Two literary questions

As my mind clears from the haze of this weekend, which ended with a blast of an evensong and a choir party, there are two literary questions that I need answers to. Both of these arose at the party.

Firstly, I was asked about the second verse of the last hymn we sang on the radio yesterday:

For healing of the nations, for peace that will not end.
For love that makes us lovers, God grant us grace to mend.
Weave our varied gifts together: knit our lives as they are spun.
On your loom of life enrol us till the thread of life is run.
O great Weaver of our fabric, bind church and world in one.
Dye our texture with your radiance, light our colours with your sun.

My interlocutor asked me how I could have allowed those first two lines because the phrase God grant us grace to mend seems to suggest that there is something wrong with all the things that come before it. What is wrong with the love that makes us lovers, that needs to be mended?

Now, looking at this today, I find myself wondering whether the grace to mend refers to us, rather than the love of lovers. I’m wondering whether this is using the word mend in a similar way to the way Benedick says, “serve God, love me and mend” in Much ado about Nothing.

In a different conversation, I was asked whether I had read The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. My answer was in the affirmative. Indeed, I said, it was all the fault of the woodworm.

So far so good, it was without doubt all the fault of the woodworm. However, I then went on to say assertively that part of the book was about the Achilli Lauro tragedy. My second interlocutor could not remember that bit at all and I found myself wondering whether:

a) I was making this up entirely

b) there is a section in the novel about the Achilli Lauro or

c) there is a section in the novel about a similar kind of raid on a cruise ship.

Come the dawning light of day, I cannot find the novel in question to check.

Any of you literary types (perhaps those who read HD or live in Scotland’s literary hub Dunoon or what have you) help me out with either of these questions?

Bet you all wish you went to parties like this. (And pass the paracetamol, whilst you are at it).


  1. I have no recollection of the Achille Lauro in the book. Maybe the party was too well established by then? 🙂

  2. kelvin says

    I’m sure it comes early on in the book. Some kind of terror attack on Jewish passengers or a passenger on a cruise liner.

    10 years or so since I read it.

  3. Sorry Kelvin, I have the headache, but not the answer (and I wasn’t even at the party.)

    But based on passed experience, is it not likely that the answer is (a)?

    As for the hymn, ‘us’ is definitely the subject of ‘mend’. Mend as in ‘to reform’ or ‘to heal’, rather than ‘to sew back together’. The image I found jarring was being enrolled on a loom, but maybe that’s because my weaving vocabulary doesn’t go beyond warp and weft.

  4. kelvin says

    Oh, I’m quite prepared to believe that I am capable of making things up, but are you really suggesting that I would do so in mid flow at a party? Surely not! What could my motive possibly be?

    Cloth leaves a loom on rollers doesn’t it?

  5. Elizabeth says

    Ah. Tricky poetry questions. Excellent.

    If one looks at the phrase ‘God grant us grace to mend’ by itself, I would agree with Kimberly that it means us being mended, as in healed – i.e. ‘grant us grace to be mended’. However, it is somewhat complicated by the phrase before it and the pesky comma – if ‘God grant us grace to mend’ doesn’t have anything to do with ‘For love that makes us lovers’ – what is the first phrase doing there? ‘For xxx, yyy’ does imply that the ‘yyy’ has some kind of relationship with the ‘xxx’ otherwise it’s just a dependent clause with no where to go. I’m sure there’s a name for the specific grammatical mistake – but being a lowly literary critic and not a philologist, I’m not sure what it is. And in those terms I would say that ‘to mend’ has to be referring to the prepositional phrase that comes before it, otherwise it’s not a complete sentence.

    And the first line isn’t a sentence either – ‘For aaa, for bbb.’ ‘For’ what, I ask you! You can’t just lump a bunch of prepositional phrases together and call it a sentence!

    Besides, the whole verse is a mixed metaphor – how can we be woven and knit at the same time? I will grant that spinning could go with either knitting or weaving as being a pre-requiste to both, but one really can’t knit and weave the same thread – unless one undoes the knitting/weaving and re-uses the material to create something else, which sounds more like re-incarnation than the Christian spiritual life to me. Does this give new significance to the term, holy roller? Could it be that weaving is a practice conducive to being slain in the Spirit? Is being dyed in radiance an intimation of speaking in tongues?

