The Sensual Ear


I HAVE a friend who always calls — when he remembers to, for alas! he sometimes forgets — the Methodist Church building in our village, a ’conventicle.’ I wish he did not sometimes forget, for nothing makes me so at peace with my hereditary nonconformity as to hear an Anglican imply, by such verbal affectations, what he thinks of the dissidence of dissent. Methodism is as foreign to me as Anglicanism; yet, I doubt not, the Epworth League sings, in its handsome ‘conventicle,’ just the hymns that of old were sung by the Y.P.S.C.E. It is many a year since I attended a Y.P.S.C.E. meeting; and I have an idea— it is almost a fear — that Gospel Hymns, No. 5 is by this time Gospel Hymns, No. 10, and that some of the most haunting melodies are gone therefrom. Perhaps the ‘Endeavorers’ are now chanting ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern.’ But I hope not. Oh, I cannot think it!

When life grows very dreary; when the Hindenburg line seems to turn from shadow to substance; when the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies has indulged in a new ‘democratic’ vagary; when flour has gone up two dollars more a barrel and the priceless potato is but a soggy pearl, deserving to be cast before sw ine; when another member of the family has broken a leg or had appendicitis — then my husband (he, too, of yore an ‘ Endeavorer’) and I are wont to burst, simultaneously, mechanically, unthinking and unconspiring, into song. And the songs we hear each other humming in separate recesses of the house are ‘ Gospel Hymns.’ Humming, we converge upon the drawing-room from our different retreats; and sometimes we look each other in the eye and say hardily, ‘Let’s.’ Then we sit down and incite each other to a desperate vocalism. W e see how many we can remember, out of our evangelistic youth, and we sing them all.

We remember a good many, if truth be told; and once I found a rapt huddle of colored servants on the stair-landing getting a free ‘revival.’ Neither of us has a voice worth mentioning, so I think that we must, without realizing it, have reproduced the fervor along with the words.

They were cannily arranged, those Moody and Sankey hymns: if you sing them at all, you cannot help pounding down on the essential words. They wallow in beat and accent. ‘A Shelter in the Time of Storm.’ We usually begin with that. It is ineluctable. But oh, how I wish that either of us could remember more than one ‘ verse’ of

Well, wife, I’ve found the model church,
And worshipped there to-day;
It made me think of good old times
Before my hair was gray.

I have never heard it sung, — I never ‘belonged’ to the Y.P.S.C.E.,but my husband says that he has. My husband also says that he has heard ‘the trundle-bed one.’ I do not believe it, though he is a truthful man. I cannot believe it; the less, that he remembers none of the words, and that, it is only I who recall, visually, in the lower corner of a page, —

Poking (perhaps it was another verb) ’mid the dust and rafters There I found my trundle-bed.

A slight altercation always develops here. Why should he be more royalist than the king? It is not conceivable that it was ever sung; and even he cannot remember the tune; so we join forces in ‘To the Work, to the Work,’ or ‘ There Shall Be Showers of Blessing.’

(Mercy-drops round us are fall-ing, But for the showers we plead.)

He has an uncanny and inexplicable prejudice against ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again’—perhaps because they always sang it for the last one. But I can usually get him to ‘oblige’ with a solo — ‘Throw Out the Life-Line’ — which I am sure was not in No. 5, because we never, never sang it; though I do remember hearing a returning delegate to a Y.P.S.C.E. convention say that it was the one ‘the people of Montreal seemed to like best.’ Somewhere in the nineties, Endeavorers in thousands sang it all up and down Sherbrooke Street, apparently. Well: I am like the people of Montreal. It always ‘gets’ me, in the dissenting marrow of my dissenting soul; and when my husband has ‘obliged’ me with it, I am ready to forget the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies. What can the devil do in the face of ‘Throw Out the Life-Line,’ and its ‘linked sweetness long drawn out’?

