Peter Phillips

Lost in translation | 12 July 2008

Peter Phillips on why it is the music more than the words that makes hymns special

My interest in ridiculous sacred words began with a Victorian edition of Verdi’s ‘Requiem’, which I met at school. At the unbelievably splendid, and brassy, ‘Tuba mirum’ we were asked to sing the translation: ‘Hark! The trumpet sounds appalling’. I later discovered that there is a very enjoyable sub-culture of these things, mostly hidden away in our more traditional hymns.

Unlike the psalms, which in the King James translation have a linguistic robustness managing to avoid or transcend this kind of embarrassment, the hymns we sing have the most diverse backgrounds.

Shifts of meaning over time have been matched by changes in what is thought to be appropriate sentiment in religious worship. Publishers of hymn books for the modern market have to make some tricky decisions, as Kevin Mayhew, publisher of Hymns Old and New, made clear in a recent letter to the Church Times. Presumably Charles Wesley’s penchant for the word ‘bowels’ as an image for the mercy of Christ won’t do now; but what about ‘gay’?

Let me in season, Lord, be grave,
In season gay;
Let me be faithful to thy grace,
Just for today

What would the bigoted luminaries of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (Foca)do about that?

In his resumé Mr Mayhew missed the questionable opening lines of the fourth verse of ‘Of the father’s love begotten’ which run:

O how blest that wondrous birthday,
When the Maid the curse retrieved
so full of double meanings I can’t work them all out, but he did quote the suppressed last verse of the ‘National Anthem’:

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush:
God save the Queen.

All this is in a quite different league from those extreme moments in the psalms when the whole endeavour equally teeters on the edge of absurdity, but never quite goes over it:

Moab is my washpot
over Edom will I cast out my shoe

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in