Sing We

carol_1541986cI grew up singing carols, and I am still singing them, these days in an interfaith chorus that gives an annual holiday concert with audience participation. Returning to the songs of one’s youth is always a sentimental experience. But with carols, particularly, I recall simultaneously relishing the rich language in these little ditties and feeling confused by what I came to understand as inverted syntax.

Poetry, and poetic language, often move the parts of a sentence into places different from ordinary prose. The rhyme may call for it, or the meter, or the desire to emphasize an image or phrase that might otherwise be lost. Still, when you consider that children sing many or most of these carols, the sheer quantity of inverted syntax is impressive. A sampling, with the relevant phrases in bold:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

Don we now our gay apparel

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light

The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand

For many years, I thought “Don” was a person with some part to play in “Deck the Halls.” I thought the king was charging the day. I wondered why faith was beaming with hearts. None of this syntactical misunderstanding bothered me; I assumed that when I got older, I would get it. Some of the inversions, though, coupled with confusion over punctuation, manipulate the audience participants into singing a sort of sweet nonsense. Take the following lyrics, found online, for a famous carol:

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace …

See the period after “bright”? It echoes the pause everyone takes at that point in the song. And this did bother me, even as a kid. What was round yon Virgin? I wondered. There seemed to be three people in this tableau — a Virgin, a Mother, and a Child. Add archaic language, and you have one member of my chorus who grew up thinking it was “Round John Virgin,” sort of like Wild Bill Hickok (especially confusing when you consider that the dad’s name is Joseph). Another thought a round young virgin (perhaps pregnant?) had joined the mother and child and was sleeping.

Choruses like mine attempt to communicate the more logical structure of the lyrics by way of pauses and sustained breaths; in the printed version, the result might be something like this

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace …

Or perhaps, if holy infant is an apostrophe and not an appositive,

All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace. …

Either way, at least round is a preposition, not an adjective, the light shines round the people, and only two of them are in the scene.

Confusion notwithstanding, and religion to one side (which I know is difficult to maintain; these are Christian hymns), I think giving children inverted syntax to play with is a good thing. Most, it’s true, will sing lyrics like these and not think much about how the words actually fall into sentences. But then, most will not grow up to read Lingua Franca. Those with our strange proclivities may find puzzles to solve, in these carols, that could lead them from Joyful, all ye nations rise to a knack for the periodic sentence.

Meanwhile, God rest ye merry whilst ye Christmas or another holiday keep!







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