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“Orlando de Lassus died in Munich on 14 June 1594, the selfsame day his employer decided to dismiss him for economic reasons. He never saw the letter.”
— New Grove

How Important Is The Poetic Value Of A Hymn?
published 29 January 2015 by Guest Author

401 John Henry Newman OEMS ARE MORE IMPORTANT than perhaps most of us realize. When we talk about our desire for great music in our devotion, the words and the music form a single voice with which we worship our Creator.

In The Science of the Cross, Edith Stein writes,

Every genuine work of art is a symbol…that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. (Introduction)

The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins takes poetic symbol as seriously as anyone,

Thanks be to God for Dappled Things
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change
(Pied Beauty)

Hopkins has brought us right to it. A poem recognizes that nothing is a mere thing. All dappled things are symbols that participate in the existence of the God who fathers-forth creation. If there is beauty in this world, it is because there is One who is truly beautiful pouring Himself into it.

Aristotle defines a poem as a description of that which might be and that which ought to be. In other words, it does not necessarily deal with the factual, but nevertheless describes reality. If we all ought to read poetry on a regular basis simply to be human, how much more ought it be the language of our worship and devotion?

Cardinal Newman writes in the Grammar of Assent,

The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions…Persons influence us, voice melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma, no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.

John Senior in Death of Christian Culture comments,

Newman’s position is this: conceptual truth is extracted by the intellect from the ground of the imagination.

Poetry is the language of imagination. In order to truly grasp dogma and worship well, we need high-quality poetry in our hymnody. Consider St. Henry Walpole, who as a young man is present at the martyrdom of St. Edmund Campion at Tyburn. The blood of the dying saint splashes the young Walpole, dooming him also to the vocation of priesthood. 1 He records his thoughts in a poem which begins,

Why do I use my paper, ink and pen
And call my wits to counsel what to say?
Such memories were made for mortal men;
I speak of Saints whose names cannot decay.

Why, indeed, was Walpole compelled to write a poem? Why not mount a political insurrection against the tyrant Queen Elizabeth? Why not a eulogy for the local newspaper? A poem was needed because only a poem is capable of capturing the life of a martyr.

We are looking for the stillness that lies just beyond the flux, sometimes in the silence of the Mass, sometimes in ancient words crafted by unknown poets. A poem reaches out. In the same way we can never prove an analogy, we cannot presume to know everything about a poem. One does not master, for instance, the words of the Ave Maris Stella plainchant the way one masters an arithmetic problem. Rather, we live it and it grows in us. This experience is necessary to our faith.

Here is the strand which binds beginning and end, as TS Eliot writes, the still point around which the world turns. This whole God-haunted world is poetic because it is an expression of God’s love and strives to return to Him. Hopkins writes,

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
('As kingfishers catch fire’)

We cannot possibly understand the whole, and that is okay. Hopkins didn’t, either, but he still writes about it,

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder…
I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

We endeavor to meet God wherever he is chooses to be found. Our task is to never stop looking. To do so, we must be ardent promoters of good poetry in the spiritual life as well as in the mass and in our hymnody.

NIETZSCHE THROWS COLD WATER on us, deftly pointing out, “If Christians want me to believe in their god, they will have to sing me better hymns.” If you are confused about what in the world I have been talking about, especially in relation to the Mass, it is because our modern hymnody generally falls short. While some are in spiritual rapture dancing with the devil on their backs and soaring like eagles, I am desperately marshalling my self-control so as not to punch a hole through the pew in front of me. We have replaced much of the heart of poetry with sentimentality.

The poetry in our modern hymns attempt to seduce the emotions through language of human community and welcoming. The problem lies in the inward turn of the human community and the self-congratulatory nature of the language. Sentimentality bypasses the intellect and appeals to the emotions, which are transitory and arbitrary, meaning that we are being exposed to hymns that are the exact opposite of a poetic universal.

A few quick general examples so we know what we are talking about:

• We often drop verses from hymns, oddly enough often about the Passion and suffering (check out unchanged Christmas carols sometime). In doing so we change the entire meaning of the hymn. A good poem is subtle and nuanced, like the Psalms.

• It seems to be commonplace to delete dogmatic lyrics in favor of generically Protestant ones.

• We change masculine pronouns and patriarchal language. Doing so unintentionally destroys the rhythm of the poem and causes a cascade of subsequent changes. We also unintentionally destroy meaning. For instance, the “he” in “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” refers to Christ, not us!

• We eliminate archaic language, but this language is vital for setting sacred music apart as a special form of communication. Archaic language is also more precise. For instance, “Thee” and “Thou”.


1   Editor’s Note: A breathtaking audio recording by Matthew J. Curtis can be freely downloaded.

We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Michael Rennier,
who is a contributing editor at Dappled Things.