By all of which it is made evident that, in the matter of hymns, mine is the ‘sensual ear.’ (Not so my husband’s: he sings them in the critical spirit, as he might illustrate a violation of rhetoric. He loathes ‘Throw Out the Life-Line,’ even while the chorus makes his voice appeal and yearn in spite of him. As I said, he does it only to oblige.) The church of my choosing, if not of my profession, is the same as that of my friend who talks of ‘conventicles.’ There I sing ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern ’ (or that American corruption thereof, the Hymnal) with the most conforming. And certainly, except for a few time-honored chants which they share with all Dissenters, their hymns are to me ‘ditties of no tone.’ My husband disagrees with me; but he is not, equally with me, the predestined prey of the brass band. He is better educated than I; has listened oftener at twilight to the enchanted choirs of New College and Magdalen. He likes the non-committal melodies of the Hymnal far, far better than the sentimental parti pris of Gospel Hymns.

I know as well as he does that t he sentimental quality is of a sort that ought not to be there at all. I know that the music of ‘Throw Out the Life-Line’ belongs morally with the music of ‘Old Black Joe,’ and ‘Oh, Promise Me,’ and ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night.’ I know that the appeal of that tune is sensuous and emotional and personal, and, for a hymn, all, all wrong. I realize that, for church, Gregorian is the only wear; and that the less you diverge therefrom, the more decent you are. I, too, prefer Bach and Palestrina, and, for congregational singing, the oldest Latin hymns you can get. I can even see that the aridity and sameness of the Anglican ‘hymn-tunes’ are more dignified, and more to the purpose, than the plangent and catchy refrains by which Sankey lured ‘wandering boys’ back to be safe-folded with ‘the ninety and nine.’ And yet, when my husband (by request) croons ‘Throw Out the LifeLine,’ I cannot resist. I am evangelized.

True, I perceived this perniciousness early. Perhaps the white light dawned on me when, in Y.P.S.C.E. days, an older friend (who was in love) confided to me that the words of a certain Gospel Hymn seemed to her not altogether reverent: they could so easily be applied to a human love-affair. She was quite right, I think. Some of us have felt the same about Crashaw and Giles Fletcher. But though the words were, in all conscience, carnal enough, I believe it was the tune that did the trick and set her dreaming of her young hero.

For I am his, and he is mine,
Forever and forever.

Oh, the yearning of that refrain: slow and honeyed and melancholy as ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ or ‘May Down Upon the Suwanee River’! Musically, doubtless, not so good; but musically of the same school, and suggestive — it, too — of plantations and moonlight and banjos and rich, heartrending negro voices. My friend was right: they are not in the best tradition of reverence, those Moody and Sankey hymns. And yet, — here’s the rub,why do we remember them, when all but the most universal of the hymns we sang in church and sang much oftener than these, have gone beyond recapturing? My husband resents remembering them; he would far rather remember more worthy things. But I do not: I would not, for anything, lose them out of the rag-bag which is my mind. I am not sure I would not rather lose certain stanzas from the Greek Anthology, which come to my lips in much the same unvolitional fashion. From those refrains I reconstruct a whole moral and social world, even as Cuvier reconstructed his mastodon. You remember what the ‘Evening Hymn’ did for Mottram and Lowndes in‘TheEnd of the Passage’? Just that ’I Know that My Redeemer Lives ’ does for me. And — this is the point‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ do not do it; though I knew these even earlier, and am still, on occasion, singing them. So it is not all a question of association and the power of youthful memories. It is the very quality of the music — the words were negligible, when they were not atrocious — that touched in me, and can still touch, something popular, emotional, vulgar; something very low-brow and democratic, not to say mobbish. ‘The sensual ear.’

Even in youth, I had the sense to differentiate. ‘Jerusalem the Golden,’ discovered in another hymn-book than our own, was for many years my favorite hymn—even during those years when I was singing ‘ Beulah Land ’ and ‘Wonderful Words of Life.’ I knew it was better; I knew I liked it better; I knew that it had more to do with religion than all the ‘Beulah Lands’ ever written. True, the words helped; and the words of the Gospel Hymns were a hindrance, even then. But my soul recognized the validity, the reality of the music. ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ remained my favorite until ‘The Son of God Goes Forth to War’ succeeded it in my affections; always to be, until I die, my very favorite. And even while we sang —

And view the shining glory shore,
My heaven, my home, for evermore.

I had memories of something still better than ‘Jerusalem the Golden’: memories of an interval in a French convent where we chanted the Magnificat to its proper plain-song. Though, even there — but I shall come to that later.


