Poetry and Christianity

Barbara Everett

  • Three for Water-Music by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 69 pp, £2.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 85635 363 9
  • The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse edited by Donald Davie
    Oxford, 319 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 19 213426 4

‘Water-Music’ makes in itself a fine concept, through the delicate difference of its components, water being transparent though sometimes audible, music being always audible and always transparent; together they would make a good Symbolist image for religious art, if only Symbolism had believed in religion. But the thing the concept is based on is not now experienced much in reality. Or, if it is experienced, it hardly lives up to the concept: madrigals I heard once on the river at Oxford by night involved merely damp, and mosquitoes, and an occasion all innocent pretentiousness. And yet a good many people feel, and are surely right to go on feeling, that they know all about water-music, simply because of Handel. It is surprising how much of ordinary life turns out to be purely conceptual like this – in modern society, at any rate; and modernity probably started with the making of the Lascaux cave-paintings, themselves a kind of visual water-music. We think we know things, when what we really know is the inside of the head, and live by theories untested for generations and even for centuries. The realists tend to be, not the extroverts and pragmatists, who are merely good at converting other people to their fantasies, but a few experts in consciousness who have got to know the hard way where the limits of their theories lie.

Donald Davie’s new sequence of poems, ‘Three for Water-Music’ (which fills the first third of his Carcanet paperback), refers not only to pleasant 18th-century entertainments by water, but to something like Yeats’s ‘words for music, perhaps’: or like Eliot’s Four Quartets, to which the sequence declares some relationship. For Davie’s three poems lie somewhere between late Symbolist poetry and a more quietly literal tradition of English topography; they are a species of modern half-abstract landscape poem, which locate in the real certain transparencies of thought. They show concept both created and creating, as a fountain might be heard to rise and fall again. And indeed of the poet’s three locations which have given rise to epiphanies, the first and last are, in fact, Sicilian ‘fountains’ or pools, each named after an Ovidian legend of loss of love; the second is a brown pool in a torrential stream between steep English hillsides. The sequence, recording ‘Epiphanies all around us Always perhaps’, in a sense finds no answer to its opening question: ‘And what’s to be made of that?’ Any sense of answer or reconciliation is confined to the expressive forms of the poems themselves, which always – like music – imply the silence behind them:

 Demeter launches
One fish in a silver are
To signalise her daughter’s
Re-entry to the dark.

Donald Davie is on occasion a superlative poet, and this volume is one of the occasions. Reticence and a love of the theoretical often combine to make his communications a triumph of style. Even the unegoistic Eliot allows ghosts and Furies to move through his Quartets, possessing and obsessing them and directing an imperious control over the reader: there are no such ghosts in ‘Three for Water-Music’, which in fact insists on the absence of any such presences:

And it was nothing, nothing at all
‘Happened’ ...

This absence of the explainable beyond the renewal of the self-containedness of the image

    (One could go round and round
This single and Sicilian less
    Than happening)

gives the sequence its beautiful and tough purity, as of those ‘clear-glassed windows/The clear day looking in’ which the poet remembers from early Dissenting chapels. But it produces an art always close enough to the tacit to make a reader grateful for the relative ‘impurities’ (what Davie has called elsewhere, in connection with Wordsworth, ‘the smell of the human’) in the latter part of this book, which consists of ‘The Shires’.

‘The Shires’, a reprint of the 1974 volume of that name, which is now out of print, is a sequence of 40 short or shortish poems lacking the manifest philosophical concerns of the poems that precede it. It offers itself as an easy, even casual topographical record of England, county by county in alphabetical sequence, almost like an ‘Oxford Book’. But this is in fact an extremely original gazetteer, whose aesthetic nature places it rightly in the same volume as ‘Three for Water-Music’. The very word ‘shires’ reminds us by its archaism of what we know already – that England like other known places is always slipping into the past, always changing its nature from the remembered. Moreover the ‘sense of place’ is a feeling often keenest in absence or exile (which is why landscape poems are so often elegiac); like other senses of loss, it occasions self-questioning. In the first of these poems, ‘Bedfordshire’, the poet-tourist, thinking of Bunyan, stares at a ‘nineteenth-century ... brick chapel’ and asks ‘What to do with this that I am heir to’ – and the ‘this’ includes, not only a family past involved with Dissenting Christianity, but England itself (called in the previous sequence a ‘long-deflowered dissenting chapel’, and the whole world beyond it that demands to be made sense of:

                                  It’s a chosen
North of the mind I take my bearings by,
A stripped style and a wintry.

