Home History of Hymns: "People, Look East"

History of Hymns: "People, Look East"

"People, Look East"
by Eleanor Farjeon
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 202

Eleanor Farjeon

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) received much encouragement as a writer from her parents, Benjamin Leopold Farjeon, a successful writer and novelist, and Maggie Jefferson Farjeon, daughter of an American actor.

"Nellie," as she was affectionately called by her parents, was a small, shy young girl. She later cared for her dying mother for the twelve years of a long and difficult illness. One brother, Harry, was a composer; and her other brothers, Joseph and Herbert, were writers.

Farjeon had a vivid imagination. Her father encouraged her to write from the age of five. At age eighteen, she penned the libretto for an operetta composed by her brother Harry. In spite of her shyness, she participated in a circle of talented artists, writers, and musicians.

Farjeon grew up in England in a home surrounded by books. She and her brothers both enjoyed reading stories to one another and writing their own. In the United States, Farjeon's best-known work is the hymn "Morning Has Broken" (later recorded by Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, in 1971); but in England, she is beloved as the author of more than eighty children's books and poem collections, most notably Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, and The Little Bookroom.

Some of Farjeon's books won prestigious recognitions, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Carnegie Medal. The artist refused another prize, Dame of the British Empire, explaining that she "did not wish to become different from the milkman." Upon her death, the Children's Book Circle established the Eleanor Farjeon Award in her honor.

"People, Look East" first appeared in The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). The lively tune, a traditional French carol BESANÇON, which earlier appeared with the anonymous text, "Shepherds, shake off your drowsy sleep," provides a festive setting for this wonderful Advent text. In the last forty years, this hymn has gained increasing popularity, as evidenced by its appearance in a number of hymnals in the United States.

Key images of the season are abundant. "People, Look East" is the direction of the rising sun and, in the history of Christianity, the direction of the coming Messiah. In stanza two, the bare earth is waiting for the seed that will flourish in the reign of the Promised One. In stanza three, the stars that guided the Magi shape the "bowl" of the heavens, giving signs of hope beyond "the frosty weather." The angels' song, in stanza four, sets "every peak and valley humming," an oblique reference to Isaiah 40:4, "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low. . ."

Except for one word that changes in the last two lines of each stanza, the poem and its musical setting give the sense of a refrain. "Love," in turn, is defined as "Guest," "Rose," "Star," and "Lord." Stanza three is usually omitted:

Birds, though ye long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
He for fledging-time has chosen.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love, the Bird is on the way.

This joyful Advent hymn has the spirit of a Christmas carol, but with an imaginative Advent text. Singing this carol is indeed one way to prepare both our homes and hearts for the coming of the Savior.

For more information on Eleanor Farjeon, visit www.eldrbarry.net/rabb/farj/farj.htm.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.