Words: Thomas Moore, 1824; altered, Thomas Hastings, 1832
Music: CONSOLATOR, Samuel Webbe, 1792
Yes, it is that Thomas Moore (1779-1852), the famed Irish poet best remembered for his Irish Melodies. Moore gave the world sweet ballads such as "The last rose of summer" and stirring patriotic lyrics such as "The harp that once through Tara's halls." It seems fitting that the two best-known of his songs in the United States reflect both the tears and laughter that so characterize his writing. "The minstrel boy," brought to these shores by Irishmen fighting in our Civil War, has become a part of the funerary traditions of our military, firefighters, and police forces. On the other hand, "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms" is the song that launched a thousand Warner Brothers cartoon gags involving exploding pianos.
But though his fame is by far owed to his secular songs, Moore was also a significant biographer, critic, and historian. A rather nominal Catholic much of his life, he found his early success primarily in English Protestant circles; but by middle age he increasingly identified with the faith of his youth and the plight of his people. His later works included the semi-autobiographical Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion.(Catholic Enc.) And during the period when he was so occupied with his popular Irish Melodies, Moore put forth his efforts in a religious bent as well, issuing his Sacred Songs in two editions, the first in 1816, and the second in 1824.
A search of Hymnary.org shows that many of these were quite popular up into the early 20th century, but "Come, Ye Disconsolate" is the only one now found in common use. By 1903, C. Litton Falkiner could say that the famed poet's hymns "have little to commend them."(Falkiner, 346) I have found relatively little comment on these works in scholarly sources. What caused the indifferent reception of these works in more recent times?
Though Moore obviously wrote his sacred texts to be sung (the original edition had music composed or arranged by Sir John Stevenson, with whom Moore worked so successfully in the Irish Melodies), they freqeuntly range into the sphere of sacred art songs, rather than the humble verse of congregational singing. In his memoir of Moore, Francis James Child said, not disparagingly, that "the Sacred Melodies [Moore] himself regarded as feats of dexterity."(Complete Poetical Works, v.1, lxviii) I suggest the problem was that they were neither fish nor fowl--not quite practical as Sunday-to-Sunday church music, but owing to their subject matter, awkwardly different from his popular nationalist poetry.
Consider, for example, the treatment given the first edition of Sacred Songs by the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, when Moore was in high estimation and his style was squarely in the mainstream. The reviewer cited a want of "that sublime simplicity, that solemn severity, that chastity of thought and expression . . . that inspires our prayers to the creator."("Sacred Songs," 383) By contrast, he claims, Moore's poetry is too clever by half: "The lines are smooth and polished, but there is a luxurious, not to call it a voluptuous tone and spirit, breathing throughout both language and imagery, which does not accord with the intent." As an example, the reviewer cites Moore's paraphrase treatment of Psalm 74:17, "Thou hast made summer and winter."
When youthful spring around us breathes,The reviewer notes wisely that "fine sensibility and a brilliant imagination are always in danger of falling into this error."(386) For contrast's sake, compare Isaac Watts's less polished rendering:
Thy spirit warms her fragrant sigh,
And every flower the summer wreathes
Is born beneath that kindling eye.
Hath not thy power formed ev'ry coast,I would never place Watts in the league of Moore as a poet per se; but in this genre, Watts brought to bear a lifetime of deep study and a plain, frank, and humble style that is better suited to the subject. In the same way, Moore's better efforts in the Sacred Songs coincide well with the weightiness of their material. One of the best, and deserving of a revival, is "The bird, let loose in eastern skies," which plays upon a common metaphor in the Psalms (11:1, 55:6); this vivid poetic image was better suited to Moore's strengths. "Come, ye disconsolate" likewise called forth his ability to relate to the disillusioned and hurting, and perhaps foreshadowed his return to faith later in life.
And set the earth its bounds,
With summer's heat, and winter's frost,
In their perpetual rounds?
The version of the text most commonly used in the United States was altered by Thomas Hastings for Spiritual Songs for Social Worship, edited by Hastings and Lowell Mason (Utica, N.Y.: Hastings, Tracy, and Williams, 1832). Besides a few minor changes in the first two stanzas, Hastings completely replaced the third stanza. These differences are noted below.
Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish;
Come, at the mercy seat fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav'n cannot heal.
The second line of Moore's original reads "at God's altar," which Hastings changed to "at the mercy seat." Perhaps Hastings wanted to avoid what could be considered a reference to the literal altars used in Catholic and some Protestant worship traditions. I really doubt Moore meant this literally; though his language strikes Protestant ears as referring to an "altar call," that could hardly have been his intent!