Davie builds up in the end an extraordinarily clear, sharp and pungent sense of England. But he does so by first clearing the ground of illusion (almost every poem begins with a harsh disclaimer, as ‘Berkshire’, ‘Don’t care for it ... ’, ‘Derbyshire’, ‘We never made it ...’). The fragments of memory come to carry truth because the real human topographies, so the poems seem to say, depend on certain stripped and wintry conditions in life itself. Thus Rutland, the ‘Joke county, smallest in England’, is real because it once held

    my old
Friend, Bill Partridge. Dead now. Had you noticed?

How heavy that weighs, how wide the narrowest shire!

Because all space forms itself round the loved, who become more and more, as time passes, the loved dead, all counties really are alike ‘the smallest’; just as all these poems begin in their sharp wit of detachment as ‘joke’ poems – but jokes that nonetheless hold in their bluntness, their fragmentariness, their ridiculously wooden personal allusions, a whole unjokey monumental statement about human limits and human value. Thus ‘Leicestershire’ ends impassively:

At Loughborough, I remember,
A man too little regarded
(Dead since), V.C. Clinton –
Baddeley afforded
Several views of Yeats.

There is a fine art, given this essentially English context, even in the balanced placing of the hyphen. Everything in ‘The Shires’ has a decorous ‘English’ smallness in this sense, a perfect art of self-containment and throw-away grace and wit, all the effects as tacit as they are taciturn. Indeed, the ironies, silences and negations in Davie’s art are clearly conditions of their opposite, as a love of country may dictate a refusal to be mindlessly ‘patriotic’. In ‘Middlesex’ Davie tells the story of an English girl met serving beers in a Greek bar:

The longer loop their Odysseys, the more
Warmly exact the Ithakas they remember:
Thus, home she said was Middlesex, though Wembley
I should have named, indifferently, as ‘London’.

The poet himself uses a whole technique of exile from easy effect to call into being a real life, a real place all the more ‘warmly exact’ for its scrupulous turning-away.

The second of the ‘Three for Water-Music’, named ‘Wild Boar Clough’, ends with an image of the way a land is ‘colonised’ by what is acted and suffered on it:

                           slaughtered saints
Cut down of a Sunday morning by dragoons
    Grounded the English Covenant
In ling and peat-moss. Sound of singing drifts
    Tossed up like spume, persistently
Pulsing through history and out of it.

Davie’s work has integrity in the simple sense: it holds together, and preoccupations recur in different forms and throw light on each other alike in verse and in several kinds of critical prose. In both verse and prose his reflections centre on a quality of Christian civilisation that may be seen as ‘Pulsing through history and out of it’: a tradition of life and belief that seeks a true and classic human standard while setting itself against such aspects of the merely comfortably established as are spurious or vicious. He pursues a definition of existence lived out (in favourite phrases) ‘with the grain’ but ‘against the current’. In his recent Clark Lectures, published as A Gathered Church, Davie recounts the story of an attempt (from the literary historian’s point of view, a partial failure) to live out such a life on the part of the Dissenting bodies within the English Church, to maintain a freedom of Christian worship while not failing to be in communication with the finest part of their country’s culture. He has extended this account and widened the image of a ‘gathered church’ in his new anthology, which contains the sound of singing

            persistently
Pulsing through history.

To say this is to suggest something of the anthology’s individuality. There will be a number of its potential readers, perhaps many of those likely to feel an interest in the Oxford Books as a series, who may assume that ‘individual’ is the one thing an Oxford Book cannot afford to be: for the series is sometimes expected to have, and even makes some claim to having, a special ‘authority’, and authority has some tendency within this context to be defined as the opposite of individuality. In intellectual matters, authority rests entirely with the individual intelligence, which is why we quote the words of Galileo: ‘All the same it moves.’ Individuals use institutions like universities and publishing-houses to express themselves the more easily, and bodies like the Oxford University Press will earn respect for a long history once productive of wealth so great as to permit and attract monumental publication. These factors survive in external characteristics of the Oxford Books: their bulk, for instance, apparently first introduced as a competitive marketing device, but now seeming to embody all the august impersonality of History; and their often splendidly handsome uniformity of binding, bringing all mere personal accidents of authorship within a navy blue and gilt monumentality.