Not long ago, we had a friend staying with us who was bred a Romanist. How Moody and Sankey got mentioned, I do not know— but they did; and our friend insisted that Moody and Sankey could not conceivably be so bad as the modern Catholic hymns. We exclaimed; she reaffirmed. There was nothing for it but to put the burning question to the proof. Quietly, by the fire, we staged a little contest. We sang our Gospel Hymns; and she—well, she sang dreadful things. There was in particular a hymn to St. Joseph, beloved of sodalities. — No, I think her ‘ exhibit’ was really worse than ours. It had the rag-time flatness without the rag-time catchiness, or the crooning negro quality. Bred up in part on such modern by-products of the Holy Catholic Church, no wonder that she succumbed utterly to my husband’s rendition of ‘Throw Out the Life-Line.’ ‘I think it’s lovely,’ she said; siding with me, to his great chagrin. How I wished that our friend of the ‘conventicles’ were there to decide between us — he who in his youth was forbidden to accompany his friends to Y.P.S.C.E. meetings as he might have been forbidden to go to dime-museums. But he has no ear — ‘ sensual ’ or other. Perhaps he could not have helped.

Our Catholic friend’s exhibit gave me pause. I knew that in France they sing, nowadays, hymns unworthy of Gothic architecture. Not so many years ago, in a beautiful French cathedral which I was by way of frequenting, I heard the children of some sodality or confraternity pouring forth as poor , a piece of holy rag-time as any conventicle has ever echoed. It jerked me back into the past, violently, as Hassan’s carpet must have jerked its fortunate owner through space.

Vierge, notre espérance,
Étends sur nous ton bras,
Sauve, sauve la France,
Ne l’abandonne pas,
Ne 1’abandonne pas.

So we sang it, too, at the Assomption, in happier days, each with a veil and a candle, winding in and out among the green alleys of the convent park. But the young Tourangeaux went on to sing worse things: songs less catholic, more evangelical, with words more bitter and tones more shrill. I escaped, to return only at the hour of Benediction, when I knew that the ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ and ‘Tantum Ergo’ would mount again with the incense toward the rich mediaeval windows.

I fear it is true, as our Catholic friend said, that the Church has fallen musically, as it has done architecturally, on evil days. Well: these shrill and senseless tunes are their equivalent for our Moody and San key. Even in conventicles, we have more dignified hymnbooks for use in ‘church’ as opposed to Sunday-school or Y.P.S.C.E., and the like. And as our Primary Department (of the Sunday-school) was handed over to the works of Fanny Crosby (did she write

Roses in bloom, Filling the room, With perfume rich and rare.

I wonder? Anyhow, she wrote most of them), so the young Catholics in both France and America are handed over to the musical divagations of ill-educated priests. It is a pity; for they have a tradition that cannot be bettered. My ancestors sang lustily out of the old Bay Psalm Book :

Ye monsters of the mighty deep,
Your Maker’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye codlings peep,
And wag your tails about.

But, at the same period, their ancestors were singing the Latin hymns of the Middle Ages in undegenerate solemnity. It is natural enough, perhaps, that I should have emerged on ‘There’s a Light in the Valley for Me’; but why should they have emerged on ‘Souvenez-vous, Jesus,’ and the Mariolatrous wailing of ‘Im-mac-u-late, Im-mac-ulate’? Take as fine a Protestant hymn as, on the whole, we have inherited — ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past.’ Its tune is, to my thinking, bad: difficult to sing and monotonous to hear. But in the very church that these poor French infants are innocently desecrating, a few hours, more or less, see a whole congregation chanting, with passionless and awful reverence, —

‘Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo; nec in æternum irascaris nobis.

Whoever has heard that welling slowly from crowded choir, nave, and transept, the coifed peasant and the trained séminariste singing in unison (no staginess of part-singing there!), and has joined his voice to the multitudinous supplication, will not cease to regret that modern vulgarity is as Catholic as it is Protestant.

