The Elixir

Teach me, my God and King

with SANDYS (A child this day is born)

 

Text: Origins. One of George Herbert’s most enduring and frequently reprinted hymns is “The Elixir,” which begins “Teach me, my God and King.” This was first printed posthumously in The Temple (1633 | Fig. 1), in six stanzas of four lines. 


 
 

Fig. 1. The Temple (1633).


The original manuscript for this hymn is preserved in a notebook held at the Dr. Williams Library in London (MS 28.169), and it shows part of Herbert’s revision process.[1] The title was originally “Perfection” before it was changed to “The Elixer (Elixir)” The first stanza was quite different:

Lord, teach me to refer
All things I do to thee
That I not only may not err
But also pleasing be.

The original text included two other stanzas (the third and final) that were crossed out in the manuscript and not included in the printed form:

He that does aught for thee
Marketh that deed for thine:
And when the Devil shakes the tree,
Thou say’st, this fruit is mine.

But these are high perfections.
Happy are they that dare
Let in the light to all their actions
And show them as they are.

In the 7th ed. of The Temple (1656), the third line of stanza four was changed to read “Which with this tincture (for Thy sake)”.

Text: Analysis. The term “elixir” can have two meanings: (1) a medicinal compound, or (2) a compound or stone capable of turning metals into gold, as in alchemy. The elixir stone is sometimes also called the philosopher’s stone. Both uses of the term apply to the text. The first can be seen in stanza four, since “tincture” and “elixir” have very similar meanings. “Tincture” here could also mean an infusion of God’s character. The connection to alchemy happens in the final stanza, where Herbert referred to God, who can make all things pure like gold.

The first stanza alludes to 1 Corinthians 10:31 (“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”), or possibly Colossians 3:23 (“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”). The fifth stanza, about a servant who can make drudgery a divine act, carries a similar sentiment. 

Text: Adaptation. Many hymnals have carried a version of this text that was altered by John Wesley for A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1738) and revised for Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739 | Fig. 2). This Wesleyan version leaves the first stanza untouched, but paraphrases much of the rest so as to preserve the original meaning while expressing it with different terminology. Note also the different title, “A Single Eye.” The indication “From the same” is carried over from previous hymns in the collection which are labeled “From Herbert.”


 
 

Fig. 2. Hymns & Sacred Poems, 2nd ed. (1739)


Tune. The most commonly used tune for this text is SANDYS, from William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient & Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833 | Fig. 3), where it had appeared with the text “A child this day is born.” In this case, Sandys was not the author, only the collector. Concerning the origins of the tunes in this collection, Sandys only relayed, “The tunes are of a pleasing and plaintive nature, and most of them appear to be of considerable antiquity. . . . Although the tunes are appropriated in this selection to particular carols, they are not confined to them, but some favourite ones are sung to various sets of words” (p. 187). The connection between the carol tune and Herbert’s text first occurred in The English Hymnal (1906).

The text also first appeared in Sandys’ collection, where it was given in 21 stanzas. The refrain “Novels, novels,” is probably related to the French term nouvelle (“new”), or it could be a variant of “nowell”; it is usually replaced in other collections as “Glad tidings to all men, glad tidings sing we may,” following the example of John Stainer’s Christmas Carols New and Old (1868: PDF).

 

Fig. 3. William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient & Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833).

 

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
7 August 2018


Footnotes:

  1. For a detailed analysis of the progression of this text from manuscript to print, including a facsimile of the MS notebook, see John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 144-149: Amazon

Related Resources:

John Julian, “Teach me, my God and King,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 1136: Google Books

Jim Scott Orrick, “The Elixir,” A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-two of His Best Loved Poems (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), pp. 145-147: Amazon

“Teach me, my God and King” at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/teach_me_my_god_and_king_in_all_thi

Robert Gullifer, “Teach me, my God and King,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/teach-me,-my-god-and-king.