Let’s just tuck right in, shall we? This is a pretty and light tune (albeit with an odd harmonic choice in the second phrase), and it accompanies pretty and light lyrics, almost.
Because while everything is lovely and wonderful in nature, from star to sea, from earth to sky, apparently our lyricist, John Greenleaf Whittier, thinks people are terrible: “nature’s signs and voices shame the prayerless heart within.”
REALLY? You’re shaming me and my alleged prayerless heart? Seriously? Is this supposed to be a wakeup call to humanity? Is this “consider the lilies of the field” taken to its cynical conclusion? Or is this another of those gross misinterpretations of Thoreau? There is a negative attitude about humanity in that last verse that really gets under my skin.
I’m not saying we’re the best and screw the earth – not that at all. We have a sacred duty as earthlings to care for the planet and all that lives on it. But we are here, and we have developed to have these creative, emotional, innovative, self-reflective, self-saving and sometimes self-destructive minds. We are here, with hearts that are full of prayers whether we name them such or not. We have hopes and dreams and wishes and worries. To indict us as prayerless in a paradigm where nature is both separate from us and better than us? Not having it.
The harp at Nature’s advent strung has never ceased to play;
the song the stars of morning sung has never died away.
The prayer is made, and praise is given, by all things near and far;
the ocean looketh up to heaven and mirrors every star.
The green earth sends sweet incense up from many mountain shrines;
from folded leaf and dewy cup now pours the sacred wine.
The blue sky is the temple’s arch, its transept, earth and air;
the music of its starry march, the chorus of a prayer.
So nature keeps the reverent frame with which all years begin;
and nature’s signs and voices shame the prayerless heart within.
Seriously not having it.
(I am willing to concede there may be another interpretation, but I’m really struck by that final phrase and how turned off I am by it, so even a well-intentioned corrective won’t lead me to use it. I’m just not with this hymn.)