It was the most delightful of Huysmans’s perversities to contend, in all seriousness, that the devil, driven out of an immemorial haunt of his own near Lourdes by the advent in that spot of the Blessed Virgin, took his sullen revenge on the æsthetic sense of her priests. He could no longer hold his filthy Sabbaths there; but he could and did bewitch the clergy into making Lourdes a thing of ugliness. Their taste went wrong with everything they touched in Lourdes; and while Satan could not prevent the Blessed Virgin from working miracles, he could still bring it about that the faithful should be healed amid the most hideous architectural surroundings. Perhaps Huysmans would have credited the modern Catholic music unhesitatingly to the devil.

But certainly Moody and Sankey were not clerics of Lourdes. Nor could the Presbyterians who first sang the rhymed version of the Twenty-Third Psalm to the air of ‘So bin ich vergessen, vergessen bin ich’ be suspected of any part in the devil’s private feuds with the Virgin. Indeed, the particular Presbyterians whom I have heard sing it thus had not, I fancy, much more reverence for the one than for the other. I do not think that we can account for Gospel Hymns, No. 5 by the Huysmans formula. Even the hymn to St. Joseph, beloved of sodalities, is, I believe, mere modern pandering to the uncultured majority; revivalism in essence, like Moody and Sankey and the Salvation Army and Billy Sunday. But at least the Catholics have this advantage: that though they too have indulged in operatic music and have even sunk to ‘ Vierge, notre espérance,’they still hear from their choirs the ancient music and the ancient words. You lose the sodalities and confraternities when you hear once more the familiar ‘Tantum Ergo’ (I do not mean the florid one that they sing at St. Roch in Paris, and elsewhere); the new vulgarity is forgotten, as many vulgarities have been touched and then forgotten by Rome, in her time.

I used to think that the worst of our bad Protestant hymns was their ignoring of the human intelligence.

Many giants great and tall,
Stalking through the land,
Headlong to the earth would fall
If met by Daniel’s Band.

(My fortunate husband sang it in his youth.) But even that, while it could have a religious meaning, I should say, only for a sub-normal intelligence, is not a deliberate and explicit defiance of the intellect of man.

Verbum caro, panem verum
Verbo carnem efficit:
Fitque sanguis Christi merum;
Et si sensus deficit,
Ad firmandum cor sincerum
Sola fides sufficit.
Tantum ergo sacramentum
Veneremur cernui,
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Prsestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

It took St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Angelicus, thus to state, in one supreme utterance, the whole case against the Higher Criticism.

No, I do not think that the sense of a hymn counts so much. The mediæval ‘Ave Maris Stella’ has not much more to recommend it, philosophically speaking, than the hymn with the ‘ Im-macu-late, Im-mac-u-Iate ’ refrain. A poem, even a religious poem, is good poetry or bad poetry, and that is all there is to it. ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ is a silly poem, and ‘The Son of God Goes Forth to War’ is a rather fine poem; and Bishop Heber wrote both. But the permanent superiority of the latter is in the music to which it is set. One Presbyterian sect sings, I believe, nothing but the Psalms, — rather unfortunately metricized, to be sure, — and their church singing is the dreariest in the world. Yet the Psalms are rated high. ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ gets its appeal from Sir Arthur Sullivan and not from the author. I do not believe that ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ would have been the favorite hymn of the late President McKinley were it not for the slow, swinging tempo, which needs only a little quickening to be an excellent waltz, with all the emotional appeal of good waltz music.

On the whole,. Hymns Ancient and Modern are far better, from the point of view of poetry, than Gospel Hymns, No. 5 — but they have not converted half so many people. The elect, the high-brows, may say what they like: if you are doing your evangelizing on the grand scale, the ‘sensual ear’ must be pleased. I do not believe that the music I have referred to, of the ‘Tantum Ergo’ or the ‘Farce, Domine,’ would ever convert the crowd in a tent or a tabernacle — even if D. L. Moody or Fanny Crosby wrote new words to it. But if you let a grammar-school pupil hack words out of the New Testament and set them to the tune of ‘Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground’ — well, it would be strange if some one were not converted. You may be very sure that the Roman Catholic Church has not taken to vulgar and catchy hymns without a set purpose of winning souls.

At the Cross, at the Cross, where I first saw the light
And the burden of my sin rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.

The last line might almost have been lifted’ bodily from one of Stephen Foster’s negro melodies. It has the very lilt of

My old Kentucky home far away.