An imposing format is nonetheless not the same as authority. An anthology, like any other true book, takes its authority (if any) from the degree of talent and intelligence of its editor and authors: for even editors who claim to be ‘impersonal’ or ‘historical’ are really just relying on the talent and intelligence of other people or other editors, and including those poems which (as Eliot says) ‘other people have desired’. Very good contributions have been made to the series of Oxford Books by editors deferring more – either actually or apparently – to received opinion about which are the best or most representative poems of a period: but again, this does not bear on the degree of authority the resulting volume possesses. It is hard to say how a thing can have authority except by virtue of merely being very good. Donald Davie’s Christian Verse is very good. It joins Philip Larkin’s Twentieth-Century Verse to make the most brilliantly interesting Oxford Books of recent years: two books to be read as books are read, and not merely consulted as the OED is consulted. The fact that both Davie and Larkin are good poets, used to wondering if what they are offering is really worth reading, is unlikely to be immaterial.

But Davie’s volume certainly differs from a number of Oxford Books even in its external attributes. The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse is almost a thin book. Most previous Oxford Books have been anything from six hundred pages to a thousand; Davie’s predecessor David Cecil’s Christian Verse was six hundred, while Davie runs to not more than half that. Where Cecil’s 1940 volume gave 40 pages to Browning and 14 to Coventry Patmore, in Davie both poets have sunk without trace. But such disappearances are only manifestations of a general shrinkage of Victorianism, reduced from Cecil’s two hundred pages to Davie’s twenty or so. And in these twenty pages the presiding genius is in any case not strictly speaking Victorian at all, being Emily Dickinson: who for Davie represents those qualities which in the earlier part of the anthology shine in Herbert and Vaughan, Watts and Wesley, Smart and Cowper. That none of these writers has the obvious ‘scale’ or bulk of a Browning is perhaps to Davie’s view less a detraction from their quality than an instance of it. For what he looks for in a Christian poet is a fineness, a rarity even, that can (paradoxically) disappear into the anonymities of psalm-paraphrase or congregational hymn and still retain its essential dignity and depth. Thus this New Oxford Book is hardly ‘thin’ by accident: a highly proportioned and principled delicacy and scruple are integral to the exercise.

In a good book the right length is any length; in the reading, Davie’s anthology is not a matter of exclusion but only of inclusion. The editor has found any number of poems unfamiliar at least to me, like the extremely fine 14th-century lyric ‘Moon-like is all other love’, given in his own flawless translation (and the general level of translation is high). There are also whole poets new to me, like the 16th-century Scot Alexander Hume, who can achieve a small intense uncanny radiance:

The ample heaven of fabrik sure
In cleannes dois surpas
The crystal and the silver pure
Or clearest poleist glas.

The same so tranquill is and still
That na where sail ye find
Saif on ane high and barren hill,
Ane aire of peeping wind ...

These are effects one might have said Coleridge would have liked for his ‘Ancient Mariner’, had second thoughts not suggested that Coleridge probably did like them, and took them over wholesale. But the whole anthology is chosen with such originality of taste, and yet with such assurance, as to make even far more familiar writers seem as new as Hume. It is worth, for instance, missing the splendours of the more famous bits of Piers Plowman to have Davie’s handfuls of lines expose by their freshness Langland’s peculiar capacity for sudden absolute truth.

Usually the anthology impresses with its gift for homing in on any given writer’s best poem or poems. Occasionally, however, the editor reveals what appears to be a dislike of a writer which results in the book’s seeming to fall back on the ‘representative’ rather than the best: Donne, for instance, is given ‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’, three sonnets, and three stanzas of doxology from ‘A Litanie’. ‘Riding Westward’ has always seemed to me the most sterile Christian poem ever written by a good poet; Donne’s finest religious verse is surely the late Hymns and much of the rest of the ‘Litanie’. But these latter poems present a very mixed and in some ways decidedly ‘worldly’ Christianity, which possibly strikes Davie as Donne’s Sermons struck Eliot, as having elements of the impure. In fact, Donne’s poems focus the whole peculiar problem of ‘Christian Verse’ as a category – the problem of finding ‘good’ Christianity in immediate fusion with ‘good’ poetry (as a given person defines both these two things). There have in any case been few periods when the two things have not seemed to some persons (the Church Fathers, for instance) not only accidentally but necessarily to pull apart: what has Christ to do with Apollo? Davie’s anthology takes character from seeing this issue as an issue. He opens his Introduction with admirable trenchancy by first proposing that the subject at least takes some defining, given that before our own period any verse, seen as proceeding from its civilisation, was ‘Christian’ verse, whereas now, none is. He then proceeds to define it, arriving at his conclusion by careful exclusions: ‘A poem, to be a Christian poem ... must treat of scripture to show how scripture embodies doctrine, and of doctrine to show how it has scriptural authority.’ When to this are added equally stringent criteria for the definition of verse – pious jingles will not do, high art is involved – then it can be seen that choice may be limited to a relatively narrow span of English literature.

