Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
John Greenleaf Whittier (1872)
I’ve been to the pleasant city in southern California named for the author of our hymn this week, John Greenleaf Whittier. An odd place to be named for the man whose most famous poem is called “Snow-Bound”! Palms, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, cactus trees — and a record low temperature of 29 degrees.
But they didn’t name the city on a whim. For the first big group of settlers on that land were Quakers, planning to establish their own community, and naming it in honor of Whittier, an American poet much beloved by ordinary people, a peace-loving Quaker who nevertheless was a regular firebrand when it came to the matter of slavery, which he wished to eradicate. For he believed in the brotherhood of all mankind. So the Quakers planted their orange groves, and they built a big Meeting House, and a school that still exists today, Whittier College. “Be you, dream big,” reads the school’s web page. John Greenleaf Whittier was not a pretentious man, but gosh, you’d think they could do a little better than that, even for public relations.
I’m very fond of this hymn, sung to a sweet and stately melody called Repton, composed by Sir Charles Parry specifically for it. Whittier begs the Lord of mankind, who is also our Father, to “forgive our foolish ways,” and he does so with confidence, because the Lord is “dear,” close to us, if we will but draw close to him. We do so not because we want to feel better about ourselves, but because we want to grow in the service of others, and in the contemplative praise of God.
That is the import of all the stanzas. Whittier imagines the time when Jesus walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called the disciples to follow him. We hear no words, we see no dramatic scene. It is childlike, and yet deeply interior. Something happens; and they rise and go. Jesus himself, as Whittier pictures it, would go to the high hills to be with the Father, in silent prayer, and in silent receiving of the Father’s reply, his silence, like our prayers when we have no words to express them, “interpreted by love,” by the Holy Spirit.
It’s a world of noise we inhabit now, so much so that we hardly understand silence as other than the temporary and rather unsettling absence of sound. But that is not what Whittier prays for. And the final stanza shows it. For the prophet Elijah, on the mountain of Horeb, sought the presence of God, but it was not in the earthquake, the whirlwind, or the fire. It was in that gentle rustling sound, the whisper of a breeze, or as the old translation has it, the “still small voice.” And in that voice we may hear the words of the dear Jesus Himself, who tells us frankly that in the world we will know trouble, “but be not afraid, for I have overcome the world.”
1 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 deeper reverence, praise. 2 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, rise up and follow thee. 3 O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above, where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity, interpreted by love, interpreted by love! 4 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 the beauty of thy peace, the beauty of thy peace. 5 Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm, O still, small voice of calm!
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How many wonderful potential mottos for a place of learning the folks at Whittier College could have found in this one poem of their namesake, if a little divorced from context? "Reclothe us in our rightful mind," "interpreted by love," "till all our strivings cease." All wonderful and poignant words!
Most of our slogans these days are hardly better than the grunts of cavemen. "Hur dur. Be you. Dream big." I wonder how the students at Whittier College feel, knowing that for all the money they likely spend to go there, the people in charge have so little originality when it comes to inspiring them...?
This might be more appropriate for a different discussion elsewhere (and sorry if I veer too far), but I wonder if you have any thoughts about one of the "qualities" of "modern hymns" that may be my most despised aspect (out of many of course) of why they are so bad. It is the quality of -- I don't even know the proper word, I'll say "drifting" -- mid-word to the next note before getting on to the next word in lyrics (where that next word may very well also be sung to that ending previous drifted note, but not necessarily.) It's a quality that just says "laziness" in writing melody -- as well as in singing melody, but that's a different issue -- to me (as well as being pretty boring to listen to -- icky).
And I mention that because when it is done correctly and well, it is an admirable thing. And it is something I notice in this hymn you linked to (and I realize it was composed by someone other than the poet you were primarily talking about, but since you mention it in passing above, I'm gonna run with it just a tad *gulp*) -- and, I hope, even relate it to your comments at the end, we'll see.
It's not a "big" thing about the melody, but almost notable for that very reason. The first line has the two stepwise notes in a couple words (I won't refer to it here as "drifting" because it is done with purpose and not the lazy modern "I can't think how else to get there, so I'll just drift over, don't ya know..." method of what is called "composition" these days -- ugh). And the third line from the end has it too, and I could go on about those instances, but I want to get to the last occurrence that appears in the penultimate line of each verse.
Maybe I'm just focusing too much on such things, but its occurrence in that penultimate line of each verse seems so deliberately done (and yet stays "in the background" so as not to disrupt the flow too much). And (this is why I even mention it at all) its effect is distinctly "amplified" (again, to me, at least) by the fact that the last line (ie, that repeats the previous line) distinctly DOES NOT have two notes for one word -- and that "progression" happens in every single verse.
So it seems, oh, I don't even know exactly why or how to explain it best, but it seems meaningful. It is as though the effect of repeating the line is to emphasize not only the line itself, but also, well (and here's the tie-in to your commentary) to emphasize the very quality you describe in the last paragraph. In other words, it is sort of "backing off," in a deliberate but very gentle and soothing manner, of the emphasis initiated by the poet's repetition of the line. It is as though it is, in effect, a kind of "compositional" manifestation of the line you quote from Jesus that in the world we will know trouble, “but be not afraid, for I have overcome the world.”
I've gone on about a very particular example here in this hymn, but my opening sentence was of course about a more general idea of wondering what it is that makes a compositional melodic quality of hymns (but music in general I suppose) seem deliberate and wonderful in some few cases (which was far more prominent in the older hymns,) and utterly dreary and sloppy in 99% of the rest of modern hymns.