Two new rules today, because the thing that makes UUs go “huh” should be the theology:
- Hymns should avoid using lyrics that have an ABBA rhyme scheme.
- Hymns should never end in words most people have to look up.
Just look at these lyrics as a poem, which is how they started. Not bad, really. Very nature-oriented, and I’m sure that in the early 1990s, it was appealing to have more nature-based hymns in the hymnal, especially with the adoption of the seventh principle and sixth source. I mean, it’s not a great poem, but it’s definitely an autumn poem.
Now light is less; noon skies are wide and deep;
the ravages of wind and rain are healed.
The haze of harvest drifts along the field
until clear eyes put on the look of sleep.
The garden spider weaves a silken pear
to keep inclement weather from its young.
Straight from the oak, the gossamer is hung.
At dusk our slow breath thickens on the air.
Lost hues of birds the trees take as their own.
Long since, bronze wheat was gathered into sheaves.
The walker trudges ankle deep in leaves;
the feather of the milkweed flutters down.
The shoots of spring have mellowed with the year.
Buds, long unsealed, obscure the narrow lane.
The blood slows trance-like in the altered vein;
our vernal wisdom moves through ripe to sere.
But now, let’s look at my new rules.
In poetry, internal rhyme and bracketed rhyming structures work well. Rhyme speaks volumes in terms of the way a piece is read and the reflective nature of the words in the rhyme – as well as a lot more stuff professors of poetry and Stephen Fry can tell you. But a poem read is not the same as a poem sung, and different rules apply. Sure, there is free verse in lyrics – “Thank U” by Alanis Morrisette for some reason just came to mind as a good example of free-verse lyric. But putting that aside, if you’re going to use bracketed rhyming schemes or free verse as lyrics, the tune should support it, not make you think ‘that didn’t end right.’ Maybe I’m biased – but I know I’m more comfortable in a congregational singing situation if the rhyming isn’t spread so far apart – an AABB or ABAB scheme just feels more…finished? Hymns aren’t intended to be masterpieces (just kidding, Jason) – they are supposed to move us and support the work of the worship event. The verses of this lyric don’t sing – they thud to a close.
I suspect you already know where I’m going with Rule Two, but let’s talk about it. Now, I am an educated woman. I am well read. I have a reasonably large vocabulary. And if the word ‘sere’ is a mystery to me, it is more than likely a mystery to many. This isn’t a ‘oh, whine, I had to look up a word’ comment where I am just being picky and you’ll come back at me with words I use that others don’t know. This is about singing hymns together, and getting a feeling of whatever it is the hymn is supposed to evoke. In this case, I assume it’s a connection to the deep autumn (although I was already thinking about how little actually happens in this hymn before I hit the last verse). But then you hit “sere” – and unless you’re one of the fourteen people who still use the word, you stop, think ‘I wonder what that word means’ and even if you try to suss it out from context, it’s difficult to know whether we’re talking a word that means overripe, spoiled, or turned to seed. As it happens, ‘sere’ means ‘without moisture’ – which I might have gotten to eventually, but then would have missed the next five or ten minutes of the service. Add in the couple of minutes everyone spent wondering if they’d sung the lyrics wrong because of the rhyming structure, and you might as well not have anything of any import coming up after it, because no one will pay attention, and soon you will be reconsidering your choice to use this hymn at all, and then remembering that you could have gone into publishing but no, you had to become a minister, and now look what’s happened.
It’s too bad, really, that this piece doesn’t work. I love this tune (Sursum Corda) – it’s very Gregorian chant to me, and it has a simple reverence I appreciate. It’s appropriate that it would be paired with a nature-focused lyric. Just not this one.