    As for the second question, I can shed no light, not having read it (although I truly believe that any English lit graduate worth his or her salt should be able to usefully contribute to a discussion without having read the text at hand, I will refrain from contributing something inane about the symbolism of cruise liner’s at this stage).

    Now back to HD, whose grammar I wouldn’t dare attempt to untangle (unweave?) lest the dissertation never be finished! Yes, I know, that’s not a sentence either.

  6. Excellent – responses from HD reader and two of the literary minds of Dunoon.

    However, I fear that Elizabeth is reading this more as a grammarian than an interpreter of poetry. Is it just a bunch of mixed metaphors or a postmodern commentary on Victorian hymnody?

    Does this potted biography of the author help or hinder our quest? Give reasons for your answer.

  7. Can I make a pedantic little plea about apostrophe disease?

  8. Of course you could have just had Shine Jesus Shine!

    But I did like the tune.

  9. The second story – entitled The Visitors is about the hijacking of a boat by Arabs. So you haven’t made it up although not sure it was actually supposed to be about the Achilli Lauro in particular.

  10. kelvin says

    Aha! Thank you Kirstin.

    It was published just a couple of years after the Achilli Lauro, if I remember rightly, which is why I conflated the two in my mind. Although I did not remember it quite right, I’m glad that it was not entirely false memory syndrome.

  11. The potted biography helps. The hymn does to normal grammar what William Morris does to trees.

  12. Elizabeth says

    Ask a grammatical question, get a grammatical answer! 😉

    But herewith my content-focused interpretation:

    I’d hesitate to say much about the helpfulness or otherwise of biography without reading any of the learned doctor’s work on the venerable Victorians. But since I generally am happy to admit all sorts of contextual information into literary analysis – even (horrors!) authorial intent, I’ll go with a cautious yes. At least we know that he likely does have a thorough knowledge of Victorian hymnody as well as more literary poetry (if that’s an appropriate distinction, which I’m not sure it is – Christina Rossetti being a case in point).

    Could certainly be read as postmodern commentary on Victorian hymnody (perhaps a suitable example could be posted for our edification/amusement?? for those of us who are less expert than Dr Whitla). Perhaps one could even attempt a Marxist reading in ‘varied gifts together’. Or it’s an effort to subvert violent rhetoric that often portrays the Church as triumphalist and militant (‘Onward Christian Soldiers’) – the ‘bind church and world as one’ would support this reading as the church is not portrayed as victor over the world but as loving partner (like lovers in second line). And then of course there’s the feminist reading – seeing it as a revision of traditional discourse that domestic tasks such as spinning and weaving are ‘women’s work’ and not as valuable as aforesaid militaristic – perhaps this is a subtle comment on women’s relationship to authority in the church can change and it’s a call for and/or celebration of women’s ordination (& perhaps a revision of Homer here and displacing Odysseus from the centre and focusing instead on Penelope’s story – Penelope could be read as presence of divine feminine in between the lines as it were). And of course we know that knitting as a venerable task for fishermen and soldiers – so I will retract my statement about mixed metaphors and suggest that Dr Whitla is attempting to reframe masculinity by connecting knitting and weaving – suggesting a balancing of power between genders and valuing of work/experience/gifts of all . . . which takes me back to my Marxist opener . . .

    Oh, this is a fun game!

    Entirely agreed about grammar, Morris, trees!

    Although I’m still not convinced about the first line and it’s lack of, well, a subject and a verb! But I will spare you all my (inevitably horrendous) Lacanian reading of lack – that would be a bridge to far I think.

  13. Lacan? Oh do go on. This will take piskie blogging to new heights.
    (but can we get to Irigaray too? I can feel dormant brain cells twitching in anticipation )

  14. I’m grateful to all those who have posted above, which provided a very entertaining and illuminating read after this evening’s vestry meeting. I’ve a feeling this thread is not over yet.

    The Marxist underpinning of the piece in question can perhaps be most easily demonstrated by reference to the whole work, which is available on the Anglo-Catholic Socialism song page. Note there the comments about the censoring of the original second verse.

