31 May 2022, The Tablet

Stepping away from sentimentality in search of some of the greatest Mary hymns

One reason why there are fewer good Mary hymns than we might like is because Reformed churches feared Mariolatry.

Stepping away from sentimentality in search of some of the greatest Mary hymns

The procession for St Mary’s in Hornchurch in the 1930s. Kate Keefe’s husband says they were still having the procession when he went to school there.
S.W. Munford-Sellar, Alpha Studios, Blackshotts Lane, Grays, Essex

“In this thine own sweet month of May, do thou remember me,” we sang (possibly not very sweetly) at school and in processions, and I’m all for having special times when we highlight Our Lady. The photograph is from the 1930s, and the handsome chap on the right at the back is my father-in-law, John Keefe, born in 1931, God rest him. The institutional Church’s view of Mary is too limited, although she’s always been dear to the heart of the people in the pew. May and October are traditionally the months when we particularly honour her, and in my parish along with many others, we try to make sure that we sing at least one Mary hymn at every Sunday Mass.

The problem is that so many of these hymns are not very good. It’s not just the era of folk hymns that we should blame, either: many of the older Mary hymns also tend to be embarrassing. There are several reasons for this. One is the Church’s attitude to women generally. The problem with the saint/whore dichotomy is that it doesn’t really cover mothers, and Our Lady being both a virgin and a mother tends to send many versifiers (I’m not calling them poets) into a tailspin. 

She is the mother of Jesus, and our mother, given to us at the crucifixion (John 19.26f), so we are her children. But this should not mean that we have to address her in language only one step up from babytalk. Even if Mary hymns are felt to be particularly appropriate for children, this should not mean trite, repetitious or inane. Many hymns written for children are sung comfortably by everyone, because they are good hymns with direct, plain words (There is a green hill far away, All things bright and beautiful, Glory to thee, my God, this night for example), and just because a hymn is about Our Lady should not mean that tweeness and sentimentality are acceptable. In this context, simple should not mean half-witted. Children tend not to be sentimental, it is an overlay that adults project on to them.

Mary is also the mother of God, a concept which should inspire holy awe and reverence. Think of the figure in Revelation 12, where a woman is seen standing on the moon, crowned with the twelve stars and “adorned with the sun”, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth, not a cosy maternal figure, but a thrilling and powerful one. She and the baby escape from the mighty red dragon, but the devil pursues her. God gives her “a huge pair of eagle’s wings” to fly away; even “the earth came to her rescue” (Rev.12.16), and she escapes the dragon. I am labouring this a bit because I think it is a good corrective to the milk and water Madonna that most of us grow up with. It sounds more like a superhero film.

There are some great Mary hymns, and in my opinion some of the best are those which have this strangeness somewhere about them. Mary immaculate, Star of the morning is a very fine example, where the words are great and the tune is interesting. Hail, Queen of heaven, the ocean star is also dearly loved, especially with that giveaway cradle-Catholic pause after the word “for” in the last line of every verse, which I’d hardly noticed until we had a convert organist. The congregation is going to sing it that way whatever you do, so the organist had to be the one to adapt! 

Some of the best Mary hymns are translations from the Latin, and extremely old. Daily, daily, sing to Mary is twelfth-century, but not well-served by its jolting tune, though it’s easy to find another one to fit. The oldest Mary hymns are usually not sentimental or embarrassing (but you may need to be careful over the choice of translation).

Unfortunately the sentimentality seems to have been particularly reinforced by the Counter-Reformation and has never gone away, because the Church has problems coping with adult women. So did many men in the Victorian era. I’m not sure whether it’s because he was a Victorian or a Catholic that Father Faber’s Mary hymns are so excruciating (the old Westminster Hymnal has some real beauties), but it’s a shame, because he wrote some great hymns on other topics, like God or the Trinity (e.g. Most ancient of all mysteries, Jesus is God! The solid earth). He also wrote There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, which sounds surprisingly modern. He was a convert, and his hymns (unlike his poems and sermons) date from after his conversion. He wrote some fine hymns; but his Mary ones are mostly dire.

The Counter-Reformation over-reaction is understandable, because there were some very nasty slighting things written about Our Lady because of the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura, and the cultural lack of emphasis on her in the Gospels. There is even one modern Mary hymn whose construction depends on a first line: “There is nothing told about this woman” for every verse (luckily the second lines all start with “but”). It’s from the French, and personally I find it rather dreary. During the Reformation, especially as the arguments became more bitter and bloody, people were scared to do anything which might seem to be “popish”, meaning that all the previous Mary prayers, poems and hymns were thrown out with the bathwater. Just like in a children’s playground if anyone starts the “Your mother” insult,  the Catholic reaction to what was seen as a personal rejection of Mary led to bitterness and literary fisticuffs. Hence Mother of mercy and the defiant I’ll sing a hymn to Mary, where the last two lines of every verse are: “When wicked men blaspheme thee / I’ll love and bless thy name.” This now gets bowdlerised in various ways (in our parish we have “O may I imitate thee / and magnify God’s name”, which tries really hard, and invokes the Magnificat, but always makes me wince because of where the musical stresses fall). 

