One of the disappointing features of our controversies about biblical translations, the readings in the lectionary, the composition of our hymnals, sacred art in our churches, and gestures and actions in our liturgies, is that people in charge of things seem to be poorly versed in the humanities. They show little expertise in poetry, music, art, anthropology, history, or linguistics. Otherwise, they would not make absurd claims about what is vaguely termed the vernacular, claims that cannot be borne out by a close look at human practice. As they harbor a special animus against old grammatical forms and old poetry, I should like to focus on them, though I bid the reader to consider that the lessons are of broad application, both for my own church (Roman Catholic) and for others.
Early modern English had a convenient second-person-singular pronoun, distinct from the plural: thou for the nominative, thee for dative and accusative, and thy and thine for possessive. These pronouns are not hard to understand. They are analogous to I, me, my, and mine. A Catholic child has to learn them to say the Our Father and the Hail Mary. They endure in the Mass in the Our Father and its additional verse: “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.” Plenty of folk songs use them: “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” Beloved Christmas carols use them: “O little town of Bethlehem, / How still we see thee lie.” Patriotic anthems use them: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee!” Many a well-known hymn is unimaginable without them: “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
What, then, is the trouble? Is it that the old pronouns, according to our liturgical betters, are no longer fitting, because they are not in ordinary daily use? Some of the modernizers are fond of noting that the pronouns in question have lost their old informal sense, as the once formal or polite you, your, yours, employed to address a single person, have displaced them. So, the reasoning goes, if we want to address God in a true vernacular, rather than in some stiff religiose jargon, we would use you and avoid thou.
Far be it from me to prescribe language for a man’s private prayers, or for poets and liturgists writing hymns and prayers now. We are speaking about whether hymns and prayers already written should be jiggered to meet the current requirements for an English vernacular.
First, the revisers are simply wrong about the informality of thou. It had always been used among intimates, or when you were speaking to children or servants. That sense of intimacy lasted long after the pronoun had disappeared from common English speech. Think of the opening line of Elizabeth Browning’s most famous sonnet: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” She could have written what she would certainly have spoken: “How do I love you? Let me count the ways.” Why didn’t she? Was she showing off? Fancy, in a stale way? Not in the least, and we ourselves do not think so. We can hear the drop from what she did write to what she might have written. We can call thee in her verse neither formal nor informal, but intensely intimate and tender. It marks a special relationship.
Second, the revisers do not see that ordinary people in healthy cultures—except perhaps for liturgical snobs in reverse, who scoff at those people for their bad taste, their attraction to beauty, and their reverence for the old—do not use language in one single way. The vernacular includes among its many registers the poetic, the incantatory, the archaic, and the sacral. The practice of Jesus himself is instructive. Did he use the speech of the marketplace when he was preaching? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. His parables are masterpieces of narrative art. His Beatitudes have the structure and the vocabulary of Semitic poetry, with their terse blocks of meaning, two or three blocks on one side, two or three on the other: “Blessed the-meek, / [for] they-shall-inheritthe-earth.” The Lord’s Prayer, too, is a poem, with the same sort of linguistic structure: “Our-Fatherin-heaven, / be-hallowed thy-name.” Why should this surprise us? When Jesus and his disciples said the prayers at the great feasts of the Jews, when they sang the psalms, they used not only Hebrew, the learned and liturgical tongue, but the Hebrew of the psalms, which was not the Hebrew of the historical books: tsalmaweth, “shadow-death,” is one notable word found only in poetry—in Psalm 23, for example. That is part of what it is to have a language and a culture.
Third, the revisers do not understand linguistic change. They appeal to “evolution,” as if it were inevitable that language must grow more powerful, more precise, and more beautiful as time goes on. On the contrary, languages have periods of ascent and decline; the Latin of Pope Gregory is a rusty old hunk of iron compared with the sharp steel saw that Cicero had available to him. The English of our journalists is a pale shadow of what was regularly published in the Century Magazine more than a hundred years ago. Surely, sacred language should guard against linguistic decline, just as sacred art should guard against artistic decline. I do not want to look at a cubist Jesus. Poetry has been in steep decline for a long time now, and I say so not simply because the quality has sunk, but because entire genres of the art have disappeared, and poets have almost no purchase upon the popular mind.
