March 09, 2004

The feet of them

Before leaving for Japan last Saturday, I loaded Handel's Messiah (Ton Koopman's version, apparently now out of print) into my cheap little mp3 player. It was a long journey, so I got to listen to it several times through, and I listened to the words more carefully than I have in the past. One line in particular caught my attention:

"How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace."

This is just how I'd always heard the passage, but I'd never thought about it before. In today's America or even in Handel's England, it's odd to single out the feet for evaluation in this way. Why not "hands" or "lips"? Why any particular body parts at all? So I listened to it several times, wondering if my perception of it might be a mondegreen.

There are more than a few (sources of) mondegreens in the Messiah, including a remarkable case where the string of words is heard correctly but the sense of one of the words is misconstrued: "(all) we like sheep." The line continues "have gone astray" rather than "and dislike goats", which should provide a clue, but several people have told me that as children, singing in a seasonal Messiah choir somewhere, they understood the words as expressing a positive emotional response to the ovidae.

Anyhow, after careful attention, I concluded that it really is the feet, and they really are beautiful.

Pondering this on the plane, I decided it could have to do with the special (negative) role of (dirty) feet in Middle Eastern culture. "Shake off the dust of your feet", Jesus washing his disciples' feet, Iraqis beating Saddam's statue with the soles of their sandals. The messengers are so welcome that even their travel-stained feet are beautiful. And I had a dim memory of some scriptural passage about beautiful feet, though I thought there were mountains in it somewhere.

Now that I have internet access for a while here in Tokyo, I've learned that the text of Handel's Messiah was a compilation of scriptural passages created by his friend Charles Jennens (though this page claims that it was really Jennens' secretary, Dr. Pooley). And at least according to legend, Handel wrote the oratorio's music in 21 (or 23, or 24) days, which is extraordinary if true, given how much of it there is, and how good it all is.

The "feet" passage is from the King James version of Romans 10.15:

and how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written,

How beautiful are the feet of them
that preach the gospel of peace,
and bring glad tidings of good things!

which in turn refers to Isaiah 52.7

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!

and/or to Nahum 1.15

The Tidings of Nineveh's Fall
Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace!

Like the feet, Handel's music is beautiful, though it is now stuck in my mind like a jingle or a pop song hook.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 9, 2004 08:56 PM