STLT#334, When Shall We Learn

One of the cool things about this particular hymnal is that the commission had some remarkable 20th century poetry set to music, like this poem, “Canzone” by WH Auden. The downside, of course, is that most of those poems – including “Canzone” – are far longer and intricate than we have breath for in a few short verses.

I wonder if this is still a good thing – does having snippets of longer works provide a sense of the poem’s meaning? Or does it miss the point of the still fairly short work that has been carefully constructed? Are we short-changing the amount of attention the poet has asked for?

Or does anyone actually notice who writes these things except someone like me who is studying them?

I can’t argue that the edited-for-singing version doesn’t capture some of what Auden was going for, and some of the most striking couplets remain in tact here. But I know that only from reading the full poem did I get it; otherwise, it was snippets of phrases and syllables to sing.

And that, as I’ve said before, seems to be a consideration when choosing a hymn to be sung by a congregation versus a hymn to be performed by a choir or soloist: does the music get out of the way enough so singers can hear the words? So much amazing poetry we have in this book of ours, but so much of it obscured by tunes that are complex. And when the notes demand more attention that the words, we might as well be singing “la la la” together.

My point – and I do have one – is that to let Auden’s words sing forth, and perhaps lead another person to look up the full poem, this should not be a congregational hymn but rather a solo/choral work.

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
we cannot choose what we are free to love?
We are created with and from the world
to suffer with and by it day by day.

For through our lively traffic all the day,
in my own person I am forced to know
how much must be forgotten out of love,
how much must be forgiven, even love.

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,
loose ends and jumble of our common world;
or else our changing flesh can never know
there must be sorrow if there can be love.

The tune is a flowing piece called Flentge that isn’t too hard to sing, written by Lutheran composer and lecturer Carl Flentge Schalk; I don’t have much more info on it, but there is a recording on YouTube.

The image is of a now-extinct white rhinoceros, but that fact is not why it’s my featured image…

One Comment

  1. I’ve written on my own blog about how great poetry, being subtle and lacking in obvious messages, does not make the best liturgy. In order for a piece to work in a worship service, we need to be able to grasp a meaning on the first hearing. Still, even as great and subtle a poet as Auden can give us nuggets that make us nod in recognition right away, and this is one:

    how much must be forgotten out of love,
    how much must be forgiven, even love.

    Now you’ve got me crying, darn it, Auden and UUA Hymnal Commission.

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