In fact, if I were an English teacher grading a student’s essay with a sentence like this one in it, I would label it “awkward” and have the student rewrite it. But as linguist Geoff Nunberg writes, “We like the incantations we recite on ritual occasions to be linguistically opaque, from the unparsable ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ … to the Pledge of Allegiance….” In that light, the difficult lyrics of old-time Christmas carols are just part of their charm.
We Three Kings was written by Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr, who was a stained-glass window designer as well as musician. He wrote the music and lyrics to this song. It may have been in use by 1857. Its first appearance in print was in 1863 in the book Carols, Hymns and Song. It is said that its first use was in a Christmas pageant.
We Three Kings
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
O Star of wonder, star of night.
Star with royal beauty bright.
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy Perfect Light.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain.
Gold I bring to crown Him again.
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to rein.
Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Pray’r and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God most high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume,
Breathes of life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
Earth to heav’n replies.