Monday, September 19, 2016

"O Valiant Hearts"

Well, here I am in mid-September putting up a post that fits better with Memorial Day or Veterans' Day. The explanation is quite simple: We sang "Rise Up, O Men of God" in church yesterday. I'm the organist, and as I was sitting at the organ, paging through the hymnal to get to "Rise Up, O Men of God," I stumbled upon "O Valiant Hearts" just a few pages earlier in the 1940 hymnal. I was struck by the beauty of the poetry and wondered what the tunes were. Two tunes are given in the 1940 hymnal.

Well, I still haven't checked out the tunes in the 1940 hymnal (the tunes are "Valiant Hearts" and "Birmingham"). Perhaps I'll like one or both of them as well. But my on-line research yesterday turned up the fact that in England the hymn text is almost always sung (e.g., on the English Remembrance Day) to yet a third tune, which for some reason didn't make it into the 1940 hymnal. That tune is "The Supreme Sacrifice," and was apparently written specifically for the text in the early 20th century by the Rev. Dr. Charles Harris. Both the music and the tune are found here. The tune is in an embedded video. Watch on Youtube here. I like the tune "The Supreme Sacrifice" so much that it's been playing in my head ever since I looked it up yesterday. I think it would be hard to beat.

The text, which honors the WWI British dead, is a poem by Sir John Stanhope Arkwright and was originally published in a collection of poetry on WWI.

O valiant hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle-flame,
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the Land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank to war,
As who had heard God's message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave
To save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made,
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.

Still stands his cross from that dread hour to this
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still through the veil the victor's pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were his servants, in his steps they trod,
Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:
Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led-
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to thy gracious hand.

The Christian concepts here are interesting. They are distinctly Edwardian (or perhaps even Victorian) in a way that is slightly difficult to explain. One way to put it is that Jesus is treated as an exemplar (even referring to him as "martyred") and that the author sees nothing theologically dangerous in comparing the sacrifice of soldiers to save people from temporal harm to the sacrifice of Jesus to save man from sin and hell. Though I suppose one could argue that that isn't absolutely distinctly Edwardian, since we find it in more modern songs as well. A notable example is Twila Paris's "What Did He Die For?"

The Bible itself says, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." Laying down one's life even in a "secular" cause certainly can be noble, and the poem's unstinting, beautifully worded praise of the fallen as heroes prompts legitimate admiration and love. One also remembers the appalling numbers of British dead in World War I, which gives weight to "their proud and sorrowing land."  I'm not ashamed to say that I would doubtless tear up hearing this played at a military funeral or on Memorial Day. All the more so given the soaring melody.

This will definitely be on my list to play at church next Memorial Day weekend and possibly this upcoming Veterans Day weekend.


John said...


I see no hint of soldiers in temporal carnal warfare here--just a call to Christian soldiers who in their "lesser calvaries" offer themselves as "living sacrifices" (Romans 12 so as to "die every day" (1 Corinthians 15). This was what baptism was all about before the Reformation turned it into a ceremonial-extra. The true Gospel presents not one Cross, but two--His and ours.

Lydia McGrew said...

John, one _could_ take much of the poem to refer solely to Christian warfare as a metaphor, but actually, historically, it was about literal war. The book in which the poem was published, by John Stanhope Arkwright, was _The Supreme Sacrifice and Other Poems In Time of War_. You can google it. It was explicitly written with reference to the Great War (as it was then called)--namely, WWI.

There are pretty good hints of this in the words themselves. First, the historical use of the past tense. "You gathered, rank on rank to war," and so forth. Second, the repeated references to "your land" and to the honor paid to the memory of the fallen by the land--"Your memory hallowed in the land you loved." "Their proud and sorrowing land/Commits her children to thy gracious hand."

It was always understood thus from the time it was written. The evidence on the meaning of the poem is unequivocal. I think it would always work best at a military funeral.

But again, I agree that certain verses taken in isolation can simply use Christian warfare as a metaphor, like "Rise Up, O Men Of God" certainly does.