Monday, October 19, 2009

Hymn 3

Ever wondered why we never sing the WHOLE hymn?
(You might recognise the last six verses, but read it from the start and see if you can guess what's coming..!)

THE BREWING OF SOMA by John Greenleaf Whittier (American Quaker poet and editor, 1807-92)

"These libations mixed with milk have been prepared for Indra: offer Soma to the drinker of Soma."
(Vashista, translated by Max Muller.)

The fagots blazed, the caldron's smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
"Bring honey from the hollow oak,
Brink milky sap," the brewers spoke,
In the childhood of the world.

And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
And shouted, with one voice and will,
"Behold, the drink of the gods!"

They drank, and lo! in heart and brain
A new, glad life began;
They grew of hair grew young again,
The sick man laughed away his pain,
The cripple leaped and ran.

"Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget you long annoy."
So sang the priests, From tent to tent
The Soma's sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.

Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna's gate,
And sobered, sank to earth.

The land with Soma's praises rang;
On Gihon's banks of shade
Its hymns the dusky maidens sang;
In joy of life or mortal pang
All men to Soma prayed.

The morning twilight of the race
Sends down these matin psalms;
And still with wondering eyes we trace
The simple prayers to Soma's grace,
That verdic verse embalms.

As in the child-world's early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger's keen delight of pain,
the Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,
The wild-haired Bacchant's yell, -

The desert's hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below;
The naked Santon, haschish-drunk,
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir's torture show!

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfill;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
And noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
Thy beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the hearts of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be numb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

The Hymn

The hymn comprises six verses from the poem (although most hymn books omit verse 4).  Soma is an hallucinogenic drink probably made from the fungus Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, and used in Vedic rituals by Hindus in India in order to have union with the Deity.  In the poem Whittier sees the drinking of soma, like the use of incense and music in church, as distracting the mind from its proper purpose of worship.

    In sensual transports - wild as vain
    We brew in many a Christian fane
    The heathen Soma still!

After this catalogue of feverish distractions Whittier suddenly, with great effect, introduces the note of quiet: 'Dear Lord and Father of mankind', and the rest of the hymn in which is expressed the Quaker conviction that God is to be found in silence and stillness, through the inward peace of the worshipper rather than through outward stimulation and sensual excitement.  Biblical references include, verse 2; Mark 1:16-20, Matthew 4:18-22, verse 3; Luke 6:1-12, and verse 5; 1 Kings 19:11-12.

So, it's a hymn about why hymns are wrong and silence is right!  No wonder my bloody brain hurts.

The Music

This hymn is generally sung to the tune Repton, by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918).  Parry's tune was originally written in 1888 for the contralto aria 'Long since in Egypt's pleasant land' in his oratorio Judith.  In 1924 Dr George Gilbert Stocks, director of music at Repton School, set it to 'Dear Lord and Father of mankind' in a supplement of tunes for use in the school chapel.  Despite the need to repeat the last line of words, the tune Repton provides an inspired matching of words and music.  And it's one of my personal favourites.

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