I recently was introduced to Chuck King’s blog Te decet hymnus, and as I trolled several older posts, I came across this one that resonated with some thinking I’ve been doing about hymnwriting. In a word, he ponders the significance of short words in hymnody. Arcane, you say? Nope. He quotes from The Anthologist:
Do you notice those one-syllable words? The Elizabethans really understood short words. Each one-syllable word becomes a heavy blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line. . . Gascoigne said that to write a delectable poem you must “thrust as few words of many syllables into your verse as may be.” The more monosyllables, the better, he said.
When I read this earlier this weekend, I thought of hymns, old and new. But mostly new. I have to say that some of the new hymn writing I admire is flawed by using too many polysyllabic words. Good words; words with meaning and richness. But in the end, perhaps words that get in the way of our singing, that don’t melt in our ears and tongues and hearts and souls.
He’s onto something here. I’ve often considered what gives a particular hymntext (apart from the melody usually associated with it, which is a major factor) its staying power. And while striking metaphors may play a part, it often seems to me that the sheer simplicity of the language — just the right language, mind you — plays a major part.
I note this probably most often in Charles Wesley’s texts. In fact, when I was researching “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” in preparation for introducing it at our church, I noted this description of it in Watson’s An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (worth its weight in gold, by the way!):
The three verses are economical, absolutely functional in that there are no distractions from the theme, and wonderfully accommodated to the rhythm and metre. It could be said of the first line that, as Christ’s glory fills the skies, so the words exactly fill the line, beginning a hymn which is rare in its taut control and imaginative power. (170)
Elsewhere in the same volume, Watson writes,
Again and again a line or a verse of Charles Wesley’s hymns seems to be exactly right, to say what it wants to say with a richness of vocabulary and an economy of diction that are instantly recognizable as the work of a master. (164)
While the observations on Wesley don’t necessarily highlight monosyllabic words, they do speak of a certain economy of language, language that speaks richly and yet concisely, polished as a gem, nothing superfluous. Here is the first verse of the aforementioned Wesley text, “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies”:
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Day-spring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.
Now, Wesley is more than happy to use polysyllabic words. In this stanza we have “righteousness” and in the next “unaccompanied”! But Watson is absolutely right: there is an economy to Wesley’s language. And I would suggest that such economy is one factor that gives particular hymntexts their staying power.