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Words: Sidney Clopton Lanier (b. Feb. 3, 1842; d. Sept. 7, 1881)
Music: Lanier, by Peter Christian Lutkin (b. Mar. 27, 1858; d. Dec. 27, 1931)
Note: Sidney Lanier was an American poet who lectured on English literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was also an accomplished player of both the flute and the violin. Lanier fought for the Confederates in the Civil War, during which he was taken as a prisoner of war. While in prison, his health failed. He continued to struggle with poor health for the remainder of his thirty-nine years.
In November of 1880 the author published a short poem which he called “A Ballad of Trees and the Master.” It was first included in a hymnal in 1905 as Into the Woods, set to music by composer Peter Lutkin (1858-1931).
This will be a different kind of article. I debated with myself for some time whether or not to include Sidney Lanier’s song on the blog. But there are a few hymn books that include it, and it’s apparently a favourite of some, so here it is. I beg the indulgence of those who like it while I offer a personal opinion to the contrary. Here is the song in its entirety. (The word forspent–sometimes spelled forespent–means exhausted.)
CH-1) Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent,
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to Him.
The little grey leaves were kind to Him,
The thorn tree had a mind to Him,
When into the woods He came.
CH-2) Out of the woods my Master came
And he was well content;
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When death and shame would woo Him last,
From under the trees they drew Him last,
’Twas on a tree they slew Him–last
When out of the woods He came.
The first thing that should be said of this offering is that it is not a true hymn. It is not a song directed to God in praise and prayer. Is it, then, a gospel song, a song of teaching and testimony to others? Only if we define that very broadly. There is a lesson here, but it is so clouded in mythic fantasy that it is difficult to discern. It might better be entitled “Lost in the Woods”!
Scholars praise Lanier’s work as poetry of high quality. Indeed, it may be fine verse to say “the little gray leaves were kind to Him,” but what does that mean? No they weren’t. They were just leaves! And thorn trees don’t have “minds.” That virtually turns a profoundly serious crisis moment in world history into a fairy tale. If this is symbolic of something, let us know what that is. A hymn or gospel song should be both biblical and clear. This is neither.
Compare how James Montgomery (1771-1854) uses Christ’s Gethsemane experience to teach a lesson in a far superior hymn on the same subject.
Go to dark Gethsemane,
Ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see,
Watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away;
Learn of Jesus Christ to pray.
It seems that Lanier is trying to say the same thing–maybe. But we hear nothing from the poet about Christ’s anguished prayer to His Father in heaven. As to His “shame,” yes, we can accept that if it’s explained. He wasn’t ashamed of His own actions because, as He said, “I always do those things that please Him [My Father]” (Jn. 8:29). But the holy Son of God cringed that the disgrace and dishonour of being charged with the sins of all the world (Jn. 1:29; I Cor. 15:3). As hymn writer William Tappan (1794-1849) puts it in his hymn ‘Tis Midnight; and on Olive’s Brow (cf. Lk. 22:44):
’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood.
When the Lord emerged from the garden “content,” to use Lanier’s word, it was because, though He was repulsed by what lay ahead, He willingly submitted Himself to do the Father’s will to the end (Matt. 26:39, 42). But “death and shame” didn’t “woo” Him, they were repellent to Him. It was both His submission to the Father and His love for us (Gal. 2:20) that took Him to Calvary.
And that wasn’t “last.” Praise the Lord, it wasn’t the end of the story. Christ “endured the cross for the joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 13:2). Now, “He is risen” (Matt. 28:5-6; I Cor. 15:4), a resurrection that we who belong to Him shall share (I Cor. 15:20).
1) Am I missing the point here? Is there something of spiritual merit in this song that I’m not seeing?
2) Would you ever use this song in your church? (Why? Or why not?)