Saturday, June 23, 2018

Beautiful Isle of Somewhere -- Jessie B. Pounds

Jessie Hunter Brown Pounds was 36, and had been sick, perhaps not an uncommon circumstance for her. Did that morning’s unfortunate physical discomfort cause Jessie to imagine a “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”, where she would never have to suffer the same way again? Indianapolis (its flag is shown here) was her new home, where she and her new husband were beginning their lives together, worshipping and serving at the church where he (John Pounds) was the pastor. So, it must have made Jessie especially uneasy to miss accompanying her husband to the church that day. Would the other church members be worried about her? If she couldn’t be with him physically, maybe Jessie could be with John by thinking on a topic they both appreciated – heaven. Was it in fact his sermon topic for the day?

Jessie was no stranger to either sickness or hymn-writing as she thought about her latest poem in 1897, the morning she felt ill in Indianapolis shortly after marrying. She’d reportedly been sick often as a child, prompting her family to educate her at home rather than to send her to public school. So, it must have been there under her parents’ tutelage where she began writing poetry. Jessie, a teenager living in northeastern Ohio, was soon sending her poems to a Cleveland newspaper. It was an editor who coaxed Jessie that her poems could be hymns, a suggestion that she took to heart. As someone has said, the rest is history, some 800 hymns later by some accounts. So, was it her sickly nature as a child that was the necessary familiar setting, creating the scene one Sunday morning as Jessie sat at home? She’d been married just a few weeks, so being unable to accompany her husband to worship must have been doubly painful, on top of the physical malady that afflicted her that day. Heaven was obviously on her mind, so she wrote a new poem to explore how its environment would be a blessing, somewhere. The earth’s shortcomings also must have been on her mind, as she longed to go to the somewhere else place, a beautiful isle. Separation, even briefly, from her man, and a sickly body were the dual conditions that spurred ‘Beautiful Isle…’, a result that came to fruition swiftly. Her thoughts had concluded in just the few hours that she spent alone. It must have quickened her spirit to think of that serene island and how it would overwhelm her present misery.

It’s no surprise that the things Jessie considered about the heavenly ‘somewhere’ outnumbered those earthly maladies she wanted to leave behind. Sunshine and songbirds, and especially a living God (v.1); lengthy days, completed duties, a strong heart, and a welcome reward [guerdon](v. 2); a lightened load, rippling clouds, and singing angels (v. 3) were all mental images that Jessie saw. Only a fleeting undefined sadness (v. 1) translated from her thoughts down to the pen she held. Truth and renewal (refrain) were also conditions that Jessie particularly exclaimed as she considered Somewhere, over and over again. Somewhere might be thought of like ‘Someday’ or ‘Sometime’, a hope-filled, confident expression. No maybe about it in Jessie’s verses. Somewhere is real. You got Somewhere to go?   

See here for the song’s story:

See here for brief biography of the author:

Saturday, June 16, 2018

In the Land of Fadeless Day -- John R. Clements

This 32-year old would be prolific in more than one way in his faith expression, but he was probably just getting started, as one century neared its conclusion and another one was about to commence. John Ralston Clements made his home in the Binghampton, New York area, and may have spent much of his time in a classroom (perhaps similar to the one shown here – in what was known as Lestershire [now Johnson City], New York – sometime before 1923), or in a grocery store, but wherever he was, he probably had a song-poem in his head. He was Irish-born, but evidently adapted well to America as he pursued the faith he accepted as an 18-year old in his new country. It was 1899, and John had a counterpoint to darkness in a poem he called “No Night There” (also known as “In the Land of Fadeless Day”), perhaps one bit of mental imagery he tried to get his students to visualize.

It’s probably not too speculative to suggest that John Clements was heavily involved in the education of many students around the turn of the 18th-19th Century, and that this perhaps played a part in many of the poem-songs he wrote. His family had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland when John was two years old, and later he worked in the grocery business as a young teenager and evidently into his adult years. He was the first president of what was known as the Practical Bible Training School – later to be renamed Davis College (after its founder, John Adelbert Davis), a position he held shortly before the turn of the century until 1914. So, John Clements was evidently fairly accomplished and recognized for his acumen by the time he was in his early 30s. The poetry he produced – he would reportedly write some 5,000 poem-songs over his lifetime – was one manifestation of his prodigious ability. He must have touched several hundred, if not thousands of students during his 17-year stint as the school’s president, too. Moreover, he certainly possessed a pretty strong conviction, based upon these two data points – his poetry and leadership of the school. You can sense it in the song he wrote also around this time. Notice the phrase ‘..the city foursquare’ that he uses repeatedly (it’s in all four verses he composed). Do you think John was describing the eternal city’s geometric shape, really? Or, was he more likely struck by ‘foursquare’ in the sense of this city’s firmness and certainty, based upon its founder? One can imagine that John evaluated his own life, and that of the school’s students, and concluded that their convictions should be forthright and strong, matching that of the city where they all wanted to live ultimately. Perhaps John communicated this attitude in the various roles he played, as school president, poet, and even as a grocer.

