King Jesus Hath a Garden – Trad., tr. Woodward (1848-1934)

Once more I am dipping into the chorister’s staple, “100 Hundred Carols for Choirs”, usually given out at rehearsals some time in late October, and collected in for storage in early January. As I have mentioned previously though, not all carols are for Christmas, and this is another. The original “Heer Jezus heeft een hofken” is set to a traditional Dutch melody. It was later translated by Rev George Woodward (1848-1934) and harmonised by Charles Wood (1866-1926).

As we leave the Easter season and head into Ordinary Time, it is good to think about gardens in full bloom, and consider what this carol is saying to us:

  1. King Jesus hath a garden, full of divers flowers,
    Where I go culling posies gay, all times and hours.

There naught is heard but Paradise bird,
Harp, dulcimer, lute,
With cymbal, trump and tymbal,
And the tender, soothing flute.

  1. The Lily, white in blossom there, is Chastity:
    The Violet, with sweet perfume, Humility. Refrain
  2. The bonny Damask-rose is known as Patience:
    The blithe and thrifty Marygold, Obedience. Refrain
  3. The Crown Imperial bloometh too in yonder place,
    ‘Tis Charity, of stock divine, the flower of grace. Refrain
  4. Yet, ‘mid the brave, the bravest prize of all may claim
    The Star of Bethlem-Jesus-bless’d be his Name! Refrain
  5. Ah! Jesu Lord, my heal and weal, my bliss complete,
    Make thou my heart thy garden-plot, fair, trim and neat. Refrain

Flowers are probably the original decoration used in our church buildings, usually for their beauty, but also for their meaning. In this short carol, five virtues are listed along with their floral representation: chastity (lily), humility (violet), patience (damask rose), obedience (marigold), charity (crown imperial), and of course Jesus himself (star of Bethlehem).

Gardens are tranquil places. Even when we are working in them – gardening – we find ourselves slowed to the pace of nature. Nothing grows quickly, everything needs to be tended and cared for; a neglected garden soon becomes an overgrown wilderness of weeds.

It would be easy to consider King Jesus’ garden to be Eden, the perfect garden from which we were expelled in Genesis 3. The final verse of this carol tells us otherwise.

‘Heal’ and ‘weal’ could be considered as contractions of ‘health’ and ‘wealth’. Lyricists often massage syllables in words to make them fit with the rhythm and meter of the music, but ‘health’ and ‘wealth’ would fit just as easily (although they are more difficult to sing with clarity). So are they a throw-back to an older version of English? After all, there is ‘divers’ (verse 1) rather than ‘diverse’, Marygold for marigold in verse 3, and bloometh in verse 4. Incidentally, did you know that ‘marigold’ is a contraction of Mary’s gold? That’s why these golden yellow flowers are often used as garlands for statues of Mary. Sticking with older English, the words heal and weal have long since faded from regular use, but ‘weal’ is to mark with stripes, for example with a whip. Is this sounding familiar? Many Easter hymns refer to Jesus’ ‘stripes’. Meanwhile, to ‘heal’ was to hide, conceal or keep secret. Just like the disciples in the days after the first Easter.

Either way, our plea is for Jesus to make his garden in our hearts, full of chastity, humility, patience, obedience, charity, and grace. For these virtues to bloom in a garden-plot that is fair, trim, and neat, we are required to work as gardeners alongside Jesus, constantly tending and nurturing all that is good.

I learned this carol at rehearsals with the Manchester Chorale, in preparation for one of our Christmas concerts, but as I said above, I think it’s one for all year around. Just like gardens.

Here is the choir of Wells Cathedral singing “King Jesus Hath a Garden” in a version arranged by John Rutter:

Carol P

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