Saturday 3 December 2016

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Remembering a woman of words - and music

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Hymn writer Frances Alexander married the Archbishop of Armagh
Hymn writer Frances Alexander married the Archbishop of Armagh

Believe it or not, up to seven years ago there had never been a female Poet Laureate. This was not because no poetesses were to be found but simply an unwillingness of males to compete with the opposite sex in this specific area of poetry.

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In the matter, over the last 200 years women have been pre-eminent in hymn writing. Frances Alexander, for instance. She was the author of hymns such as 'There is a Green Hill Far Away', 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' and 'Once in Royal David's City', all beautiful pieces I think you will agree. But none of them were acceptable for the greedy old gougers who presided over the exclusive Laureateship.

Frances Alexander wrote the words as well as the music of her hymns; and the famous tenor Gounod thought 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' was the best in the language because of its unique blending of the music with the words.

Frances Alexander brought into Anglican hymn writing a rhythmic force and exquisite simplicity. She married the Archbishop of Armagh who endeavoured to use his influence to help her career. She enjoyed very much travelling all over the English speaking world and hearing her hymns sung by choirs.

It was an unusual relationship with her husband, who was a colossal mountain of a man weighing 21 stone. The narrow stairway to the pulpit had to be negotiated carefully when he climbed it and he required assistance from three choir boys to get behind him, hoist him, and push him like a back row in a scrum. When he got there he would smile approval from above and say occasionally, "I hope you will like the hymns today."

All things bright and beautiful

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,

Each little bird that sings,

He made their glowing colours,

He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain,

The river running by,

The sunset, and the morning,

That brightens up the sky;

He gave us eyes to see them,

And lips that we might tell,

How great is God Almighty,

Who has made all things well.

Frances Alexander, 1818-1895

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