Thursday, November 1, 2018

XTC's "Dear God" Commentary: Season Finale

"What the hell are you getting so upset about," Yossarian asked Lt. Scheisskopf's wife bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God."

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”
                                                                     -- From Catch-22

As we've seen in previous posts, XTC's "Dear God" begins with a child meekly beseeching divine intervention for the people He made in His image.

For example, stanza 1 begins, "Dear God, hope you got the letter / And I pray . . .," stanza 2, no longer spoken by a child, opens with "Dear God, sorry to disturb you," but then there's a shift. 

Stanza 3 is a tercet, with violins (as clearly seen in the video) evoking a more mellow tone which suggests an almost bucolic, peaceful, Edenic setting, not an environment in which a theological grilling is taking place. Here, in the Garden, Mr. Apostate himself is introduced: "And the devil too."

Nothing can be the same now, can it? 

Following the string-soothed tercet, stanza 5 begins with the narrator either gently or sarcastically suggesting that the world's sorrows have escaped God's alleged omniscience: "Dear God, don't know if you've noticed." We have discussed the content of this stanza, but not its closing couplet where one might say all hell begins to break loose, even though the speaker doesn't believe in it. 

When the narrator/vocalist/poet (I give up on what to call this guy) gets to what sounds (and looks) like the stanza's final line, he makes two significant changes: One, he doesn't complete the line, i.e., "I can't believe in," not "I can't believe in you." 

Two, he adds a line: "I don't believe in," and continues the epistrophe at the beginning of the next stanza: "I won't believe in."

For your visual satisfaction, it looks like this: 

   I can't believe in
   I don't believe in

   I won't believe in heaven and hell (emphasis mine, obviously)

Before stanza 5, the poem's literary music has been generated by a fairly consistent rhyme scheme of AABBCDDEF, with the C lines (5, 13 and 25) ending with "in your image," while the poem's music music (sic) comes from a blend of acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drums and, beginning with the tercet, violins.

But in stanza 5, this changes drastically to a strident, militant drumbeat intensified by an unchanging rhyme, with each line halved by a caesura, which I will now illustrate: 

   No saints, no sinners, // no devil as well
   No pearly gates, // no thorny crown
   You're always letting // us humans down
   The wars you bring, // the babes you drown
   Those lost at sea // and never found
   And it's the same // the whole world 'round
   The hurt I see // helps to compound

The caesura -- a device that goes as least as far back as Anglo-Saxon poetry -- is a mini-pause, a half breath, a truncated intake, creating a dramatic effect similar to a drumbeat.

In short, both the poem's sound and sense have taken us to that place -- whether it be mountaintop, whaling ship, a classroom, the moors, wilderness, a pit -- where wounded and rebellious humans shake their fist at God, sometimes demanding an answer, sometimes "returning their ticket" (to find this reference, read The Brothers Karamazov in its entirety), and sometimes venting their Blakean righteous indignation.

If you're normal, you've probably had one of these tantrums and know that once you've let it all out or you've had your hard, loud cry, a calm descends, that wonderful feeling of finally getting over a lingering illness. You've found and acknowledged your limits; your reach is much farther from your grasp than you thought, and you murmur quietly to yourself in deep meditation, "I can't do shit about most of this stuff." 

You have, in short, achieved a healthy disillusionment.

The same is true for "Dear God's" composer Andy Partridge and/or narrator. After a few lines (still in stanza 5) with all the metrical smoothness of a washboard dirt road ("The hurt I see helps compound / That Father, Son and Holy Ghost / Is just somebody's unholy hoax"), his stormy rhetoric comes to a halt and he turns the song back over to the child out of whose mouth the coda, the outro, comes as he completes the sentence "If there's one thing I don't believe in," with "It's you, Dear God." (I could probably write a sizable paragraph about the conditional "if" as it relates to disbelief, but I will leave that to you.)
Partridge and the Child?

Coming from the child, this line sounds more like a finger pointing than a fist shaking -- a quiet finger pointing, if there's such a thing. 

"Dear God" has indeed ended not with a bang but a whisper, a whisper with the precision of a stylus, a truth told the way only a child can tell it  -- you know, like when you introduce your 4-year old to Aunt Matilda and the brat says, "You're really fat, Aunt Matilda."

I'm not one to label "God" or to speak for "It," but I can easily imagine a Creator who loves Partridge's spirit, who loves that he has paid enough attention to be indignant.

Partridge was only 24 when he wrote "Dear God," so he was young enough to believe, like Tim O'Brien's Rat Kiley, that facts are formed by sensation. He feels the wrongness of things. He insists they should be better. At 24, no logic or theory or doctrine can explain away these sensations. 

And at his age, he lacks the maturity and detachment required to acknowledge an omnipotent God coexisting with three innocent children getting killed as they attempt to board a school bus, or with 11 of His servants killed while worshiping Him in a synagogue, or with nine of His servants slaughtered while they prayed to Him in a Charleston church, and so on.

Still too young to accept that "God is in charge, God has a plan, God is looking after me, the dead are in a better place," and so on.

If Partridge is still alive, he's probably learned to see life as a whole, see the complete picture, with drowning babes and the diamond blue each in their proper place and time.

In addition to His admiration of young Partridge's tongue of fire, "God" might also give a divine nod to XTC's creativity and their ability to add beauty and emphasis to their theme through shifts in tone, rhythm, rhyme, and instrumentation, to stir more strongly their audience's emotions by opening and closing "Dear God" with a child, bringing the piece full circle, forming an Ouroboros, the snake with its tail in its mouth, so often seen (figuratively) in 19th-century Romantic poetry. 

Whatever the God who Partridge doesn't believe in feels about this song, I have a great deal of respect for it. I take it much more seriously than I did a week ago. I think this results from careful reading and careful listening. 

With no qualifications, I can hear in "Dear God" Captain Ahab, Job, King Lear, Kurt Vonnegut, Yossarian, Shelley, Tennyson, Samuel Butler, Arthur Hugh Clough, Thomas Hardy and a host of others They're all saying the same thing. 

"Things have a way of turning out so badly. It shouldn't be like this. Why can't or won't you help us, dear God?"

"Dear Andrew, yes I got your letter
And I . . . "


  1. Excellent, Roy. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you Roy for sharing this. It helps dig a little deeper into the song. I’ve always appreciated the song and do so even more