Home History of Hymns: “Let Us With a Joyful Mind”

History of Hymns: “Let Us With a Joyful Mind”

John Milton

“Let Us With a Joyful Mind”
by John Milton;
adapt. by Thomas H. Troeger,
The Faith We Sing, No. 2012.

Let us with a joyful mind
praise our God forever kind,
rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.*

*© Adapt. Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Rarely is a first-class poet also a hymn writer. While classic hymns may be viewed as a subset of poetry, writing for congregational singing is a different skill from writing for a collection to be read as devotional literature. Several poets in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and, to some extent, the nineteenth centuries wrote devotional poems that were set to music and included in hymnals. These poems had to meet the rigors of meter and prosody demanded of classic hymn structure. Free verse poetry does not work in classical hymn structures. Most notable, perhaps, is George Herbert (1593-1633), whose hymns “Let all the world in every corner sing” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 93) and “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” (UMH 164) often find their way into congregational collections. Though his poems are rarely included in hymnals, American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) has had some poems adapted as hymns. Fellow northeasterner Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) has also had some poems adapted as hymns. Even Charles Wesley, whose literary output spanned a range of poetic genres, has only more recently been included in more general anthologies of eighteenth-century poetry.

With John Milton (1608-1674), we unquestionably have a world-class poet. British hymnologist and literary scholar Richard Watson summarizes not only the significance of Milton as a poet, but also his influence on Charles Wesley:

“Milton’s work is of immense importance for the history of English literature. The benign shadow of Paradise Lost lies over English poetry throughout the 18th century, and an understanding of it is fundamental to a reading of Blake and Wordsworth. His influence is felt in hymn writing most clearly in the work of Charles Wesley, whose poetry often echoes Milton, either in the use of individual lines or in the more general understanding of the pattern of Fall and Redemption found in Paradise Lost.”

Milton’s direct contribution to congregational song may be found in his metrical psalms, a sub-genre of classical hymns. As the eminent hymnologist John Julian noted over a century ago, “[Milton’s] influence on English hymn-writing has been very slight, his 19 versions of various Psalms having lain for the most part unused by hymnal compliers.” The exception would be one of his two metrical versions of Psalm 136. Of all Milton’s metrical psalms, our hymn is by far the runaway favorite for inclusion in hymnals, seven times over its nearest rival, “The Lord will come and not be slow.”

Milton’s original metrical version, written with others during 1623-1624, has twenty-four stanzas, obviously too many for congregations to sing. (For the complete original text by John Milton, see http://www.bartleby.com/4/103.html.) Therefore, from the beginning, hymnal editors have had to adapt Milton’s poem in some way to accommodate the needs of congregational singing. While hymnals earlier in the twentieth century often included six or even seven stanzas from the original poem, more recently, this number is reduced to five or four. The recently published Glory to God (PCUSA, 2013), for example, includes adapted versions of stanzas one, seven, and twenty-two, closing with a reprise of the first stanza.

The Faith We Sing has included an updated version of this metrical psalm adapted by Thomas H. Troeger (b. 1945), the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication Emeritus, Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where he taught from 2005-2015. A highly published hymn writer and poet himself, he brings unusual sensitivity to the task of providing us with a version of Milton’s psalm that we can sing today. He wrote his paraphrase of Milton’s version at the request of the editors for The New Century Hymnal (1995), who, according to the author, “wanted to keep the energy and grandeur of Milton, but in an inclusive and more contemporary idiom.” No hymnal includes any exact replication of Milton’s metrical psalm, always reducing the number of stanzas and making significant alterations to the original text.

To gain some insight into the nature of Professor Troeger’s work, let us compare Milton’s original with the adaptation:

1. Let us with a gladsome mind
Praise the Lord for he is kind:

Refrain:

For his mercies aye endure,
Ever faithful, every sure.

1. Let us with a joyful mind
praise our God forever kind,
Refrain:

rich with mercies that endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.*

7. That by his all-commanding might,

Did fill the new-made world with light;

Refrain.

2. New-made earth was filled with light
through God’s all commanding might,*

Refrain.

8. And caused the golden-tressèd Sun
All the day long his course to run;

Refrain.

3. Dazzling bright the sun obeys

God who shines with brighter rays,*

Refrain.

9. The hornèd Moon to shine by night
Amongst her spangled sisters bright;

Refrain.

4. Stars and moon that spangle night
all depend o heaven’s light,*
Refrain.

22. All living creatures he doth feed,
And with full hand supplies their need;

Refrain.

5. Creatures of the sea and land
all are fed by God’s own hand,*
Refrain.

1. No repeat in the original.

1. Therefore with a joyful mind
praise our God forever kind,*
Refrain.

In comparison, several observations may be made. First, the recent version allows for inclusive language. Second, Milton’s version does not scan uniformly, generally a sine qua non for classical hymn structures. Taking only the first line of each stanza, the number of syllables in Milton’s poem varies – 7, 8, 8, 8, 8 respectively. In addition, the first stanza of Milton’s original is trochaic (strong/weak accent) while the others are iambic (weak/strong accent). Third, some seventeenth-century words simply do not relate or would be distracting to singers attempting to stay together. These include “gladsome,” “golden-tressèd Sun,” and “hornèd Moon.” (Readers might recall the latter used by the character of Moonshine in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1, written between 1590-1596.) Finally, all versions exclude much of the narrative presented in Psalm 136. In addition to a discussion of God’s faithfulness in the natural created order, the psalm gives considerable attention to the deliverance of Israel.

What then are we to make of the adaptation by Thomas Troeger and, indeed, others who have modified Milton’s original throughout the last three centuries? I prefer to think of Professor Troeger’s version much like a translation of a text from another language into English; that is, a new art work inspired by a poem from another time, place, and culture. The advantage of what the Rev. Troeger has offered us is that he skillfully maintains the energy of Milton’s original – even retaining much of the original language, smoothes out the metrical inequities, and allows us to join whole-heartedly into the singing. Just as many hymns we sing in translation span centuries from the original to the adaptation (or translation), so does this hymn. In this case, we actually touch on three eras at once: the biblical era in which the psalm was composed, the seventeenth century in which Milton penned his metrical paraphrase, and the late twentieth century with a creative adaptation for our time. Indeed, hymn singing is a timeless ritual action that engages us with the witness of the faithful in all places and times.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.