to come up with an image and the first thing that struck me was a candle. And I made it twelve candles because specificity is always more arresting. I remember coming home from school one day and complaining to my father that we had been learning The Lake Isle of Inishfree by Yeats and the reference to "nine bean rows" bothered me because it seemed to me like Yeats was just using 'nine' to fill out the metre. My father explained to me that "nine" was mystical number. It is one of the best explanations I ever got from an adult.

    I had never really thought about the matter of who should be addressing who in a hymn. It doesn't strike me that any possibility is particularly wrong. As for the liturgy, I read a comparison in First Things magazine where the author was describing all the "I believe"s as pricks of light from a thousand torches, coming together to make one glow.

    I can actually remember writing about hymns and religious poetry in my diary when I was in my teens. This is when I was an agnostic. I remember observing that the hymn Abide with Me was so powerful and effective because it concentrated upon the helplessness and vulnerability of the protagonist rather than directly on the power and majesty of God-- that God's power and majesty was approached indirectly. I remember noting that there is something about superlatives (except in strict moderation) that kills poetry and the poetic response.

    Airs written to pre-existing lyrics have their problems too. My father and I listened to the rendition that the lady who put music to "Twelve Candles" recorded, and it was obvious that my metre gave her trouble in a couple of places, when it came to singing it. This is why I would like to write more hymns actually put to music, so I could learn to write for the singing voice.

    But I've also been feeling a bit dejected on this topic recently, because it seems to me that hymns are getting more and more simplified. I was at an ecumenical service recently where we sung Taizé hymns that are just one line over and over. These can be very effective and beautiful, but it does make me wonder if there is much scope for new hymn-writers.

  3. Yes, I would say that repeated refrains sometimes work well, and sometimes not. I would even say that litanies and refrains founded on Scripture can hardly fail. I often find the Taizé setting of the thief's prayer 'Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom' not only singable but moving precisely because it is repeated. But then those words are Scripture... something else might not work so well.
    Of course, this sort of hymn is bound to be popular from a practical point of view, because if a choir is singing before Mass, or at the Offertory, or after Communion, they can wrap up at almost a moment's notice. That is how Taizé hymns are used in my parish.

    But the Church's liturgy and feasts surely call for more specific hymns, and surely they must go on at greater length? It is interesting that you say you started with an image, because I forgot to say in my previous comment that I think there is a dearth of Offertory hymns. I had been going to be rather forward and suggest you tried one! 'Blessed are you, Lord, God of all Creation', 'This is my Body, broken for you...' and 'Upon thy table, Lord, we set...' are the three I know which seem sound to me, but I can't think of many others... Of course, we can pinch rather fewer of those hymns from the Anglican hymnal. But of course that might be less authentic than if it had begun from a single image.

    Yes, I think your 'twelve' works just as Yeats' 'nine' - a clear and graspable image (Mystical arithmetic is the only kind of arithmetic I can fathom!). Vagueness is precisely the problem I have many modern hymns. There are lines like 'bringing peace' or 'ending strife' that leave me unsatisfied somehow. Bringing peace, certainly, but where and to whom? Ending strife how? I am probably being too harsh, but it just feels slightly fluffy, given that the Church answers this sort of question pretty well - whereas seeing 'twelve candles shining in the gloom, and one of them was mine' has certitude and vigour and truth.

    Some of the hymns which come to mind as working very well are the carols from the Sloane manuscript - 'Adam lay ybounden', 'Lullay my liking', 'I sing of a maiden', etc. I suppose it is partly my getting misty-eyed about carol-singing in merry England (the history that blazes from the line 'As clerkes finden written in the book' !). But I do think the idea of starting off with the episode from Scripture - Adam's sin or Mary cradling Our Lord - and then observing that 'Ne had the apple taken been, ne had never our Ladie abeen heav'ne Queen' or 'Well may such a Lady God's mother be' - and then saying, 'Therefore we [here, now!] moun singen: Deo Gratias!' - works as a kind of rarefied, musical homily - it is catechesis, art and prayer all in one.

    But the important thing is that as far as 'scope' is concerned - nothing of beauty is wasted. That is what I try to tell myself, that and Paul VI's address to artists in which he reminds them that they are invited to be 'co-creators' of beauty. (I sometimes wonder how many poets have lived and never learned to write, and whose poetry we have lost but is known by God by heart). Anyway, I think the New Evangelisation could provide some scope. 'The New Evangelisation Hymnal'? Could that work?

    That image of the pricks of light from a thousand torches in the Creed is wonderful - like the Easter Vigil!

    (Apologies for the length of this comment - it is your blog, and not mine!)

  4. No need to apologize, Dominic. Your comments are always welcome and the longer the better. (Because your comments are always of interest....I wouldn't make the same invitation to some of the cranks who post essay-length comments on why Catholics are heretics etc.) In general, the dearth of comments on this blog is my biggest disappointment with it and what discourages me from posting more at times. I've been putting a lot of thoughts on Facebook recently because I like the interaction-- not necessarily a good habit, I know.

    Besides, I agree absolutely with everything you say, all of it! Our discussion about mystical numbers, images and vagueness goes right to the heart of the Catholic faith, I think. The 'scandal of particularity" is, I think, what many spiritually-inclined people find alienating about Christianity. It's also what so many people find so compelling about it, and I would guess that those emotions are not unmixed in many breasts. Many people who are open to the idea of theism think it ludicrous that we can actually have real knowledge of the Deity-- no matter how much you assure them that, as the Catechism says, "Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God", the fact that we can have any positive knowledge of God seems ridiculous and perhaps even unseemly to them.

    Analogically, I think the same could apply to social matters....I say this because I know that you and I are both social conservatives of a particular temper, and social conservatives tend to prize the concrete and the specific over abstract principles. I think there may be a tension between the kind of temperament that wishes everything to be gloriously itself and the kind of temperament that wishes everything to adhere to particular laws and principles. The first (ours, I presume to say) finds anomalies delightful, the second finds them irksome.

    Thank you for the suggestion of writing offertory hymns, I never thought of that.

    As for the haunting medieval Carols, I couldn't agree with you more. To me, they are like a quintessence of Englishness, and my answer to the idea that Englishnesss is essentially secular, empirical, practical, etc. They are almost unbearably haunting. I don't think it would be possible to recapture exactly that flavour, but it might be possible to translate it into another idiom (so to speak).