There are certain inherent advantages in this clarity of position. Definite principles of choice result in a collection in which the contributors have discernibly things in common. David Cecil’s older Oxford Book may be very pleasurably dipped into, but hardly learned from. In Davie there is the clear and interesting sense of an English tradition, one which he has already touched on in part in A Gathered Church: a tradition of the literary churchman unworldly in the best sense yet the opposite of unlettered or unintellectual. In that book Davie justly rebuts such historians as still dismiss ‘early Hanoverian culture in a few well-chosen and vindictive generalisations’, in ignorance of the religious achievements of the period: ‘There is perhaps not much that the literary historian has to tell the social historian, the historian of ideas, or the church historian, but this much he has to tell them, and has been telling them for fifty years ... ’ He might have added the simple fact that it is, after all, this period which in Handel’s Messiah produced the one work of religious devotion still popularly and regularly performed in England – the one work, that is, apart from the great hymns, which Davie’s Oxford Book represents richly, and places at a kind of centre in the English tradition. To make Watts’s ‘O God our help in ages past’ central in this way is indeed a ‘telling’: it is to make an important, if one wants, an ‘authoritative’, statement about English cultural history over the last six hundred years and more: a statement with repercussions beyond the simply ecclesiastical or the simply literary.

But the anthology includes a purpose beyond the historical. Davie seems at least momentarily to intend not merely the descriptive but the prescriptive. He argues in his Introduction that Christian poetry not only may be like this, but in effect must be like this – has been, will be and ought to be. What he has alluded to earlier as a matter of a more or less personal taste for a certain ‘bleak boldness’ in poetry, he at the end of his Introduction offers as something which is far more programmatic:

The question is [for the Christian poet]: what sort of language is most appropriate when I would speak of, or to, my God? And it is not only the Puritans who appear to have decided that the only language proper for such exalted purposes is a language stripped of fripperies and seductive indulgences, the most direct and unswerving English. To speak thus plainly has the additional advantage that it ought to be meaningful to plain men and women, the poet’s fellow-Christians; but the main reason for choosing it is that when speaking to God, in poetry as in prayer, any sort of prevarication or ambiguity is unseemly, indeed unthinkable.

This is illogical, I think. A case may be made for speaking to God in silence, or else in the best language possible: and as to what constitutes the second, many ideas are thinkable. If it is true – as of course it is – that ‘in every age Christian poets ... have ... put a specially high value on what is called “the plain style”’ (Davie’s italics), then it is also true that ‘plain’ has had in these circumstances a very large number of different interpretations. The reference here to ‘plain men and women’ shows how wide open the door is to diversity: for, humanly speaking, who is plainer than whom? I have myself a liking for that plainest of collections, Tottel’s Miscellany, but have never found it shared by any but academic intellects: the much less professionally literate usually prefer the opposed style that loads every rift with ore.

Davie spends the latter part of his Introduction in warm and perhaps even protective commendation (which easily becomes defensive) of a specific writer’s ‘plainness’ – that of Cowper; and these words may essentially relate to Cowper alone. But they appear more general in their application, and as such misleading. It seems extraordinary that a literary critic and historian as distinguished as Davie can find ‘unthinkable’ the use of ambiguity in verse that speaks devoutly ‘of, or to ... God’ – almost as if he has taken literally Herbert’s claim in ‘Jordan’ to speak ‘plainly’, when the poem is a ravishing complex of artifice. Herbert’s style is surely in itself a form of ‘Water-Music’, not literally but only ideally ‘plain’; as is Davie’s whole thesis, too, concerning Christian poetry – a critical selection and interpretation of evidence, that will not serve for prescription outside of itself.

