This was first published on December 18, 2018.
TRADITIONALLY this carol is sung on Epiphany, the 12th day after Christmas, which marks the visit of some distinguished foreigners, usually called the Magi, to the infant Jesus after their long journey from the East. However it is often performed in the run-up to Christmas too.
As with Gladness Men of Old is one of the few carols not written by a clergyman. The author was William Chatterton Dix, who was born in 1837 in Bristol. His father, John Ross Dix, was a doctor who just had written a biography of the precocious boy poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide at 17. He give his son the middle name Chatterton in the poet’s honour. However John Dix was an alcoholic. His medical practice failed and he was imprisoned for non-payment of debts. When William was eight Dix abandoned his family and sailed to America.
William Dix spent most of his life in Glasgow where he was the manager of a maritime insurance company. It was while he was ill in bed unable to attend church on January 6, 1858 or 1859 that he read the account of the Epiphany in the Gospel of Matthew. He wrote As With Gladness Men of Old the same day. These are the words:
1 As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright;
so, most gracious God, may we
evermore be led to thee.
2 As with joyful steps they sped
to that lowly cradle-bed,
there to bend the knee before
him whom heav’n and earth adore;
so may we with willing feet
ever seek thy mercy seat.
3 As they offered gifts most rare
at that cradle rude and bare;
so may we with holy joy,
pure, and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to thee, our heav’nly King.
4 Holy Jesus, ev’ry day
keep us in the narrow way;
and when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds thy glory hide.
5 In the heav’nly country bright
need they no created light;
thou its light, its joy, its crown,
thou its sun which goes not down;
there forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King.
It is the only well-known Epiphany hymn or carol about the Biblical magi that avoids referring to them as either ‘Magi’ (wise men) or kings and does not state how many there were. All the others assume there were three.
As With Gladness Men of Old was included in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861. For its melody, the hymnal’s editor William Henry Monk adapted a tune by Stuttgart organist Conrad Kocher. Dix was apparently delighted, as a layman, for his words to be included in Hymns Ancient and Modern, but he did not care for the tune. This was a shame since it was was later titled Dix as a tribute to him. (It is also used with the hymn For the Beauty of the Earth.)
In 1865 or thereabouts Dix wrote another carol which was to become popular, What Child Is This? which is sung to the tune of Greensleeves.
According to the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas, in 1872 a publication called Notes and Queries cast doubt on the authenticity of John Dix’s biography of Chatterton with these words:
It is necessary to sometimes nail up fresh vermin on the barn-door of infamy, already sufficiently crowded. One of the most shameless literary forgers of the present century was John Dix, alias John Ross, a man who wrote a short 8vo Life of Chatterton, which was published in Bristol in 1837.
However I cannot find any other reference to this ‘scandal’.
Dix and his wife Juliet had seven children. He died in 1898, aged 61.
In this series I have tried to give links to films of choirs singing the carols, but I can’t find a good one for this carol. So here is an audio-only performance by the Chapel Royal Choir of an arrangement by David Willcocks.
I did also find this delightful brass band version from Callander near Stirling in Scotland.
For last year, I found this on YouTube. It’s a pretty wobbly video of five sisters performing the carol to a tune I don’t know, but I think it is sweet.
This year’s new version is by the Tallmadge Lutheran Church Youth Bells of Ohio. I confess that I am not usually mad keen on bells but this is charming.