And it is only one of many in Gospel Hymns, No. 5. That is why my husband remembers them, in spite of himself. He may contemn them, but he cannot forget. There is hardly one of them that would not consort happily with the right kind of brass band. They connote crowds and the ‘emotion of multitude.’ So, to me, does the ‘Parce, Domine’ connote crowds —but crowds awe-struck, unweeping, and in no mood for stimulation by a cornet accompaniment. There is a cardinal difference. The success of almost any Gospel Hymn depends on an emotional appeal very like that of Kipling’s banjo: —

And the tunes that mean so much to you alone,
Common tunes that make you choke and blow
your nose,
Vulgar tunes that bring the laugh, that bring the
groan —
I can rip your very heartstrings out with

Whatever Bach and Palestrina and Scarlatti and good Gregorian do to you — well, it is not that. Whereas almost any good Gospel Hymn gets you, if it gets you at all, in the banjo way. There is the revivalistic essence in all of them. And when the Catholics wish to be revivalistic, they imitate, rather badly, the Protestant ‘hymn-tune.’

Most of my friends (including, obviously, my husband) are so truly highbrow that they cannot be ‘got’ in the banjo way. They do not like cornet solos; and brass bands playing negromelodies leave them dry-eyed. They honestly prefer the Kneisel Quartet or a Brahms symphony. Their arid and exquisite aestheticism rejects these low appeals. Did I not say that my husband loathes ‘Throw Out the LifeLine’ even while he is reducing me to an emotional crumple? I refuse to admit that I am incapable of that same arid and exquisite æstheticism; but the lower appeal reaches me too. I do weep over the brass bands. I do choke over the flag appropriately carried. I do fall in love (if I am careful to shut my eyes) with a good tenor voice. And while there are, luckily, a great many people like my husband, there must be millions more like me. He remembers the Gospel Hymns; but I like them.

Not quite to the trail-hitting point; but then I fancy the hymns of the tabernacle are less good than they used to be. I do not know the tune of ‘Brighten the Corner Where You Are.’ Though my six-year-old son has learned it from the cook, I do not believe he has the tunc right. He cannot have it right: if it were right, there would be no sawdust trail. Nor do I know the music of ‘The Brewer’s Big Horses Cannot Roll Over Me.’ But I have a suspicion that Billy Sunday’s hymns are nothing like so good as Moody and Sankey. The dance music of the day always has its effect on popular airs of every kind, even religious. I venture to say (pace the shade of Lord Byron) that the waltz,throughout the nineteenth century, had a strong religious influence. Every one knows that good waltz music, if played slowly enough, is the saddest thing in the world. The emotion aroused by good waltz music well played is bloodbrother to the emotion aroused by ‘ God Be with You Till We Meet Again’ and ‘For You I Am Praying, I’m Praying for You.’ Waltzes and Gospel Hymns reinforce each other — which is probably why the unco’ guid object to dancing. But with all due allowances for mob-emotion and the sensual ear, I cannot believe that syncopation serves the Lord. People’s eyes do not grow dim as they listen to a fox-trot. It does nothing to bring forth that melting sense of universal love which the old popular music did. All waltz music was in essence melancholy; and all sentimental melancholies meet together somewhere in the recesses of the vulgar heart. Yes: when popular composers were writing good waltzes, it was easier for the Sankeys and Blisses to write good hymns. The Y.P.S.C.E. must have had easier work with the young people who were singing ‘Marguerite,’ than it has now with the young people who are singing ‘At the Garbage Gentlemen’s Ball.’ I have a notion that the young people who are singing ‘At the Garbage Gentlemen’s Ball’ do not go to Y.P.S.C.E. meetings at all. Well, you see, those who sang ‘Marguerite’ did.

Those who know say that we are growing more vulgar all the time. Perhaps the difference between D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday is a good index of that degeneration. Certainly the silly young things who wept while they sang ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again’ would not have pretended to call Christ up on the telephone — or have permitted any one else to do it in their presence. But, thank Heaven, the conventicles are like to outlast the tabernacle.

At all events, I am sure of one thing: that my husband will not be persuaded, twenty years hence, to ‘oblige’ with ‘The Brewer’s Big Horses.’ But I hope he will continue at intervals to oblige with ‘Throw Out the Life-Line.’ For, so long as he does, I shall continue to be evangelized.