“Oh yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute:
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet!”
These famous lines, from the still-popular secular Christmas song “We Need a Little Christmas” (1966) are not just me longing for Christmas, in this steamy central Maryland August (although neither would I deny it), but an illustration of the linked essay‘s point: that although most people listening to it today probably gloss right over the line without a clue as to what is meant, the song would have been unlikely to contain those lyrics, if “carols at the spinet” (a once-popular type of small, drop-action piano) had not been an easily-recognizable feature of Christmas cheer at the time it was written.
Believe it or not, though I have liked Jethro Tull for many years (and passionately loved their album Songs from the Wood, which has been one of my favorites since late high school / early college days), I just listened seriously to this one, and read the lyrics, for the first time the night before last. Wow! I did not know what I was missing:
Let me find you a filly for your proud stallion seed to keep the old line going. And we’ll stand you abreast at the back of the wood behind the young trees growing To hide you from eyes that mock at your girth, and your eighteen hands at the shoulder And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry and the nights are seen to draw colder They’ll beg for your strength, your gentle power your noble grace and your bearing And you’ll strain once again to the sound of the gulls in the wake of the deep plough, sharing.
Standing like tanks on the brow of the hill Up into the cold wind facing In stiff battle harness, chained to the world Against the low sun racing Bring me a wheel of oaken wood A rein of polished leather A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky Brewing heavy weather.
Again, wow. Lifts the hair on the back of my neck! For someone who loves the great draft horses as I do, this is a deeply moving song. Magnificent!
“Come on, priests, musicians, and singers. Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read. You need not feed on slop all your life long when you might enjoy real meat and potatoes and vegetables. And sometimes—more often than you suspect—you might feast like kings.”
A typically excellent treatment of the subject, by the inimitable Professor Anthony Esolen.
“Not every carpenter in 1800 could make tables fit for Windsor Castle. But he made what would stand the test of time, because it required great skill and practice to make any kind of table at all. The sifting would already have occurred when the man was a boy, learning the feel of wood and tool.
“So, too, with the old hymns. A person would have needed certain skills not only to write a good poem in meter and rhyme, but to write any such poem, and he would have been accustomed to writing such poetry from his youth. Poetry was a big part of the ordinary person’s life. For some people it was only the poetry in folk songs and hymns, but for literate people—and I am not talking about college graduates—it was far more…
“Modernism is nearly synonymous with disruption from and dismissal of the past. The modernist says the clock’s hands have turned, that there’s no going back, and we must look to the future. Its results have been meager, and at worst a spree of destruction. I am not speaking merely of quality. Whole genres of poetry, to name one branch of art, have disappeared.
“This is not to say that modernist poets write poor dramatic monologues, poor epics, poor songs, and poor narratives; they do not write them at all. Poetry has shrunk to the confessional or political lyric, usually in free verse. Never in human history has poetry meant less to the ordinary man. It is a tree torn up by the roots.”
Of course, having identified and described the problem, the next issue is figuring out what to do about it. Professor Esolen’s recommendation – “Learn some poetry. Open the old hymnals and read” – is an excellent place to start! But how to get people to actually do that is a bit more of a conundrum.
As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And you can lead a writer of “worship songs” to classic hymnody, but you can’t make him appreciate it, still less internalize its lessons, in such a way as to enable him to write in the same tradition… or at least, it doesn’t seem so.
It also helps to come from a faith tradition that actually is a faith tradition. Far too much of what passes for Christianity today is in point of fact what Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner refers to as “jesusy” worship “experiences.” (He also refers to a lot of it as “masturbatory worship,” calling it a “self-worshiping, self-referential, nearly auto-erotic pursuit.” I don’t think he’s far wrong, but I’m trying to be nice.)
For a church – or a would-be hymn-writer – to have an authentic faith tradition, they have to be part of an authentic faith tradition: and for that, you need something like the Anglican tradition. Or the Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or (God help us… after all, I am an Anglican!) Presbyterian / Reformed traditions: traditions that have developed over the centuries, even the millennia, of the Christian era.
You won’t find it in the “community church” model, which almost seems to take pride in not being part of any tradition, which seems to practically glory in being cut off from the past (which, of course, is what inevitably happens when you hitch your wagon to the “contemporary” star).
There are a few such churches that seem to be trying to graft themselves back onto the Great Tradition, and I wish them all the best! But they are still relatively few and far between, and they’ve got their work cut out for them.
And of course, far too many of those who are members of churches that have historically been part of the Great Tradition have, for the last four or five decades (or more), been doing their best to cast off those connections. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have nearly all seen a steep decline in membership.
But I digress. The point – for the purposes of this post – is that to write hymns that have both theological and poetical depth, one must be steeped in both the poetical tradition and in an authentic, historical faith tradition.
It is said that the old Celtic Bards had to study for 21 years to become masters of their craft and trade. They had to learn not only the musical arts, but history, folklore, genealogy, myths and legends, and much more. Even law codes! Then and only then were they seen to be ready to ply the bardic arts.
Yet now, it seems, everyone who can string together a few lines of doggerel thinks they can write “worship songs” or “praise music.” Maybe we need a more Bardic approach to Christian hymnody! We had something like it once, though we may not have called it by that name: Tony Esolen explicates it, and the fertile soil in which it grew.
Best-known to those of us of a certain age as the opening theme of PBS’s wonderful “Masterpiece Theater,” this is a splendid piece of music, played in a manner well-suited to do it justice. As one commenter put it,
“I always thought of this beautiful tune as being archetypically English, but I guess I gotta give the French full credit on this one!”
The opening to this epic composition is perhaps best known by many as the score to the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In a way, that’s kind of a shame, as it is more than worthy of appreciation on its own: indeed, the entire symphonic poem is. But that opening is truly epic!
N.B.: I hasten to add that I am not a Nietzschean (although honesty also compels me to admit that his assertion that “what does not kill us, makes us strong,” has helped inspire me to persevere through some very difficult times in life).