Moore chose the word "disconsolate," which is not common in American English; the Oxford Dictionaries Online define this as "very unhappy and unable to be comforted." It is not just being unhappy and in need of consolation, but implies instead that consolation has been attempted and has failed. It is closer, then, to our more common expression, "inconsolable."
There is something innately incomplete in us, whether we call it the "human condition" or some other philosophical term. My cat eats, drinks, hunts, and sleeps, and by any conceivable measure appears to be content with her lot. (Her hunting is almost always unsuccessful, but the prowling and stalking provide hours of diversion.) We too need the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, but once these are relatively secure, we still want something else. People try to fill up this "something else" by many means--drugs in the literal form, or the drug of accumulation of material wealth, or the drug of power and perceived importance. Sometimes, of course, our better instincts incline us to fill this void with the love of family and friends, or even better, with good deeds for humanity at large.
But the hole is still there; or, stated positively, there is something within us, when it has a chance to awaken, that is meant for more than just survival or physical and emotional comfort. The latter impulses just mentioned--devotion to family and friends, and the desire to do good for humanity--can sometimes be twisted to wrongheaded ends, but they are symptoms of something better. It is the image of God in us, that spark of the soul that is more than the 100 trillion or so cells that make up the human organism.
Though Moore did not provide a Scripture reference as he did to some others of his Sacred Songs--and given his broad style of interpretation, it is hard to read between the lines--a likely Scripture starting point for this hymn seems to be Matthew 11:28-30. Here Jesus directly addresses the "disconsolate" state of the human soul:
Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.Note that Jesus did not promise an unqualified, unlimited freedom; He has a yoke of discipline and burden for us to bear, just as He did himself. The Savior to whom we submit also said, "I seek not My own will but the will of Him who sent Me."(John 5:30) And Moore calls us to "kneel" before God, a posture of humility and servitude that comes hard to many of us. But consider the Beatitudes--Jesus said we are "blessed" if we are poor in spirit, mourning and meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness.(Matthew 5:1-6) It is this recognition of our need for God, our incompleteness without Him, that is necessary before we can get into a right relationship to Him. We must kneel before He can lift us up.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure;
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
"Earth has no sorrow that heav'n cannot cure."
Jesus told His apostles shortly before His crucifixion, "So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."(John 16:22) This same group of men, according to what history we have of them, all died violent deaths with the exception of John who was exiled. Paul, who was not present of course on that occasion, gives a lengthy list of the trials of an apostle in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. He summed up the privileges of this exclusive fraternity thus: "We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things."(1 Corinthians 4:13) But their joy in Christ was never taken away! Paul, even under threat of death in prison, repeatedly admonished Christians to "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice!"(Philippians 4:4)
Jesus offers hope, as well, but not the flimsy sort of grasping at straws that we sometimes associate with that word. On several occasions when Paul was called on to explain himself before the authorities (Acts 23:6, 24:15, 26:6-7, and 28:20), he placed a certain "hope" at the center of his preaching. In the first two of those instances, Paul said it was a hope associated with the resurrection of the dead; in the second two, he identified it with the promises made to Israel, finally summing it up in Acts 28:20 as "the hope of Israel." To the faithful Jew this "hope" was no nebulous abstraction, it was an article of faith. It was real enough to the Pharisees, in fact, that Paul successfully used it to drive a wedge between them and the Sadducees in his hearing before the Sanhedrin.(Acts 23:6) This hope was a confident expectation in God's deliverance through a Messiah, and a coming age of better things; Paul's message was that Jesus of Nazareth was that Hope of Israel, who became also the Hope of all the world.
Did Romans 15:13 cross Moore's mind when writing this stanza? "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." In John 14 Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit as the "Comforter" who abides with Christians forever.(John 14:26) And how many are the blessings of this Spirit! The "gift of the spirit" to each new Christian (Acts 2:38) is far greater than those outward miraculous signs that confirmed the Word at first, and that some (such as the Christians in Corinth) mistakenly overemphasized. In just a single passage, the 8th chapter of Romans, we find these promises:
- "The law of the Spirit of Life has set you free"
- "To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace"
- "He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you"
- "By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body"
- "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God"
- "the Spirit helps us in our weakness"
- "The Spirit himself intercedes for us"
Hastings made a couple of minor changes to the second stanza: in the 2nd line, the original reads, "Hope, when all others die" instead of "Hope of the penitent," and in the 3rd line the original reads, "in God's name saying" instead of "tenderly saying." Neither change seems that significant, and I do not see an obvious reason for the alteration.
But the third stanza is another matter! Hastings wrote an entirely different stanza for the conclusion; Moore's original is totally different in theme, and deserving of notice:
Go, ask the infidel, what boon he brings us
What charm for aching hearts he can reveal,
Sweet as that heavenly promise Hope sings us--
"Earth has no sorrow that GOD cannot heal."