  15. “For healing of the nations, for peace that will not end.
    For love that makes us lovers, God grant us grace to mend.”
    This rather slack writing is a function of poetic diction, which I personally abhor. It’s a pity that laudable sentiments have to be wrapped up in such a linguistic style, imho. Any poet trying to write to a strict rhyme and rhythm has to contend with the temptation to stick in phrases that fit the space rather than what actually makes sense.

  16. kelvin says

    What kind of poetry makes good prayer though? Or preaching? My sermon on Sunday was not by any means written in complete sentences at all. Awful though it may be, good rhetoric, at least in these times, isn’t always comprised of good grammar. (Though I think you need to know what rules you are breaking sometimes).

    If I were hearing this poem being read to me, or sung as a hymn, I would hear the three initial clauses as biddings in a prayer, and expect there to be a full stop after lovers. I would not automatically hear “God grant us grace to mend” as an action that was being applied to anything, but rather as a further petition.

    Sorry to come back to the punctuation question, but I find myself wondering whether semi-colons would be of assistance here.

  17. Elizabeth says

    Yes! Semicolons!

  18. kelvin says

    Kimberly tantalisingly raised the question of Irigaray. Is she (Kimberly or Luce – you take your pick – the ambiguity is never unhelpful here) suggesting that there is an essentialist subject-object relationship generated by petition?

    Is she (or She?) of the view that directing language, any language, towards an unseen other is so deeply rooted in patriarchal notions that the autonomy of the human subject is fundamentally undermined?

  19. (Kelvin, you are such a show off. All the more irksome when you are right.)

    Yes, indeed, petition does imply a lack of mutuality, and thus an inability to posit mutual relationships.

    But only if we see petition as a verbal exchange that we begin.

    If petition is seen instead as a linguistic response to God’s initiative in us… if it is a learning to name the self we are becoming in relation to others, then I think we might be able to avoid the object-subject divide. We might even see petition as a valid affirmation of difference as we enter a relationship in which God needs us as much as we need God, God petitioning us as much as we petition God.

    But in saying that, I suspect Luce would think I’ve wandered far from the light.

  20. vicky says

    So the unspoken assumption behind the concept of petition is an a priori assumption of interdependence? Rather than an a priori assumption of seperation / alienation and then reintegration? However, isn’t including ‘difference’ a problem in interdependence? By establishing the notion of difference, won’t we end up in a dulaist assumption of ‘same’ / ‘different’? (Go get it Kelvin and Kimberly…..)

  21. kelvin says

    I think I’m with Luce on this one and wish to maintain a hermeneutic of suspicion in my reading of Kimberly’s attempt to redeem petition.

    Kimberly seems to me to have an inherently optimistic view of what Irigaray might or might not say on the subject, which I’m not sure stands on firm foundations. Furthermore, a careful exegetical reading of Kimberly’s last comment might suggest that Kimberly shares that suspicion even within her own argument.

    Meanwhile, I am considering whether there is a good thesis to be written on the essential truth of punctuation in comparison to the essential lies of words. (Is the full stop a signifier of language or a container of meaning? etc)

  22. kelvin says

    Regarding the hymn as a postmodern commentary on Victorian hymnody, I find myself asking whether the whole piece is not an answer to the question at the heart of Victorian religious rhetoric, viz. “What can I give him (sic), poor as I am?” and its related response, “If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb”

    (Yes, it is the Rossetti connection, obviously).

    The closing lines of the verse seem to me an entertaining challenge to Victorian literalism as they indicate what will happen to hymnody if the lamb-bearing shepherd that has been posited ever actually turns up. The consequence of the presence of the lamb is the use of wool as a metaphor for spiritual engagement. Thus:

    Weave our varied gifts together: knit our lives as they are spun.
    On your loom of life enrol us till the thread of life is run.
    O great Weaver of our fabric, bind church and world in one.
    Dye our texture with your radiance, light our colours with your sun.

    A postmodern sensibility implies the presence of many such shepherds and their many consequent lambs. Thus, much wool.


  23. I’m sure Kelvin’s last comment should end this thread, but Derrida and I will not allow him to claim a final word.

    My previous comment was certainly not a telling of Irigaray’s position, but perhaps of my own.

    As I drove to Rothesay, I couldn’t help but think we have a MTh thesis floating about here: ‘An examination of the influence of French feminist and linguistic theory on contemporary theology and praxis in the SEC.’

