Text: George Herbert (1593-1633) Tune: Ralph Vaughan William (1872-1958)
1. Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: Such a way as gives us breath; Such a truth as ends all strife; Such a life as killeth death.
2. Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: Such a light as shows a feast; Such a feast as mends in length; Such a strength as makes a guest.
3. Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: Such a joy as none can move: Such a love as none can part; Such a heart as joys in love.
As I have pointed out on occasion, great poetry does not always work in hymns. The irony, puns, allusive language, metaphors, etc. sometimes are too much for a hymn. On the other hand, there are some that do work. George Herbert, the greatest religious poet in English, has written a few that can be sung as hymns and are. This is one. Despite its depth, it works especially for those who are lovers of English poetry.
It is one of the more tightly constructed of all poems as well, although it isn’t necessary to know that to enjoy the hymn. You can see it best printed out like this. Note the way the first line with its three names for Christ is elaborated on in the next three lines of each stanza.
Note also the way the last word in the first line is repeated in the last line. While most people won’t notice that, some do And delight in it. The last line of the last stanza is even more delightful—it repeats the words of the first line of the stanza in reverse order.
Probably the most difficult line is "Such a feast as mends in length." To get it we need to go back to an earlier use of mend that we still recognize—to mend is to fix, we understand that. But a similar meaning helps us understand this better—to improve. That would mean that the feast improves over time. Or gets better the longer one is there. And the strength that makes a guest would be having the host through his strength make it possible for us to be guests.
That may help a bit. The rest is clear, I think. This is an elegant treatment of Jesus‘ I am the Way, the Truth and the Life from his Farewell Discourses in John. Herbert shows us he is everything.
Ralph Vaughn Williams and Percy Deamer, the editors of the English Hymnal, 1906 were literally revolted by the Victorian sensibilities in Hymns: Ancient and Modern. They did not like its sentimentality, and its appeal to the hoi polloi—frankly they were snobs. They wanted the music and poetry of the hymnal to be in good taste, a concept that had become prevalent in church music from Lowell Mason on. The language they used to deprecate the hymns of the Victorian period is contemptuous and even nasty. On the other hand, they did have reason to prefer the English tradition, especially its folk music. They despaired of the failure of English composers to access the great tradition of English music of the Renaissance, like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and others. Ralph Vaughan Williams, the leader of the revolt, found the English folk tune to be more appropriate for English hymnody so he returned to it and refashioned English hymnody. He ruffled quite a few feathers in this. His hymnal was banned briefly in favor of the venerable Hymns: Ancient and Modern. But since that time, his music has been widely appreciated and he has come to be regarded as one of the all time great composers of England.
In addition, he was not fond of Victorian poetry. So a hymn text by the greatest English devotional author, George Herbert, would have appealed to him. Thus, we have this hymn as a treasure. Admittedly it is a long way from “Blessed Assurance.” That does not bother me, unless his aesthetic is used to get rid of all of the hymns that seemed “beneath” him.
Talking about good taste in the music and language of worship is a slippery slope.
The canons of good taste change over time. When I started working on the Lutheran Book of Worship text committee, the music committee was enthralled by the Southern Harmony tunes or folk tunes. That was in line with Vaughan Williams urging the use of English folk tunes.
Lowell Mason, the maven of American church music in the 19th century, was idolized by many church musicians for cleansing hymnals of the barbaric yawp of Southern Harmony hymns. His good taste saved church music, it was often said.
Then, on a dime, tastes changed. Suddenly Mason was a philistine for opposing these folk songs. I have been surprised in this project to rediscover how many of the Sunday school Gospel composers studied with Mason and then went to Leipzig to continue their work. They were not poorly educated charlatans out for a quick buck. They were shrewd observers of the times and produced music that spoke to it.
The editors of the music in the Lutheran Book of Worship were taken by the taste argument, on the whole. They wanted to rid the hymnal of Victorian hymns much as Vaughan Williams did. Their choice of old southern harmony tunes, on the whole was good. But their own works have not lasted.
The poem by Herbert is from his collection of poems, The Temple. This music was first printed in a collection of art songs, Five Mystical Songs, by Vaughan Williams around the time of the English hymnal of 1906 where it first appeared as a hymn. Beloved by people who care about Herbert and Vaughan Williams, it keeps appearing in subsequent hymnals. But I would not say it is there by popular demand. Hymnal committees love it and so it is there.
King's College Choir Cambridge
St. Paul Cathedral Choristers https://youtu.be/52zriSYfCpA
BlackFriar Music/interesting video
From Five Mystical Songs https://youtu.be/jg9QZ_Jeqqo
Next month, April 6, my book of sonnets, Jesus The Harmony, will be released by Augsburg Fortress. One can pre-order it on Amazon now.