My childhood was full of hymns, and not just at church on Sunday. Every day in school assembly I sang a traditional hymn, and so did just about everybody else growing up at that time. When my high school tested everybody one by one for the school choir in an early music lesson it was Hymns Ancient and Modern which was doled out desk by desk. I don’t think it was a religious choice, it was just that we all knew many of them so it was the easiest way to do it. In spite of the fact that even back in the 1960’s church congregations were already collapsing we had all stood there in rows belting them out (or mumbling them) at primary school day after weary day. They were on a massive tattered brown roll of pages which was hoisted up on a winch above our heads with the pages thrown back over the top to show the right hymn for the day.
Most of them were quite baffling. Praise My Soul the King of Heaven or Breathe on Me Breath of God is a bit of a far off concept when you are six or seven. When we sang Fight the Good Fight I had a whole scenario which I could play in my head as I sang it and it had nothing to do with faith or facing the difficulties of life as you try to be worthy of eternal salvation. I had seen playground fights and I enjoyed imagining myself winning a series of them as I sang. I was a belter, not a mumbler. When I sang “Lay hold on life” I imagined myself pulverising life and raising my “joy and crown” above my head at the end of the verse with my foot placed firmly on its stomach. I was a tiny, quiet, over protected and highly imaginative only child- it was my one opportunity to contemplate violence.
I had four favourite hymns. In fourth place was one which I now think is the possibly the most vacuous piece of nonsense ever to be inflicted on small children. Glad That I Live Am I, written by Lizette W Reece in 1909.
Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.
After the sun, the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.
All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer to God on high.
It has no originality at all just a stifling acceptance of a mundane, repetitive way of life that saps the spirit. Accept your lot and get on with life without grumbling. Work hard until you die and if you have stood there long enough and sang enough boring hymns you might get to heaven but don’t count on too much before then.
In third place was Daisies Are Our Silver written by Jan Struther in 1901.
|Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.
Raindrops are our diamonds
These shall be our emeralds
|God, who gave these treasures
To your children small,
Teach us how to love them
And grow like them all.
Make us bright as silver:
Gay as leaves in April,
This stands the test of time a little bit better for me. It’s simplistic but at least it encouraged a delight in the natural world and it talked about things which I saw every day, as a country child. I had absolutely no concept of what a soul was or what faith might be but I liked speedwell, and roses, and new leaves and raindrops and I knew what they were.
In second place was John Bunyan’s Who Would True Valour See, part of his great work Pilgrim’s Progress written in 1684 and turned into a hymn by Percy Dearmer in 1906. This is writing of real quality inspired by deep faith in horrible circumstances, far too complex for an infant and yet something about it managed to reach the consciousness of my small self. I found life confusing and difficult and I liked the idea of being strong and undaunted. I wanted to be unstoppable and fearless too. I had enough people besetting me round with dismal stories- I wanted to face a roaring lion without being scared and fight a few giants. Of course Percy Dearmer wrote a great tune too and that helped.
Who would true Valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will Constant be,
Come Wind, come Weather.
There’s no Discouragement,
Shall make him once Relent,
His first avow’d Intent,
To be a Pilgrim.
Who so beset him round,
With dismal Storys,
Do but themselves Confound;
His Strength the more is.
No Lyon can him fright,
He’l with a Gyant Fight,
But he will have a right,
To be a Pilgrim.
My favourite hymn of all was When a Knight Won His Spurs, another Jan Struther one written later in her life, first appearing in 1931. That made it just over 30 years old at the time I was singing it so I daresay it was thought of as new fangled and modern.
When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
For God and for valour he rode through the land.
No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride,
Though back into storyland giants have fled,
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.
Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
And let me set free with the sword of my youth,
From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.
This is the perfect hymn for a romantically inclined, overprotected only child who spent a lot of time on her own. I loved Grimm’s fairy tales so along with the gentle lyricism of the tune and the sentiment, there was also a real sense of danger. Grimm’s fairy tales are tough and full of explicit cruelty. Children are abducted and abused in them and have to rely on only their own cleverness and strength of character to survive. It’s a brutal world picture and the idea that a single knight could ride out to combat all the evil in the world, and that I could be like him, however small and weak I might be, was a fine ideal to aspire to. It is a clever touch that the knight is a single figure- easy to idealise and visualise. Above all it told me that the giants and dragons which had filled my thoughts had once been real. There was a deep sadness in the fact that they were no longer alive but this hymn told me that they had once existed and that was what mattered.
Strangely, God didn’t really come into any of this at the time. They may have sent me to Sunday School but it wasn’t until quite a few years later that I realised that some people believed in the bible and tried to live by it, and it was much later still before I drew my own conclusions. I was busy making up stories of my own from the ones that I was being told. It’s what children do when you put something that is too difficult in front of them.