Friday, May 23, 2008

Songcatching: Idumea

I've always disliked the contemporary lyric of Amazing Grace, "how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me." Originally the word was wretch, and I prefer it that way. After all, what is the point of grace if not to raise up the wretched? The song is already threatened with banality by the resounding echo of a hundred years of perfunctory recorded versions. "Wretch" is for me the song's last sharp, aching tooth, without which it is defanged.

I say this as a non-believer. Nonetheless, I share the longing for grace, for transcendence, for the numinous. This longing may well be innate in us humans, reaching up from the deep limbic wells of our consciousness. Just as innate, perhaps, is our capacity for wretchedness. Idumea is a much less known hymn written at about the same time as Amazing Grace. It is a far starker, even fearsome, treatment of the gap stretching between grace and wretchedness:

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot!

Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!

Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!

I listened to this song this afternoon, and it broke me open. I should have expected it to; music is as close as I get to prayer. We are, of course, born to die. It is one of those truths so obvious that most of us confront it only in extremis. And all of us, believers or not, must also face in this life the choice between happiness and woe, between fear and relief, and sometimes must endure shadow and drear before we reach home. This song is a beacon.

MP3: Marc Almond, Idumea
MP3: Shirley Collins, Idumea
Both versions from the Current 93 album Black Ships Ate the Sky [Compact Disc & Downloads]

SEE ALSO: Idumea is a classic of the shape-note repertory, and many more versions can be found here.

1 comment:

Ewe Little Dickens said...

whoa, to say that the song (I listened to the Marc Almond version) is a powerful one is quite an understatement.