Friday, 11 June 2004

vigilance in the cause of truth

Having no personal memories of D Day, and being required to take a service to commemorate the anniversary, I asked someone who took part in the landings about his memories. Bert suggested a hymn for the service, one that was unknown to me.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood for the good or evil side;
Some great Cause, God’s New Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by for ever ‘twixt that darkness and that light

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust.
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, beneath the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
James Russell Lowell

Bert had sung this as a schoolboy in rural Essex, and learned it long before he would be involved in ridding Europe of the tyranny of the Nazi regime. The hymn was actually written by an American, who I believe was strongly opposed to slavery, at the time of the American Civil War. Yet how appropriate it was to the conflict in Europe of 60 years ago.

It’s a pity the hymn went out of fashion, for it highlights to a need to remain vigilant in the cause of truth. Significantly, it points out that truth may not always require a simple repetition of an age old wisdom. No doubt Lowell was thinking particularly of slavery, which was accepted as normal in much of the society of his day, when he wrote New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. But the message remains appropriate to the need to fight against fascism 60 years ago, and to the different challenges and concerns of our day.

They were curiously juxtaposed in Rome last week in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the city from Fascism. The occasion had been planned to mark the gratitude of the Italian people, and recall how welcome the British and American troops had been as they arrived in Rome then. But the celebration was also marked by demonstrations against American policy today, highlighting the very different way in which war had been waged in Iraq.

I watched events on the news with mixed feelings. If Rome had not been liberated, there could have been no demonstrations of that sort today. But perhaps it was the moment to point out that ‘new occasions teach new duties’.

Posted by Tom Ambrose on Friday, 11 June 2004 at 11:08am BST | TrackBack
You can make a Permalink to this if you like
Categorised as: just thinking

To the tune, Aberystwyth. Not so uncommon in Canada. Harold

Posted by: Harold Macdonald on Friday, 11 June 2004 at 6:30pm BST

Well do I remember singing James Russell Lowell's hymn, "Once to Every Man and Nation," and being inspired by it during the civil rights struggle here in the U.S. during the 1960's. We sang it to the stirring Welsh tune, "Ebenezer" or "Ton-y-botel." I can't imagine singing it to that other Welsh tune, "Aberystwyth, as our Canadian correspondent says, since the meter doesn't quite fit.

James Russell Lowell was an important literary figure of nineteenth century America and an ardent anti-slavery campaigner. However, he wrote the hymn in question, not during the Civil War, but much earlier in 1845 as a protest against the U.S. war on Mexico. Much later, Lowell was American ambassador to England.

The hymn has been omitted from the latest (1982) edition of the Episcopal hymnal, perhaps because it seemed difficult to fix the male language of Lowell's poem and because the idea of a "new Messiah" or of progress in understanding truth was theologically unacceptable. I miss the hymn.

Posted by: James Lodwick on Saturday, 12 June 2004 at 7:05pm BST

I remember singing it as a kid in the 60s. I miss it, too

Posted by: Jay Vos on Saturday, 12 June 2004 at 9:38pm BST

The first editor of what is now _The Atlantic Monthly_, James Russell Lowell was indeed strongly opposed to slavery, and much of his poetry was written to rally U.S. anti-slavery sentiment. One of his poems commemorates Col. Robert G. Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first regiment of free black men to serve in the American Civil War. This poem, however, is less well known than his grandnephew Robert Lowell's poem on similar themes, "For the Union Dead."

Posted by: Charlotte Pressler on Sunday, 13 June 2004 at 1:29am BST

the hymn was in the 1940 hymnal in the usa, but dropped from the 1982 revision for, as i recall, not being "theologically correct" i.e., one always has another opportunity to choose. perhaps someone out there will have more specific/accurate information about this

Posted by: susanna b matthews on Thursday, 17 June 2004 at 4:22pm BST

The Companion to the 1940 Hymnal states that Lowell wrote the poem (called "The Present Crisis") in 1845 " a protest against the war with Mexico... He also feared that annexation in the southwest would increase the extent of slavholding territory."

The poem originally began with a verse not included in the hymn:

When a deed is done for freedom, though the broad earth's aching breast / Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west, / And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb / To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime / of a century burst full-blossomed on the thorny stem of time.

(Block that metaphor...)

Posted by: Kirk Hollingsworth on Monday, 21 June 2004 at 12:11pm BST

Correction to Harold Macdonald: The hymn is sung to "Ebenezer," not Aberystwyth. It is #587 in the new Canadian hymn book "Common Praise."

Posted by: Robin Walker on Wednesday, 23 June 2004 at 5:42pm BST