A Hymn by G. K. Chesterton

I have been feeling a little lethargic over the past couple of days, and so for today’s post I have decided to choose a poem that is both rousing and inspiring. This poem, by G. K. Chesterton, was originally simply entitled A Hymn, but was later set to music (by Bernard Barrell in 1948, though it had been included in the English Hymnal in 1906) and actually used as a fully fledged song of praise, where it was given the title O God of Earth and Altar, after the poem’s opening line.

Its lines and rhythm have an incredible ability to lift the spirits when read off the page, let alone when sung, and are a kind of admixture of some of the Psalms’ desperate pleas to God to deliver his people from travail, and a rallying of the troops in the spirit of the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech in Henry V. It is also apparently a favourite of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, who has admitted having a ‘fondness for hymns’ and used this particular one as an introduction to a song on one of Iron Maiden’s albums. I don’t know anything about Dickinson’s faith (or lack of it), but this does at least perhaps show the scope of A Hymn’s power to inspire and awaken feelings of vitality.

The general tenor of this piece though does indeed suggest the calling down of God’s aid to his people, and our deliverance not just from the inept and corrupt leaders we live under, from the lies and hypocrisy we are fed and which are so often employed to draw us away from our real and abiding obligations; but also from our own pride, our own sloth, weak faith, and lack of a proper sense of who our true Lord really is. It is indeed therefore both a plaintive cry and a rallying call – it is a cry to God for patience, grace, and deliverance; but it is a call to us to respond, to repent, and to raise up our hearts, knowing that the solution starts within ourselves – by the purification of our hearts – and there is only One who can help us with that task:

 

O God of earth and altar,

Bow down and hear our cry,

Our earthly rulers falter,

Our people drift and die;

The walls of gold entomb us,

The swords of scorn divide,

Take not thy thunder from us,

But take away our pride.

 

From all that terror teaches,

From lies of tongue and pen,

From all the easy speeches

That comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation

Of honour and the sword,

From sleep and from damnation,

Deliver us, good Lord.

 

Tie in a living tether

The prince and priest and thrall,

Bind all our lives together,

Smite us and save us all;

In ire and exultation

Aflame with faith, and free,

Lift up a living nation,

A single sword to thee.

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