“Giving again to Him His own ideas – with joy and thankfulness”
Words by John Bunyan 1678
Who would true valour see
Let him come hither
One here will constant be
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim
Whoso beset him ’round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound
His strength the more is
No lion can him fright
He’ll with a giant fight
And he will have a right to be a pilgrim.
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit
Then fancies fly away
He’ll fear not what men say
He’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim
Words by Nahum Tate 1700
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
“To you, in David’s town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign:
“The heavenly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God on high,
Who thus addressed their song:
“All glory be to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease!”
Two very different items of Christian hymnody: one a Christmas carol celebrating The Nativity: the other a Devotional Statement of Christian Fortitude: both written within 30 years of one another by two very diverse temperaments living in the same Reformed Tradition in England.
Each a minor masterpiece
Both are masterpieces of restraint, simplicity, and directness; and in my own view, both resting their power and impact firmly in the restraint, simplicity, and impact of English Bible translation up to their authors’ own times
The sheer beauty of English Bible translation, from Wyclif’s first of substantiality and readability for today’s readers, through Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, Cranmer’s, and up to the synthesis of these early translators – which is the King James Version of 1611: all of these versions are immensely readable, immensely beautiful;, immensely faithful to their Subject.
A person has to look no further than to the English translated Psalms in these early versions to find that ample and clear directness of language which holds such beauty and faithfulness to the Spirit. And one of these two authors being looked at here,, Nahum Tate, together with Nicholas Brady, himself presented a new English metrical translation of The Psalms as an act of his own personal devotion and thanksgiving.
It is a version of The Psalms well worth looking at and of importance to preserve and to honour as a literary effort but above this as a Spiritual exercise for believers to enjoy and value.
Our other author John Bunyan was self-taught as am English author and as a Devotional writer; it is difficult and not worthwhile I believe to distinguish between these two accomplishments with Bunyan.
The song we know as ‘Who would true valour see’ or you might know it as ‘He who would valiant be’, is taken from Bunyan’s most read, most known work, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, wherein it is titled “Master Valiant-for-Truth’s Song” . Master Valiant-for-Truth is one of Bunyan’s quasi-allegorical characters whom Christian the book’s protagonist meets on his dedicated journey to The Celestial City in his escape from The City of Destruction.
It has been said, quite plausibly I would think, that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain, in every household which had at least one person able to read in it, even in rural cots and hovels, if they had any books they had two – The King James Bible and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Such a claim attests better than any words of description or praise, to how well-loved and honoured Bunyan’s book has been – and for hundreds of years.
It has in common with The Bible that power to communicate effectively with and to impact on with great Spirituality, all people, from the unlearned and the simple and in all levels of society, to scholars, and to high dignitaries of The Church.
In a lesser way, but yet still valiantly, Nahum Tate’s lyric for “While Shepherds Watched” has been popular in Britain as a Christmas carol for centuries; and it is still sung, even if with not so much belief and faithfulness than hitherto. It is important to note that GF Handel set the song to music; hence he thought it worthy of his notice.
Both Tate and Bunyan have produced works of lasting importance and value to we British and our heritage.
Master Valiant-for-Truth’s Song has that quality of power and drive; expressing Reformed Christian virtues like endurance; fortitude; passion; faithfulness; determination; reverence; and discipline; and it conveys all these qualities simply through its greatness of composition. It is the sort of song one would resort to singing at a life and death critical moment in one’s life, say at a time when survival is in the balance and very uncertain. It offers that kind of hope and solace, almost invincibly so.
Certainly it is one for troops marching into ferocious battle; but I do dislike the martial imagery in too many Christian songs and hymns – our Saviour taught peace and loving one’s enemies.
Bunyan’s song has short lines of words, and one line answers the line before it, or else reinforces it with variety of repetition and upping the intensity. This is prosody very close to that found in The Old Testament in its poetic places – especially in The Psalms. Bunyan begins:
“Who would true valour see (rhetorical question)
Let him come hither (almost haughty answer, statement of purpose, faith)
One here would constant be (the stress is on “be” making constancy psychologically certain)
Come wind come weather” (A proverbial English idiom which here up’s the determination to be constant)
The words are not high abstractions but everyday vocabulary. The singer is ‘one’ or ‘him’ anonymous; and as The National Lottery advertising here says in its slogans “It could be you!” Thus everyone who sings it has ample room and is invited to be The Stalwart Pilgrim. Most of us, even non-believers, feel it, enter into it, questioning their denial.
