Highways and Byways of Hymns

August 1999


NEVER READ “The Stuffed Owl” on the bus or train. Unless you wish to alarm your fellow-passengers with gales of cackling mirth. It was this ‘Anthology of Bad Verse’ which introduced me to:

O may thy powerful word
inspire the feeble worm
to rush into thy kingdom, Lord,
and take it as by storm.’

That was years ago. It is one of the few poetry collections where for some reason hymn writers are well represented.

Many older readers were brought up on ‘Songs of Praise’- the book, not the programme. In ‘Songs of Praise discussed’ (1933) editor Percy Dearmer sketches the background of every hymn adding digressions like his half page on ‘The Hymnic Worm’: ‘A chapter might be written on the vermicular hymn’ etc. He quotes the strikingly visual line ‘Permit this humble worm to bow’. Whoever removed that from the original of The God of Abraham praise? With such examples the Biblical echoes are undeniable, the cartoon images unavoidable. These quotes are genuine, but even Dearmer cannot vouch for the authenticity of this – enough that it is conceivable:

Worms! strike your harps, your voices tune,
and warble forth your lays;
leap from the earth with pious mirth
to trumpet forth his praise!

In a book dated 1900 (the trendy thing when my parents were small) the very first hymn starts ‘Great God, how infinite thou art! What worthless worms are we’. If that seems altogether too presumptuous, soon we reach ‘If dust and ashes might presume, great God, to talk to thee, If in thy presence can be room for crawling worms like me …’. By 1928 (these suggestive dates!) things have moved on: that year’s new hymnal has a text ending with death and heaven: ‘You’ll die reposing on his arm, and hear him say, Fear not, thou worm!’

But wait! Mocking our forebears is one thing, but what about Isaiah 41.14, and anyway, who are we to criticise? Is it progress to deny our fragile mortality and brag instead about all we are doing for God (I wanna be a history-maker), as many hymns, radical or renewed, seem to do. What will they laugh at a hundred years from now? Our grandchildren may well weep over our current giggling puerilities. “?And if I were a wiggly….”; the hymnic worm has turned from hyper-modesty to hearty hilarity. Advancing from mere wiggles, turn to ‘Everybody Praise’ (ICC/Scripture Union 1997), No.1, A wiggly waggly worm. Worms clearly love the top spot; but is this “all age worship”? It shows who is in the church, who isn’t, and why. ‘I thank you Lord, but it makes me squirm”?; they clearly don’t know their “Beowulf”, where worms are dragons – truly fearsome beasts.

Let us be clear. I love fun-songs for infants with some recognisable content, used in the right place. The snag with the unintentionally comic 18th century worms and the deliberately comic 20th century ones is that they wreck any chance of learning about humility from the Scriptural references. Worms in the Bible are neither numerous nor humorous but (as in our gardens) have a service to perform. Francis of Assisi probably chatted to ‘Brother Worm’.

As usual we need Cranmer (and in this case, Coverdale) to put things in perspective. Worms are a grubby but useful part of the created choir. No other version of the Psalter gets it right, but Psalm 148 in my Prayer Book (classic all-age worship) has ‘Beasts and all cattle: worms and feathered fowls. Young men and maidens, old men and children, praise the name of the Lord!’

Christopher Idle belongs to Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.