‘Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’ – a response

The above phrase from Bishop Reginald Heber’s hymn "From Greenland’s Icy Mountains" was quoted in several recent articles and letters in The ISLAND (D Nesiah, 6 April; D.L.O. Mendis, 11 April and E. de S. Wijeyeratne, 19 April). I used to be puzzled as to why Bishop Heber described the people of Ceylon as vile, when many foreign visitors to Ceylon through the ages had found the inhabitants of the island to be as pleasant as their physical surroundings. Your readers may like to know a few facts about Heber’s famous hymn.

Most people who quote Heber’s hymn only quote the lines mentioning Ceylon and end the quotation after the word "vile" using a full stop or a question mark. I was pleased to note that DLOM had quoted the first two stanzas in their entirety. The second stanza of the hymn is quoted below with the correct punctuation marks as they appear in Heber’s manuscript. Note the use of the colon after the word "vile".

"What though 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."

It is clear on reading the entire stanza that Heber used the word "vile" to describe the "heathen" (def: unconverted / those who do not believe in the God of Christianity, Judaism or Islam) because they continued to worship (their own religious) images despite the many gifts kindly bestowed on their land by (the Christian) God. The first stanza of the hymn describes how people in many parts of the world are calling out to men like Bishop Heber to "deliver their land from error’s chain". The third stanza justifies why Christian missionaries ("we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high") should convert heathen people of other nations and the fourth (and last) stanza praises God and the spread of Christianity. The only reason why the people are called "vile" is because they are "heathen".

The missionary hymn "From Greenland’s Icy Mountains" was written by Rev. Reginald Heber in May 1819, four years before he was appointed Bishop of Calcutta and six years before he visited Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was written (some say in twenty minutes) at the request of his father-in-law, Dean Shipley, who wanted a hymn to be sung at a special service to be held the following day at the parish church of Wrexham, on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). Thus, the hymn was sung for the first time on the day after it was written.

In two interesting articles titled ‘Taprobane 1’ and ‘Taprobane 2’ (accessible on the internet), William R. Long analyses the celebrated hymn and offers an explanation as to why Heber wrote about Ceylon in the hymn before he actually visited the island. He thinks it was because Ceylon was connected with the fabled land of Taprobane mentioned in the exotic medieval travel book called Mandeville’s Travels, and that Heber’s purpose was to inspire the missionaries to travel to this land of soft and spicy breezes and convert the heathen. Long describes Heber’s hymn as ".....probably the greatest missionary hymn in English until its blatant theological imperialism forced it out of Christian worship in the mid-20th century".

Bishop Heber visited Ceylon in September 1825, six years after writing his hymn. The narrative of his five weeks of travel in the island, published as the "Journal of a Tour in Ceylon", do not describe the people as vile. The journal entry at the end of his visit says: "Our visit to Ceylon has afforded us very great pleasure and interest, from its agreeable society, the beauty of its scenery, its curiosities, and, far above all, from the religious state of the native inhabitants." This appreciation is based on his actual experience of Ceylon and its inhabitants.

Bishop Heber died in Trichinopoly in 1826 and his collection of hymns was published by his widow in 1827- In this posthumous publication, the word Ceylon was inexplicably replaced by Java, so that the lines now read as "What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Java’s isle". Why was Ceylon omitted? And why was it replaced by Java? I could not find any record of Bishop Heber having visited Java. Of course, "Java" is another two-syllable "isle" rhyming with "vile".

It was generally understood, at least in the 20th century that Heber’s use of the word "vile" applied not only to the "heathen" of Ceylon but to "heathen" in other countries too. John Betjeman (Poet Laureate, 1972) thought that using phrases such as "...every prospect pleases and only man is vile" and "the heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone" appeared patronising and insensitive to other religious beliefs.

Mahatma Gandhi was offended by these phrases and their underlying assumptions. In a speech at a meeting of missionaries at the YMCA, Calcutta on 28 July, 1925, he said "One of the greatest of Christian divines, Bishop Heber, wrote the two lines which have always left a sting with me: ‘Where every prospect pleases, and man alone is vile.’ I wish he had not written them. My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary. [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so". (Ref: Young India. 27. pp 434-39, 6 August 1925). On another occasion, Gandhi also said that the famous hymn of Bishop Heber, "Greenland’s icy mountains" is a clear libel on Indian humanity.

Having presented the facts, I now theorize. When, in 1819, his father-in-law Dean Shipley asked him to produce a hymn overnight, being an accomplished poet and hymn writer, Rev. Heber -dashed off a rousing hymn for the SPG, using his imagination to describe exotic and attractive lands where the "heathen" waited to be converted. Being an ardent Evangelist, Heber equated heathenism with vileness. I wonder whether Bishop Heber (or his wife) felt a twinge of conscience when they actually visited Ceylon six years later. Why was the word Ceylon replaced by Java when his hymns were published two years after their visit? We shall never know the answer.

In conclusion, people who want to call Sri Lankans vile should not quote Heber out of context. The "heathen" would have required considerable courage to resist religious conversion during the years of colonisation and imperialism. I would describe such men as heroic, not vile.

Anoja Fernando,


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