I’m thinking about grammar today, so I have to start with a lesson of a grammatical point, as best I understand it. In English, each noun must perform one of a short list of possible roles: it acts as either a subject, an object, the object of a preposition, a subject or object complement, an appositive, an adjective (unfortunately, the English grammar that allows “water glass” results in dissertations with ugly phrases such as “music understanding index survey instrument”), an exclamation (“Heavens!”), or a vocative. The vocative is a direct address, a calling upon or naming of the person spoken to, like “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. Latin has a special form for the vocative: a Roman addressing Quintus would call him “Quinte.” That function in English used to be signaled by the single-letter word “O.” These days, most people, even some hymnal editors, don’t know the difference between “O” and Oh” and sometimes assume that the shorter form is just the old-fashioned spelling of the more familiar word. But used correctly, as in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it indicates that the noun or noun phrase names the person (or thing!) spoken to. In this case, it shows that when we sing the first verse of this song, we sing to the town. What a pretty device! Bethlehem, did you know what monumental event was taking place in your dark streets that night?
I love the sinuous melody of this lovely carol, with its unusually high number of leaps and unusually frequent changes of direction. (Try it! Sing “Jingle Bells” or “Yankee Doodle,” and note how often the melody switches directions. Then compare your results with “O Little Town.”) And I love the turn to minor in the third line and the disappearance of harmony for three beats (“ev-er-last”). These stark features seem especially suitable to the “dark streets” and “fears” of verse 1 and to the “world of sin” in verse 3, and they contrast wonderfully with the sweet, tender outer portions of the score. The combination makes the hymn both uplifting and stern, both beautiful and sublime, and fits perfectly one of the best lyrics in any carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Several years ago, I was trying to explain to one church’s worship band the problem of lyrics that just list Biblical sounding things without saying anything about them. One popular praise song, for instance, mentions “the greatness of his mercy and love,” but it doesn’t say anything about that greatness. It’s a noun phrase that serves no grammatical function. It isn’t a subject or object. It isn’t a vocative. It isn't part of a sentence. It’s just a phrase that sounds suitable. The band didn’t understand my concern, and my frustration only grew. Ever since that time, I’ve been looking out for nouns in search of a sentence.
I blame a poor educational strategy and sloppy postmodern thinking for the lazy acceptance of these faulty lyrics, but the problem might trace partly to what is perhaps the most beloved of all Christmas carols: “Silent Night.” It certainly starts with two disconnected noun phrases: Silent night, holy night.” I take these to be exclamations or perhaps even vocatives. But it’s all sentences from there on, despite the punctuational choices of hymnal editors. In fact, after checking the punctuation in hymnals and other songbooks, I’m convinced that I’m the only person in America that understands the grammar of this song.
I know. That took a lot of nerve to say and might not sound like it’s said in the Christmas spirit. But anything good and beautiful must share in the spirit of the Child born in the manger. Good grammar has done me good through the years, and I say God Bless It! Check the closest hymnal. Does it place a comma between “virgin” and “mother”? If so, that comma makes “mother and child” a disconnected phrase. "Virgin" and "mother" go together in one phrase: Mary is the virgin mother, and all is bright around her and her child. Does it have a period after mild? If so, it leaves the Holy Infant dangling. “Holy Infant so tender and mild" is the vocative introduction to the sentence. At this point we sing a lullaby to baby Jesus and encourage Him to sleep in heavenly peace. Now honestly, until a few years ago I didn’t know that last line was an imperative addressed to the Christ Child. I just sang it as a suggestion vaguely offered to the world at large. But that reading left “Holy Infant so tender and mild” out of any sentence.
The second verse causes even more problems. The source I’m looking at now puts a semicolon after “light,” leaving “Son of God” and “love’s pure light” homeless. With that semicolon, all we have is a list, not a sentence: a silent night, the Son of God, and the light of love. The third line might as well read “These are a few of my favorite things.” But this verse of the song is not just a list of Christmas things; it’s a sentence. The biggest problem, I believe, comes down to the word “beams.” For most of my life, I thought that word was a noun, just one more thing in this list of happily floating Christmas objects. But after I became aware of the problem of dangling nouns, I became convinced that this classic song wouldn’t make the postmodern mistake. So where is the verb? “Beams” is the only candidate! So here’s my parsing: “Son of God” is a vocative: we address Jesus directly with this sentence. “Love’s pure light” is the subject. “Radiant” causes another small problem. I used to think it described the beams, but my current theory says that “beams” is a verb, so “radiant” must modify some other noun. I think it refers retroactively to the light with a little poetic inversion of word order. So it’s “love’s pure, radiant light” said out of order. Now we get the verb: the light beams – or shines, or radiates – from Jesus’ holy face to signal the dawn of redeeming grace. I’m still pondering the last line, "Jesus, Lord at Thy birth." Is it still part of the sentence? Can one sentence have more than one vocative? The modified version shown here doesn’t fit the rhythm of the melody, but it represents what goes through my mind when I sing the verse:
Such a silent night! Such a holy night!The kind of close analysis I’m doing probably won’t make any sense to most twenty-first century Americans, and some might think I’m really missing the point of this simple, peaceful song. But I’ll attempt a short defense of my tactics by saying that only since looking at the carol in this way have I meditated also on the dawn of grace and on the mystery of Jesus being Lord at his birth. Looking at the lyrics with such scrutiny helps me see both the hopes and fears of all the years. May they meet in us all tonight!
O Son of God, love’s pure, radiant light
Shines from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
O Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
O Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.