Sunday, February 06, 2011

By George

(description of picture in words: a line drawing portrait of George Matheson. A handsome bearded, wavy haired man, impeccably groomed, drawn in  profile. He is wearing a starched white clerical collar under a dark gray overcoat.)

A couple of days ago on Belinda's Blog, Whatever He Says, the regular feature Friday's With Susan featured the story of   George Matheson, a story that I had never heard. Matheson, amongst other things, wrote the famous hymn, O Love That Will Not Let Me Go. Joe and I have sung this hymn many, many times over the years and I never knew the connection of the hymn to the man and of the man to the world of disability. Susan's post hit me, again, with the thunderous silence around the contributions of men and women with disabilities. The continued ignorance of society regarding the contributions of those whom, even today, we revile as 'useless' and as 'tragic' is appalling. It angers me, but, that's not what I want to write about.

As I investigated further afield from Susan's post, I began thinking of the story of his life and the moment that he wrote the hymn. It seems that Matheson wrote the words to the hymn during a particularly painful and difficult moment of his life. As a blind man, he had relied on his sister's loving and devoted assistance to fulfill his calling as a preacher and theologian. He was home alone on the day of her marriage and wrote the song in five minutes as he was in the depths of great despair. He never articulated, for anyone, the circumstances that caused him to feel such suffering. He said of that moment: I was at that time alone, it was the day of my sister’s marriage . . . Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself...this came like a dayspring from on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.

There are, of course, theories. The two most popular involve loss. Not of sight - as one would expect from a disphobic world view, but of love and support. Abilities are not the most painful thing to lose, as anyone with a disability can easily attest. Matheson did indeed lose his sight, but he lost considerably more. He was engaged as a young man and when it was clear that he was going blind and that there was nothing that could be done about it, his fiance announced to him that she could not live with and love a blind man. She broke off the engagement and clearly broke his heart. One theory believes that that day, the day his sister was to marry, he was reminded of the loss of this great love of his life.

Others think that there was a different loss in his heart that day. They think that the suffering was caused as he realized what the loss of his sister to his life would mean. He relied on her assistance in many areas of his life. He needed her. They were much more than brother and sister, they were partners in a joint enterprise. She had learned Greek and Latin so that she could help him with theological studies. He relied not only on her care, but on her company and her intelligence. It is easy to imagine that feeling of impending 'what now' that would settle around his shoulders as he faced yet another life's leaving.

I leave those who wish to ponder the source of his anguish to their discussions and their wonderings. Was it loss of one, was it loss of the other? I'm not sure that it matters to the heart of the story. I found myself considering something quite different. I wondered if at that moment, in a different household in Scotland, there was another dark night of the soul.

George Matheson had lived a storied life. His name had become a household word in Scotland, his preaching was renowned as 1500 people a week came to hear him speak. His books were lauded, his hymns sung.  He was invited to Balmoral Castle to preach to Queen Victoria and her family, she was so taken with his sermon, on Job, that she had it printed and distributed. After having graduated with highest honours from the University of Glasgow, he continued a life of achievement after achievement, of honour after honour. His memory was so fine tuned that when he was in front of a congregation he could do the 'readings' and the sermon in such a way that many never knew that they were listening to the words of a blind man. He carried himself as a man of power and passion not as a man needing pity and protection. It could easily be said that he took life, as he found it, and lived it vigourously.

This was the man she never married.

She left him and stepped out of history. What ever she did, where ever she went, her story is not told, her journey is not documented. Her name appears in none of the articles I found. All that exists is her rejection and the reasons for it. What ever road she took, it would lead, ultimately to anonymity. She never met the Queen, she never stood at Matheson's side as he was cheered and acknowledged. She never, like his sister, had the opportunity to share in these moments, to have made a contribution, of her own, to his work. One wonders, as she sat alone, in her kitchen over tea, humming the tune that his words were set to, if she ever sipped her tea and wondered about the decision she made. Of the life she didn't choose. One wonders if she was damned by her own prejudice, her own, forgive me, lack of vision.

I rather imagine that she did. Not because I wish her ill, but because it is human nature to wonder about the road not taken, the choice not made, the man not married. These ponderings come of their own, unbidden, without our volition. She is human. She wondered.

So while others try to figure out what George mourned on that day that he wrote a hymn that would travel down through history,  I wonder more about her, and her loss, and somehow I know - that she mourned that decision over and over again.

She saw him as we still see disability. As a burden and as needing of charity. She probably pictured a life of poverty, of penury, of pity. She could not marry that life, so she could not marry that man. Disability, though, is not a prediction. George Matheson, the blind man rejected, did not need charity. He gave support and sustenance, charity if you will, to the thousands. He contributed much, he worked tirelessly in pursuit of a life of meaning and purpose. He met royalty and was treated as royalty. His life gave the lie to those that offer pity when only support is needed.

Another hero.

Another life well lived.

Another story, untold.

