Some Metrical Observations on a Hymn

The hymn I have in mind goes thus:

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

Observe the meter:

Iamb, anapest, iamb, anapest (10)
Iamb, anapest, iamb, anapest (10) (an ingenious way to make anapests work)
Iamb, anapest, anapest, anapest (11)
Iamb anapest, anapest, anapest (11)

A striking meter.

I pause here to make some observations most probably already have but without which the rest might not be intelligible. The music of English poetry is produced by two things coming together: the meter, which is as the strings of a violin, and the rhythm of the phrases, which is as the bow. Anybody who has struggled to appreciate poetry knows that until you can hear this out loud in your head, you have to read it out loud to hear its music. In this case, rhythm that will counter the disastrous effects of anapestic meter is crucial. It also seems to me the rhythm of lyric poetry has to be regular, and when it is, it is then matched to the melodic phrases of the music.

In the case of O Worship, song and poetic music are very well matched, and this is one of the things that makes it great. It is pretty good just because of what the author did to avoid writing doggerel (when the rhythm and the meter collapse and are indistinguishable), never mind a regular meter with the words in the right place. But this is how you know it is a great hymn, when you are looking at considerations of poetry. I have to wonder if he didn’t have J. Michael Haydn’s tune in mind when he wrote the poem.

In our blue Trinity Hymnal you can just look across the page at 15 and see something much different. It is another adaptation of a psalm, but the only consideration is to reduce it to some meter and some kind of rhyme. The result is mostly doggerel, there is anastrophe which serves no higher purpose than making sure the rhyme scheme is preserved, and the obvious lack of art requires no long perusal to discern.

The other thing our poet did with the meter of O Worship was to deploy a series of effects thereby. Art lives in its effects. So in order to understand it you ask what the effects accomplish. In the case of these verses, the ingenious extra syllable creates a rushing effect (a little more is being squeezed in), or a more robust effect (like having ten rather than three columns supporting your architrave), and so on. An example:

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

There is a studied ambiguity in the first two lines, I think. We are talking about God’s care: it is bountiful, in fact, inexhaustible. But why are we talking about how we can’t talk about it? Then, as if that were not enough, we say it breathes in the air and shines in the light. It is a comment on the extent of the bounty: wherever air goes, God’s bounty is breathing, wherever light shines, it is with lit with God’s generosity. It is nevertheless hard to picture anything specific. One wants an example; one expects that from this poet. Here, we are not getting a firm grasp on care, just on bounty—the modifier. What then happens is that in the 11 syllable lines of the stanza we get a very specific picture: it is like water, one of God’s most generous ideas. If the first two lines, besides what they explicitly say, develop an ambiguity about the subject, then that is like asking a question. The last two lines, then, come back with the answer, as if to say: here is what I’m talking about. The extra syllable lends the effect of greater detail, there is more to this part, and that effect corroborates, echoes, or, if you’d rather, it brings home that resolved ambiguity.

And that is not the only verse or way in which an effect of the meter is deployed.

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