The first question is, did Moore mean "infidel" in the archaic sense of a believer in another deity (as it was once used mutually by Christians and Muslims), or in the more modern definition--a person who does not believe in a deity at all? After searching through a few volumes of Moore's works, I found Moore did use the term in both meanings, though with some qualification. When using the term in the older sense, he almost always put it in the mouth of one of his characters, as a revelation of the person's attitude toward others; Moore's own heritage made him take a dim view of bigotry toward those of other beliefs. He did, however, use the term directly to describe the growing numbers of Europeans during the 19th century who rejected religion outright, and I believe this is the point of his original closing stanza to this hymn.
The person who is looking to win a debate will not be impressed with Moore's logic here, but those who have sought and found this answer in their own lives will understand. Rational arguments about the existence of God aside, if there is no God, then... what? I have looked over the edge of that cliff once or twice myself, and it was not fear that caused me to step back from the howling chaos below--it was the decision to live a life full of meaning, despite some questions, rather than a life of no meaning and no answers.
Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heav'n can remove.
This stanza, of course, is entirely by Hastings, who is better known as a tunesmith (TOPLADY, ORTONVILLE). The rush of metaphors he introduces--though all quite Scriptural--seems out of character with the rest of Moore's text. Perhaps the best understanding of it is a consummation of the promises of the preceding stanzas, and of the refrain line, "Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove."
The image of the heavenly banquet runs throughout the Bible, as seen in the dramatic invitation of the 55th chapter of Isaiah:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, My steadfast, sure love for David.(Isaiah 55:1-3)Jesus took up this theme in his parables (Luke 14, Matthew 25), illustrating the lavish generosity of God, and at the same time the fact that many would reject His offer through disregard or through negligence. Many were willing to come, of course, when Jesus offered the literal loaves and fishes; but in response to their repeated requests for more, the Savior echoed the words of Isaiah:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal.(John 6:26-27)It is a spiritual feast to which God invites us; Jesus himself is the sweet relief of those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness."(Matthew 5:6) Expanding on His theme in John chapter 6, He said, "Jhn 6:35 ESV - Jesus said to them, "I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst."(John 6:35)
During the summer of 1986 several college friends and I rented an old farm house that was supplied with well water. Among many memories that linger about that place was the taste of that water, which was not quite right--I believe my father suspected it of being "gypsum water," as the country folk call it. No matter how much of that stuff we drank, we remained just as thirsty as before.
That is just what we try to do as humans, in our rebellion against our Creator; there is a spiritual thirst we cannot deny, and we try to quench it with everything in the world, but to no avail. Everything in the world is not enough; we need that true, pure, refreshing water that comes from God's fountain of life. What a joy to know that this is available to every man and woman, perfectly free for the asking!
About the music:
Moore's original publication of this text had a musical setting, by Sir John Stevenson, which I have not been able to find. The tune commonly used in the United States comes from a solo voice setting of the Marian hymn "Alma Redemptoris Mater" by Samuel Webbe, Sr. (1742-1816), published in his Collection of Motetts and Antiphons (London, 1792).(Hymnary.org) Webbe was better known as a composer of light secular choral music, but his sacred collections were quite popular among English Catholics during the early 19th century.(Catholic Encyclopedia) Click here for a later version of Webbe's setting of the Latin hymn.
Thomas Hastings, Lowell Mason's right-hand man in the Boston-centered movement toward the use of more classical church music, arranged this in two parts and matched it to Moore's text in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (Utica, N.Y., 1831). Though I have not been able to examine Webbe's original version, from comparison to the later Catholic version, it appears Hastings did a fair amount of adaptation of the tune, whether by intent or through a faulty copy.
I have not led this hymn much, but I have only heard it sung tediously slowly, and that may be the problem. Looking at these earlier versions--especially Hastings's original, in cut time--I think I have not used the right approach. A quicker feel, in light 2/2 time, makes it a very different hymn, and perhaps suits the tone of Moore's poetry better as well.
"Thomas Moore." Catholic Encyclopedia (1913). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10553b.htm
Falkiner, C. Litton. "Thomas Moore." Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature. London: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd., 1903. Volume III, pages 345-350. http://books.google.com/books?id=cxU-AAAAYAAJ
The poetical works of Thomas Moore, with a memoir by Francis James Child, 6 volumes. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1857. Volume 1: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015038095660
"Sacred Songs." The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, volume III (1818), pages 383-387.
"CONSOLAION (Webbe)." Hymnary.org. http://www.hymnary.org/tune/consolation_webbe
"Samuel Webbe." The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15573a.htm