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Let Us with a Gladsome Mind
I caught somebody the other day saying that Isaac Newton didn’t go to Cambridge to study literature. He said it with scorn. Really? Well, if you went to Cambridge in Newton’s time, you most certainly did study literature in the ancient languages, and philosophy and theology. That’s what the author of our Hymn of the Week, John Milton, did at Cambridge at around the same time, and great literature was for Milton, as it had been for his fellow alumnus Edmund Spenser, and as it would be for Newton, a joy, near to the inmost heart of his life. Who knows but that Newton himself read or sang “Let Us with a Gladsome Mind,” a poem that celebrates the kindness of the Lord? He doesn’t treat us as we deserve, and we can thank Him for that, but he remembers us and is kind to us, because, as the Hebrews said it, le ‘olam chasdo: His mercy endures forever.
I’d like to say that Milton composed this hymn when he was at Cambridge, but I can’t. That’s because he hadn’t gotten there yet! He was just 15 years old, still at St. Paul’s School in London. St. Paul’s, a school for boys, was founded in 1509 by John Colet, the English teacher and man of letters, who wanted to make sure that the English weren’t going to lag behind their counterparts on the continent, but would study Greek and eventually Hebrew, to go along with the Latin that was taught pretty much everywhere. So we can suppose that young John composed this poem from the Greek version of the psalm. He’d have done it with his father’s approval, because John Milton, Senior was himself a composer, and the younger Milton was a devotee of sacred music all his life. In fact, Dad’s melody York is still commonly to be found in many hymnals. Milton would go on to compose poetry in Latin, Italian, Greek, and, of course, our good old English, and to my mind, his Paradise Lost is the greatest of all English poems, and one that can stand comparison with the works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante.
The psalm takes us joyfully from God’s creation of the world, to His delivering the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the wilderness and slaying enemy chieftains along the way, settling them in Canaan, and finally remembering them and delivering them once again — it is not said whence, but we can guess that it is from their captivity in Babylon. The first part of each verse names who God is or what He has done, and the second is, again and again, the joyful and mysterious “for his mercy endures forever.” Young John kept that form, and I think you’ll agree that his choice for the last two lines of each stanza, “For his mercies shall endure, / Ever faithful, ever sure,” is quite well done — brisk and emphatic, just what you want for such a poem. It’s the first two lines that are vary from stanza to stanza, and the lad lets his imagination flex its muscles. “Large-limbed Og he did subdue / With his over-hardy crew” — does a boy’s song get better than that? Or “Red Sea waves he cleft in twain, / Split in two the ruddy main” — all right, that’s two ways of saying the same thing, but good gracious, what I’d give to have written that second line!
Yet it is all kindness, all mercy. Can’t all Christians unite in agreement here? “All is grace,” said the saintly girl Therese of Lisieux, so different in spirit from the man who would “sing of chaos and eternal night.” But we can hope, can’t we, that they will see each other robed in gratitude and joy? For God’s mercies shall endure, ever faithful, ever sure.
Want to hear more? Listen for the descant on this recording by the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.