25 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/13

Here's one for Holy Week:

The Heavenly Aeroplane

One of these nights about twelve o'clock
The old world's going to reel and rock,
The sinner's going to tremble and cry for pain
And the Lord will come in his aeroplane.

O ye thirsty of every tribe
Get your ticket for an aeroplane ride,
Jesus our Savior is a-coming to reign
And take you up to glory in His aeroplane.

Talk about your joy-rides in automobiles,
Talk about your fast time on motor wheels,
We'll break all records as we upward fly
For an aeroplane joy-ride through the sky.

There will be no punctures or muddy roads,
No broken axles from overloads,
No shocks to give trouble or cause delay
As we soon will rapture up the narrow way.

You will have to get ready if you take this ride,
Quit all your sins and humble your pride,
You must furnish a lamp both bright and clean
And a vessel of oil to run the machine.

When our journey is over and we'll all sit down
At the marriage supper with a robe and a crown
We'll blend our voices with the heavenly throng
And praise our Savior as the years roll on.


This anonymous hymn dates from around the mid-1930s, from the Ozark Mountain region of the United States: a time and place in which air travel was no longer experimental, but still glamorous and thrilling and almost as if from another world (so put today's cramped, horrible flights and security-theater shenanigans out of your mind for now). The use of an older form of airplane - the three-syllable aeroplane - helps establish this mental  distance (and as in some older English verse, the rhythm won't sound right unless you use the old-fashioned form of the word). The writer deftly and ingeniously combines long-standing Biblical imagery (the vessel of oil, Heaven as a marriage feast) with current, mundane technology (the broken axles, the shocks - I love the offhand pun on that word). It may seem odd to use an airplane/aeroplane in this context, but it's actually a wonderful contemporary equivalent of the fiery chariots that appear in the writings of the Biblical prophets. What was the chariot to the Prophets but a dazzling example of the latest technology available to the rich and powerful? As for the fiery part of the chariot, concepts exist before they are named, and though "totally cool" and "wicked awesome" are not how the prophets would have expressed it, I think that was the underlying feeling behind the flames.

I took this from The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, compiled by Donald Davie. According to his footnote on this poem, he took it from Volume 4 of Ozark Folksongs, collected and edited by Vance Randolph, and published originally by the State Historical Society of Missouri.


Unknown said...

Nice choice for Easter week. By the time I got to "rock" at the end of the second line, I could already hear the sound of a Baptist preacher's voice.

When you were a child, did you ever sing a song called "Roll the Gospel Chariot Along?"

Patrick J. Vaz said...

"Roll the Gospel Chariot Along" sounds like a great hymn, but sadly not the kind of thing we sang even post-Vatican II. I have had "God gave Noah a heavenly sign: no more water, the fire next time!" going through my head, but that's all I know of the song.

Unknown said...

I'll perform it for you on Wednesday!


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'll bring the palm-leaf fan, you supply the rocking chair, the Spirit will provide the "Amen!"s

St. Simon & St. Jude said...

The "fire next time" phrase is a phrase from one of the sermons presented by James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombone - with a delightful must hear version by Gordon from Paraclete Press.