Aleteia

Is this the greatest hymn ever written in the English language?

TRAPPIST MONKS
Tony Gutierrez | AP Photo
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Using the words “pavilioned” and “girded” in the same song, much less the same line, strikes me as admirable.

A couple of friends and I have retreated annually since 2013 at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where the silence is broken only by the singing of the Liturgy of the Hours by the Trappist monks. Their chanting voices is a highlight of the week.

Their musical prayer differs dramatically from my private recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. I’ve been praying Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer daily since 1995, and only recently have I included the hymn that is supposed to precede each prayer, in part because I wasn’t familiar with some of the songs.

I didn’t know what I was missing — especially a hymn called “O Worship the King.”

Thanks to growing up in a church with wonderful organ music in the 1960s and early 1970s, I am familiar with some of the songs in the four-volume breviary, such as: “Now Thank We All Our God,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “All Creatures of Our God and King.” I know “Morning Has Broken” thanks to Cat Stevens and “All Good Gifts” thanks to my love of Godspell.

The rest of them I have recited like poetry — some of it not particularly good poetry, even to me. (Granted, many song lyrics don’t sound right if they aren’t sung.)

But every time I happened upon the unfamiliar “O Worship The King,” I enjoyed all six stanzas immensely because of the wonderful language and imagery — beautifully poetic, again, even to me.

Consider the opening stanza:

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.

I loved the phrase “ancient of days,” and using the words “pavilioned” and “girded” in the same song, much less the same line, strikes me as admirable. I’m fond of the fifth stanza as well.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In thee do we trust, nor find thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

I have gone online and found several recordings of the song, as I’ve tried to learn to sing it. One by contemporary Chrisitian artist Chris Tomlin is good, but I favor one that sounds like what you might hear from a church choir and congregation.

Little did I know that some people consider “O Worship The King” to be the greatest hymn ever written in the English language.

The song’s lyrics were written by Sir Robert Grant early in the 19th century. A lawyer and member of Parliament, Grant was an influential evangelical in the Church of England who fought for the rights of minorities and indeed helped pass a bill that freed Jews in his country. The Governor of Bombay at the time of his death, Grant passed in Western India at the age of 58 in 1838.

“O Worship The King” was inspired by Psalm 104 but also uses phrases referenced in other Psalms as well as the Book of Daniel. Hymnary.org says that like all the hymns Grant wrote, this one had “graceful versification and deep and tender feeling.” The words are sung to the tune of “Hanover,” written by English composer William Croft in the early 18th century.

As a further example of the “graceful versification,” here is the sixth and final stanza:

O measureless might, ineffable love,
While angels delight to hymn thee above,
Thy humbler creation, though feeble their lays,
With true adoration shall sing to thy praise.

 

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