STLT#342, O Slowly, Slowly, They Return

I feel like an apostate for saying this, but I do not care for this hymn.

Now let me be clear: I like the tune (an initially tricky Swiss folk tune called Solothurn). And I like Wendell Berry’s poetry. And I don’t even mind the two together – they seem to fit well, with some musical phrasing that matches the poetic meter beautifully.

I think my problem is this – and it’s something I’ve encountered before in this practice but didn’t quite have words for until this moment (which is nearly an hour coming…this has been a hard write today): I want hymns to move the plot, not describe the scene. And I know that’s unreasonable, since every good musical has at least one descriptive song, usually in the beginning (“Fugue for Tin Horns” from Guys and Dolls, “Another Openin’, Another Show” from Kiss Me Kate, “Six Months” from Damn Yankees); of course, even those set up the situation or the setting (New York gamblers, theater people, baseball fanatics). This hymn doesn’t even do that. It just describes a particular part of the interdependent web.

It does describe that part beautifully, of course:

O slowly, slowly, they return
to some small woodland let alone:
great trees outspreading and upright,
apostles of the living light.

As patient stars they build in air
tier after tier a timbered choir,
stout beams upholding weightless grace
of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
uprisings of their native ground,
downcomings of the distant light;
they are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
their life’s a benefaction made,
and is a benediction said o’er
all the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
fly down the wind, and we are pleased
to walk in radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised.

I just don’t know why it’s a hymn. And I don’t know why it’s in the Insight and Wisdom section, and not the World of Nature section. And again, I don’t know that a congregation singing this will get the grace of Berry’s poetry unless they spend time with it. And I don’t know where or when I’d use it as a hymn. As a reading, absolutely. But this doesn’t do the work of a hymn, in my opinion.

Perhaps it’s a failing of imagination on my part. But I am not feeling it.

7 Comments

  1. Today, in Portland Oregon, that is a hymn of hope for the forest to return after devastating fire. It is a hymn for climate change and the possibility that we can create an alternative. It is a hymn for the earth-relating and the tree-loving. May it be so.

  2. (Part 1 of 2) Oh my god. How long do you have? How long do I have? I have so much to say about why this is a sacred piece.

    First, I’ll get two complaints out of the way. One, when the hymnal commission members make a change in the source words, however slight, I wish they would signal it. The word “adapted” is sufficient. The changes in this one are small (“some small woodland” instead of “the small woodland,” for example), no doubt made so as not to put an unaccented word on an accented note, but respect for the poet demands an acknowledgement. Plus, “Patient as stars” (Berry’s original) and “As patient stars” (the cram-it-into-the-meter rewrite) do not mean at all the same thing, and the latter just sounds silly. IMNSHO. Two, though this is highly subjective, I think the tune is boring. The text moves; the tune does not. I’m sure you, as a musician, have a better way to describe what I experience: that the tune just wanders away from the first note a little, then comes back to it, without my feeling as if it’s done much of melodic interest in the meantime. A solo singer can infuse these slight meanderings with more vibrancy, which means it’s a good soloist’s song but not such a good hymn.

    But “it just describes a particular part of the interdependent web”? It’s only descriptive, instead of moving the plot (great phrase)? It belongs in the World of Nature section, not in the Insight and Wisdom section? It doesn’t, in short, give us a spiritual aim to which to aspire and something we must do? I could not disagree more. There’s a reason I recite this poem to myself, or sing its musical version, almost every time I’m walking in the woods, and it’s not just because I’ve got trees on my mind. It is one of my musical meditations and a deep spiritual practice, and for me, spiritual practices absolutely must not just describe but also chivvy me along to something new: to action, sacred action.

    So, what’s sacred about this poem? First of all, it is explicitly religious in content, creating a loving extension of the metaphor of the physical church that would make George Herbert swoon. (If you did not fall in love with Herbert’s poetry during a graduate seminar, like I did, check out his series “Church Monuments,” “Church Windows,” etc.) The branches are the tiers of a choir loft, the birds the singers. And then there are the non-physical aspects of church: the trees are apostles, the light God. The trees “are the advent they await”–how is that for a UU theology? By awaiting God’s arrival, we become God’s arrival. More theology: Grace is intangible but made possible by the tangible, even weighty, material world (“Stout beams upholding weightless grace”). And it flies, and returns again to the ground, and soars again . . . I have only just begun to meditate on that little beauty, slipped in so subtly by Berry, who evokes a whole metaphor without even uttering the word “bird.”

    And then there’s that last line, which I can never speak nor sing without tears pricking my nose: “O light come down to earth, be praised!” These trees aren’t just trees. They are the immanent God, the divine made flesh to live among us (for Berry, of course, that would be Jesus). That is a gorgeous statement of both Pagan and Christian theology, and also mine, which is not quite either of those, but rests on the conviction that the holy is among us, within us, embodied by us, and channeled through us. And that it is worthy of our constant praise. The trees themselves are a symbol of resurrection; heck, they are actual resurrection, new life that emerges in a woodland–a place where trees were systematically killed–once it is let alone.

  3. (Part 2 of 4; I lied. There is something odd about the formatting of this comments page that makes the “Post Comment” button disappear if I write too much.)

    I could go on and on about the near-perfect construction of this poem. Berry uses the disciplines and craft of poetry so beautifully: check out the sweet balance of “uprisings” and “downcomings,” the gentle use of etymology in “a benediction said” and “a benefaction made” (my emphasis), his ease with neologisms. There are lessons there for artists in any medium on the importance of craft. But I’d rather focus on what he uses his craft to say.

  4. (Part 3 of 4)

    The poem says to me, Make your life a benediction and a benefaction. Use the blessings you receive–life itself being foremost among them–and bless the world with your words and deeds. It says, Yo, Amy. You are a creature of earth, so easily felled, and you also host spirit; you channel it; you turn the intangible (light) into flesh and then turn flesh into a home for the spirit: so act like it. Don’t forget that you are holy; be aware of that blessing, which makes you as beautiful as great trees, and also, bear that responsibility with the same gravity that they do.

  5. (Part 4 of 4)

    And, all of that said, I agree with you that it is subtle and requires several readings before all of this emerges, which is why maybe we should stick to poems that say, plainly, “This is the message.” (As I’ve written on my own blog, this is why we use so much Mary Oliver–which is a bit unfair. She writes great and subtle poems; those just aren’t the ones we use for services. We use the mediocre ones.) Great poems are not always great liturgy, even when their themes are deeply religious, and it’s revealing that the only time I’ve used this one in a service, I used the entire sermon to explicate it.

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