Friday, May 19, 2017

Tarry With Me -- Caroline Louisa Sprague Smith

How does a 25-year old woman come to write a song in the first-person, imagining what an elderly person might be experiencing? That’s the curiosity of what Caroline Smith wrote in 1852, probably as she sat one day in her Andover, Massachusetts home, and said musically “Tarry with Me”.  Some of the credit for what Caroline penned may be attributed to a minister she’d heard speak about that time, too. Apparently, she wanted to provide words for senior citizens, perhaps even some she knew, that would resonate with how they felt when approaching the end of life. Undoubtedly, it’s a consequence of advancing age, when those people lose with increasing frequency members of their own generation. Oh, there are still others around who they may know, but what’s it feel like to see life’s light growing dimmer?

Loneliness. That’s the overriding sense of what Caroline Louisa Sprague Smith gathered from a sermon she’d heard. Not difficult to imagine, since most people have probably been there at least once. But, few people besides the elderly live with this creeping phenomenon in quite the way they do. So, the words of a sermon that Caroline heard in Boston, not far from her Andover home, must have had some special quality to motivate this young woman’s poetry. 'The Adaptedness of Religion to the Wants of the Aged' was how a minister named Dexter entitled his thoughts that consequently inspired Caroline. She made two attempts to urge her poem’s publication: once, soon after the sermon she’d heard, in 1852-53; then, over 30 years later, when she was about 57 years old, and just two years shy of her own mortality’s conclusion. Was she suffering in 1884 with the loneliness of which she’d written as a 25-year old? She subtitled her poem with the words ‘An Old Man’s Prayer’, so we can assume it was a man to whom she intended to give voice with her words, though we know not his identity; perhaps it was a male relative or acquaintance. Asking God to keep one company as life fades is analogous to watching a day’s light vanish bit by bit in Caroline’s thoughts. ‘Darkness’, ‘shadows’, and the ‘evening’ are linked with the ‘grave’ in “Tarry with Me”, but Caroline doesn’t wallow hopelessly or become maudlin with this thought. ‘Rest’, ‘sleep’, and even ‘cheer’ are present when the Lord tarries. I can endure this, if He is here.

Caroline Smith had a message, not just with the words she composed, but the position from which she wrote them. If I’m young, I can act like life is carefree, or I can empathize with those who are emotionally slogging through something. Whatever they’re feeling just might afflict me someday. That’s Caroline reaching out with her heart in 1852. And then, just as she suspected, the words she’d written connected with reality for herself three decades later. She must have remembered, too, how the ‘Old Man’s Prayer’ found solace. The Divine One’s the tonic, my companion-remedy, for this malady called the blues.  

See these two sites for accounts of the song story used as basis for this blog post:

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