I have not actually listened to “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel with James KA Smith, but I have listened to “Solsbury Hill” while pretending I was James KA Smith. I wrote this post to answer a question I believe many classical educators regularly encounter: Are classical things necessarily old? My answer to this question is a highly qualified “No,” but as opposed to writing an esoteric defense of that “No,” I decided to try to prove it by example, instead.
What follows are the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” with Smithian commentary between. I would recommend listening to the song as you read.
Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
The hill is a high place, a place of intercession between heaven and earth, God and man. The man who would meet God must be lifted up. Adam was set on a mountain. The second Adam, Noah, was also set on a mountain. Christ preached His greatest sermon from a mountain. He ascended a mountain to reveal His divinity to His friends, and He ascended the Cross to defeat His enemies. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you, teaches St. James. Gabriel draws near to God, expecting some revelation to follow.
I could see the city light
Gabriel can see the city light from without, not within. He has escaped the city and seeks the revelation which comes not only from great heights, but from the wilderness. Like Elijah, like St. John the Baptist, like Christ, Gabriel departs the distraction of the city for peace, for knowledge, but also, perhaps, to be tempted. Gabriel sees “the city light” from atop a hill, and so he looks down on the city; he is in a position to judge the city and the ways of the city.
Wind was blowing, time stood still
This wind is the wind of the Spirit. Time stands still because Gabriel is being drawn out of Cronos and into the eternal present of heaven. When God moves (“wind…blowing”), Cronos is silent, bows.
Eagle flew out of the night
The eagle is traditionally associated with theology, with revelation, because of all creatures on earth, none has better eyesight. Of the four living creatures in Revelation, St. John is often interpreted to be the eagle, for St. John was able to peer into heaven and record what he saw. The eagle which “flies out of the night” appears from darkness, from nothing, suddenly materializing. In drawing near to God on the mountain, God has come near to Gabriel, as He has promised.
He was something to observe
“The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before Him,” teaches Habakkuk. The eagle is something to observe, to gaze at, to contemplate. The eagle is not something to engage in conversation. Communion with the eagle begins in passivity and self-abnegation, not self-expression.
Came in close, I heard a voice
Gabriel hears a voice, but we are not necessarily to understand that the eagle speaks like some kind of fairy creature. The eagle is an icon of theology and revelation, a manifestation of the Spirit, but God communicates not by “a din upon the ears” as Augustine remarks somewhere, but through revelation of Himself to the soul of a man.
Standing stretching every nerve
Gabriel had been sitting before he saw the eagle, which suggests he had been on the hill for some time before the eagle appeared. When he observes the eagle, he stands. God tested Gabriel’s patience, and did not immediately gratify His desire to know. Some days may have elapsed between the climb up Solsbury Hill and the arrival of the eagle.
Had to listen had no choice
Gabriel has “no choice” in listening to the voice not because the revelation is unwillingly forced upon him, but because the speech of the eagle is intellectual, spiritual, not audible. The speech of the eagle could not be heard by just anyone standing on the hill (Saul’s companions heard nothing); the speech can only be discerned within the spirit of the one to whom the eagle reveals himself. Gabriel has no choice about listening in the same way Peter has no choice in being woken up when the angel comes to spring him from prison in Acts 12.
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
Gabriel does not tell us what this information is, for we are not prepared to hear it. We have not climbed the mountain and waited in silence for it. The information is ineffable; the information is the transcendent beauty of God. The use of the word “believe” here should not be confused with faith, though. “Belief” is contrasted with “trust,” which means Gabriel is either a) using the word “belief” to connote rational acceptance or b) “did not believe” is a figure of speech meant to convey just how astonishing the words of the eagle are. Gabriel must “trust imagination” because the words of the Spirit are beyond logical comprehension. At the same time, Christian revelation and theology have traditionally involved imagination. Anselm’s dictum that God is “whatever it is better to be than not to be” makes imagination the horizon of all theology. The man whose imagination stretches the furthest meets God most truly.
My heart going boom boom boom
The rhythm of the song allows the “boom boom boom” to really be a single word, suggesting that Gabriel’s heart is not only beating with great vigor, but quickly, as well. The spirit has quickened his heart, making his heart alive, granting vitality.
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”
The Spirit speaks to Gabriel affectionately, familiarly. The Spirit also issues a test to Gabriel which he will not pass until the closing lines of the song. Are the words of the Spirit to be taken at face value, and do “[his] things” still have any value? Does he still need “[his] things”? The Spirit challenges Gabriel to go back into the city, to collect his things, before being taken “home.” At the same time Gabriel has born witness to transcendent beauty, this beauty has also posed him with a conundrum, a riddle. He departs the vision perplexed.