    I would also like to nominate this blog-post and conversation as the most quintessentially piskie thread ever seen.

  24. oh dear — it’s back to grammar: can quintessentially take a modifier?

  25. With regard to the previous comment, “Kelvin, you are such a show off. All the more irksome when you are right.” I think that I should point out that there is the possibility that this thread could be used as a good example of the consequences of teaching feminist theory to men. Kimberly might chose to argue that they will use it for their own competitive purposes.

    And I might or might not disagree.

    Dworkin anyone?

  26. Ronald or Andrea?

  27. kelvin says

    Well, it was Andrea I was thinking of, but ambiguity is the name of the game…

  28. Elizabeth says

    Good grief! Clearly this conversation goes to show that I should not waste so much time at work or I miss all the fun!

    But surely the notions of an origin of petition, of relationship, whether a dynamic of alienation followed by integration or of interdependence – whether the origin is located in ourselves or the other – is problematic?

    Kimberly – surely Luce would think that wandering far from the light is exactly where you should go? And to get back to our text, surely the warp and the weft is a metaphor for the sex which is not one?

    Kelvin – the rest of the hymn certainly does support my Marxist reading! I’m intrigued that the grammar is much better in most of the other verses and I think they are the stronger for it (perhaps the Penelope metaphor was a challenge for Dr Whitla. I also note his use of the dash – made so popular by Rossetti’s colleague across the pond, Emily Dickinson. Perhaps the dash is an empty signifier signalling the presence – absence of the other? Whilst the full stop is containment and container; the vehicle for petition but limiting the slippage of meaning.

    And now I’m off to tend my neglected MLitt!

  29. kelvin says

    An apophatic dash?

  30. Elizabeth says

    A questioning apophatic dash even

  31. kelvin says

    Thus, an ambiguous apophatic dash perhaps.

    Or is the word questioning merely an attempt to take us marching proudly into the queer studies department?

  32. kelvin says

    On second thoughts, I think that perhaps one can only march proudly Out of the queer studies department.

  33. I’ve learned something.

    The apophatic dash seems to be the move out of feminism into queer studies.

    Daphne Hampson always used to get at me for what she called ‘that dreadful American habit’ (usually, but not necessarily, referring to my punctuation). But today, the dash has been beautifully redeemed.

  34. Elizabeth says

    The questioning, queering, questing apophatic dash – deconstructing the inside/outside binary as we march into and out of queer studies.

    Yes indeed the dash is a beautiful thing (or rather, a beautiful movement, not being an object but an event)!

    If it’s good enough for Emily and Hilda – it’s good enough for me.

    By the way, back to Victorian hymnody, it was pointed out to me that Miss Dickinson’s poems were often written in the same meter as hymns. My Bible and Literature class sang ‘A Fly Buzzed’ to the tune of Amazing Grace and were greatly amused.

  35. kelvin says

    I’m inclined to the view that the apophatic dash between feminism and queer studies works both ways.

    Thus, for me – that dash is bi.

  36. vicky says

    Can I just say that this debate has been great to watch develop…I have been in Aberdeen for 48 hours and only just had a chance to catch up. I wondered, whilst sitting on the train, how the approaches to hymns argued here might fit with how the various writers would interpret Galatians (the ‘neither jew nor gentile’ passage). Martin Dale in the USA has recently written on this text and raises similar thoughts as represented here. (Book is called Sex and the Single Savior). Thanks anyway folks.
    ps do you think rain is good for theology? 🙂

  37. interlocutor says

    jus’ planted a seed and see what growed, eh !

  38. interlocutor says

    jus’ planted a seed – and see what growed, eh !

  39. What ho, interlocutor – steady !

  40. I’m sorry for coming in so late – I’ve been out of touch and then decidedly busy.

    Going back to the meaning – if one interpreted “For” in the sense of “In order to achieve”, could the first two lines then make sense?

  41. Serena Culfeather says

    Interesting party!!

    I would use different punctuation (such as a comma after line one not a full stop) but whichever way I look at it the piece definitely suggests there’s something wrong with love that makes us lovers. I can’t see any other reading of it unless there’s been a mistranslation somewhere or incredibly bad punctuation which I haven’t noticed yet!
    Also as an occasional poet, I find the last line a bit weird. Trying to be over-flowery without getting the image across very well?


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