It is possible I am about to ruin this hymn for some people.
If you can’t bear to read about the context of this lyric that might change how you see it, close this window and go do something else. I say, write a letter to your Congress critter. I say, dive into some good work of resistance. Maybe that act for you today is to do art or play with children or run the errands you’ve been putting off. Whatever it is, if you don’t want this hymn ruined, go do it.
For those of you who have stayed, well, you still should do those things, but read first, because I can’t stop giggling. First, the lyrics – read them carefully, and relish in the beautiful language of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as the beautiful vision of a world to be.
Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range.
Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change;
through the shadow of the globe we sweep ahead to heights sublime,
we, the heirs of all the ages, in the foremost files of time.
Oh, we see the crescent promise of that spirit has not set;
ancient founts of inspiration well through all our fancies yet;
and we doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
and the thoughts of all are widened with the process of the suns.
Yea, we dip into the future, far as human eye can see,
see the vision of the world, and all the wonder that shall be,
hear the war-drum throb no longer, see the battle flags all furled,
in the parliament of freedom, federation of the world.
Lovely, right? Stirring, right? And set to the triumphant melody “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven, it’s strong and inspiring.
Dear Reader, Alfred was writing about love gone wrong.
I’m not kidding.
In the poem “Locksley Hall”, the narrator of the poem is clearly a young man wondering what his future would be, and one evening, he catches a vision:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—
Except it wasn’t a vision of the world as we might expect. It was a woman.
Our intrepid poet goes on for dozens of couplets about their meeting, their falling in love, and eventually the relationship ending. And in his despair, our narrator decided he’s so broken hearted that he’s done with women. The distant that beacons in “Not in vain the distant beacons” is a life on the sea and away from women.
THIS IS THE POEM OUR LYRICS ARE FROM.
Now, credit where credit is due – someone, somewhere, with identity lost to the annals of time, remembered the inspiring couplets buried in this poem, and managed to put them together into three sung verses that hold together fairly well.
And yes, it’s true that wisdom and inspiration can come out of otherwise secular pieces about other things. I am certainly not one to poo poo the idea that we find the sacred in the profane – hell, I co-led a service based on the Golden Girls, for goodness’ sake. And recently I played a game with myself to see how many turns of phrase from The West Wing I could sneak into the first 200 words of a sermon. (Seven, as it turns out.)
But I also know that I will never see this song the same way again, because at its root, it’s the grandiose thinking of a heartbroken young man.
Make of it what you will.
The image is of our brooding poet as a young man.