Clouds of glory

On Facebook, Bob Richmond reported returning to his mother’s copy of Page’s British Poets of the Nineteenth Century, to muse on a favorite passage of hers from William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. In the passage he posted about on Facebook, this excerpt:

Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home

Ah, immediate clang for me: the Sacred Harp (1991 Denson revision), 480, Redemption (words and setting by John T. Hocutt, 1959), with the chorus:

Oh, His blood was shed that we might live
With Him when life is o’er,
And upon the clouds of glory ride
Safe to that peaceful shore.

I’ve long been moved by the idea of riding upon those clouds of glory, and now it seems that Wordsworth is the source of the phrase — here, and in other places as well.

The Ode. The briefest of notes, first about dates: the Ode was completed in 1804, published in 1807, then edited and reworked into the currently known version in 1815. There’s an enormous literature about the poem, surveyed in the Wikipedia article, but its content and influence aren’t what I’m posting about here. Right now I’m after the linguistic expression (trailing) clouds of glory and how it got used by others.

SH 480. From the book:


(Reminder: the lines are treble, alto, tenor, bass, and the melody is in the tenor (third) line. Though this song is one in which the treble line — I am a male treble, so I care about stuff like this — is not high harmony, but a counter-melody against the tenor line.)

The book patrol. Wordsworth’s expression has supplied titles for a number of books — it lends itself to military themes, but isn’t restricted to them — including these three:

Clouds of Glory: A Childhood in Hoxton by Bryan Magee (2003)

Trailing Clouds of Glory: Zachary Taylor’s Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders by Felice Flanery Lewis (2010)

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda (2014)

A movie reference. From the 2004 movie Deadwood, deadpan:

E.B. Farnum: Trailing clouds of glory.
Hotel Patron: Do you read Wordsworth?
E.B. Farnum: I do not, Madam, no. How do you come to ask?
Hotel Patron: You’ve just quoted him.
E.B. Farnum: Well, I have a digest from which I memorize, suppressing the author’s names. Enjoy your supper.

A delicate rose. From the Jackson & Perkins site: ‘Clouds of Glory’, a hybrid tea rose (a 2014 J&P introduction):

(#2) “the blend of soft colors brings to mind fluffy summer clouds painted with the first hues of the setting sun”

Wordsworth’s sources. It seems pretty clear that Wordsworth was alluding to — but not actually quoting — biblical passages (from the KJV) involving clouds and the glory of God (in particular, clouds protecting the Israelites during their wanderings in exile). Investigating these sources is a substantial research project that I’m not up to right now, but let me just flag the topic for the moment.

A patriotic bonus: SH 479. In photocopying SH 480, I realized that the other side of the page, SH 479, was another favorite of mine, the William Billings tune Chester. Which turns out to have started as an aggressively patriotic song from Revolutionary times. From Wikipedia:

“Chester” is a patriotic anthem composed by William Billings and sung during the American Revolutionary War. Billings wrote the first version of the song for his 1770 songbook The New England Psalm Singer, and made improvements for the version in his The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778). It is the latter version that is best known today.

The curious title of the song reflects a common practice of Billings’s day, in which tunes were labeled with (often arbitrarily chosen) place names. Billings’s song evidently has little more to do with any particular town named Chester than his famous hymn “Africa” has to do with Africa. The idea behind this practice was that by labeling the tunes independently, one could sing them to different words without creating confusion

… Although this cannot be established with certainty, it appears that these lyrics are by Billings himself.

The lyrics, proclaiming, in effect: Take that, you haughty Redcoats! Our rough-hewn lads will wipe you out!:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

Final Wikipedia note:

The song was later provided with religious (as opposed to patriotic) words by Philip Doddridge, and in this form is a favorite of Sacred Harp singers.

And that’s SH 479:


Both religious and astronomical. But not fierce.

2 Responses to “Clouds of glory”

  1. martin Says:

    Taking advantage of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday on Tuesday, the Royal Mail are issuing a set of stamps honouring the Romantic Poets. Wordsworth’s stamp has the quote:
    “My heart leaps up when I behold
    A rainbow in the sky”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Thanks. I’ve long been inclined to truncate the Wordsworth to “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow”, referring to the Pride rainbow. I’m not unmoved by rainbows in the sky, but the Pride rainbow carries a lot more meaning for me.

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