Noel continues his reflections on hymns – a Hymn for Pentecost:
“No place for it is found” these words from John Keble’s beautiful poem When God of old came down from heaven appears to have been taken out of context by the compilers of many modern hymn-books. Although the poem was included in most hymn books of the early 1900s, it rarely “finds a place” in recent publications.
There seem to be no grounds for omitting it by reason of outdated sentiment. John Keble, referring to “the Spirit of our God”, writes that
“Only in stubborn hearts and wills, No place for it is found.”
Surely, those lines are no less true today than when he wrote them.
“When God of old” has usually been set to a 16th century tune ‘Winchester Old’ which is still popular when used for the Christmas carol “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” – for which the tune is well suited.
But the structure of Keble’s poetry in “When God of old” is such that ‘Winchester Old’ is quite inappropriate. It puts undue emphasis on syllables that would be said lightly in normal speech: softer, only, open, as, when. (This is simply because long notes and high notes, and the first beat in a bar, place a natural stress on the words to which they are sung.)
Sing Keble’s hymn to John Dykes’s tune BEATITUDO and these false emphases disappear! After all, there’s more to choosing a suitable tune than merely looking in the Index for a favourite melody of the right metre.
As a bonus, ‘Beatitudo’ (unlike ‘Winchester Old’) gets us off to a good start by bringing “God of old … down from heaven”.
Keble’s story of Pentecost shows us how the God of the Old Testament (of power and wrath, of awe and fear) contrasts with the New (still of power, but also of gentleness, wisdom and love). It deserves to be restored to the repertoire: maybe Dykes’s tune ‘Beatitudo’ would help.