Sunday, December 29, 2013

I love a parade along the space-time continuum: Reflections for the New Year on the adverbial 'before,' a hymn, and a poem

"The similarity between time and space is limpid enough that we routinely use space to represent time in calendars, hourglasses and other time-keeping devices." -- Steven Pinker, "The Stuff of Thought"

"I have always been fascinated by the antithetical temporal and spatial sense of our English 'before.' " — John Hollander, in a statement about his poem "Days of Autumn," which ends: "Here standing at the door / Of the year, staring both in and out, he knows / What lies before him is what has gone before." (Best American Poetry 1992, edited by Charles Simic)

When I was a boy, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" had not yet fallen out of favor in mainline Protestant churches. Its militarism wasn't considered offensive, but inspiring. And I cherished the slight puzzlement I felt about the meaning of Sabine Baring-Gould's majestic recurring couplet, particularly on the mystery of its last word:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.

As a conjunction and a preposition, "before" is almost always a time word.  But it is slippery enough that today it is often replaced as a preposition by "prior to," an import from legalese that seems to have swept "before" from the field. People wanted to cement "before" as a time word decisively, and they won — but they had to destroy "before" in order to save it. In the adverbial position, the new substitution seems especially clumsy, as will be noticed in the revised refrain below. And, for the sake of rhyme, I've had to jettison the powerful second half of the first line. That makes "soldiers" somewhat out of place, so here's a 21st-century rewrite, without the obtrusive militarism:

Onward, Christian advocates, God is watching you,
With the cross of Jesus going prior to.

Yet "before" retains a teasing ambiguity when used as an adverb. My dictionary's preponderant  definitions of before-as-adverb favor time: "in time preceding, previously; earlier or sooner." But there's "before" in its spatial sense, too: "in front; in advance; ahead."

Baring-Gould wrote popular hymn.
The spatial meaning was what I tended to see when we sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers"  in church, heavily influenced by a mental picture of the processional that began the Episcopal service I knew in my youth. "Onward, Christian Solders" was  popular as a processional hymn, and the cross headed the  procession, carried by an acolyte called the crucifer (sometimes me). There followed the choir, then the priests.  A rewrite of the refrain to express this image in mundane terms might go  like  this:

Onward, Christian choristers, priests come up behind,
With the cross of Jesus up in front, you'll find.

That's  unambiguous, if rather silly and static, which can be a problem in poetry whenever the time element is minimized and the space element gets niggling attention. One thinks of the banality of Wordsworth's pond (in "The Thorn"):  "I've measured it from side to side:/ 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide."

Anyway, as much as my sense of the cross of Jesus "going on before" implied simultaneity with the onward progress of the Christian soldiers, I also wondered if "going on before"  meant the cross started out "in time preceding"  the parade, maybe even before the Christian soldiers had fallen in, fully equipped and in proper order, ready to march "as to war." This would mean that the cross was sort of floating without human agency, perhaps so far ahead in time of the Christian soldiers that it should be seen as eternally prior. Maybe this is what was supposed to be so inspiring about this hymn — the cross was not simply at the front of a procession but had started out long ago. Its priority in time as well as space was, in other words, a call for Christians to get ready and get on with it.

Thus does the space-time ambiguity of "before" open up questions of theology, even in a boy's head. A cross moving in time, independent of any  human action,  helps animate and revise the overdetermination of the cross as an object of permanence in Christian churches. Maybe that's a more fruitful thought than a cross carried at the head of a procession of the faithful, which in the mind can get bogged down in a spatial image, a mere tableau. On the other hand, maybe the latter interpretation is preferable because it is concrete, communal and easy to visualize, even for members of churches that don't start worship services with a procession led by someone carrying a cross.

No one has balanced the space-time continuum more poignantly than John Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." This great poem, despite the sententiousness of its "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" apothegm in the next-to-last line, is all we need to know about the tension between time's flow and its preference for oblivion on the one hand and, on the other, the richness of spatial representation that our eyes enjoy and, through art, can return to again and again.
John Keats' poem nails time-space.

That's why (as painful as it is for a music-lover to admit it) "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter," as Keats says about the pipers depicted on the urn. The poem begins with unanswerable questions about the events before and after the scene on the urn and ends with assertions that "tease us out of thought as doth eternity."

In that eternity may well be, for Christians, the cross that goes on before in both time and space, just as, in secular terms, the lovers on Keats' vase also have it both ways, "forever panting and forever young," their transitory breathing and youthful ardor preserved in timeless amber, beyond before and after.

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