Rhythm, Repetition, and the 'Book of Common Prayer'

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The more we read, the more we see reminders that experiences or perceptions we thought were distinctive to us are in fact widespread, even banal.

This is encouraging, about the universality of experience. And discouraging, about our capacity for original views.

Portrait of Thomas Cranmer.jpgThe Atlantic's literary editor Benjamin Schwarz, who has read as much on as broad a range of topics as anyone I've known, provides the latest reminder for me in this month's "Editor's Choice" column in the magazine*. That's not Ben at the right; it's Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury through the mid-1500s, whose lasting effect on the world was to compose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1549. My wife and sons learned to dread the mention of Thomas Cranmer's name in our household, because I had so often made the point that hearing his works, read aloud, for thousands of hours in my childhood permanently shaped my idea of how an English sentence should sound.

I am not a believing, spiritual person, but from first consciousness until age 17 I spent so much time at Episcopal church services with the "old style" Cranmer liturgy that even now I can recite very long passages by rote. The same is of course true for people exposed to the standard holy texts in most religions: prayers in Hebrew, the old Latin mass, Sutras and Vedas, the Islamic call to prayer, and so on. The distinctive aspect of the Cranmer liturgy is that it is in English -- and a particular form of stately English whose wording may seem antique but whose rhythms retain a classic beauty. I wouldn't, and can't, write the same way. Yet passages like those after the jump have stuck in my mind as the pure idea of how sentences should be paced, should repeat for emphasis yet also vary, should end.

And now I learn from Ben Schwarz that this is a completely clichéd observation!  He reviews a new study of Cranmer's work and says:

Brian Cummings, the editor of this volume, rightly asserts that the language of The Book of Common Prayer "has seeped into the collective consciousness more profoundly than that of any other book written in English, even the Bible." ... [I]t shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of the English-speaking peoples. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language. They largely defined the language.

This makes me feel better, and worse, for reasons mentioned above. I mention it now both because of the moment of recognition it provoked in me and as a reminder of what's in this new issue of our magazine.*
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Here are three representative examples. First, from the "Prayer of Humble Access." I direct your attention away from the specific spiritual content of this and the other passages, and toward the rhythm and pacing. Especially when read aloud, and especially when heard hundreds upon hundreds of times through youth.

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

One "General Confession":

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Another:

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

When I hear the first few words of these or other passages, I immediately think of the rest -- much as the first few notes of a pop song bring the full lyrics to mind. I imagine that those pop songs and other music from childhood affect taste in the long run. I know that these passages did for me -- and, apparently, for lots of other people as well.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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