Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The World In Solemn Stillness Lay

Massachusetts minister Edmund Hamilton Sears published his most famous hymn in the December 29, 1849 issue of the Christian Register, a popular Unitarian weekly magazine that is still published today as UU World. The following year the text was paired with a tune by Richard Storrs Willis and has since become one of the most familiar songs we sing at Christmas, even though it never specifically mentions the birth of Jesus.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on earth, good will to all,
From heaven the news we bring."
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly strains have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And we, engaged in war, hear not
The tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
And hear the angels sing!

O ye, beneath life's crushing load
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Edmund Hamilton Sears, 1849; alt.

Tune: CAROL (C.M.D.)
Richard Storrs Willis, 1850

I never will forget encountering the words of the fourth verse (sometimes left out of modern hymnals) on a memorial panel of the NAMES Project quilt nearly twenty years ago.

Willis's tune was used for other hymn texts in the nineteenth century, though it's hard for us today to imagine it outside of Christmas. I think the strangest match I've seen is the Lenten hymn There is a green hill far away (only using the first two lines of this tune). This probably wouldn't bother the English, who sing It came upon... to the tune NOEL, a folk melody arranged by Arthur Sullivan.


Dorothy said...

It may not specifically mention the birth of Christ but I still think of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" as a perfect Christmas hymn.

Merry Christmas, C.W.S., to you and yours!

C.W.S. said...

Thanks Dorothy, I wish the same to you and your family (and to all my other readers, silent or not).

Leland Bryant Ross said...

I know folks who would say it's not a proper Christmas hymn at all, because the Christ it honors is a false Christ, not God the Son (Sears having been a Unitarian). Luckily I'm heterodox myself, and don't need to agree with such idiocy.

It's a great Christmas hymn, and I think it's best with all five verses. In my tabulation to date it occurs 30 times to Carol and 2 times to Noel (in both cases—Yale New Hymnal and Hymnal 1940—it is also set to Carol); four hymnals only set three verses of it, and four give all five; the others were all content with four, to (I say) their users' impoverishment.

Incidentally, Carol is given in Hymnal 1940 as a second tune for "While shepherds watched their flocks by night".

Leland aka Haruo

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