I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to think here. I’ve been staring at this screen for a solid five minutes wondering what to say.
It’s not that it’s a bad piece. It is sweet – first, it’s set to a lovely Missouri Harmony tune (Devotion), which we first sang back in early January.
And it’s Wordsworth, one of my favorite English poets, lyrics excerpted from his poem “The Solitary Reaper.”
So the pieces aren’t bad. And they even go well together, despite the one verse of ABAB rhyme in a AABB song:
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
and sings a melancholy strain:
O listen! for the vale profound
is overflowing with the sound.
Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
for old, unhappy far-off things,
and for the battles long ago.
Or is it some more humble lay,
familiar matter of today?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
that once has been, may be again?
I listened, motionless and still,
and, as I mounted up the hill,
the music in my heart I bore
long after it was heard no more.
I think the reason I have nothing to say, really, is that I don’t have a clue as to what theological or spiritual purpose this might have. In other words, why is it in a hymnal, and not just a songbook? Like, I get why we have some more complex or troubling songs in the hymnal – it’s songs of our living tradition. But this seems, well, like a really lovely song you might hear at a coffeehouse or folksy open mic or a shape note sing-along.
I don’t know what to say. I hope others can tease out meaning where I cannot.
What I can do is share one of my favorite paintings in the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. To be honest, it’s the image I have in my head every time I see this poem or this song.
I totally agree. It’s not horrible, but I’ve never seen it selected as an actual congregational hymn. One time I led a service exploring the treasures of the hymnal and invited several musicians to pick a hymn and give it their own unique interpretation. One of the folk singers picked this one. Her rendition was quite beautiful — she sang it while strumming the guitar, and she spoke about how this hymn made her think about her mother. It was a lovely, touching moment, but really, why is it in STLT?
No theological comments to make here, but I will say that I’ve been there (the Olson household, now part of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine), when Christina and her brother Al were still living. Christina was a very scary old lady who sat in a wooden kitchen chair and glared at me (age probably 8); I knew that when only family members were around, she would crawl on the floor to get from one place to another. My family had friends on the adjacent land in Maine, and we would walk over to Christina and Al’s to buy fresh eggs and blueberries. I remember the red geraniums in pots in the window, as you will see in some of Wyeth’s paintings.
The back story to this picture is that Wyeth was painting in their house (those empty room pictures were all painted in the Olson house) and he looked out the window to see Christina crawling up from the family cemetery. He thought what a beautiful picture it would make as seen from the opposite perspective, with the house in the background. However, he asked his wife to pose as Christina, because he thought she would look more appealing than the real (old and homely) Christina. (That would give a very different story in the painting, wouldn’t it?)
[…] few days ago, I found myself baffled by the inclusion of a particular hymn – not because it had what I consider troubling lyrics or history, but because I just […]