Poets on Hymns: “The Green Hill Far Away”
By Mark Jarman
There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.
O dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.
I do not know where I learned the Victorian poet Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymn, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away.” Either it was at school, Dunnikier School in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, or it was at church, St. Clair Street Church of Christ, also in Kirkcaldy, but it may have been in both places. There was no separation of church and state in Scotland, or anywhere else in the British Isles, in the 1950s, when my family lived there and my father served the church on St. Clair Street. Bible study was a weekly part of my elementary school classes, and we began and ended the school day with a hymn. And of course much of Sunday and every Wednesday night were spent at church. I also remember learning Alexander’s hymns “Once in Royal David’s City” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Along with “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” they were originally included in her collection Hymns for Little Children. The tune we sang it to was by William Horsley. Though there are other settings, it is Horsley’s tune that has stuck in my mind. And I would not be surprised if it were Horsley’s tune that has made the hymn memorable to me, but I know that is not the only reason.
There is another reason this hymn remains in my memory. Whenever I think of it, I also think of a picture that hung in the entranceway of our house on Bennochy Road, the manse as it was called (or parsonage), where the pastor of St. Clair Street Church of Christ would live with his family. This picture was a reproduction of a massive painting by the Polish artist Jan Styka depicting the scene on Calvary, the place of the skull, Golgotha, as Christ is about to be crucified. Styka painted the picture in 1894. It is some 195 feet by 45 feet, and hangs today in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Glendale, California. The reproduction that hung in the manse entryway in Kirkcaldy was very modest in size, but still large enough so that I could pick out the details. Christ stands between the two crosses already erected for the thieves and beside the cross he will be nailed to, which lies on the ground. The hill is barren and rocky and crowded with soldiers and people and at the base of the hill is Jerusalem inside its wall. The hill itself is anything but green. But in the distance, there is a line of green hills. In the scene as Styka depicted it, the hills seem very far away.
Alexander makes it clear in her hymn that Christ was crucified on a green hill, “without” or outside of “a city wall.” That is where he made his sacrifice to “save us all.” Not only did Alexander have a gift for setting a scene, but also for conveying basic belief with an admixture of Victorian edification. She reminds the little children to whom she is presumably speaking that no one but Jesus could be found “to pay the price of sin” because “there was no other good enough.” Therefore we must not only “trust” that the blood of his sacrifice will redeem us, but must also “try his works to do.” Faith without works did not amount to much in Victorian Christianity like Alexander’s. And Jesus was a model of both, especially for children. In “Once in Royal David’s City,” Alexander’s famous Christmas carol, we are reminded that Jesus grew from infancy just like us, “For he is our childhood’s pattern.” He was a model of obedience and good behavior.
Still, there is that imaginary green hill far away. It was probably the first emblem of pastoral that I responded to, aside from the 23rd Psalm, and it was more compelling than the imagery there, at least for me, and possibly because in Styka’s painting, the green hills look like a possible escape, a place to flee. In the painting Christ lifts his eyes, recalling Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” No help is coming from the green hills in the distance, but I suspect that Alexander is giving her audience an image it can picture. She was Anglo Irish, a member of the Church of Ireland, and lived in Northern Ireland, married to an Anglican priest who would become Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh. I am sure she was perfectly capable of imagining a bare and barren hill. But she knew enough of the pastoral tradition to know that green is the color of renewal and new life, such as was bestowed on the world by Christ’s death and resurrection. And the memory she evokes of that hill is still green.
Her common measure quatrains are simple and theologically precise. The sense of nostalgia for a pastoral landscape begins right off the bat with “There is,” for the hill though far away does still exist in what Alexander would have called the Holy Land. Then comes the transition to the historical past, the event and its purpose and its consequence for all time. Like the psalms and like folk songs, the poem includes a series of statement and reiteration, statement and enhanced restatement (“We do not know, we cannot tell,” “He died that we might be forgiven, / He died to make us good,” “Oh dearly, dearly has he loved, /And we must love him too . . .”) Perhaps the most interesting image occurs in stanza four: “He only could unlock the gate / Of heaven, and let us in.” Only Christ and no one else, even St. Peter, could take us to the wall of another city, and open the gate for us. Or we may be meant to imagine a place better than a city – a garden. It would be walled and private and yet the gardener, particularly fond of good little children, would have a key and could let us in.
My suspicion is that I am not the only child from St. Clair Street Church of Christ Sunday School or Dunnikier School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, in the late 1950s, who remains fond of this hymn for reasons that have as much to do with personal associations as with belief.
As a child in Scotland, Mark Jarman was introduced to basic Christian teachings through reciting biblical psalms and singing hymns of the church. The author of many books of poems and literary criticism, he is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.