I have just sung my way through another Christmas. Being in two choirs and an instrumental group, that is a substantial amount of Christmas music and carols. I have probably sung ‘O come all ye faithful’ a dozen times this season, in practices, concerts and at Mass. Every time that second verse line comes it makes me cringe to sing it. I have even started having an accidentally-on-purpose coughing session for the duration of the line, so I can avoid it.
… Lo he abhors not the virgins womb. …!
What does it mean? I googled it. Brandon Robshaw, creative writing Lecturer and literature expert, sang it at his daughters carol service and asked the same question as me. This is a quote from his website.
“It’s bad from the very first word. ‘Lo’ means ‘look.’ But what are we supposed to be looking at? And what is so praiseworthy about not abhorring a virgin’s womb? Why should he abhor it? Apparently this mish-mash is the work of the Rev. Frederick Oakley, who translated the hymn from the original Latin in 1841. The corresponding line in Latin is ‘Gestant puellae viscera‘, which simply means ‘born of a virgin’s womb,’ so where he got the ‘abhor’ bit from is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he felt he needed to make it scan – but then he didn’t bother about that with the first two lines of the verse, which go ‘God of God/Light of light’, and have to be stretched out to fit the tune.”
I knew my aversion to it was justified!
We grow up singing these words and not understanding them. As children we could be excused, but as adults why are we not questioning what on earth we are doing , year in year out, singing words that are wrongly translated from its Latin origins and are frankly ugly? Can’t we change them? For example, ‘Unto us a child is born’. The 3rd verse, 3rd line always makes me smile.
… And slew the little childer. … Surely G R Woodward invented the word childer to rhyme with bewilder? He translated it from a 15th century Latin poem at the turn of the century and I fear he could have done better.
It seems that inventing words is OK in carols. In ‘Ding Dong Merrily …’, G.R Woodard is up to it again. This time he has to invent two words to rhyme with each other sungen to rhyme with swungen. I suppose hymn lyricists could be described as poets and therefore given artistic license to change and make up words, but we have to enjoy singing them.
These are a few of the lines in well known carols that I don’t enjoy singing. If we can change the responses in Mass on a world-wide scale, surely correcting and/or updating the words in a few English carols is possible, and in my mind, overdue