(a note of the words to the hymn that follows: I have chosen to present the words as they were first written. When it was to be published, in a book of hymns, for the first time. a committee came to him and asked him to change one word. This was a hymn that Matheson, himself, said that he considered to be divinely inspired, he did not change it from the moment he wrote it. He gave into their demands and the line 'I climbed the rainbow through the rain' became 'I traced the rainbow through the rain'. The line, as they changed it, is not the wording that a blind man would have used. It, to me, represents the triumph of ableism over the disabled experience. Therefore, I will never sing it in the altered way again.')

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go

George Matheson

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I climbed the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

(description of video in words: a quartet of singers standing  in what looks to be a backstage area. Three are wearing casual clothing, one is in a suit with a hideous tie. Singers range in age but are all male.)


Belinda said...

Dave, I so enjoyed reading your thoughts on George Matheson and the woman who rejected him.

I too, will sing the song as it was written, now that I know.

I love the thought of climbing a rainbow!

Susan said...

That makes three of us... I'm climbing that rainbow from now on. I'm so glad you took my post to the next level, er, that is through the next ten levels! :)

Valorie said...

Once again, a post that makes me think about what I think I know. How wonderful of you to think about the woman who rejected him and to wonder at her life!

BTW, lovely barbershop arrangment of the hymn!

Spinningfishwife said...

So why wasn't he at the wedding? Either his sister thought it would be better for him not to go (doesn't sound likely) or he decided not to go. Very odd for a minister to miss his own sister's wedding. Anyone know why?

Dave Hingsburger said...

Spinningfishwife, that's a really interesting question. I found no explanation in any of the many articles I read. They all just say that he was home. Why he was not there isn't explained. In my first draft of this post, I'd included that question but then the post grew too long and too confused. I decided, ultimately, to focus on just the one question - what caused despair. However, a whole post could be written about him being home on that day ... like many people with disabilities sit at home on days important to families - weddings (they may act up), funerals (they may cry), graduations (they may envy) ... I've got to be careful or this note will become a post itself. All to say, I'd love to know too.

Feminist Avatar said...

Okay, I am going to put a bucket of water on this story, because there are too many wholes in it!

George Matheson started going blind in his mid-teens; by 18-19, he could only see shadows- so any women who dated him would have dated a man who was blind, just as she refused to marry him. What is more, he is also Scottish and middle-class in the mid-Victorian period, so he would not typically marry until around age 30, perhaps later, and ONLY when his career was established. Any self-respecting middle-class woman would have never entertained a man without a career- blind or not (and she wouldn't have had much of a choice as dating was chaperoned and choice of partner controlled by her parents, if no longer selected for her as in past generations). Matheson's career is well underway by the time he was 30- the typical age for marriage. If there was a woman who rejected him, it is most likely she rejected him while he was famous (and so knew what she was 'missing').

This is also the high-period of Darwin- so blind people generally didn't marry. It would have been socially disaproved of, which would have meant few women (or their families) would have entertained him as a suitor, but it may have also stopped George pursuing that aspect of identity as he may have believed it was inappropriate to marry himself. It was particularly disaproved of for people with disabilities to have children, so if a woman did marry him, she may have been expected to forgo having children and perhaps even sex (if they didn't have any knowledge of contraceptives). These are big asks of any person- and it may be that George wouldn't have asked. Finally, in his biography, he is reported as saying that he had never been in love.

George is one of eight children- 5 sons and 3 daughters. The sister with whom he was closest and who aided him in his ministry and lived with for much- but it seems not all- of his life, never married. This sort of arrangement between siblings is very common during the period, and they often had very close partnerships, resembling marriage in many ways. So, if he did miss a wedding, it was likely one of his younger sisters- who he may have been close to and so still seen this as a form of loss.

Why he missed the wedding is an interesting question. If it had happened a hundred years earlier, I would have said that was normal. Weddings in Scotland were low-profile affairs. But this is not true by the 19thC- families do attend weddings and they have fancy clothes and a big meal. However, if his sister was some distance away, it may have been impractical for him to travel. And, weddings, at this point, are still not so important that people would go to huge inconvenience to attend them- unlike today.

You can read his biography here:

Tamara said...

Great story. I wonder why they pushed for "tracing", rather than "climbing", a rainbow. "Climbing" is so much stronger.

As to why he was home - did I read it wrong? It sounded to me as if he were home from the wedding - and alone. I just assumed he had already attended the wedding ceremony.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Feminist Avatar: Thanks for your comment. I did a fair bit of searching on the internet, not relying on simply one source for the facts here in the blog post. I searched George Matheson and read seven or eight different web pages all of which present the story pretty much as I tell it here. Some were on him as a person and some were of the history of that particular hymn. I will continue to look at information on the story and thank you for giving me another reference.

Molly said...

Thought you might appreciate this link It's a mamma who is reviewing different places for their wheelchair acessibility and offering her suggestions to the stores and stuff. She's awesome and I read her regular blog.

Marilyn Yocum said...

Followed the link on Belinda's blog over here.
Enjoyed the post as well as the comments. Dave, I love your perspective and insights, where you went with the spark that landed on you! - Marilyn