The Music of Epiphany: Saw you never, in the twilight

Other than “We three kings,” there aren’t many hymns or carols that are commonly associated with Epiphany. One hymn that we sing on average every other year (but we should probably sing it every year) is “Saw you never, in the twilight” (The Hymnal, #50). This hymn (originally entitled “The Adoration of the Wise Men”) was one of almost 400 hymns and poems written by the wife of an Irish bishop, Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895). Among her better known hymns are “All things bright and beautiful,” “Once in Royal David’s city,” “There is a green hill far away,” and “He is risen, He is risen!”

Mrs. Alexander was especially concerned to write hymns for children, and her verse is typically simple in its structure and descriptive directness. However, the evocative power of this hymn comes, I think, from the odd rhetorical device of combining a question — as is done in “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” —  with a negation. The three stanzas describe the coming of the Magi with three initial questions, framed negatively: “Saw you never . . . ?” “Heard you never . . .” and “Know ye not . . . ?” When combined with the somewhat melancholy spirit of the tune CHARTRES (based on a fifteenth-century French love-song), those questions become more poignant.

Saw you never, in the twilight,
when the sun had left the skies,
up in heav’n the clear stars shining
through the gloom, like silver eyes?
So of old the wise men, watching,
saw a little stranger star,
and they knew the King was given,
and they followed it from far.

Heard you never of the story
how they crossed the desert wild,
journeyed on by plain and mountain
till they found the holy child?
How they opened all their treasure,
kneeling to that infant King;
gave the gold and fragrant incense,
gave the myrrh in offering?

Know ye not that lowly baby
was the bright and morning Star?
He who came to light the Gentiles
and the darkened isles afar?
And we, too, may seek his cradle;
there our hearts’ best treasures bring;
love and faith and true devotion
for our Savior, God, and King.

Pianist Andrew Remillard has thoughtfully recorded this hymn (and all the other hymns in our Hymnal) so we can sing along, perhaps even with our children (or grandchildren). And then we’ll all sing it together, next January.


Herbert Howells’ carol-anthem
“Here is the little door”