Conviction was one word that must have described John Clements. Meet life with a faith head-on. Don’t try to swerve too much, he might have said. John, like any of us, certainly knew of the valleys. He wrote about them in his song’s refrain – ‘tears…death…pain…fears’. But, he juxtaposes them against the stunning scenery of the city he saw in his mind. That’s where his faith found its foundation. If your houses creaks, like mine, it’s natural sometimes to wonder if there’s a structural problem. Probably smart to maybe have it checked out by an expert, huh? How’s your foundation doing? Maybe that’s not too far off from a question John Clements might have asked himself.        

See here for brief biography of the author:

See here for all four verses of the song:

See link here re: the school the author started:

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears -- Isaac Watts

This English Nonconformist preacher was looking forward to the end, even at a young age. Isaac Watts did not dread it, perhaps in the same way he did not shrink from the life he chose, when he said to himself “Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears” in his leaning-forward message about Judgement Day. Had Isaac perhaps seen Stefan Lochner’s 15th Century painting of the Last Judgement (see it here)? ‘Judgement’…it sounds so imposing, doesn’t it? Isaac may not have even thought about it in terms of judgement, however, but rather the Divine grace he expected would come to fruition at that moment. Watts possessed courage, something he undoubtedly inherited from watching his father’s intrepid nature, when and where matters of faith were concerned. Keep one’s vision trained on the goal, both Isaac Sr. and Isaac Jr. would have said to those who would listen, and not just believe in church membership to secure one’s destiny.   

Perhaps the younger Isaac drew upon his own earthly father’s influence when he composed his earliest hymn poems, among them “Lo, What a Glorious…”. The hymn first appeared in a collection of songs in 1707 when Isaac Jr. was in his early 30s, and most likely was written some 10-15 years earlier during a time when he had temporarily suspended his education and returned to his family’s home at Southampton, on the southern coast of England. The younger Watts reportedly wrote a very large majority of his hymns during that period. There, his poetry could flow, surrounded by his family’s presence and the teachings he had inherited. Nonconformity meant that Isaac did not adhere to the formal oversight of the Church of England. He therefore was accustomed to some ostracism, if not outright incarceration as his father had endured twice during Isaac Jr.’s childhood. Instead of Oxford or Cambridge, premier higher education fit for a gifted poet-student like Isaac Jr., it was Stoke Newington in London where the young man attended and was further groomed for hymn-writing history. That experience likewise probably shaped Isaac’s impression of his faith, and how to express it poetically and musically. Though we do not know explicit details of the genesis of ‘Lo, What a Glorious…’, he evidently had the freedom of expression as a Nonconformist to speculate about what the Christian believer might see on Resurrection Day. Watts was not compelled to stay within the Anglican Book of Common Prayer when he sought out worship, so he liberally composed his own poems fit for music for congregational singing. Perhaps young Isaac had heard or observed on occasion the carefully-structured Anglican way, and wanted something more enthusiastic, including the multiple exclamation marks and the ‘shout for joy’ (v. 3) he imbeds in the verses. Don’t try to contain God, Isaac might have said.

How great will that day be? Perhaps that was a question that Isaac had asked himself as he pondered what was to come, which for himself was still several decades in the future (he died in 1748, probably some 50 years after penning his words). Isaac would go on to write some 750 hymns, but also become a notable preacher, theologian, and logician. Logic? Could this be the same Isaac who expressed amazement in a vision of an incredible sight to which he really only had indirect access? How could he obtain the ‘third heaven’ and ‘new Jerusalem’ (v.2) with certainty? Can you hear someone of his time, maybe an Anglican or even someone else, saying ‘Just a second, Isaac!’ Perhaps even as a young fellow, Isaac had concluded that logic cannot capture all God and Eternity are. Especially if life hasn’t been all I want, why not imagine something spectacular beyond here?    

See all six verses that the composer originally crafted here: