christianity, church, hymnody, hymns, literature, poetry, theology
Hymns seem quite important recently. The scarcity of them in our present situation makes them seem more valuable, and I know a lot of congregations and choirs are longing to sing, but are careful of the need to be safe. About six months ago, one of the books I brought home from the office was J.R. Watson’s The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study, a work which has therefore been hanging around the house, only partially read, for quite some time. I really loved the way he delves into the history and meaning of hymns as poetry, and wanted to try my own hand at close-reading hymns. I’ve decided to star with a familiar one, “Immortal, Invisible”, and in this post I’ll read the first verse. I’ll explore it as a theological poem, paying attention to the way its language and form works.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but nought changeth thee.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render: O help us to see ’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
The first lines address God in forms of negation. “Immortal” and “invisible” signal by their form that they’re defining God by what God is not: not subject to death, not visible to the eye. It’s one of the classic modes of Christian theology, known as the via negativa, or apophatic theology. Charles’ Williams’ English phrase “the way of negation” fits these terms, as they deny what God is not. “God only wise” can also be read as a negation, especially coming after these two words which morphologically signal their negation (“im-“, “-in”). It may initially appear to be a statement about God’s attributes, since it mentions wisdom, but the use of “only” shifts this implication. “Only wise”, in this context does not mean “wise and nothing else but wise”, but rather “the only one who is wise”.
Thus what seems to be an assertion or affirmation, “God is wise” becomes a negation, “nothing is wise but God”. For if nothing but God can be called wise, the meaning of the word “wise” as we know it is undermined. God, the phrase is insisting, can not be described by us recognising wisdom in the world and then imagining someone enormously, even infinitely, wiser. The word “only” here asserts that the word “wise” can only apply to God, and in doing so severs the connection between the word’s meaning and the world of experience in which we are used to applying it. It has more the function of a name than an adjective. If we call God wise, then we cannot call anything or anyone else wise, and the phrase becomes – in its own way – a negation.
This austerity is carried on into the second line, “In light inaccessible hid from our eyes”. Once again, a phrase which initially seems to describe or depict God refuses the possibility of doing so. Light, the very means by which we see, becomes the thing which prevents our eyes from making out God’s shape. The light imagery familiar from John’s Gospel, (“the light of the world”) is used to insist on our inability to see. (Does this suggest that we are in the “darkness” which “comprehended not” the light in the opening of that Gospel?) Just as language failed in its attempt to reach God in the first line, with the adjective “wise” becoming detached from its meaning as soon as it was applied to God, here the light by which we are used to seeing becomes so truly light around God that we can no longer use it as light. There’s even what sounds like a negating prefix – “inlight”, like “inglorious” or “independent” – actually it’s a preposition, “in light”, but it’s immediately followed by “in” as negating prefix – “in light inaccessible”. “In light” almost becomes “inlight” by its similar sound. The straightforward negations of “immortal” and “invisible” have been followed by attempts via adjective and image to “reach” God, but those attempts have imploded through their own logic.
This abstraction and negation seems to stand in the hymn for the holiness of God. The transcendence of God, and the “set-apart” quality of what pertains to God, even if that pertaining is simply the use of language. It stands out against the human tendency to want to claim God and holds us at a reverent distance. This can even be felt in the grouping of syllables. The first verse keeps cutting us off with its jerky syntax. Single terms, separated by commas, keep us pausing. “Immortal, invisible”, “Almighty, victorious”. The language doesn’t flow easily across pauses and linebreaks to link up into long connected phrases. As soon as we begin to sing about God in this first verse, our flow is interrupted. The syntax and phrasing chastens us, halting the impulse to run on and attempt to capture God in human speech and melody.
Even at this stage, however, there are hints of this austerity softening. That very first line points in this direction. “Immortal”. Negation, three syllables, then pause. “Invisible”. Negation, four syllables, then pause. “God only wise”. Negation by affirmation, four syllables, then pause. The form and language are becoming fractionally looser and more flowing with each pause. Three syllables, then four. Individual words, then a few grouped together. Negation followed by affirmation which acts as negation. The next line continues the process: “In light inaccessible hid from our eyes”, A whole line is one phrase, positively self-indulgent. Though here we still hear the echo (not least in the rhythm to which it is sung” of “Immortal, invisible” in “in light inaccessible”, with their similar sound. I suspect many people, like me, find themselves singing the second line as it if were punctuated thus: “In light, inaccessible, hid from our eyes”.
The third line repeats the syntactical structure and rhythm: “Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days”. There’s potential doubt here over the syllabic grouping – it’s usually sung as “three, three, five”. “Most bles-sed, most glor-yus, the Ancient of Days”. But you could make a case that it echoes the first line precisely and should be sung as three – four – four, which would sound more like “Most bless-ed, most glor-ree-us, th’Ancient of Days”. Either way we return to the same grammatical pattern. However, the conceptual austerity is thawing further here. Rather than negation, we have superlatives. “Most…most…”. This still separates God out from all other beings or things (not that God is a thing or a being in orthodox theology, obviously.) There can only be one “most X” or most Y”. But this does admit that God can fall within the pattern of comparison which a superlative implies. Adjective, comparative, superlative. Good, better, best. Glorious, more glorious, most glorious. Where the negating prefixes “im” and “in” simply denied, here the superlatives admit that language might be used to refer to God in some ways. As long as God is accepted as the far end of the words, nothing behind or next to God – the vanishing point of language, we might say.
This loosening can be detected in direct parallels: “invisible” has become “most blessed”. Both imagine God as object of a verb – seeing in one case, and blessing in another. The first line denies God can be the object, the third asserts it can (if only in the superlative form). Crucially, this also opens up the possibility of the hymn itself. If language cannot approach God in any form, then singing this hymn is either going to be very short indeed or deeply irreverent. By the third line, however, the text admits of God being the subject of some meaningful action – admittedly we don’t have definite information that humans are involved (can angels bless? They can certainly praise) or that it certainly happens via speech. But “glory” usually circulates in the human world via speech, and so do blessings, and this line suggests they are possible.
The kind of epithets applied to God are also shifting slightly, in line with this move to superlatives. “The Ancient of Days” also places God at the very far end of a human category – time. Human live in days (where else? as Larkin asks), and “ancient” is a category which can be reached in tie, not by one human, but by the assembling of multiple human lifetimes. However, God is not called merely “ancient”, but “the Ancient of Days”. That definite article, “the” sets God apart again – not simply “an” ancient being, but “the Ancient”. In French, I believe the superlative is often signalled by a definite article – “bon” is good, but “le bon” is “best”, the good beyond which there is no gooderer. So “the Ancient” is rather like “most glorious”.
It is also part of a Biblical title, “the Ancient of Days”, used in the prophetic book of Daniel. Here we have another, milder kind of paradox than blinding light – the title Ancient of Days is used to signal that God is outside time. Days are the inside of the Ancientness, the aspect we can perceive. When we are able to see the Ancient of Days, time itself will have no relevance to us. So God’s title and our categories of time and space are brought into some connection here, even if again by insisting that God is the end of that category. The possibility of praising God in language becomes more present.
Possibility becomes assertion in the fourth line: “Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.” The hymn admits its own activity with a ringing performative: “to praise”, like “to bet” and “to swear”, is one of the category of words identified by the philosopher J.L. Austin as “performative”. They enact what they refer to. To say “I bet it’ll rain tomorrow” is to actually do the betting. In a less obvious way, perhaps, to say “I praise X” is to enact the praising of it (even if we might find it more persuasive when there is more content or evidence.) The verse has come round from denying the possibility of language having almost any relevance to God, to declaring itself to be in the process of praising God with language.
Or not quite. It in fact says “thy great Name we praise”. It is not Godself, but God’s name being praised. There’s a long tradition of the names of God being spoken about as if they were (at least grammatically) distinguishable from God, whether poetically, mystically or metaphysically. I don’t think we have to assume a full-blown sub-Gnostic theology of processions and emanations here to hear the note of caution. The Name here offers a point where human language and God can meet. Here the first verse ends, not yet declaring that it is praising God, but working out the careful and joyful possibilities of that praise. In four lines the hymn has sketched in theological systems, set them in dialogue with each other, and denied then admitted the possibility of the singing which is going on at this very moment. The other verses will have to wait until a later verse – but there is plenty happening in them too.