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"Now the Day is Over"
How can I portray for you the author of our Hymn of the Week, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould? He was the sort of polymath and clergyman that England once bore and nourished — a remarkable scholar, folklorist, linguist, archaeologist, amateur poet, novelist, medievalist, architectural restorer, father of fifteen children, and a faithful man of God. You may see him, a very old man, standing beside the grave of his wife Grace, whom he married when she was but eighteen years old, after they had met and fallen in love and waited a few years for her to come of age. Theirs was a happy and boisterous family. He has engraved on her headstone DIMIDIUM ANIMAE MEAE, meaning HALF OF MY SOUL. Or you may see him in the far west of England, among the seafaring Cornish, working at a hobby he loved the best, as he chatted with ordinary people to learn their folk songs, to transcribe their melodies into musical scores and to record their lyrics before time and age had buried them in oblivion. Or perhaps he’s that fellow with the clerical collar and the spade, among the peat bogs and the granite outcrops of Dartmoor, leading a group of men as they unearth the bronze-age artifacts of a settlement ten thousand years old, back when the area was warm and men could farm there. Why, it’s a wild and lonely place now, and people tell wild and lonely stories about it, so I may imagine the good reverend, with a twinkle in his eye, telling about how someone wandering through the bogs kicked a hat that was lying on the quaking moss.
“What are ye doin’ to me ’at?” cried a voice.
“Be there a chap underneath?” said the startled fellow. “Ay,” answered the voice, “an’ a hoss under me likewise!”
So then we may imagine the Reverend, sitting by the fire rather than standing at his desk — he wrote almost two hundred books, always standing up — to regale his wife and children with stories of ghosts and werewolves, which he also collected from the people of Cornwall and Devonshire, and from northern France — not to mention the ancient world. I can’t resist it, dear readers — I’ve got to give you an excerpt from his introduction to The Book of Were-Wolves. It’s evening in Vienne, and the English reverend has just finished inspecting a Druidical relic hitherto unknown to the world, but it’s taken him longer to get there and to find it than he’d reckoned on. So the people are warning him that he’d better not try walking back in the dark. That’s because one of the locals, a week ago, had seen the loup-garou:
“It is tempting Providence,” said one of the elders of the village; no man must expect the help of God if he throws himself willfully in the way of danger. Is it not so, M. le Curé? I heard you say as much from the pulpit on the first Sunday in Lent, preaching from the Gospel.”
“That is true,” observed several, shaking their heads.
“His tongue hanging out, and his eyes glaring like marsh-fires!” said the confidant of Picou.
“Mon Dieu! if I met the monster, I should run,” quoth another.
“I quite believe you, Cortrez; I can answer for it that you would,” said the mayor.
“As big as a calf,” threw in Picou’s friend.
“If the loup-garou were only a natural wolf, why then, you see”—the mayor cleared his throat—“you see we should think nothing of it; but, M. le Curé, it is a fiend, a worse than fiend, a man-fiend,—a worse than man-fiend, a man-wolf-fiend.”
“But what is the young monsieur to do?” asked the priest, looking from one to another.
“Never mind,” said I, who had been quietly listening to their patois, which I understood. “Never mind; I will walk back by myself, and if I meet the loup-garou I will crop his ears and tail, and send them to M. le Maire with my compliments.”
A sigh of relief sounded from the assembly, as they found themselves clear of the difficulty. “Il est Anglais,” said the mayor, shaking his head, as though he meant that an Englishman might face the devil with impunity.
In any case, it’s this man, this brilliant and lively Sabine Baring-Gould, author also of a 16-volume Lives of the Saints, who could write a simple evensong, a poem as quiet as the birds when the sun is setting, and one that even a small child can get by heart and sing with full understanding. Remember the childhood prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep”? The child is not so bound up in the whirl of time as the grownup is. He has just come from the eternal, we might say, and his sense of the eternal is still with him. So he prays to God not for some favor that has to do with the creatures of time, because he has no plans. He prays that God will care for him, sleeping and waking. He prays that he will awake “pure and fresh and sinless.” As Jesus says, you must become that little child to enter the kingdom of heaven.
For there will come a time when that is all we can pray for — and, by the grace of God, let it be a soft and gentle time. When the evening comes, I should love to have this hymn in my mind, and the melody I’d choose for it is Merrial, an unusually simple and yet haunting melody which begins and ends with a series of single notes, E in the key of A — the dominant, sol, hanging in the air, sweet and calm, and unresolved. That’s just as well, because the good Christian knows that the evening is not the end. It may be the beginning: “And there was evening and morning, one day,” says the sacred author.
Now the day is over, Night is drawing nigh, Shadows of the evening Steal across the sky. Jesus, give the weary Calm and sweet repose; With thy tenderest blessing May our eyelids close. Grant to little children Visions bright of thee; Guard the sailors tossing On the deep blue sea. Comfort every sufferer Watching late in pain; Those who plan some evil From their sin restrain. Through the long night watches May thine angels spread There white wings above me, Watching round my bed. When the morning wakens, Then may I arise, Pure and fresh and sinless In thy holy eyes.
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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.