Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cuz and "The Brewing of Soma"

People often ask me if I'm related to John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). The answer is that he was my 2d cousin 4 times removed, i.e. my great-great-grandfather's second cousin. According to my aunt Dorothy, the family genealogist, they had some sort of correspondence, but I don't think they were close—especially since my ancestor was not a Quaker.

I can't say that I've read much of Whittier. But there is one poem that I have tuned into, literally with a vengeance, because of my interest in Quaker attitudes toward the arts: "The Brewing of Soma" (1872), which is the source of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind."

The poem begins with a long description of primitive peoples' religious use of hallucinogenic drugs. Excerpt:

"Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget your long annoy."
So sang the priests. From tent to tent
The Soma's sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.

Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna's gate,
And sobered, sank to earth.

Then Whittier moves to a comparison with modern (19th-century) intoxicants:

As in the child-world's early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfill;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

and concludes with a prayer that God will remove our need for such intoxicants and "reclothe us in our rightful mind" by restoring us to the true religion of service and silent waiting on the Lord:

Let sense be numb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Frederick Charles Maker, a Congregational organist in Bristol, England, composed the familliar hymn tune REST to fit the concluding stanzas of "The Brewing of Soma" in 1887. Whittier—who, like most Friends of his time, regarded music as a particularly pernicious intoxicant—would have been eighty by then, and I have no idea whether he ever knew of what he surely would have regarded as a desecration of his poem. It is ironic that today it is this hymn for which he is primarily remembered. I daresay ol' Cuz has been spinning in his grave for lo these hundred years.

1 comment:

robert said...

Interesting to meet one of Mr. Whittier's relatives. And thanks for sharing a bit about the background of the poem. "The Brewing of Soma" was published on this date in 1872.

As to the fine hymn taken from the poem, it's message is still relevant. Even for those of us who don't espouse Quaker theology, it issues a call to reexamine our worship of God. Does it arise from within, or is it merely induced and manipulated from without?