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Great hymns abide with me. By A N Wilson

Blog | By A N Wilson | Feb 20, 2024

I was chatting to my Iranian fishmonger the other day about the oral tradition in poetry.

His grandfather had lived in a small village, with no electricity or running water, and only dust roads. Being one of the only literate people in the community, he would entertain the other villagers, either by reading aloud to them, or, just as often, by reciting poems and telling old tales.

I asked if they still read Omar Khayyam. He said his grandfather could never understand how Khayyam, one of the brightest stars in that scintillating galaxy of Persian poets, had managed to survive without being killed as a heretic.

Great poetry, said the fishmonger, was for knowing by heart and it bound whole communities together. Unlike religions or politics, which often bind people in a sinister manner, shared tales and shared poetry bind benignly.

One sad day, the fishmonger’s grandfather had seen a steamroller come into the village. The local government built a tarmac road. Then came electricity. This, said Grandpa, would be the end of poetry, folk tales and evenings round the fire with shared stories.

I told him my dear old dad had been a heretic, too, and, although by no stretch a literary man, he knew the whole of the Rubáiyát by heart – in Edward FitzGerald’s translation.

I thought of that conversation with the fishmonger when reading an excellent essay in Slightly Foxed magazine by my friend and heroine Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It was about Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Hymns Ancient and Modern used to be a major bestseller. Between 1860 and 1960, some 150 million copies of the hymnal were sold throughout the world.

Every school assembly would have used it – or a book loosely based on it. The words of the hymns, and their tunes, were fixed in the heads of generations. They still play Abide with Me at the FA Cup Final but few viewers know the words.

Like the villagers in Iran, we were bound together (regardless of social class or background or, I would submit, by religious faith) by knowing The King of Love My Shepherd Is or Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. Now the only hymns generally known are Christmas carols.

The scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is unimaginable now, where every man in the prison knows O God, Our Help in Ages Past – and sings it to altered words which indicate the fate of poor old Prendergast.

My father, reciting Khayyam, or my aunt, quoting great chunks of Shakespeare by heart, were not at all unusual for their generation.

They loved Field Marshal Wavell’s anthology Other Men’s Flowers (1944). It’s over 300 pages – yet the Field Marshal says in the introduction, ‘If I cannot claim that I can now recite by heart all the poems in this anthology, I think I can safely claim that I once could.’

Everyone knew poetry. At home, we used to have a little book called Poetry for Repetition. By the time I was seven or eight, I knew many of these verses by heart – ‘Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note…’ ‘The boy stood on the burning deck…’ ‘ “Charge, Chester, charge! On, Stanley, on!”/Were the last words of Marmion.’

The point about these poems is that huge numbers knew them by heart. If you quoted, ‘I remember, I remember…’ more or less anyone, from the bus conductor to your local earl, could finish the line: ‘…the house where I was born’.

When the old Iranian saw the steamroller laying tar on the dust road, he knew that his community was about to break up. Everyone being glued to the flickering telly just wasn’t the same as sharing poems and stories.

Our society became Broken Britain and lost any cohesion when we stopped learning Ysenda’s favourite hymns, and my father’s favourite poems – sometimes called parlour poetry, because it served the function of entertaining groups and families in the evenings.

Some people think that you don’t need a memory if you’ve got an iPhone. The very word ‘memory’, which once denoted the inside of our heads, now is most commonly used of the material stored in our phones and laptops. It does not mean a bard such as Homer, strumming his lyre and knowing poems the length of the Iliad by heart.

I think, looking around on the bus at children and young adults, they probably don’t have any hymns, poems or stories in their heads. They don’t have memories; they have megabytes.

There are two bits of our brain. One is guided by logos, and processes facts, information, data. It may be that, for much of what logos requires, an iPhone works just as well as a brain.

But the other bit of the brain needs mythos. It needs merely imagination – but shared imagination. This, surely, is why the millennials, even if in other respects they seem to have grown up, still cling to Harry Potter.

I know several people in their twenties who read or listen to Harry Potter all the time. But they don’t know Abide with Me, and they think Homer is a cartoon character in The Simpsons.