Monday, June 05, 2006

Worms, I Tell You

Some years ago I read several books on English and American hymnody.  It was interesting reading, but it was plain that like so many other areas of American Christianity, there was a definite slide in the content of the hymnbooks during the last century.  One writer quoted, humorously he thought, a clergyman colleague's complaint about "vermicular hymns", that is, "hymns with worms in 'em!"  We sang one this past Sunday -- in the sanitized version, alas, but remembering Isaac Watts' original --

    Alas! And did my Saviour bleed?
    And did my Sovereign die?
    Would He devote that sacred head
    For such a worm as I?

More modern hymnbooks pull the "worm" reference and substitute "sinner", which it still Biblical and no doubt still offends some.  Still worse, though, is the bouncing chorus that some cheerful soul added long after Watts reached his reward:

    At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light
    And the burden of my heart rolled away (rolled away)
    It was there by faith I received my sight
    And now I am happy all the day

It's a catchy chorus, though you could debate whether modern notions of "happy" still mesh with the synonym "blessed" when the chorus was added.  It even has good harmony and an interesting bass line, I'll admit, but it's totally inappropriate for the original hymn.  Watts concludes his portion with simple pathos:

    … dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
    and melt mine eyes in tears.

    But drops of grief can ne'er repay
    The debt of love I owe
    Here, Lord, I give myself away
    'Tis all that I can do

Look at Watts' vocabulary --

    Alas, grieve, bleed, die, worm …
    dissolve, melt, tears …
    drops of grief, debt, owe, and give myself away.

And the chorus responds:

    And now I am happy all the day

I tried singing "blessed" but it just wouldn't fly.

Keep the chorus, if you like, attach to another hymn or develop the idea to stand in its own framework.  But as for me, I need to be reminded of my vermicular state, and my helpless dependence on a gracious Savior, and the awful price He paid, daily.  Or to borrow the chorus, all the day. 

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