Sunday, 12 July 2015

Romance in Church

One of the blind spots of the modern age is its inability to see that church is a fruitful place to fall in love. In "Winter Words" Thomas Hardy's last collection of poems, published posthumously in 1928, there is a lovely poem about his parents meeting in church in 1835.  

         St Michael's Church, Stinsford, Dorset (Wikipedia) where Hardy's heart is buried

William Cobbett in "Rural Rides" says that young men went to church just to look at beautiful Kentish woman singing like angels. Hardy's mother looks up to the West Gallery in Stinsford Church to catch the eye of the violin player playing metrical psalms in a small quartet - known as "West Gallery Music".   

As an elderly woman, his mother, though long past youthful romance sometimes recalled the moment, and in her mind's eye, she saw Hardy's father again, as a young minstrel-angel "ardent, young and trim".  

Metrical psalm singing by choirs, with accompanying musicians were replaced by cheaper single organs. The west galleries in parish churches and free churches were knocked down during the more prudish Victorian Times.  It may be that the Victorians disliked the rustic jauntiness of the psalm tunes mentioned in this poem, namely "New Sabbath" and "Mount Ephraim". A popular collection of these tunes was "Addington's Collection of Psalm Tunes", written by the director of music at the Eastcheap Presbyterian Church, Lawrence Addington.

Church Romance by Thomas Hardy

She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
Of music-men with viol, book, and bow
Against the sinking sad tower-window light.

She turned again; and in her pride's despite
One strenuous viol's inspirer seemed to throw
A message from his string to her below,
Which said: "I claim thee as my own forthright!"

Thus their hearts' bond began, in due time signed.
And long years thence, when Age had scared Romance,
At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim,
Bowing "New Sabbath" or "Mount Ephraim."

Hardy’s mother, Jemima, was a former maidservant and cook. She came from a poor family but she had acquired from her mother a love of reading. Her tastes included Latin poets and French romances in English translation. She provided for her son’s education at a non-conformist school in Dorchester. First, she taught little Thomas to read and write before he was four. Then she instilled in him a growing interest in literature. Hardy had a great affection for his mother throughout all her life. His father, who was a keen violin player, who passed onto young Thomas a love of music. Both Thomas’s father and paternal grandfather were important members of the Stinsford Parish Church choir. As Paul Turner writes: “Apart from parental influences, Hardy’s childhood was dominated by two things: the local church, and the natural world around him.” Thomas Hardy's father may have been related to Sir Thomas Hardy who held and kissed Horatio Nelson as he died in his arms at the Battle of Trafalgar, but his branch of the Hardy family had come down in the world, financially.  I cannot confirm  this latter claim myself.

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