Davie is surely to some extent being driven into fallacy by his own aesthetic expertise and professionalism. In order to make anything clear at all, an argument or a book, it is necessary to erect selective criteria, to exclude and delimit: for form is essentially prohibition, and defining is a keeping-Out. By this necessity Davie is moved in his Introduction to identify Christian Verse with Christianity, and that with the state of a man very consciously and critically aware of what be believes. This does injustice both to the psychology of human beings, Christian and otherwise, and to the nature of art, Christian or otherwise. In practice, there are an enormous number of cases which it would be wrong – not relatively but absoutely wrong – to exclude from the field of the ‘Christian’. Thus, common sense protests that it is at least strongly likely that Samuel Johnson, who was a good Christian and wrote good verse, wrote some good Christian verse. And in fact his elegy ‘On the death of Mr Robert Levet’ (which is included neither in Davie’s anthology nor in Cecil’s) seems to me a very good Christian poem, not merely because it emerges from a culture professedly Christian, but because – on Davie’s own grounds – it illustrates the parable of the talents, and perhaps also the doctrine of the Incarnation. The grounds for its inclusion are at least as strong as those on which Davie includes the younger and unchristian Wordsworth’s ‘Resolution and Independence’: the latter choice does not prove the anthologist a bad judge, but it does prove that the criteria are individual, a ‘water-music’.

They are, in fact, a quite personal but equally necessary system for bringing order into a field where absolute agreement could not be reached, because the data are too variable and human judgment too relative: but where some system of selection is necessary to prevent confusion and chaos. For if it is allowed that (for instance) Johnson probably was some kind of Christian poet, even if not Davie’s kind, the scope widens rapidly outward from there. Our best living Shakespeare critic, Wilson Knight, has claimed Henry VIII as a great Christian drama; it would not be precisely the play that I would choose, but a similar kind of case could be made for, say, the gaol scene in Cymbeline as among the most original Christian writing of the late Renaissance. In the same way, certain Christian forms and doctrines can be seen activating and enriching writing in our own period, most vigorously when least ‘committedly’. One of the most brilliantly professional fictions to appear last year, Martin Amis’s novel Other People, seemed perfectly clearly to be based on the Christian doctrine of Hell (Sartre: ‘Hell is other people’) in both a moral and an eschatological sense: the book is called a ‘Mystery’, it is a thriller with a Pauline echo, it concerns the great human changes, and everybody in it spends his or her time – if you can call it time – substituting power for love in human relationships, until the Ego eats even itself up (Rimbaud: ‘Je est un autre’). Comparably, one of the most acclaimed poems of the last decade, Philip Larkin’s ‘The Building’, reads oddly like a much more interesting, much more felt and embodied and understood, expansion of half a dozen lines at the end of Auden’s Christian poem, ‘New Year Letter’, which ironically offers an emblem for skyscrapers:

The secular cathedrals stand
Upon their valuable land,
Frozen forever in a lie;
Determined always to deny
That man is weak and has to die ...

It has to be added that Amis’s hell has no God, and none is imaginable there; just as Larkin’s great hospital is no ‘lie’, only a human necessity regarded with a sad complicit detachment. The Christian elements in both are partial and fragmentary. Nonetheless, both novel and poem are products of a culture once in some sense Christian, and in both survive traces that give evidence of the fact, like the Roman mosaic floors in fourth-century Britain – not the less to be called Roman because they are now ruinous. It is similarly hard to see why such vestiges of Christian belief as survive in modern culture in mixed and strange forms should fail to be called Christian simply because they are partial: art is, after all, the product of the imagination, and in the human imagination all is mixed and strange. Full commitment to a belief in actual life is perhaps given by the conscious will alone, but conscious will may play a less predominant part in art than Davie sometimes seems to be choosing to assume in his Introduction.

The argument about plainness in Christian art is subject to the same qualifications. Certainly Davie refers in his closing paragraphs to those ‘legitimate splendours and audacities’ which may be found in the poems to follow. Perhaps it is merely a loyal protectiveness towards the easily overlooked modesties or quieter, more difficult virtues of Christian art (as of life) that produces some fastidiousness of epithet in his phrase. But it is possible to imagine certain splendours of Christian art that might even include the illegitimate: good to imagine, that is, that Christianity has produced, and might produce again, geniuses capable of writing like the Hebrew poet who made his God of Creation astound a Job who had lost hope, by letting him see, in the war-horse and the whale and the eagle, that he hadn’t by any means seen everything yet. It is hard to see why a poet of the religion of Incarnation should not equally surprise decency and decorum with a poetry capable of including the ‘unthinkable’ and the ‘illegitimate’, even ‘fripperies and seductive indulgences’.

