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The Midweek Hymn: Hills of the North, Rejoice


I HAVE mentioned before that the editors of hymn books often have the belief that they can do better than the original writer. This belief is almost always mistaken, and this week’s hymn is a particularly grotesque example.

Hills of the North, Rejoice was written by Charles Edward Oakley (1832-1865), about whom I can find out very little. He was born in Brompton, near Chatham in Kent. He went to Rugby School and studied at Pembroke and Magdalen Colleges, Oxford. He took Holy Orders in 1855, going to serve as a chaplain to the Army in the Crimean War. He married Lady Georgina Reynolds-Moreton, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ducie, on January 29, 1856. Later in 1856 he was appointed vicar of Wickwar, Gloucestershire, while being an examiner in jurisprudence and law at his old university. In 1863 he became rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden (known as the Actors’ Church), and died two years later, aged 33. I can’t discover why he died so young.

There is a memorial to him in the church which says: ‘This remarkable man, endowed with mental powers of the highest order, had cultivated and excelled in all. None could hear without admiration his brilliant and impressive eloquence, or fail to love his noble and gentle nature . . . He bore witness not only with his lips but in his life to the power of Divine grace . . . Although his pastoral charge over this parish lasted for only two years, yet the great work which in that short time he was enabled to effect will long be gratefully remembered by those who would appreciate the worth of his loving spirit, devotedness of life, and eminently Christian character.’

His hymn, apparently the only one for which he is remembered, was published posthumously in Hymns adapted to the Christian Seasons in 1870.

This was a favourite when I was at school in the 1960s. I can still remember us belting it out at morning assembly. I was utterly shocked when I came to write this piece to find that it has been desecrated. Apparently the church powers felt the words were unacceptably redolent of Empire, so in 1975 the editors of English Praise (no doubt in all humility) set out to improve them. The results are beyond banal. All the lovely images have been ripped out and replaced with platitudes bought in bulk from the Anodyne Phrase Factory.

I will give the original verses followed by the modern travesties, with the changes highlighted in bold.

Verse 1

Hills of the North, rejoice;
River and mountain spring,
Hark to the advent voice;
Valley and lowland, sing;
Though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
He judgment brings and victory.

Hills of the North, rejoice,
Echoing songs arise
Hail with united voice
Him who made earth and skies,
 comes in righteousness and love,
he brings salvation from above.

Verse 2

Isles of the southern seas,
Deep in your coral caves
Pent be each warring
Lulled be your restless waves:
He comes to reign with boundless sway,
And makes your wastes His great highway.

Isles of the Southern seas,
sing to the listening earth,
carry on every breeze
hope of a world’s new birth:
In Christ shall all be made anew,
his word is sure, his promise true.

Verse 3

Lands of the East, awake,
Soon shall your sons be free;
The sleep of ages break,
And rise to liberty.
On your far hills, long cold and gray,
Has dawned the everlasting day.

Lands of the East, arise,
he is your brightest morn,
greet him with joyous eyes,
praise shall his path adorn:
your seers have longed to know their Lord;
to you he comes, the final word.

Verse 4

Shores of the utmost West,
Ye that have waited long,
Unvisited, unblest,
Break forth to swelling song;
High raise the note, that Jesus died,
Yet lives and reigns, the Crucified.

Shores of the utmost West,
lands of the setting sun,
welcome the heavenly guest
in whom the dawn has come:
he brings a never-ending light
who triumphed o’er our darkest night.

Verse 5

Shout, while ye journey home;
Songs be in every mouth;
Lo, from the North we come,
From East, and West, and South.
City of God, the bond are free,
We come to live and reign in thee!

Shout, as you journey home,
Songs be in every mouth,
Lo, from the North they come,
From East and West and South:
in Jesus all shall find their rest,
in him the universe be blest.

You can imagine the discussion at the committee meetings where they butchered the rather quaint period piece:

‘Deep in your coral caves . . . that’s a bit imperial, isn’t it? Better to put “sing to the listening earth”, don’t you think?’

‘Yes, very good, old boy, most original.’

There have been multiple assaults on the hymn and there are various blended versions, all horrible.

What I can’t understand is why, if they didn’t like the words, they didn’t just drop it from the hymn books? There are plenty of other hymns to choose from, after all. I think there is something dishonest about piggybacking your own doggerel on to a well-loved hymn.

It is considered to be an Advent hymn, for the run-up to Christmas, because it expresses the Advent message of the coming of Christ to all four corners of the compass. It is usually sung to a melody called Little Cornard, written by Martin Shaw (1875-1958). He studied at the Royal College of Music where contemporaries included Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland. The tune is named after the village in Suffolk where he spent his honeymoon.

He collected a Gaelic folk tune which became the tune to Morning Has Broken, about which I will write another time.

I don’t usually highlight performances which I don’t like, but on this occasion I make an exception. This is from a 2014 BBC Songs of Praise broadcast (wouldn’t you know it?) Apart from the travesty of the words, in my opinion it is too fast.

And here are the original words sung by the choir of Guildford Cathedral.

Finally, this original version has the words on the screen.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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