"There Is a Land of Pure Delight"
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
When that wise old fellow Geoffrey Chaucer described the Franklin on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, it was as a well-fed man whose house “snowed meat and fish,” and his cook had better keep the sauces sharp and spicy, or he’d hear it from his master. That’s because the Franklin, says Chaucer, “was Epicurus’ own son,” and “it was his belief that pure delight / Was true and perfect happiness aright.” Well, the Franklin was wrong about that, or at least he was wrong about where you can find that delight that is true happiness. Chaucer was setting up the Franklin and his worldly opinion to knock them down. Not that his courtly audience would have needed him to do that. I am sure that, as fancy in their ways as they were, and as lavish in their spending, the well-taught court of Richard II, whom Chaucer delighted with his poems and stories, knew better than that.
If only we could keep that knowledge in our minds! Our true and perfect happiness cannot be here. How can it be, when all that we love is fated to pass away, as “all flesh is grass”? Happiness cannot be perfect if it is clouded with the certainty of loss. And that gives us the paradox of our Hymn of the Week, by Isaac Watts, that titan of Christian song, “There Is a Land of Pure Delight.” We believe what Jesus has said to us, when he promises to us the kingdom of God. “This day,” said he to the repentant thief beside him on the cross, “you shall be with me in paradise.”
It is the passage from here to there that frightens us. But let us look at the matter, says Watts. The land beyond is where “saints immortal reign.” The day is everlasting; there is no night, the flowers do not wither, the fields are sweet and green. What is in our way? “A narrow sea,” like the waters of the Jordan River. It is the narrow sea of death.
Chaucer’s Franklin no doubt wanted to keep the idea of death far from his mind, and that is one of the uses to which we put the pleasures of food and drink and other things; when the night draws near, the party grows all the louder, if for nothing else than to keep us from having to think about it. But we should think about it. Watts invites us to stand on Mount Pisgah with Moses, when he watched the children of Israel cross the river into the Promised Land. It was a bittersweet moment for the old prophet, whom God did not allow to join them in that crossing. The strains of their songs from far below may well have reached his ears, but Moses laid his bones to rest on that mountain, and that is where he was buried. Yet who, really, was entering then into glory, the children of Israel, or the prophet “whom the Lord knew face to face”? I mean not at the moment, for Christ had not yet come to set the captives free, but in the ultimate destination. And we, who have been privileged to learn that Christ has come, that he has died for us and thrust the lance of God’s love into the heart of death, are in a better position than Moses was, if we would look at things, as Dr. Watts says, “with unbeclouded eyes.” Why should our eyes be overcast, except by the natural tears we weep when a loved one passes away? For we have been saved in hope.
THERE is a land of pure delight Where saints immortal reign; Eternal day excludes the night, And pleasures banish pain. There everlasting spring abides, And never-withering flowers; Death like a narrow sea divides This heavenly land from ours. Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood Stand dressed in living green; So to the Jews old Canaan stood, While Jordan rolled between. But timorous mortals start and shrink To cross the narrow sea, And linger shivering on the brink, And fear to launch away. Oh! could we make our doubts remove,— These gloomy doubts that rise,— And see the Canaan that we love With unbeclouded eyes; Could we but climb where Moses stood, And view the landscape o’er, Not Jordan’s stream nor death’s cold flood Could fright us from the shore!
We could not find a sharable version of “There Is a Land of Pure Delight” sung to our favorite tune for it, “Capel,” which seems to have the right balance of reverence and brightness for the tone and subject of Watts’ lovely poem. The above link provides the basic tune, but you may click below to hear “Capel” sung by the York Minster Choir, set to a different hymn. You can find the Vaughan Williams arrangement of “There Is a Land of Pure Delight” (Capel) in the 1940 (#586).
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Delight-- the daughter of hope.
I saw this hymn title by Dr. Watts a few weeks ago while reading a short biography by Douglas Bond, titled “The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts”. My search for the lyrics with any tune proved fruitless until today. Thank you.