Tuesday, 22 December 2009

People, look east

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

Words and Music: Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), 1928

"People, Look East" was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) and was first published as "Carol of Advent" in The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928, using the tune from the French carol "Besancon". It is a strange carol, for while it looks to Advent, and the coming of Christ, it does not use stock religious imagery, but breaks free with new forms.

She had another well known hymn to her name. Percy Dearmer suggested to her that she should write for his "Enlarged Songs of Praise" (1931), and "Morning Has Broken" resulted from that, set to the Gaelic melody "Bunessan". Like "People, Look East", this is not a conventional hymn, theology heavy, but a lyrical almost mystical song of creation, which is perhaps why, with Cat Stevens singing, and an arrangement of its tune by Rick Wakeman, it found its way quite remarkably onto the popular music charts, and is still very popular today.

Eleanor Farjeon was London born, and in1951, became a Roman Catholic. She regarded her faith as "a progression toward which her spiritual life moved rather than a conversion experience".

However, her faith was not conventional. She was a contributor to Orpheus, the journal of the Art Movement of the Theosophical Society, produced in London between 1907 and 1914, and which was on the fringes of the Woman's Suffrage Movement. The editorial of the journal stated, "We are a group of artists who revolt against the materialism of most contemporary art." . Possibly some of the poems from this period were compiled in her book of poetry "Pan-worship : and other poems" (1908). This is a brief extract from the title poem:

The noise of the world Is shut about with silence ! If I kneel,
Bend and adore, make sacrifice to thee,
If to thy long-deserted fane I bring
Tribute of milk and honey then if I snap
That loveliest pipe of all at the spring's margin
And let the song of Syrinx from its hollow,
Nay, even the nymph's sweet self O Pan, old Pan,
Shall I not see thee stirring in the stone,
Crack thy confinement, leap forth be again ?
I can believe it, master of bright streams,
Lord of green woodlands, king of sun-spread plains
And star- splashed hills and valleys drenched in moonlight!
And I shall see again a dance of Dryads
And airy shapes of Oreads circling free
To shy sweet pipings of fantastic fauns
And lustier-breathing satyrs . . . God of Nature,
Thrice hailing thee by name with boisterous lungs
I will thrill thee back from the dead ages, thus :
Pan ! Pan ! O Pan ! bring back thy reign again
Upon the earth ! . . .

The nature worship is still present in her greatest hymn, Morning Has Broken, but now it is redeemed:

Morning has broken,
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird;
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word.

Yet while Dearmer looked for this fresh inspiration for his songs of praise, the hymn has always sat uneasily among some of the professionals. John Ewington, general secretary of the Guild of Church Musicians, said that "It's a lovely poem, but it's not a 'liturgical piece' as I would call it." Robert Canham, of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland criticises it for not saying anything about original sin, and notes that "It's certainly not specifically Christian, echoing some sort of harmony with Judaism and Islam, I'd imagine." Neither probably would like "People, Look East" for the same reason. These hymns stand out, rather like the Bosdet Window in St Brelade's Church which depicts the Parable of the Sower. and for that reason, unlike all the other stained glass windows, has two figures without haloes, and is not conventionally religious. Sometimes, we need to look beyond the outward trappings.

She also had two significant loves in her life, an infatuation with Stacy Aumonier, and a friendship with the poet Edward Thomas, both married men for whom she wrote a series of sonnets (published in 1947). She remained friends with Thomas' wife after his death in the Great War. She never married, but - for the time - has an unconventional but contented thirty year relationship living with an English teacher, George Chester Earle (who was separated from his wife) and after his death in 1949, a long relationship with actor Denys Blakelock, who wrote a memoir, "Portrait of a Farjeon"

Her journey of faith took her to the Catholic Church, yet in July, 1951, she wrote a troubled letter to Father Richard Mangan, the priest who was instructing her, and included 12 typed pages of her doubts and thoughts on many aspects of the Catholic faith. "Sin" was an element that caused her anxiety:

