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An English Hymn, aka To Be A Pilgrim


"I fought till my sword did cleave to my hand.. and when the blood ran through my fingers, then I fought with most courage" - Mr Valiant-for-Truth


In the Year of Our Lord 1666, one John Bunyan, a preacher of heresy, was imprisoned in Bedford Gaol for his crimes against the True Church, and during that time did complete a book entitled The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, known to the indolent of habit as The Pilgrim's Progress.

From this second part of his great opus come the lines that have became the inspiration for one of the best-known hymns of the old English Hymnal. The words are spoken by Mr. Valiant-For-Truth, who had fought three ne'er-do-wells for three hours rather than sacrifice his quest to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan based these verses onHebrews 11:13.

The original lines were put to music and became extremely popular, but by 1906 the references to hobgoblins were thought somewhat dated, and so Percy Dearmer rewrote and modernised parts of the text. Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged some new music for it, based on a traditional tune from Sussex, Monk's Gate, and this is the same hymn still used in churches today, though I have been toone church that still sings the original.

The Battle Of The Spirit

I still occasionally go to church, largely because I miss the hymns. There's something quite uplifting about them. I'm talking about the old hymns of course, with organ accompaniment, not the modern hymns sung by hippies with guitars. This one, along with the likes of Jerusalem, Onward, Christian Soldiers and For All The Saints are still favourites of mine, and lift me up even though I'm more of a pagan. Then there are the classic Christmas carols. But enough.

Being taken from an allegorical Christian work, it's tempting to consider this hymn only in a churchy manner. To be honest, I never saw it that way, even when I was a Christian. This was ever one of my favourites, because I always viewed my journey through life as a kind of pilgrimage, a journey of the spirit.

My spiritual goal has been twofold - partly I wanted to be a better human being (and the definition of that has changed over the years) and also because I wanted to spread some goodness around. I like to think that I have done that in various ways, and on my pilgrimage I have met many other souls with many different beliefs, and learned and taught as I went. The journey was never a sterile car trip. It was a hitch-hiking, truck stop and Mom-and-Pop diner experience with all the humanity that entails. Occasionally shivering at the side of a rain-slick road, sometimes warm in a Bentley or crammed into the back of a Mini, it was always an experience. Sometimes scary, often exhilarating, always an education.

Without getting all woo-woo about it, I have fought the same fight of the spirit as did Mr Valiant-For-Truth and faced my own hobgoblins and foul fiends. I stand today as he did - bloodied, sword in hand, but whole and still moving along to my own Celestial City.


Bunyan's original English Hymnal version
Who would true valour see, let him come hither;
One here will constant be, come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round with dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound; his strength the more is.
No lion can him fright, he’ll with a giant fight.
He will have a right to be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away, he’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim.

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound; his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end, shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim.





Maddy Prior sings Bunyan's version
Songs of Praise - modern version
Wikipedia
Encyclopædia Britannica