That language does change is not news to me. I read Old English, which is a thousand times further from contemporary English than the early modern is. Said the Beowulf poet:
Ne thaet se aglaeca / yldan thohte,
Ac he gefeng hrathe, / forman sithe,
Slaependne rinc, / slat unwearnum,
Bat banlocan, / blod edrum dranc,
That’s Grendel, the man-eating monster, snacking. Most of those words are gone. Such as we still have—bat (bit or boat), blod (blood), slaependne (sleeping)—have lost most of their old inflections, and have undergone changes in form and phonology. I do not urge Old English hymns upon us. I am aware, too, that words we still possess can mislead: as when prevent, in the King James Version, means anticipate, or as when Edmund Spenser sings his poetic tribute to a bride and groom, “Against the wedding feast, which is not long,” meaning, in anticipation of the wedding feast, which will not be long in coming. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” asks Juliet. She is not searching under the balcony.
But to revise away pronouns that are readily understood even by children is like taking down your steeple because architects like boxes instead. Everyone knows what a steeple is, even if steeples no longer surmount new town halls and schools. Indeed, the steeple gains in significance by resisting the river of change. Dead things float downstream, said Chesterton. It takes something alive to swim against the current. Town halls no longer look like town halls, because we have lost a strong sense of what town halls are for. A church that is built like a new town hall, or a new warehouse, or a new meeting place, looks like a nothing, like any other edifice without any significance. It is not a sign.
Sacred language, to be significant, to be sign-bearing, must not only be made manifest amid change. It must be a sign of what does not change. It must announce to the child and to the old man, to this generation as to generations past and to come, that its truths are timeless. “Love alters not with [Time’s] brief hours and weeks,” said Shakespeare, in language that he would not use to order a bottle of sack at a public house, “but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” When Abraham Lincoln delivered his address at Gettysburg, what English did he use? Did he go a-slumming, mimicking the speech of farmer boys impressed into service, who did not own a single book? Said he: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Imagine that our revisers had put it through their grinder:
Eighty-seven years ago, our ancestors established a new nation on this continent. They were motivated by the desire for liberty, and they believed in the equality of all human persons.
What’s lost? All that endures in time and beyond time. People in Lincoln’s day did not commonly count in scores. The year was not named eighteen-hundred three-score and three. But in his old-fashioned numbering, they did hear the strain of Scripture: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow” (Ps. 90:10). In just those few words, the president placed the events of Gettysburg both in time and beyond time, as he would do in his final words, when he declared that the great aim of the war was to ensure that our form of republican government “shall not perish from the earth,” as shall the remembrance of the wicked man (Job 18:17), and the false gods of the heathen (Jer. 10:11).
What else is lost? The profoundly human and personal. Lincoln’s allusion to our earthly fathers is rich in Biblical allusion—for the generation that came into Canaan with Joshua “were gathered unto their fathers” (Judg. 2:10), and Hezekiah “slept with his fathers” (2 Kings 20:21). But that is abandoned in favor of the abstract and neutral ancestors, to mollify the feminist with scoliosis of the nose, or to obey the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not worship God thy Father with language that recalls fathers upon earth.” But the principle here is not limited to masculine terms. It, too, is of broad application.