"If I become a Roman Catholic, I would have to believe many things are sins that now I do not. How can I acquire a sense of what Sin is, among things that for so long have seemed to me sinless? Here are some of them: I don't feel it is a sin for two people to live together, if the choice is made with love and respect and a sense of true union . I don't feel it is sinful for an unmarried woman to have a child. I don't feel it is sinful to save a mother's life in childbirth at the child's expense. I don't feel it is sinful for a man and woman to cohabit without having children. None of these things seem to have evil in them, in themselves. Evil may be brought into them (as to the same things within marriage) by the nature of the persons involved."

Perhaps this came from her family background. James Hammerton explains that while there was much that was joyful, so much so that she drew on her childhood roots for inspiration, there was also a darker side to her family background. A marriage was no guarantee of love or respect:

"Eleanor Farjeon's literary family, to all intents and purposes joyous, fun-loving and child-centred, dominated, according to her, by a generous, domesticated husband, Ben Farjeon, was increasingly consumed by her unpredictable father's irritability, the 'dominant mood in the family'. Furious outbursts would follow trivial accidents - 'small breakages, forgetfulnesses, a dozen of the minor mistakes we all make every day' - so that the family took the risk of concealing them from him. Outbreaks of temper could at any moment follow 'Mama's failure to lay out his studs for the evening, to pack the blotting paper when going for a holiday, to send the carving knife to the butcher to be ground.' Eleanor Farjeon was later haunted by her childhood memory of lying in bed, listening 'to the tone of the talk in the dining room underneath'. If the quiet murmur continued she slept peacefully, but too often 'the strong voice grew excited, and the gentle voice silent. Then I did not sleep till nearly morning.' Little wonder that her mother became accomplished in the art of avoiding conflict, submitting even to the most absurd commands to keep the peace."

Eleanor herself, in her memoir, "A Nursery in the Nineties", also shows this element of fearfulness at times spreading to the children:

"So terrified was he [my eldest brother] of being caught, by chance, in a false statement, that as a small boy he acquired the habit of adding 'perhaps' to everything he said. 'Is that you, Harry?' Mama might call from the drawing-room. 'Yes, Mama-perhaps.' 'Are you going upstairs?' 'Yes, perhaps.' 'Will you see if I've left my bag in the bedroom?' 'Yes, Mama, perhaps-p'r'haps-paps!"

Given this background, it is not surprising that she saw through the moralising about family life, so often deployed under the guise of theology in hymns she would have known

And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

That simply doesn't compare with "People, Look East", or even one of Eleanor's Christmas poems, the Shepherd and the King:

The Shepherd and the King,
The Angel and the Ass,
They heard Sweet Mary sing,
When her joy was come to pass;
They heard Sweet Mary sing
To the Baby on her knee.
Sing again Sweet Mary,
And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!
Heaven, bear a light!
Man, make you merry
On Christmas Night.

The People in the land,
So many million strong,
All silently do stand
To hear Sweet Mary's song.
The Child He is a man,
And the man hangs on a tree.
Sing again Sweet Mary,
And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!
Heaven, bear a light!
Man, make you merry
On Christmas Night.

The Stars that are so old,
The Grass that is so young,
They listen in the cold
To hear Sweet Mary's Tongue.
The Man's the Son of God,
And in heaven walketh He.
Sing again Sweet Mary,
And we will sing with thee!

Earth, bear a berry!
Heaven, bear a light!
Man, make you merry
On Christmas Night.

The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, LindaJo K. McKim, 1993, p. 323.
(Note: this wrongly gives the date of her Catholicism as when she was 17)
The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study. J. R. Watson, 1999, p526.
The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928., Elizabeth
Crawford, 1999, p287
Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Married Life.
James Hammerton, 1992, pp137-138.
Harlequin; Or, the Rise and Fall of a Bergamask Rogue. Thelma Niklaus, 1956,
A Nursery in the Nineties, Eleanor Farjeon, 1935

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