Bill Long 11/01/04
And so the fabled land of Taprobane or Ceylon entered deeply into the consciousness of the English reader. By the time such a reader learned about this fantastic place, however, the era of Crusades was over and England was trying to rebuild from the devastating effects of the bubonic plague. Social unrest characterized the 1380s, and the people had to funnel their dreams of great wealth into the imaginative tales told in Mandeville's Travels and other exotic travel literature.
It is no accident that this kind of exotica flourishes in difficult economic times. The cute play Annie, for example, was written in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression and before FDR's alphabet soup of federal agencies had tried to inject some growth into a stagnant economy. Shakespeare might say that "we are such things that dreams are made on (Tempest 4.1.156-157)," and it is often true that we are as insubstantial as our fondest dreams, though in fact our dreams carry us through the barren days and the rocky terrain of present-day life.
A Dream's Seeming Realization
But the people of England didn't just have to dream. By the 17th century the East India Company was founded. By the 18th century Britain had invaded India, setting up their rule in a land more vast by far than the British Isles. Who could have doubted that the Christian religion would soon follow and that Britain would send the "best and the brightest" to this land of imagination?
And indeed it did. The biography of the relatively short-lived Reginald Heber (1783-1826), future Bishop of Calcutta, is filled with the kind of precociousness that one expects from reading about 19th century Englishmen. While John Stuart Mill might have been able to read Greek and Latin by age 5, Heber is reputed to have been able to quote any verse from the Bible by age 5. Perhaps this inclination already stirred his soul to leadership in the newly dawning movement of foreign missions (The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was founded as recently as 1701) and he was sent as Bishop of Calcutta with authority also over Ceylon (Taprobane) in 1823--though it appears that he was reluctant to go at first.
Heber was an accomplished poet, and his Hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty," is still sung with regularity in Christian worship and was called by Tennyson the greatest hymn in the English language. Yet he also was a man who caught the missionary bug and penned probably the greatest missionary hymn in English until its blatant theological imperialism forced it out of Christian worship in the mid-20th century. But that hymn, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," warrants mention here, for the fabled isle of Ceylon is mentioned in it, though overlaid now by the thick crust of exclusive Christianity.
Heber wrote it at Whitsuntide (Pentecost) 1819, four years before becoming Bishop of Calcutta/Ceylon. It breathes a tone of confident superiority of the Western Christian nations to the heathen of the East, who are mired in their idolatry even as they cry to us in the West to deliver us from their chains. The first verse ends with the desperate cry of the heathen, "They call us to deliver/ Their land from error's chain."
The second stanza of the hymn further "thickens the plot."* It runs,
[*You should know that classical Christian hymnody --that is, Christian hymns before "Kum ba yah" left its African-American Gospel location to be taken up by dyspeptic white middle-class Protestants in the 1960s and 1970--states the "problem" in the first stanza, then develops it in several intermediary stanzas, which are usually left out in modern hymnals, and then "solves" the problem in the next to last stanza either by urging faithful Christian service or showing how God was going to womp his enemies, before concluding with a rousing final stanza of praise to God.]
"What tho' the spicy breezes blow soft o'er Ceylon's isle;/ Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?/ In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;/ The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone."
Well, an "amen" might not be what we need at this point. What is interesting to note from Heber's hymn is that Ceylon remains the land of imagination, even though the land is now in the grip of heathenish forces. The "spicy breezes" still "blow soft" o'er Ceylon, but perhaps the gold of Mandeville's Travels has been replaced by spices here because of the fabulous wealth of the spice-trading companies in Heber's day. Gold just wasn't guarded by pismires anymore.
But the imaginative words to describe Ceylon have a similar purpose to the Travels of nearly five centuries before. They inspire the reader (in this case the singer) to leave the comfort of his "modern" nineteenth century accommodations to join in the great task of the century, the Christianization of the world. As the next verse goes on to say, "Can we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high;/ Can we to men benighted the lamp of light deny?" Of course not. The fabled lands of Mandeville's Travels will fuel the missionary movement of the day, and inspire the heart to do great things for God. This language, and this spirit, still finds its home in much of modern Protestant Evangelicalism.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long