Paradoxically, one reason why there are fewer good Mary hymns than we might like is because the Reformed churches did not create any, because of the fear of Mariolatry. On any other subject, all our hymnals owe an enormous debt to Martin Luther, John Wesley, Isaac Watts, George Herbert and so many other great Protestant writers of hymns. There is nothing to stop us using some of their tunes for our Mary hymns, however, and it’s easy to find tunes that fit among the old German ones. Mary immaculate’s tune was adapted by Bach, though he would never have used a Mary hymn in his church. We sang Hail our Queen and mother blest (a modern translation of the Salve Regina) last Sunday to another old German tune, but this one does happen to be Catholic (Ave virgo virginum). Tunes matter, and they do not have to be dreary.

A lot of the French ones are, though, and I do wonder whether it’s because they were written for processions and pilgrimages. These tend to have a lot of short verses, because it’s much easier to keep the beginning and end in time with each other if the tune is only four lines long. It’s always very embarrassing when the tail comes into church singing a different bit of the melody, but it happens. Monty Python’s monks in procession who hit their heads with a slate at the end of each line were doing it to keep in sync.

The statues we have of Our Lady are nearly always the same sentimental model, with the long golden ringlets and the pale blue robes, the wringing hands and the pained expression. We used them in the May processions and crowning ceremonies, and the statues themselves became rather too important. The quotation I started with is from a hymn entirely about the statue: “This is the image of the Queen / who reigns in bliss above”, to which the author keeps returning (“The homage offered at the feet of Mary’s image here / to Mary’s self at once ascends..” v.2, “How fair so ever be the form / which here your eyes behold, / its beauty is by Mary’s self / excell’d a thousandfold” v.3 , and so on). The author is Edward Caswall, who also translated the lovely Ave maris stella from the ninth century (Star of sea and ocean) simply and with style, so the language here must be deliberate. I find most of the Lourdes-related hymns rather trite because they lack much substance; hymns need to be more than a crooning expression of love, especially for communal singing, and repetition should not be the main feature.

This lack of substance I think is the key point. What do we know about Mary? What can we say about her? This is what leads to so much rambling on about her beauty and her youth, which are so not the point. Even the vocabulary becomes predictable, especially the adjectives and the exaggeration. The aspects of Our Lady which are repeatedly lauded lack vigour. She is always described as beautiful, clement, chaste, pure(st), blest, sweet(est), fair(est), gentle, dear(est) and humble. And of course mild (rhymes with child). I feel that the Church is patronising the Mother of God when it talks about her like this. It is impossible to look at that list and not feel that a message about female behaviour is being not-so-subliminally rammed home. And the rest of us female humans are doomed before we start, because Mary is the one and only immaculate, and a virgin mother. What about her generosity, her patience and above all her courage and faithfulness? They never seem to be mentioned although I reckon her sheer bravery is her most outstanding quality. There are some wonderful poems about Our Lady (by Penelope Dent and Lynn Roberts, among others), but the hymns lag far behind.

The imagery is usually floral, often specifically roses, and there is no sense of a real person in any of these portrayals. Many May processions included crowning the statue with roses, a holy Queen of the May. Mary is frozen at her moment of youth and peak beauty, because it’s nearly all about appearance. She is a Disney princess. And there is an unsettling competitiveness about her beauty and gentleness : she is compared to all “other mothers” to their detriment, which used to make me bridle as a child. “Of all mothers sweetest, best; none with thee compare” (last line of chorus of O mother blest). I thought my own mother was pretty special, thank you. And I don’t recall many hymns about God being a better Father, funnily enough, except for the exception which proves the rule in My God, how wonderful thou art (Father Faber, again, but not a Mary hymn).

Looking at it now, I suspect that this may be partly a reaction against the demonising of women generally as the source of all sin. The Eva/Ave trope is one that many hymn writers refer to: Eve is the source of all evil; the greeting to Mary from the angel corrects the cosmic fault, but only Mary is a good woman (without original sin) and all other women are still on the wrong side (I could quote endless examples here from the Church Fathers on to Chaucer, but it would only be depressing). But it makes sense that if you spend a lot of time talking about how evil and tempting women are, you are going to need a literally in-human way of talking about Our Lady as the one exception. It does lead to some baffling expressions, though. What does “Virgin of all virgins” mean? You can’t have a hierarchy of virginity, it’s like pregnancy. You either are or aren’t. It’s from the Latin originally, virgo virginum , on the same model as king of kings, lord of lords, but those titles make sense as a hierarchy of power, and this one doesn’t.

There are some great Mary hymns, but you might need to rummage for them in older hymnals (and always check the later verses). One very attractive other option, of course, is to use the Magnificat. There are several versions available, many with good tunes. They don’t mention the name “Mary” specifically, but they are her own words, and they make a wonderful hymn.

Makes you feel that it’s a pity that the Gospels and Acts don’t contain more of her words, really, doesn’t it?


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Comment by: AussieMike
Posted: 18/04/2014 13:00:32

Congratulations on an excellent précis of the prophetic tradition that should prevail in the church, and also to speak to the wider world. If this was the core of the sermons in our Christian churches around the western world this Easter, we would have a renewed church and a more challenged community. Maybe this Pope is the beginning of a re-conversion of the church to Christianity?

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