Summary: Sixteenth century poet George Herbert’s words invite us to hear Mystery’s call to insight and love.
Often, poetry and music make odd bedfellows, especially when lack of rhyme and extra syllables get crammed uncomfortably in a melody. But sometimes they are a perfect match; is the case with one of the most famous poems to come out of the early Anglican era (1550-1560), set to music by one of the most lush melodies to come out of the English Victorian era (dates).
This poem, “The Call,” was written by George Herbert, an Anglican priest and poet from Wales who lived for many years in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Herbert was considered a masterful orator and writer, and did a brief stint in Parliament and as Trinity College’s public orator (because apparently that was a thing) before returning to the priesthood.
This poem is part of Herbert’s vast body of work that places him squarely in the cannon of the Metaphysical Poets – John Donne perhaps the most famous of them all. These poets – loosely held together under this moniker, did not write all together in one particular style, but what connects them is a particular use of nature as metaphor, mystical sensibilities, and a particular intelligence and cleverness that some contemporaries (and subsequent critics such as Samuel Johnson – the guy who wrote a dictionary) found untenable.
And yet, the poetry lives – beautifully, I might add. At its heart, the poem is a meditation on John 14:6 – “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [NRSV] Unfortunately, that verse has been used as a spiritual weapon to delegitimize other religions, and there are some Unitarian Universalists who came to us because of this kind of spiritual abuse.
What I find here, however, is that Herbert’s poetry reaches beyond the dogma and gets to what may have been the real message, which transcends belief: that there is a greater call from that Mystery that we can all find truth, strength, joy, love. Come, Herbert asks of us. If we come to that which we call a higher power – through prayer, through communion, through meditation – we will know.
In 1911, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, also from Salisbury, set this poem to a beautiful tune, included in a larger piece called Five Mystical Songs, which are all based on Herbert poems. Each one is simply gorgeous and perfectly matched to Herbert’s lush poetry. If you like this hymn, I recommend taking the 20 minutes to listen to the entire song cycle.
You may still have concerns and reservations about this hymn; it is grounded in our Christian heritage, it is by dead European men, and it is a bit too mystical for some. When might it be appropriate to include a more mystical perspective? What would it mean to some in our congregations to hear a hymn based on a well known and sometimes badly used gospel text? How might you shape the rest of the service to balance the socio-location of this hymns composers?
Textual Note: Just one word has changed, but which changes its meaning: in the last line of the second stanza, the word “his” has been changed to “a” by the STLT Hymnal Commission. This removes some explicit Christian content and makes the hymn more universally mystical. If you are using this for a Christian communion, consider changing it back.
Usage Note: permitted for use in online/streaming worship; lyrics and tune in public domain
For More Information:
Biography of George Herbert
Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams
February 2000 Newsletter of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society (articles about Herbert and the song cycle beginning on page 7)
|Composer:||Words by George Herbert|
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
|Tune Name:||The Call (recordings found here)|
|Alternate Tunes:||not recommended, but if necessary, Orientis Paribus|
|Vocal Range:||Moderate (E to D-flat)|
|Complexity:||Familiar to Western culture; fairly easy to sing|
|Topics:||Christianity, Hope, Insight, Ministry|
|Liturgical Uses:||Meditation, Prayer, Communion|