Indeed, it is possible that Davie is a little allowing himself here to seem to underrate (as clearly he does not) the degree to which the poems in his own collection are actually doing this: to minimise the precise ‘splendours and audacities’ of the English Christian tradition. One example is the first poem in the book, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Dream of the Rood’: which is printed in Michael Alexander’s translation, a translation whose excellence has the unavoidable flaw that by taking the poem so successfully out of its own language it removes some of its inherent astonishment. This is a poem written nearly a thousand years before Shakespeare, in a world of warriors governed by the heroic ethos – and where Christ was still regularly represented as the Lamb crowned, as final victor and symbol of power. But ‘The Dream of the Rood’ does something never quite repeated in Christian verse, and unimagined iconographically until, two or three hundred years later, images like the Gero Cross began to show Christ as a suffering person. This seventh or eighth-century English poem turns Christ, ‘the great King’, into one whose power lies in the abnegation of power – a man not only suffering but broken and humiliated. And it does so by describing the crucifixion through the remembering speech of the Cross, itself a hewn and humbled tree. This addresses the reader rather as a broken-down old horse might speak tenderly and respectfully of the dead warrior it once carried:

Stand fast I must ...
I durst not harm any of them.
How they mocked at us both!

This reversal of the ethos of the poet’s world (seven centuries before Franciscanism revolutionised men’s approach to the natural creation) is achieved by the poet’s having chosen to use a poetic medium that surely might be included among Davie’s ‘fripperies’, for it is the mode of the delightful and skilled but often bawdy riddles of the time. In an Anglo-Saxon riddle, an object from the natural world – the world outside and below the heroically human, often a creaturely or domestic or ‘female’ object – describes itself so inwardly that we see its nature quite freshly, beyond the apprehension of our usual ideas. In ‘The Dream of the Rood’ the Cross pronounces the riddle of itself, in an effect that is extraordinarily noble, innocent and chaste, but not, I think, in any way ‘plain’.

The same argument could be applied even to those great hymns which are in some ways the centre of Davie’s collection. Like Handel, they help refute the notion that the 18th century lacked a religious sense. But the mention of Handel suggests a qualification: for it is in itself significant that the greatest religious artist of the time worked not in words but in music – though he was wonderfully skilled in setting English words to music. Similarly, the music which was and is so necessary a part of these hymns introduces a complicating factor: for they can scarcely be remembered or read now without the echo of the melodies to which, in many cases, the poets actually set their poems. In the best, this melody is neither a distraction nor a piecer-out of effect lacking in the poem: rather, the grave chords derived from psalm chant support and underline the meaning of the lines. But they do so provided that meaning may be something other than what Davie seems to imply by ‘plain’ – something beyond what is accounted for in terms of reason, of doctrine, of the conscious and even critical purpose of the poet. A part of the extraordinary effect of the tune by which we know ‘O God, our help in ages past’ – the very strange tune which is apparently made up of haunting fragments from Henry Lawes – is that with every third line it moves out into the relative minor key before at last coming home to the still oblique and doubtful C Major (an effect found, I believe, in no other psalm tune). Isaac Watts’s magnificent lines take from the Psalmist’s Hebrew poetry an effect precisely echoed by the ranging chords in the background:

A thousand ages in thy sight
    Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
    Before the rising sun ...

Time like an ever-rolling stream
    Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
    Dies at the opening day.

The delicate metres of the quatrains have a temperance and lucidity that match Watts’s response to the New Testament: but within this lucidity there is also a sublimity and depth that came straight from the images of the Psalmist. And whenever this hymn is performed, an awe-inspiring power is released by the strange minor-key abysses revealed by the music of the third lines. Such hymns thus open doors to heights and depths beyond the plainly doctrinal, and they do so both through their music and through the ‘musicality’ of their literary art, empowered even in what we like to think of as ‘an age of reason’ to find wordless or hardly articulate ranges of vision. Even Calvin allowed music to be one of the natural goods of life, what he called one of the ‘choses bonnes de la nature’. These hymns are perhaps their writers’ true ‘Water-Music’ – natural images of a place where Christian poetry might include everything and exclude nothing.