It may be characteristic of a philistine people that they cannot imagine language or art that is deeply personal and solemn at the same time, or that is deeply personal because it is solemn. I think of the climactic scene in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. A courtly black minister in the bayou country of the South tells his congregation—people who live in poverty, as he surely does too—that they are going to have some special visitors to share their entertainment tonight. The visitors are men in a chain gang, from the local prison. Says he:
And once again, brethren and sisters, we’re gonna share our pleasure with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves. Won’t you please clear the first three pews so they may have seats? And when they get here, I’m gonna ask you once more, neither by word nor by action nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor draw away from them or act high-toned. For we is all equal in the sight of God. And He said: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone . . . and their chains shall be struck from them . . . and the lame shall leap . . . and the blind shall see . . . AND GLORY IN THE COMING OF THE LORD.”
Whereupon the doors are opened, and the minister and his flock break out into solemn harmony, as the prisoners shuffle into the church in chains, followed by their guards:
When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go,
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
“Let my people go!”
The power and honesty of the man’s Mississippi Delta speech here derive from the timeless word of God, embodied in rich and hieratic language, such as can inspire any man who hears it and takes it into his heart. Which man among those poor congregants would ever say to his neighbor across the checkerboard, “The lame shall leap”? That is not how they talk at the general store, and therefore it well may be how they talk when they draw closest to one another, in the sight of God.
As it turns out, the people and their guests are going to watch a silent black-and-white Walt Disney cartoon, with Pluto the dog. That’s the entertainment, and if it is foolishness, it is such as is good for the child in us, and it is blessed by God. But for those brief moments before the men come in, the biblical strains of the preacher and the simple but not simplistic lyrics of the song of Israel in bondage lift the congregation into another mode of being from that of the farmyard or the market. It brings them closer to the prisoners. The kingdom of God, not the faculty lounge of man, or the conference room of the committee, is among them.
The thing itself will cry aloud. Here is the climactic stanza of that fine old Lenten hymn translated into English, “The Glory of These Forty Days.” In the opening stanza, we celebrate the glory of Lent, because Christ “himself has fasted and has prayed.” In the second and third stanzas we recall others who have fasted, and who were granted a vision of the Messiah to come, or an experience of the world beyond this world: Moses, Elijah, Daniel, and John the Baptist. That brings us again to Christ, whose fast in the wilderness we wish to share, so that we too may see—but not in the shadows of anticipation:
Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
Full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
And give us joy to see thy face.
Nothing difficult about that. The point is that we wish often to be with Jesus in his fast and his prayer. The line is intensely personal. But the editors of the Catholic Worship hymnal could not bear the old pronoun, and since the pronoun was the final word in a rhyming line, they had to mess up another line too:
Then grant that we like them be true,
Consumed in fast and prayer with you;
Our spirits strengthen with your grace,
And give us joy to see your face.
They could not possibly have been thinking here about either the meaning of words, or the progression of the poem. The truth or loyalty of the prophets was not in question. True is just their sloppy attempt to provide a rhyme with you. And consumed? That is just to discard the old-fashioned phrase full oft. But in a poem about not eating? The image is out of place, and frankly a bit grotesque.
What have they gained from their alterations? Their first line, “Then grant that we like them be true,” is not contemporary English either. It is barely within the bounds of grammar. It is far inferior to the straightforward “Then grant us, Lord, like them to be / Full oft in fast and prayer with thee.” It is neither poetic in the tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, nor colloquial for us or for any speaker of English at any time. So we are left with a monster, like Woody Allen’s Frean of happy memory, a creature with the body of a crab and the head of a certified public accountant.
Quoth the Raven, “No way, Jose!”
What real difference does it make, someone may ask, so long as the meaning remains the same? As if form and meaning in art were separable: As if a cartoon figure of a smiling, happy God the Father ready to touch the finger of a smiling, happy cartoon Adam conveyed the same meaning as what Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But even if we limit “meaning” to bald semantic significance, the meaning rarely does remain the same, once the revisers have done their work. The result is to obscure or obliterate the word of God. Here is an example from the Advent hymn, “On Jordan’s Bank,” translated by John Chandler (d. 1876) from the Latin of Charles Coffin:
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand
And bid the fallen sinner stand;
Shine forth, and let thy light restore
Earth’s own true loveliness once more.
