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The shining road to paradise

02 November 2012

Andrew Davison reflects on Helen Waddell's version of an ancient hymn

November is a time for remembering the dead. Soon after All Souls' Day falls Remem-brance Sunday. Few anthems capture the mood of the season as well as "Take him, earth, for cherishing", composed by Herbert Howells in 1963-64.

It draws together stories, stretching back 15 centuries, from Gloucestershire, Northern Spain, and the United States, and weaves together from the biographies of author, translator, and composer grief at its most personal and its most corporate.

The author is Prudentius, born in Spain in about AD 348. This minor Roman civil servant would be lost to history were it not that he abandoned his career in his early 50s, and spent his final years writing devotional poems. From his hymns we get "Of the Father's heart begotten" and "Bethlehem, of noblest cities".

The text of Howells's anthem comes from a burial hymn. We do not know whether Prudentius was responding to any specific loss. His own mortality was certainly in view, and a desire to show that his "sinning soul" had "put off its foolishness", to quote his preface.

The translator, Helen Waddell, knew more than her share of suffering. Born to Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in Tokyo, she lost her mother in 1892, and her father nine years later. Despite a difficult relationship with a stepmother, Waddell cared for her until her death in 1920.

Waddell was an expert on Latin poetry, and is said to have read everything that survives from antiquity and the Middle Ages. She won fame for her English translations. The Second World War, however, took its toll, and she sank into a state of mental incapacitation, which lasted until her death.

Each human grief is specific and unique, and yet one person can recognise the loss of another. The experiences of Prudentius are unrecorded; some of Waddell's we know. The composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) and his wife, Dorothy, lost their son Michael to polio in 1935. He was nine years old.

The loss shaped Howells's music. He commemorated Michael with his Hymnus Para-disi. His most famous hymn tune is called Michael, written to the words of "All my hope on God is founded". His Sequence for St Michael (to a Waddell translation) opens with two anguished cries of his son's name. His Stabat Mater sets a parent's lament for her child.

There is a pervading sadness to his musical voice, although here Howells represents the apotheosis of a more general feature in 20th-century English music rather than anything entirely new.

Finally, we have a fourth loss, combined with shock, at the assassination of President J. F. Kennedy. Howells was commissioned to write this anthem for Kennedy's memorial service. For his text he chose what he called "Helen Waddell's faultless translation". The hymn was already linked to his son: Howells had written lines from it as an epigram on the score of Hymnus Paradisi.

The music of the anthem grows from a calm but insistent beginning, setting a tone of intercession. It rises through an often-fervent middle section, to a conclusion that feels like hard-won consolation. This arc- like structure, with its sense of develop- ment, is one of the glories of the piece, aided by recurring musical themes and a pattern that corresponds to the stanzas of the poem.

The message of the hymn, and the anthem drawn from it, is of honour for the body - "Noble even in its ruin" - since, with the human body, matter achieves its ultimate dignity, as the bearer of spirit. The body, writes Prudentius, is symbolic of God's mystery. As such, it will be raised at the general resurrection.

In the mean time, dust is what we shall become. This dissolution is a metaphor for all human frailty. Human life, for Prudentius, has the character of something holding together, but only just. We will come apart, but - such is the Christian hope, and never more than at this time of year - God in his mercy catches the essence of each human self at its disintegration, the "spirit" or "soul". He holds it fast, kept until the resurrection of the body and restoration to an "ample Paradise".

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is tutor in doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.


Take him, earth, for cherishing

Take him, earth, for cherishing;
To thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
Noble even in its ruin.

Once was this a spirit's dwelling
By the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.

Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
Not unmindful of his creature
Shall he ask it: he who made it
Symbol of his mystery.

Comes the hour God hath appointed
To fulfil the hope of men.
Then must thou, in very fashion,
What I give, return again.

Not though ancient time decaying
Wear away these bones to sand,
Ashes that a man might measure
In the hollow of his hand:

Not though wandering winds and idle,
Drifting through the empty sky,
Scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
Is it given to man to die.

Once again the shining road
Leads to ample Paradise;
Open are the woods again
That the serpent lost for men.

Take, O take him, mighty leader
Take again thy servant's soul,
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
Balm upon the icy stone.

Take him, earth, for cherishing;
To thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
Noble in its ruin.

By the breath of God created,
Christ the prince of all its living.

Take him, earth, for cherishing.


Prudentius (c.348-413), translated by Helen Waddell (1889-1965)

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