“Precedence” by Horatius Bonar

This post is about happiness, and whether we have to pay for it.

Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) was ordained in the Church of Scotland. He received a Doctor of Divinity in 1853. He wrote many hymns, and churches have often used them in their services. This poem by Bonar, called “Precedence,” will be analyzed below.

Precedence
1 ‘Tis first the true and then the beautiful,
2 Not first the beautiful and then the true;
3 First the wild moor, with rock and reed and pool,
4 Then the gay garden, rich in scent and hue.
5 ‘Tis first the good and then the beautiful,—
6 Not first the beautiful and then the good;
7 First the rough seed, sown in the rougher soil,
8 Then the flower-blossom, or the branching wood.
9 Not first the glad and then the sorrowful,—
10 But first the sorrowful, and then the glad;
11 Tears for a day,—for earth of tears is full,
12 Then we forget that we were ever sad.
13 Not first the bright, and after that the dark,—
14 But first the dark, and after that the bright;
15 First the thick cloud, and then the rainbow’s arc,
16 First the dark grave, then resurrection-light.
17 ‘Tis first the night,—stern night of storm and war,—
18 Long night of heavy clouds and veiled skies;
19 Then the far sparkle of the Morning-star,
20 That bids the saints awake and dawn arise.

In this poem, Bonar tells us that some things in the world follow a certain order: the true precedes the beautiful (L1-L4), the good precedes the beautiful (L5-L8), the sorrowful precedes the glad (L9-L12), the dark precedes the bright (L13-L16), and the night precedes the dawn (L17-L20). In the last three cases, negative things precede positive things. This implies that we have to “pay our dues” in order to find something good. But it this true?

Bonar was a Christian, and much of this poem was inspired by the Bible. For example, the “Morning-star” refers to Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus warns that those who are happy now will mourn, but says that those who mourn will be comforted:

Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:25, NASB)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4, NASB)

Jesus also says that his followers will be sad, but their sadness will be turned into joy. This echoes Bonar’s precedence of the sorrowful before the glad (L9-L12):

Truly, truly, I [Jesus] say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy. (John 16:20, NASB)

On the other hand, why should we be sorrowful or sad at all? Do we have to pay our dues in order to be happy? A Course in Miracles says:

The Holy Spirit will direct you only so as to avoid all pain. The undoing of pain must obviously avoid pain. Surely, no one would object to this goal if he recognized it. The problem is not whether what He says is true, but whether or not you want to listen to what He says. You no more recognize what is painful than you know what is joyful, and are in fact very apt to confuse them. The Holy Spirit’s main function is to teach you to tell them apart. (A Course in Miracles: Complete and Annotated Edition, p. 291)

We can see that there is some truth in the above quotation when we consider that some people “enjoy” listening to sad songs, and some people dislike hearing about other people’s happiness.

What are we to make of these two ideas? On the one hand, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and on the other hand, the Holy Spirit wants to remove all pain. Is there a resolution to this seeming paradox or dilemma? What do you think?

Historical Outline of English Poetry

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