A Criticism of “I Wonder as I Wander”

While the memorable part of carols is their tunes, most also have strong lyrics that communicate their points eloquently. Others that are a bit clumsier lyrically (Silent Night, in both English and German, could stand for improvement), but make up for it by being simple, memorable songs of contemplation. However, I would like to examine one carol that I believe is excessively flawed: I Wonder as I Wander.

The premise is strong. It’s a “cradle to the cross” song, one that reminds us that the point of Jesus’ birth is his eventual death. However, lyrical details bog it down and make the whole thing not quite communicate what it was trying to say.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor ordinary people like you and like I…

Two problems so far. First, “ordinary” gets butchered because the scansion requires it to fit into two syllables instead of four. It ends up sounding like “ornery,” which technically also has an appropriate meaning, but to American audiences sounds like he’s talking about Texas cattle.

Second, “like me,” not “like I.” All the grammar Nazis in the audience have just been permanently lost. I’m not cutting him any slack for rhyming, because he’s rhyming with “sky,” which isn’t very challenging.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

The final line has a crescendo in the middle that doesn’t work in this verse, because “wander” isn’t really an important word. In all the stanzas, the crescendo falls awkwardly on an unstressed syllable. Also, simply repeating the first line is a weak way to end the stanza.

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall

The word “birthed” feels really inappropriate here to me. It evokes cows calving more than a human giving birth to the Son of God. “Bore” has preferable connotations and also fits the unstressed syllable better because it has fewer consonants.

With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all

This group of three doesn’t add up to anything because there is no trait that all three elements share. The verse seems to be about the humility of Christ’s birth, so the shepherds and farmers make sense, but the wise men aren’t a symbol of humility or poverty. The wise men are a reference to the original account, but farmers aren’t mentioned there. The line ends up with no meaning at all.

But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing

The word “wee” feels wrong here. What was wrong with “small?”

A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,

That last one doesn’t sound like a wee thing.

He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.

The combination of the earlier “wee,” the stilted “could have” (which grammatically should be “could have had;” when singing, the awkward scansion makes it sound like that, anyway), and “’cause” makes this line sound casual, even childish, in contrast to the rest and the subject matter. This is a consequence of trying to cram too many words into one line. The crescendo lands awkwardly on the word “it.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor ordinary people like you and like I…
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

The last verse is merely a repetition of the first verse. I don’t recommend this strategy for several reasons. First, contemporary churches will repeat all the verses as many times as they want anyway, so there’s no reason to mess them up by introducing indended repetition. Second, the grammar Nazis were just recovering and now they’re screwed up again. Third, the ending just doesn’t deliver the premise. This was supposed to be a “cradle to the cross” song, but after an introductory verse and two verses more or less about Christ’s humility, it never actually addresses Christ’s death, except through the mention of it in the repeated first verse.

This carol meanders about, stumbling over phrasing and not quite saying what it was intended to say. It makes an effort, but in the end, it simply doesn’t work.

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