In one of the main theaters at the historic Mt. Vernon Estate they show a video about Washington’s key Revolutionary War victory at the Battle of Trenton. It’s never boring, though I’ve seen it a hundred times, and until today I’d attributed this to the special effects. There are big soap-bubble snowflakes that fall from the ceiling during the Crossing of the Delaware, for example, and the cannon fire makes the seats shake like a 32″ contra bombarde in a clapboard church. But they’ve just installed a caption screen for the hard of hearing, and as I read the narration for the first time, I realized why the movie was never boring: the verbs. Screen after screen passed without a single form of the verb “to be.” Instead, there were real verbs: marched, refused, surprised, attacked. There were only a few “was”es and “were”s to slow down the action.
A similarly vigorous use of verbs characterizes many of our greatest English language hymns, like those of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, and of other great hymn writers. In the five common-use verses of Watts’ Jesus Shall Reign, for example, there is one use of “be,” and in all eight verses of Watt’s original hymn, there are only two. In two popular versifications of the Te Deum, Clarence Walworth’s translation of Grosser Gott and Christopher Idle’s God We Praise You, action verbs predominate and the use of “be” is very limited.
Limiting verbs that merely function, that merely link together nouns with other nouns or adjectives, and instead choosing true action verbs, greatly increases verbal density. This is hugely important in poetic forms such as hymns, which are meant to be dense speech. The tongue delights to trip through the rich forest of verbs in Jesus Shall Reign: reign, run, stretch, wax, wane–and that is just the first verse.
There are exceptions, of course. In Wesley’s epic hymn Wrestling Jacob (which Watts said was worth all the verses he himself had written) the verb “to be” is prevalent, and yet highly meaningful, because Jacob’s own question “What is your name?” makes the verb “to be” into a real verb. It is God’s own Is-ness that Jacob seeks. The same can be said of all four uses of forms of “be” in Holy, Holy, Holy: they refer to God’s I Am-ness, God as Being. They are not linking verbs but real verbs.