After attending Lessons and Carols at church on Sunday, I remembered that it’s time once more to post about the lyrics that I enjoy and read closely every December. (Here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.) “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and thus every poem presents an icon of the Incarnation. No matter how far away the subject matter may be from worship of the God who became Man, the better the poem, the more resplendently the Divine Image shines through it.
All that to justify my weird approach to these perennial favorites. Who else thinks of Christmas as a time to enjoy the beauties of grammar? But I distinctly remember learning lessons about the wonderful and mysterious possibilities of the English language simply in dwelling, sometime in my teen years, on the curious turns of phrases in the two carols I’m writing about today.
“Angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o’er the plain.” I’m willing to wager a cup of hot cider that most Christians feel measurably better when they hear that line. I also feel rather confident that the alliterative h’s in the first half and recurring s’s in the second have something to do with its success, even if most people wouldn’t be able to put a finger on those letters’ soft, sibilant influence. Plus, who doesn’t want to sing “o’er” in something other than a national anthem?
But, as much as I’ve always liked it, I remember, in my otherwise carefree youth, wondering where the verb was. I had always parsed it as “Angels [that] we have heard,” with a structure like that in the sentence “The book I finished yesterday was terrific.” And then it occurred to me one day: I didn’t know what the “angels that we have heard” were doing. “Angels we have heard” just didn’t sound like a complete sentence to me. In normal circumstances, “The book I finished yesterday” doesn’t sound like a complete sentence, either; it’s a noun phrase in search of a verb. But it could be a complete sentence if we read it as starting with the direct object. Think of this little conversation:
“How did you like these two books?”
“This one I finished. But that one I gave up on.”
Obviously, the first sentence in the reply inverts, for emphasis, the typical word order of “I finished this book.” Now change it a little, word by word:
This one I finished.
This book I finished.
The book I finished.
“I” is still the subject, “finished” still the main verb. I felt the joy of a Forty-Niner finding a nugget in his pan when I realized that the carol started with a similarly inverted sentence:
We have heard angels.
Angels we have heard.
Ever since then, I bristle a bit when I hear a version that replaces “echoing” with “echo back.” I know those editors are looking for a finite verb just as I was forty years ago and think that they have to correct the original poem in order to supply one. But “have heard” is the verb of the whole first verse. We have heard angels, and we have heard the mountains echoing their joyous strains.
OK, too geeky and too long. I’ll finish up with two quickish observations about William Chatterton Dix’s “What Child Is This?” Again, I remember catching my twelve-year-old self wondering, “What did the child lay to rest?” You know: like, What child is this who laid to rest the false rumor? But then I noticed the commas around “laid to rest.” Suddenly and miraculously, the words transformed into something that meant this: What Child is this who is sleeping on Mary’s lap, where, incidentally, He is laid to rest? (If the printed text doesn’t have the commas around “laid to rest,” I insert them mentally.)
This year I noticed something I never had before about this carol. The question of the title now seems to me to be prompted by the doubly strange circumstance of both angels and shepherds worshiping the Baby. We’re used to these two groups playing their parts together in the story, but from a human point of view, the combination makes no sense. If we’re looking at a future local petty tyrant, of course the shepherds would kowtow; but why would the angels bother? If we’re looking at the successor to Alexander and Caesar, on the other hand, maybe the angels would get involved; but why would dirty shepherds be allowed to sully the magnificent presence? Who is this that receives both shepherds and angels? What Child Is This? He is the King of Kings, bringing salvation to all no matter how rich or how poor. And so Dix’s lovely words invite both peasant and king to come own Him. Jesus can make a throne out of the loving heart of a person of any degree or station. Haste! Haste to bring Him laud!