Sunday, November 27, 2011

Orthoëpy of the Doxology

On the rare occasions when, as a child, I attended services -- with friends or relatives, and usually Lutheran -- they sang (and eventually I tried to sing with them), this simple song, a quatrain of tetrameters:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

They called it “The Doxology”.  It was sung to a tune which, I later learned, is known familiarly as “the Old One Hundredth”.

Simply as written, it might almost be a quatrain from that other simple song (though that one is stress-timed, the syllable-count being variable):

Praise the Lord for the humble woodchuck,
praise the Lord for the mouse and mole,
praise the Lord for the backyard visits
that sustain the soul.

(That last line is a trimeter -- stress the “that”.)

But there is a subtlety, a depth, a twist to the Doxology, as we actually sang it.  After the straighforward naturalness of the first verse, an iambic tetrameter, the emphasis suddenly turns trochaic.   The way we sang it was:

PRAISE him ALL creaTURES here BE-low

The stress is now wrenchingly contrasemantic -- autonomous -- thrawn.
And likewise for the third verse -- though here, additionally, we slipped out of the familiar major key, to enter some mode more minor or indeed medieval:

PRAISE him A-bove YE hea-ven-LY host

before finally returning to the sunny uplands of iambic rhythm and major key.

[Note: The technical term for such displaced stress metri causâ  is wrenched accent.]


For long, I did not know what this might mean.
Life took an ever more secular course, and I did not hear the song again until, in middle age, I at last was baptized, joining the Presbyterian church in Princeton.  There, we usually sang a sprightlier version,  with no sprung-rhythm, nor dark modes, and with some jolly “hallelujahs” thrown in.   But the old tones of the Old One Hundredth  still dwelt in memory.

The Doxology.   It was a numinous, a fearsome word, long and unEnglish and utterly unused in the circles in which I usually moved, and yet as normal and natural as “hot dog” or “baseball” to these believers.   It concretized the wall between the churched and the unchurched .  Occasionally, when staying with relatives, I would get a glimpse of what went on within those walls:  yet still it stood. between me without and them within.

And even within the everyday American Protestant context itself, it had a taste of strangeness.   The business of that thrawn stress in the middle verses  always gnawed at me, and left me alert for such things.  (I later wrote a paper called “Contra-semantic Sentence Stress”, taking off from the patter of stewardesses.)  I never analyzed the thing, vaguely assuming that, as does happen in verse, the choice of words was such as momentarily to throw the beat off-kilter -- many poets do this deftly, deliberately, just the right amount, to avoid any tedium or singsong quality.   But if you look at the verses as printed, you immediately see that is not so.  We could just as easily have sung them parallel to the first verse:

Praise HIM all CREAT-tures HERE be-LOW-hoh…..

But now here is the key -- and it is a key to Christianity as well, that faith that embraces paradox -- and parasemantics.   For, if we had sung it straight through in that simple way, refraining from any blue notes or celadon notes or burnt-umbrous notes as well, it truly would have been like the Humble Woodchuck -- a children’s song.  Nothing wrong with that.  A lot right with that.   But genuine Christianity is not by any means so simple.   It states that flat out, at the outset, with the startling, baffling, thrilling doctrine of the Trinity, which sets all reductivizing simplification at defiance.  And the doxology as we sang it, in that southern-Californian church, our Fords and Buicks shimmering out in the parking lot, to whisk us off afterwards for some post-worship hamburgers -- as we sang it, it gave us a taste of strangeness, a hint of darkness  absent from our workaday American lives, in that sunlit time before Kennedy was slain.
For see -- it does not bid just us to praise.  All creatures.  In particular and in primo:  the ducks, whose chorus of simple unstinting praise sails up to Heaven from every field and pond.   And even as we sing, our praise is paralleled, by a higher choir, unseen but singing too, aloud and full-throated, upon heights upon clouds upon Eternity and upon Time  -- World Without End.

~   Praise   Him   ~
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