Original Pronunciation and the Prayer Book

On Sunday at church we sang “Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” As is often the case, I was struck by the couplets of the fourth verse:

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The first two, “come/home” look good on paper but don’t rhyme in American mouths. Even worse is the second pair: “high/misery.” We have to conclude one of three things.

First, the twentieth century approach to classical hymnody being what it is, maybe somebody has fiddled with the words. Second, John Mason Neale didn’t know what he was doing and flubbed the rhyme. Third, there’s an entirely different way of pronouncing English from what your average Baltimore congregation sings, and this hymn assumes those sounds rather than what I was hearing.

In regard to the first, no—not this time. In regard to the second,  John Mason Neale won medals for his poetry at Cambridge and is one of the best translators of hymns of his day; incompetence is likely not the answer. That leaves us with the third and to the video presentation of the day… I ran across this a little bit ago and was greatly intrigued by it. It’s a short video on the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English. Clearly, this wasn’t the  tongue that Neale was writing in (as he was a couple of centuries later), but the mention of rhyme as a means for getting a feel of the language jumped to mind when we hit the fourth stanza yesterday.

What this does move me to consider is the pronunciation of the texts from the first English prayer books. What sort of rhymes and other forms of assonance do we miss because we read through it in our English rather than theirs? The same, of course, is true of the King James Bible of which we are told that Blessed Lancelot Andrewes and others read their work out loud to test the sound of it before making final decisions?

No point to make, just a shift in perception…

9 Replies to “Original Pronunciation and the Prayer Book”

  1. The video is most illuminating. I know of HIP (historically informed performance) musical ensembles that attempt to use Elizabethan English pronunciation for Byrd, Dowland and Gibbons–Red Byrd is one such–and the strong “rhoticism” (audible post-vocalic R) and altered vowel qualities remind some hearers of West-Country English, or even Irish or North American. Another issue for scholars of medieval and early modern literature is the national variation in Latin pronunciation, where Europeans pronounced Latin according to the sounds and rules of their respective vernacular. To hear Tallis or Byrd with Elizabethan Latin pronunciation is quite astonishing at first, but completely authentic–the Italianate so-called “church Latin” barely made it across the Alps until after 1903, and is as incorrect for Bach and Charpentier as it is for Cicero!
    But, as you say, Neale did not speak Elizabethan English. Neither did Watts or Wesley. A quick perusal of the hymns of these and other 18c. authors reveals “half-rhymes” in almost every one, where prove/love, vain/scene, come/home, are absolutely commonplace. These words did not rhyme in their time (though laid and head probably did); they are simply part of elegant English poetic style, intentionally avoiding relentless sing-song rhymes. This style continued into the 19th and 20th century, and can be found in Dickinson and Yeats, as well as Neale. They are never random, and the vowels must be close in pronunciation, though not identical. It is not always necessary to suspect changing pronunciations or incompetent poesy when half-rhymes are encountered.

  2. Rhythms that are just off are also included now and then, again, to avoid sing-songiness. In seasonal examples, line 3 of Creator of the Stars of Night has “JEsu, reDEemer, SAve us ALL”, swapping the accent in the first two syllables.

    Even leaving aside the *original* pronunciation, the current pronunciation is difficult enough! I just realized a couple months ago I’d been wrong in saying, “Though ye have /lin/ among the pots”, because although it’s spelled like our word lien, it’s an archaic past to lay, and should be /lain/. And only last week, some research revealed that in psalm 4, where I had been saying “seek after /lisiŋ/”, it should be “liziŋ” – not the gerund of “to lease”, but an archaic word for lying.
    And I’ve often wondered why “you” and “thou” presumably rhymed back then, but followed different vowel tracks in the mean time!

  3. I take (minor) issue with your three conclusions. First, someone has indeed fiddled with the words. This text has been fiddled with repeatedly since 1851, when Dr. Neale first published “Medieval Hymns & Sequences.” Our Hymnal 1892 indicates simply “Tr. J.M. Neale,” which is not quite accurate. The Hymnal 1916 gets a little closer to the truth with “Tr. John Mason Neale, 1852; alt. 1861.” The editors of The Hymnal 1940, realizing that not much of Dr. Neale’s original work was left in this text, just says “Hymnal Version, based on Latin, c. 9th century.” And our very own Hymnal 1982 says “Latin, ca. 9th cent.; ver. Hymnal 1940, alt.” So you see it’s been fiddled with (or “alt.”, as we say in hymnals) many, many times.

    In any case, the rhyme you’re questioning is not Dr. Neale’s. He wrote this:
    Make safe the way that we must go,
    And close the path that leads below.

    So — not Dr. Neale’s fault at all.

    Not that it’s really a “fault” anyway. The I / E near-rhyme has been standard for a few hundred years now. Making fun of texts containing it has also been common sport for some time. I can just hear the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company chorus rendering this (to a rollicking 6/8 tune) as “Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to miz-e-RYE!”

  4. Thanks, Finn! I know about the vagaries of Latin pronunciation throughout the European world, but I hadn’t heard of half-rhymes before. I’ll have to look into this more…

  5. Thanks, David—it looks like I didn’t check this one nearly as carefully as I should have! I bow to your correction… :-)

    Now—how much of the verbal fiddling is done for felicity of language, felicity of translation, or the opportunity to copyright a text? Any clues?

  6. T. A. Lacey’s version as in New English Hymnal is:

    O come, thou Lord of David’s Key!
    The royal door fling wide and free;
    Safeguard for us the heavenward road,
    And bar the way to death’s abode.

    (It does say “and editors” so I don’t know how much this has been messed about with, but it doesn’t have any half-rhymes in.)

    So my question would be: why use John Mason Neale rather than Lacey? Copyright, I suppose, if publication was before 2001.

  7. Since I worship in English (too), when I fall on this kind of rymes, I always sing «ko:m» and «ho:me»; «high» and «miserye» etc. We have a similar thing in Walloon. For example, yesternight, we sung a carol with rymes as «abeye» and «vey». In Liége, they would pronounce those in ryme; but in my region of Namur, «abeye» is /abi:/ but «vey» is /vø:j/. Although we were in the Namur region, we pronounced it like in Liége, to keep the ryme. In English one should do likewise.

    I am totally against the rescription in post-modern English of the old translations. It’s art. Art may not be violated. I am also sick of all the so-called hymn books, who modify old texts, just for the sake of «you»-ing everything.

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