Jesus raised up the paralytic after having declared that his sins were forgiven. That moment is clearly in Chandler’s mind. The editors of Worship could not let the poetry stand. They break its knees:
Stretch forth your hand, our health restore,
And make us rise to fall no more;
O, let your face upon us shine
And fill the world with love divine.
What offense did Chandler’s words commit? Their focus upon sin, I suppose, and the suggestion in the final two lines that earth no longer has the loveliness she ought to have.
At least the lines above are grammatical, though they are still a botch: the O in line three, which is every bit as archaic as thy, is there as a crutch, to fill up the metrical spot. Often the result is not grammatical. Take what the editors do to “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” The hymn is a brilliant adaptation of Psalm 23, seen in the light of the New Testament, Christ the Good Shepherd, and the sacraments. This stanza “translates” the verse from the psalm, “Thou spreadst a table before me in the sight of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over”:
Thou spreadst a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And O, what transport of delight
From thy pure chalice floweth!
The unction is the holy oil for baptism and for the anointing of the sick, and the cup now brims over with the wine of the Eucharist. The poet, Henry Baker, has an eye also on Jerome’s Latin, according to which the blessed cup inebriates the drinker: hence the transport of delight, but a pure transport, a holy ecstasy.
The Worship editors could not tolerate the old -eth ending on the verb, even though it remains in so beloved a hymn as “He Leadeth Me,” which became without embarrassment the title of Fr. Walter Ciszek’s account of his imprisonment in Siberia under the Soviets. They also assumed that nobody would understand what unction means. This is what they did:
You spread a table in my sight;
Your saving grace bestowing;
And O what transport of delight
From your pure chalice flowing!
Gone is the fine sacramental rendering of “thou anointest my head with oil.” But what do the final three lines mean? There is no verb for what looks as if it should be a clause in line two. There is no verb for the next two lines, either. And still we have the archaic word-inversion in line two, with an object preceding what seems to be its participle, though until we get to that participle we don’t suspect that it is an object. That is far less clear than the original, in which we have the subject of the clause first, followed in quick succession by the object and the verb. What a mess.
It requires no genius to leave works of art alone. It bespeaks ignorance and arrogance to think you can muck around with somebody else’s work of art, when you yourself are no artist. But does it really matter?
Imagine a man standing before you in a suit and tie. His coat is smudged with excrement. Does it matter if half of the suit is clean? Does it make it any better if he tells you that he smeared the filth with his own hands? Imagine the roof over your head, punched full of holes. Does it matter if there are only fifty of them? Such a thing is no roof at all. I say the same about our hymnals. Dear readers, you are at liberty to extend the principle. I will suggest one line of extension here.
“Stupidity is always a vice,” said Jacques Maritain. Hannah Arendt, who should have won a special Nobel Prize in endurance for having slogged through thousands of pages of Nazi propaganda and correspondence, gave to us the useful and illuminating phrase, “the banality of evil.” I am not implying an equivalence between banalities. But when the leaders of a church or a school or a nation grow indifferent to one of the transcendentals, expect them to grow indifferent to the others as well, if they are not already so. He who promotes the banal in beauty will make no courageous defender of truth and goodness.
May I take a hint from the great René Girard and coin a term, Mimetic Stupidity? When the young atheist Thomas Merton once dropped into a Catholic Mass in New York City, he was astonished to hear a priest delivering a learnedly theological sermon to a congregation as various as mankind. The priest was raising them up, intellectually and spiritually. But when, by a condescension that assumes in others not just the remediable condition of ignorance but outright incapacity, we teachers, professors, writers, editors, translators, and artists give people what is stupid, we enact in ourselves the inversion of what Merton saw in that Mass. The banal redounds upon our proper heads. We become what we have assumed in others. Says the Psalmist of idolaters and their dumb blocks of wood: “They that make them are like unto them” (Ps. 115:8).
Anthony Esolen is Writer-in-Residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.