Holy, Holy, Holy!

Reginald Heber, 1826
Addressed to God
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8a
   Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. 1 Sam.1:19; Job 1:5; Ps. 63:1 (KJV); Mark 1:35
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
   God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!Matt. 3:16–17; 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14
Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,Ps. 33:1
   casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;Rev. 4:6, 10
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,Ex. 25:20; Is. 6:2; Rev. 5:8
   who wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.Ps. 90:2; Rev. 4:8b
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,Ex. 20:21; 1 Kin. 8:12; Ps. 18:11
   though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,Num. 4:20; 1 Sam. 6:19; Is. 6:5; John 1:18
only thou art holy; there is none beside theeEx. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; 1 Chr. 17:20; Rev. 15:4
   perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.Matt. 5:48
Holy, holy holy! Lord God Almighty!
   All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea.Ps. 19:1; 103:22; 145:10; Rev. 5:13
Holy holy holy! Merciful and mighty!
   God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Were we to measure this most famous of Reginald Heber’s hymns against the expectations of normal metrical poetry, we might be surprised when it failed abysmally. The line lengths— irregularly varying from ten to thirteen syllables—are very odd. The meter is so fluctuating as sometimes to defy scansion. The first line starts with three trochees (stressed–unstressed, stressed–unstressed, stressed–unstressed) and ends with a spondee (stressed–stressed) and an amphibrach (unstressed–stressed–unstressed). Whatever rhythm we are to anticipate from such a line is unnameable at best and inscrutable at worst. As for rhyme, every line ends with the same vowel sound; in the odd-numbered lines this sound is unaccented, in the even-numbered lines this sound is accented. So we have an interlocking rhyme-scheme of a sort, but beyond that, there are no other rhymes. How is it then that this hymn is among the most beloved of our own and of the past two centuries? The answer is to be found in the hymn’s subject. If the metrics and rhyme of the hymn seem strange to us, we should not be surprised, for Heber has made for us a song, not from our world, but from the next. His opening line places us among the elect saints and angels from the fourth chapter of John’s Apocalypse. We would not expect to find ourselves initially at home among the poetics of the new heavens, but we would expect to like them very much. So is the case here. But beauty is explicable here as elsewhere. The beauty of this hymn is best explained by the relationship between sound and sense.

These lines of ten, eleven, twelve, or thirteen syllables are too long to take in one gulp and all have a medial pause, though where that occurs is different depending on the line at hand. This dynamic shifting of the medial pause accounts for much of the poem’s irregular meter and adds much to its beauty. For one instance of the change, consider the second lines of the first and second stanzas:

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.

The extra syllable of the third stanza’s line pushes the medial pause back, causing the line’s last half to stay iambic, as it was in the first stanza. More importantly, “our song” conforms to the new and mellifluous iambic rhythm which then returns as we describe the sea of glass.

The most rhythmically anomalous half lines all occur either as the second or the seventh of the stanza. Consider the following as examples:

Lord God Almighty!

In each of these instances, we find half-lines that do not conform to normal (would we be allowed “terrestrial”?) metrical patterns. And in each of these instances we find God described either by name or by his perfection. The feet used here may not be common, but they are far from pedestrian. In each instance, stress falls on the ideas most to be stressed. “Lord” and “God” both receive stress, which would not have occurred were Heber using a regular foot. Delightfully, “-might-” from “Almighty” receives a stress and draws our attention to the root of the word we sing. And how satisfying is the accented “per-” in “perfect”?

But all is not unpredictable. A generous smattering of trochaic half-lines lend stability to the poem and occur in the most important of places. Accounting for fourteen of the thirty-two, they hammer out ideas like “falling down before thee,” “only thou art holy,” “there is none beside thee,” and, of course, the hymn’s title line. These trochaic half-lines unite under the topic of God’s holiness, which is even presented by negation in the half-line “though the darkness hide thee.” So the other-worldly metrical system is not less meaningful, but more meaningful, than humdrum repeated rhythms—made so because of the way it connects the sense of the poem with its sound. And speaking of sound, the final “ee” sound that closes out every line not only serves in the place of rhyme, but also ties every line back—by euphony—to the word “holy” which is the heart of the text.

The hymn enjoys most of its success because of its early pairing (in the 1861 printing of Hymns Ancient and Modern) with the tune NICAEA. The tune is built for the text. The ascending triad—a long used model for the Trinity—occurs at every instance of the three-fold “Holy” from the song in Revelation. The initial ascent from tonic to dominant (from “do” to “sol”), confirmed in the tune’s second line where the dominant becomes our temporary resting place, is a musical picture of “our song” rising to God. The rhythm of the tune’s last line makes sense of those anomalous half lines, and further amplifies the accentuated syllables in each:

NICAEA measures 13–14