Nahum Tate has given us words which deceptively seem not like ‘poetry’ at all; more like conversational factual exchange:
“While shepherds watch their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
An angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around”
But that pedestrian talking mode of Tate’s is his great achievement – as if an angel coming down shedding around glory – seamlessly follows in everyday life just like shepherds sitting down and watch their flocks! The verse is so natural then, flows so fluently and is so unaffected, not haughty, but written with humility and a simple care.
The words ‘angel’ and ‘glory’ receive stresses of emphasis in the prosody; as they ought to, them being the most important and narrative-progressing items in the verse.
And Tate does give us a narrative, almost unobtrusively, and taken pretty much without alteration from St Luke’s gospel. His is a modest and non-declamatory rendition of The Nativity in “While Shepherds Watched”; thus allowing the singer or the reader to engage with the narrative and to lose sight of the narrator who has deliberately drawn himself back out of sight in writing thus, just as did his Master The Lord Jesus, point ever away from himself and towards others and to His Father.
Thus there’s a great self-discipline of self-abnegation and restraint in this carol; from a man clearly devout and reverend; allowing Jesus the Christ and His Nativity centre stage.
Bunyan had a gift (from Heaven) best seen when in Bedford Jail he wrote his allegory about the journey of Christian and later that of his wife Christiana: The opening lines of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” are famous, and ought to be so; they set the scene as we say, just right:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. Isa. 64:6; Luke 14:33; Psalm 38:4. I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?” Acts 2:37; 16:30; Habak 1:2,3.”
Everyone has experienced ‘this world’ as a ‘weariness’ and this sympathy engages every reader immediately, setting the mood for a moral vigil. The dreamer sleeps, lays him down, with weariness, and he dreams of a man distressed; and so our story begins. What more natural than for a person weary and in distress to lay down to sleep – and then to dream of a person like himself weary and distressed? This introit is so very natural and soothingly engaging to almost everyone who reads it.
Bunyan’s narrative style as anyone who is even a little familiar with The King James Bible it is clear owes an enormous amount, particularly to The Old Testament of the AV.
Notice that devout hands have inserted by each place and event in Bunyan’s narrative Biblical references for a very serious reader to go to and to look up in her Bible so as to ‘check out’ for herself the authenticity of the teaching and sentiments of Bunyan which he places in the mouth of his great Pilgrim and others. These full Biblical references are yet another lovely indicator of how valued the book has been, and in certain places, still is today.
Perhaps it is extravagant to suggest it, but if any book has been God-given – in this case to a self-taught plain Non-Conformist tinker of Bedford England, with a turn for personification and a heart right with his Master, and on him placed a talent of literary skill bestowed, Heaven-sent; it was this case and on this man John Bunyan.
Tate I don’t know about but I suspect he was more educated than was Bunyan; since he wrote – and another claim to his fame – the much admired libretto for England’s first opera “Dido and Aeneas” by the great Henry Purcell. Tate I assume had enough Classical background to have been able to do this so admirably. For the climax of the piece ‘Dido’s Lament: When I am Laid in Earth’, Purcell seems to have risen to a height of tremendous genius, and I think helped in part as a response to Tate’s words. “Dido and Aeneas” has been called “Tristan and Isolde in 45 minutes”. It lives up to its rave reviews.
Bunyan is fading away from the English consciousness in these days, after several centuries of being in its forefront – Sad – and a fact. Tate never really got beyond the consciousness of a few scholars and devotees, excepting for some brief honours in his lifetime. If people know his name today they know him as being the guy who (as a clown?) put a happy ending on a version of Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear”. The final line he interposed as Cordelia and Edgar are to be wed “Old Kent throws in his hearty wishes too” has buried Tate’s reputation for centuries.
Easy to label a person – As Shakespeare has Kent say in King Lear itself:
“None of these rogues and cowards
But Ajax is their fool.”
Tate has however, almost surreptitiously, for few of us can name who it was wrote the words to our much loved “While Shepherds Watched”, had his words sung joyously every Christmastime since his lifetime. Bunyan like John Baptist might say in his own regard to Tate:
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”