Text: George Herbert (1593-1633)
Music: Traditional English carol tune
Tune name: SANDYS
Though he is celebrated as an English poet, George Herbert was born in Wales in 1593. His father’s family had been notable figures in the Welsh county of Montgomeryshire, having settled there in the thirteenth century. Herbert’s father died when he was only three and a half years old, and his mother soon moved the family to her native Shropshire, an adjoining English county. Herbert studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and after completing his M.A., he became a fellow of the College, then orator for the University. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1626.
Most of his remarkable poetry was written while at Cambridge. In a letter sent to his mother, accompanying two sonnets presented as a New Year’s gift in 1610, he vowed “that my poor Abilities in Poetry, shall be all, and ever consecrated to Gods glory.” His most famous work is a collection of poems called The Temple, published shortly after his death in 1633.
The present hymn is taken from that collection, and is called there “The Elixir.” The imagery in the poem is taken from medieval alchemy, suggesting by way of analogy that the ability to perceive the presence of God in all of Creation has a transformative power. The final stanza refers to the legendary philosopher’s stone (cf. Harry Potter), apparently too exotic a reference for many hymnals which exclude this stanza entirely.
Our Hymnal also omits two of the stanzas; they appear below in italics.
1. Teach me, my God and King,
in all things Thee to see;
and what I do in anything
to do it as for Thee!
2. Not rudely, as a beast,
to run into an action;
but still to make thee prepossest,
and give it his perfection.
3. A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
4. All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which, with this tincture, “for thy sake”,
will not grow bright and clean.
5. A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine;
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
6. This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
Many of Herbert’s other poems have been set to music, including the hymn “Let all the world in every corner sing” (Hymnal #290). That text is one of four poems from The Temple which were set to music in a five-movement work called Five Mystical Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams. On this page you can read the text of this work for solo baritone and orchestra (or, sometimes, for piano). Below is a performance of Five Mystical Songs sung by baritone Brian Rayner Cook, with the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bryden Thomas.
The tune SANDYS takes its name from William Sandys (1792-1874), an English solicitor and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. His greatest claim to fame is his editing of the much-referenced Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833). This tune appears in that book with the twenty-one-verse “A Child this day is born.” Since his name is pronounced “sands,” presumably the tune’s name is also spoken as a single syllable.
Here is “Teach me, my God and King” sung — with great Welsh choral enthusiasm — by the Cardiff Festival Choir (they sing five of the original six stanzas, one more than our Hymnal includes, but one less than Herbert wrote).