Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Home News The Midweek Hymn: We Plough the Fields and Scatter

The Midweek Hymn: We Plough the Fields and Scatter

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I WAS saving this hymn for Harvest Festival but other things intervened and I missed the date, which was September 22. I didn’t realise until I looked it up that it had a set date, or that far from being a timeless tradition the current format was devised in Victorian times.

The inventor was Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-75), vicar of Morwenstow, on the north coast of Cornwall. The phrase ‘English eccentric’ might have been coined for him.

He was the son of a Cornish curate and could afford to study at Oxford only by marrying, at the age of 19, a wealthy woman of 41. He won the 1827 Newdigate Prize for poetry.

Hawker was ordained in 1831 and was delighted when in 1844 the Bishop of Exeter offered him the post of vicar of Morwenstow, a place and church he had loved since he was a boy. It was pretty desolate – there had not been a vicar for over a century and the coastline was the haunt of smugglers and wreckers, who would lure cargo ships on to the rocks. Lifeboatmen would not go out until the ship was declared available for salvage, by which time the mariners would have drowned. This practice infuriated Hawker and when a ship was wrecked he would go to the shore and urge (in vain, I suspect) the reluctant lifeboat men to rescue the crew. Afterwards he was assiduous about collecting the remains and giving them a Christian burial.

On his travels round the parish, Hawker wore a pink fez and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He had a fondness for opium and claimed he had a special relationship with St Morwenna, the fifth century princess after whom his church was named. He built a hut on a clifftop out of wreckage, where he would converse with his saint. Once he made a wig out of seaweed and swam out to a rock where he sat wailing like a mermaid.

On September 13, 1843, he put up a notice informing his parishioners that from then on one Sunday would be set apart for harvest thanksgiving, and that the custom of making bread for communion from the first corn would be revived: ‘Let us gather together in the chancel of our church, and there receive, in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.’

Hawker’s first wife, Charlotte, died in 1863 and the following year, aged 60, he married Pauline Kuczynski, the 20-year-old daughter of a Polish count. How on earth she found herself in the wilds of north Cornwall I have no idea. They had three daughters.

On his deathbed in 1875 Hawker converted to Roman Catholicism. On the centenary of his death the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, preached at an ecumenical service in his honour, saying he was ‘a beyond man in a beyond place’.

The original words of We Plough the Fields and Scatter were written by German poet and journalist Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). He started studying theology at the University of Jena in 1759 but did not enjoy it and switched to law and languages, abandoning Christianity at the same time. In 1768 he joined the staff of the Hamburg News Agency. From 1771 he was literary editor of the Wandsbecker Bote, (Wandsbeck Messenger) near Hamburg, and published in it a large number of his own essays and poems. They were written in simple German, and appealed to the popular taste.

One of Claudius’s poems was Death and the Maiden, which was set to music as a song by a 20-year-old Franz Schubert in 1817:

Seven years later Schubert used the theme as the second movement of a string quartet by the same name, which he wrote after he had a serious illness and realised he was dying.

In 1777 Claudius was appointed editor of the official Hesse-Darmstadt newspaper. At Darmstadt he became acquainted with Goethe, who lived nearby at Frankfurt, and with a circle of freethinking philosophers. However, during a severe illness in 1777, he realised the spiritual emptiness of his life at Darmstadt, and returned to Christianity. He renounced his position and income and went back to Wandsbeck to edit the Bote.

In 1782, a friend invited him over for dinner and asked him to bring one of the Christian poems he had written. For the occasion Claudius wrote Im Anfang war’s auf Erden (‘In the beginning it was on earth’).
The poem, which had 17 verses, was subsquently published as ‘A Peasant’s Song’ in a number of German hymnbooks, but most of them cut it down and started with the third verse: ‘Wir pflügen und wir streuen’ (‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’).

It was set to music attributed to a German musician, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747-1800), who wrote operas, stage music, oratorios, cantatas, piano pieces and folk songs; he also wrote articles on music theory. This is his setting of another of Claudius’s poems, Der Mond ist aufgegangen (The moon has risen).

Wir pflügen und wir streuen was translated into English as We Plough the Fields and Scatter in 1862 by Jane Montgomery Campbell (1817-1878), a gifted linguist and German scholar. She did not make a strict translation from the original German but retained its focus of giving thanks to God for the harvest. She taught the hymn to the children at the Church of England parish school in London where her father was the rector. The hymn was later published in Charles Bere’s Garland of Songs and Children’s Chorale Book.

1 We plough the fields and scatter
the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered
by God’s almighty hand;
he sends the snow in winter,
the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes and the sunshine
and soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
are sent from heaven above,
then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
for all his love.

2 He only is the maker
of all things near and far;
he paints the wayside flower,
he lights the evening star;
the wind and waves obey him,
by him the birds are fed;
much more to us his children,
he gives our daily bread.

All good gifts…

3 We thank you, then, O Father,
for all things bright and good,
the seed-time and the harvest,
our life, our health, our food:
accept the gifts we offer
for all your love imparts;
and that which you most welcome,
our humble, thankful hearts.

All good gifts…

Later Miss Campbell moved to Bovey Tracey in Devon and remained there until her death in a carriage accident on Dartmoor.

Here is a performance of We Plough the Fields and Scatter which may remind some of their own school days.

Here it is played on a reed organ.

It was given a new tune by Stephen Schwartz for the film Godspell, in which it is called All Good Gifts.

This is the best bit, however – by chance I found this lovely little song of praise to England made in 1948.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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