143, Not in Vain the Distance Beacons

Summary: This 19th century hymn of vision, peace and hope for the future is set to the familiar Hymn of Joy by the German composer Beethoven, with lyrics from “Locksley Hall” by the English poet Alfred Tennyson.

As anyone who draws inspiration from pop songs or films or television shows can tell you, sometimes the sacred is hidden in the profane. Even when it’s from the 19th century.

The lyrics of this hymn are gorgeous and inspirational, painting for us a vision of a beautiful word yet to be. Written by 19th century English nobleman and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, they reflect the richness of his poetics, the influence of the Romantics, and the inspiration of human stories and nature’s power. (Perhaps his most famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written during his tenure as Poet Laurate under the rule of Queen Victoria.) 

Set to Beethoven’s Hymn of Joy, the words become a call to us from the ancestors to move always forward.  They are lovely, and stirring, and strong, and inspiring. A perfect hymn for services about vision, stewardship and capital campaigns, hope in the face of struggle.

Dear Reader, Alfred was writing about love gone wrong.

In his 1835 poem “Locksley Hall” – from which our lyrics are taken – the narrator of the poem is a young man wondering what his future would be, and one evening, he catches a vision:

“When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—"

Except it wasn’t a vision of the world as we might expect. It was a woman.

Our intrepid poet goes on for dozens of couplets about their meeting, their falling in love, and eventually the relationship ending. And in his despair, our narrator decided he’s so broken hearted that he’s done with women. The distance that beacons in “Not in vain the distance beacons” is a life on the sea and away from women.

This is the poem our lyrics are from.

Now, credit where credit is due – much like ministers who preach from episodes of Doctor Who or songs by The Beatles – someone somewhere in the late 19th century, with identity lost to the annals of time, remembered the inspiring couplets buried in this poem, and managed to put them together into three sung verses that hold together quite well. 

Why might this have happened? It’s impossible to say, but an article in the April  1908 Union Seminary Magazine by Rev. F.P. Ramsay, Ph.D. suggests that throughout Tennyson’s seemingly secular poetry is a strong vision of God, or Providence; as Ramsey writes about “Locksley Hall,”

“At the head of this society of friendship is God, who is working out, through all ages and changes, through good and ill, His [sic] plan – an all-embracing purpose worthy of the infinite Love and Wisdom.”

Even though this poet’s subject matter was love gone wrong, he tapped into something deeper, more universally true about vision, hope, peace, and the nature of the Divine. Whoever selected these couplets to put into this hymn found the sacred in the profane and created a hymn that has stood the test of time.

It raises a question, however, about what happens when we pick and choose out of an existing resource. Clearly, Tennyson’s intention was far different than the resulting hymn; in this case, it seems reasonable that someone found the spiritual thesis of “Locksley Hall” and set it to music. So how do we wrestle with this when the source is from a person of color, or a trans person, or someone from a different religion?   

That being said, we can say with some certainty that these lyrics have existed for well over a hundred years without any notable controversy that I can detect. It is a good hymn for the right setting, but consider that its lyrics and tune are by 19th century European men. As noted previously, it is worth considering how you might shape the rest of the service to balance the socio-location of this hymn’s composers.

Textual Note: In previous version of this hymn, and indeed in Tennyson’s poem, the final line in the third verse reads “in the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.” The STLT Hymnal Commission changed this to the more inclusive “in the parliament of freedom, federation of the world.”

Tune Note: These lyrics were originally set to the tune Rex Gloriae, by Henry Thomas Smart, and appear in the Westminister Abbey Hymn Book (1897) with the tune Rustington, by C. Hubert Parry. In Hymns of the Spirit and Hymns for the Celebration of Life, as well as Singing the Living Tradition, they are set to Hymn to Joy.

Usage Note: permitted for use in online/streaming worship; lyrics in public domain

For More Information:
Biography of Alfred Tennyson
Ramsay, Rev. F.P. “Tennyson’s Religious Beliefs”, Union Seminary Magazine, Volume 19
“Locksley Hall”

Composer: Lyrics by Alfred Tennyson,
Tune by Ludwig van Beethoven
Tune Name:Hymn to Joy (recordings found here)
Genre:Classical Hymn
Alternate Tunes:Hyfrodol, Rustington, Rex Gloriae
Vocal Range:Low (low A to high C)
Complexity:Familiar to Western culture; fairly easy to sing
Mood:Moderate/Hopeful
Topics:Vision, Hope
Liturgical Uses:Good for opening or closing
Holidays/Holy Days:NA
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