STLT#93, To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Dr. Grathwohl would be proud.

You see, while I was a political studies/theater major at Meredith College in the 1990s, some of the courses that stick with me the most are the English classes – writing and composition, journalism, American literature, and everyone’s mandatory class, Major British Authors.

While many of my fellow students groaned and wondered, while hammering the first 18 lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (in the original middle English) into their noggins (“whan that Aprill with his shoures soute…”), what possible purpose any of this could have, others of us reveled in some of the most delicious writing in the English language. We got Chaucer and Shakespeare, of course, but also all the poets. Herbert, Donne, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Burns, Browning, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and of course, Blake.

Now the reason I say Eloise Grathwohl would be proud is that I opened the page, sang the first couple of lines, and thought “Is this William Blake?” To which my answer was a glance at the bottom of the page to confirm my answer. I can’t help but wonder a little if I was already conditioned toward that reaction, since this appears to be the Major British Authors section of our hymnal.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
all pray in their distress,
and to those virtues of delight
return their thankfulness— return their thankfulness.

For Mercy has a human heart,
and Pity a human face;
and Love, the human form divine,
and Peace, the human dress— and Peace, the human dress.

Then every one, of every clime,
that prays in deep distress,
prays to the human form divine —
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace — Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

Interestingly, this is only three verses of the five in the original poem – Blake’s second verse is, in spirit, a fairly UU sentiment, but I suspect the hymnal commission was struggling with how to make it not quite so male-heavy:

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
 The fifth verse is also very First Principle, but also with troubling-for-our-time lyrics:
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Yikes. What do we do with that, other than omit it? I mean, the sentiment is right – but yikes.

Maybe this is one of the reasons we studied Major British Authors in undergrad – not just to understand the growth, beauty, and truth in the language and the art created with it – but also to understand the growth, beauty, and truth in the bend of the moral arc, the expansion of our understanding, the widening of our scope.

Dr. Grathwohl would be proud.

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