As With Gladness Men of Old
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold
As with joy they hailed its light
Leading onward, beaming bright
So, most gracious God, may we
Evermore be led to Thee
As with joyful steps they sped
To that lowly manger bed
There to bend the knee before
Thee whom heaven and earth adore
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy-seat
As they offered gifts most rare
At that manger rude and bare
So may we with holy joy
Pure, and free from sin’s alloy
All our costliest treasures bring
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King
Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way
And, when earthly things are past
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.
In the heavenly country bright
Need they no created light
Thou its light, its joy, its crown
Thou its sun, which goes not down.
There forever may we sing
Hallelujahs to our King
As With Gladness Men of Old is another Epiphany carol about the three wise men, or the Magi, and was written by an old Bristolian, William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) in 1859, on 6 January – the date of Epiphany. Dix was unable to attend the church service that day because of illness and wrote the hymn after reading the biblical texts and reflecting on their meaning at the age of only 21. The previous Epiphany carol included here, We Three Kings, had been written in America the previous Christmas and would have been unknown to Dix, so there is a degree of serendipity with them both being written within 13 or 14 months of each other on two different continents.
Unlike Hopkins (the author of We Three Kings) in America who was a clergyman, Dix was the manager of a marine insurance office in Glasgow. Dix had been born and educated in Bristol, but his father had abandoned the family when he was young; Dix’s father had trained as a surgeon but was a chronic alcoholic and drifted between America and the UK in a succession of posts that he was unable to retain. He was also a poet and an author and gave his son the middle name of Chatterton after the 18th century poet and writer who took his own life aged just 17, and about who he had written a biography. You may not know Thomas Chatterton’s name today, but you might recognise the picture by Henry Wallis in 1876 – Wallis was part of the Pre Raphaelite group of painters and known to Christina Rossetti, the author of In The Bleak Midwinter and Love Came Down At Christmas, and the portrait Chatterton can be seen in Tate Britain.
Although Dix’s work was in marine insurance, he led a spiritual and religious life and wrote several other hymns, including another carol What Child Is This in 1865. He didn’t enjoy the best of health and retired from his position in Glasgow to return to Bristol where he died aged just 61. There are other hymn writers like James Montgomery (see Angels From The Realms Of Glory on 2 December, and The Lord Is My Shepherd) who had employment outside the church but it is relatively unusual. As With Gladness Men of Old was adopted by the Anglican Church for inclusion in hymn books in 1861, and it was included in similar anthologies in north America from the 1870s onwards. Some denominations list the carol in the section concerning the Epiphany rather than the nativity, but it is still regularly sung during the Christmas festival.
In writing about We Three Kings I mentioned the enigmatic nature of the magi as they aren’t precisely identified in the New Testament; St Matthew makes reference to their presence, but doesn’t indicate who they might be by name, or by title, or by status, or by place of origin. What is nice about this Dix carol is that he doesn’t get into that speculative mythology but just leaves the identities of these “Men of Old” as mysterious as they are in the nativity story.
I do struggle with the identity of the “three kings” and will own up to instinctively thinking of Wilson, Kepple and Betty rather than Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.
Does this mean anything to anyone apart from me? Wilson, Kepple and Betty were a music hall act from the 1930s. They established a routine in the 1920s during the Egypt-mania that accompanied the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and maintained it until retiring in the early 1960s; their act was “eccentric dancing” which seems to be a lost art these days. Wilson, Kepple and Betty weren’t brilliant, but they were good. Their basic act featured Jack Wilson and Joe Kepple doing a shuffling “sand dance” adopting the poses and shapes of the figures in the hieroglyphs, with Betty flitting around like a flapper from the roaring 20s. It might not sound much but, in the 1930s, they managed to upset the Nazis and were condemned by Goebbels for obscenity, and then in the 1950s they appeared on the same bill as Frank Sinatra at the London Palladium, so they were getting something right. They ended up being billed as “Too Naked For The Nazis” and you could do a lot worse than check them out for yourself on YouTube by following the link.
It’s not very spiritual to put them into the mix while I’m supposed to be compiling an Advent Calendar of Christmas Carols, but – with the commercialisation of Christmas – maybe carols are part of show biz too these days.
Header illustration: image from Freepik
Chatterton: painting by Henry Wallis (1856) in Tate Britain
Wilson, Kepple & Betty: image from Mislaid Comedy Heroes channel at YouTube
Footer image: Three Wise Men from Teahub.io