One Sunday morning many years ago a choir was rehearsing the hymn ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’. It had just sung the first two lines of the second verse – ‘From celestial realms descending, Bridal glory round her shed’ – when there came a soft guffaw from one of the altos. She had (jokingly, I’m sure) taken the meaning as ‘Bridal glory (round (her shed))’, instead of the intended (I’m sure) ‘Bridal glory (round her) (shed)’. The first four lines, in full, from the hymnbook we were using, are ‘From celestial realms descending, Bridal glory round her shed, To his presence, decked with jewels, By her Lord shall she be led’. (Other translations exist.)
There are several reasons for the ambiguity. The ‘deep structure’ is ‘God sheds bridal glory round her’. This leads to ‘Bridal glory is shed round her (by God)’, which is a complete sentence, and then to ‘Bridal glory shed round her’, which is not a complete sentence and which can exist only alongside a noun or pronoun in order to describe it, in this case ‘she’ (the heavenly city). In standard word order, the those four lines are: ‘She – descending from celestial realms, with bridal glory shed round her, and decked with jewels – shall be led by her Lord to his presence.’ (Now you know why I’m not a poet!)
The ambiguity arises partly because of the non-standard word order (‘bridal glory shed round her’ is instantly clear(er)) and partly because in English, the object and possessive forms of ‘she‘ are both ‘her’. If a city was ‘he’, there’d be no problem: ‘Bridal glory round him shed‘ can only have the intended meaning, and ‘Bridal glory round his shed‘ can only have the other. (Or even ‘round it shed’ v ‘round its shed’). (In Latin, cities are ‘she’, because ‘urbs’ is a feminine noun.)
In fact, John Mason Neale’s original translation used/uses ‘thou/thee/thy/thine’ forms: ‘Bridal glory round thee shed’, and not ‘Bridal glory round thy shed’. What is left of my Latin isn’t good enough to parse the original. I can see an ‘ejus’ (his/her/it) in there, rather than ‘vestri’ (thy/your).
While researching this post, I searched online for ‘Bridal glory round her shed’ and ‘Bridal glory round thee shed’. The second time, a major search engine helpfully asked: ‘Do you mean “Bridal glory round the shed”?’
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