Sunday, April 19, 2020

May Nothing Evil Cross This Door—Murfin Home Confinement Music Festival 2020

May Nothing Evil Cross This Door.

This Sunday we are turning to the song that is #1 in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s hymnal Singing the Living Tradition—May Nothing Evil Cross This Door.  It earns its place in the section of Celebrations of Life because it is used in the dedications of new church buildings or sanctuaries and is commonly sung on the first Sunday of the church year sometime around Labor Day for most congregations and often called homecoming.  

May Nothing Evil Cross This Door is the first hymn in the UUA's Singing the Living Tradition first published in 1003.

But in the Coronavirus pandemic when our church buildings are shuttered and congregations meeting remotely by Zoom, live streaming on web pages and social media, or posted to YouTube the song has taken a new significance and the door itself virtual and the people, not the building are the church.  At least one congregation, the Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist, assembled their virtual choir for their first remote worship service on April 5.  There were probably others.
Many of us hunkering down in our own homes hold it in our hearts as the new plague stalk our communities.
The music for the hymn was written in 1903 by Robert N. Quaile, born in 1867 the son of a Methodist preacher who was a businessman in Mallow, Ireland and was published with different lyrics in 1906 in The English Hymnal.
Although the simple melody is lovely, it is the words set to it that are most memorable.

Louis Untermeyer. poet, critic, editor, and anthologist.
Louis Untermeyer was born in 1885 in New York City the son of German-Jewish jewelry manufacturer.  He dutifully joined his father’s business but was self-educated by veracious reading.  He published the first of 21 volumes of his own poetry in 1911.  Achieving widening attention he quit the family business in 1923 to pursue a full time literary career.  He is best remembered as the collector and editor of several popular poetry anthologies including multiple regularly updated versions of Modern American Poetry and Modern British Poetry as well as The Golden Book of Poems for the Very Young.
Like many of his literary contemporizes Untermeyer was a supporter of radical and socialist causes from his young manhood through the Depression and World War II years.  He wrote for magazines such as The Masses, through which he advocated that the United States stay out of World War I, which was suppressed by the government, The Liberator which was published by the Workers Party of America, and the independent socialist.  The New Masses. On May 1, 1935, Untermeyer joined the League of American Writers whose members included Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, I.F. Stone, and Arthur Miller whose members were mostly either Communist Party members or so-called fellow travelers.  Untermeyer himself was never a member of the C.P.
In 1916 he was co-founder of The Seven Arts, a poetry magazine that introduced many new poets, including Robert Frost, who became Untermeyer’s long-term friend, correspondent, and the subject of his popular biography.

Untermeyer and Arlene Francis as celebrity panelists on What's My Line in 1950.
Witty and urbane, Untermeyer was a celebrity panelist on the first season of TV’s What’s My Line game show.  But his radical past caught up with him.  He was named during the hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Catholic War Veterans and other right-wing organizations began hounding and harassing him.  Although the show’s producers, Goodson-Todman, initially stood by him, the sponsor, Stopette Deodorant, unceremoniously fired him and replaced him with a much safer literary figure, Bennett Cerf the publisher of Random House Books.
Untermeyer was heartbroken and nearly crushed by the ordeal refusing to leave his apartment or to even speak to old friends like Arthur Miller for a year.  More than a decade later he received a public rehabilitation when he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—Poet Laureaate—in 1961 with the strong support of Robert Frost and President John F. Kennedy.

A glass mezuzah shows the prayer scroll inside.
It is tempting to read the words of May Nothing Evil Cross the Door and conclude that it was a response to his Red Scare persecution, but the poem was included in his 1923 collection Roast Leviathan.  Untermeyer, a secular Jew, was inspired by the mezuzah affixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes containing the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael to ward off evil.

No comments:

Post a Comment