To keepin’ silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
We are here to intuit that Gabriel goes back down Solsbury Hill (presumably into the city of Bath, England) and tries to resume his life, as before. He does not tell his friends that God has spoken to him, for they would count him mad. The feeling of sublimity and compulsion towards the good which Gabriel felt on the mountain is lost, though, in returning to the hustle and bustle of the city. In resuming his ordinary and mundane life, Gabriel resumes the standard fears which attend the city of man; he does not want to be an outcast (“a nut”).
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
The line “turning water into wine” can be read several ways. First, the line can be taken as a broad reference to all the miracles of Christ. We can put a question mark at the end of the line and it becomes the skeptical question of the friends who “would think” he is “a nut.” Do you really believe such superstitious nonsense, Peter? Those who had previously counted him a friend (and given him “open doors”) would no longer want anything to do with him. Because he fears being despised by the world, Gabriel is hesitant to relate his vision.
So I went from day to day
Drawn back into the confusion and distraction of the city, Gabriel loses sight of heaven and settles back into his unsatisfying, unfulfilling life. He tries to be content with the shallow friends and shallow relationships he kept…
Though my life was in a rut
…but no longer takes pleasure in them. He feels as though he has betrayed himself and the eagle of the Spirit. The “rut” he is in references the wheel of Fortuna, which perpetually spins back to where it has begun. Fortune’s wheel and the “rut” both harken back to Cronos, which bowed to the eagle; once the hope of the eagle has been lost though, Cronos’ reign resumes, Fortuna controls all, and life becomes lodged again in the long, deep track of her wheel.
Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
The song turns on Gabriel’s decision to make confession. Gabriel intuits rightly that he must cut a connection, but which one? His spiritual connection to the eagle or his material connection to his friends? “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” teaches Christ, and once Gabriel knows he must cut his connection to the machinery of the city of man (and gain the spirit of the heavenly city), he knows what he should “say.” He is feeling “part of the scenery,” an immobile object, a mere corpse. “I walked right out…” explains “I though of what I’d say.” When Gabriel bears witness to the eagle and makes a public profession of his faith, he will leave behind the things the pagan world “runs after” (Luke 12:30).
My heart going boom boom boom
This booming of the heart is unlike the former, for Gabriel has not yet said what he “thought…[he would] say,” but only conceived of an apologia. He is yet anxious of how his friends will respond to his claims of the numinous eagle. This beating of the heart is sheer terror.
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”
In the midst of his trials, the eagle returns to give exhortation. The second exhortation is unlike the former, for Gabriel is no longer “son,” but merely addressed by the impersonal, “Hey.” Gabriel should fear this diminishing familiarity. It is difficult to hear the eagle so clearly from the city as it is from the hill. The eagle repeats the challenge, the test— “grab your things”— and this time Gabriel understands what is required of him. What follows is a short sermon Gabriel delivers to his friends:
When illusion spins her net
I’m never where I want to be
“Life in the city is filled with illusions and distractions, but the distractions are sufficiently powerful to trap, like a bird (an eagle) trapped in a fowler’s snare (“We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped,” writes the Psalmist). Shackled, caged, enslaved, I can never be at home. This place is no longer my home, for I cannot be on earth without being trapped, without being alienated from my true freedom (1 Peter 2:11).”
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Gabriel contrasts the enslaving net of illusions with the dance of liberty. True liberty is not freedom of body but freedom of soul, for even when a man goes down to Hell, yet God can enlighten His heart there (Psalm 139:8). “When I think that I am free” suggests intellectual freedom, if not material or political freedom. Gabriel personifies liberty as a thing which can dance, perhaps suggesting the rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he…” (Proverbs 23:7) and so the “thought” freedom is true freedom, not illusive freedom. This true freedom of the heart is indistinguishable from Freedom himself (the dancing personified “liberty”).
Watched by empty silhouettes
Dismayed at his confession, Gabriel’s friends become unreal to him. He is “watched” just as the eagle was “observed,” though his friends are “empty” because they did not look on the things with God with a servile spirit, a humble spirit, but with judgment.
Who close their eyes but still can see
Gabriel’s friends intuit the truth of his confession, but they do not like what he has said, for they are condemned in their unwillingness to answer the “grab your things” test. They have suppressed the turht in unrighteousness. They close their eyes, they do not have eyes to see, they do not have eyes to believe, and while they try to submerge and hide the truth of his confession, they begrudgingly admit (in their own hearts) that Gabriel has genuinely encountered Truth itself.
No one taught them etiquette
The open doors are now shut. Here, “etiquette” is a euphemism for true charity and loving, the kind of hospitality we find practiced in the early chapters of Acts. The entire song, in fact, seems born out of the same Pentecostal mood of the early chapters of St. Luke’s history.
I will show another me
The line may be read two ways. “I will show my friends a new man— a new man who has put off the old man,” or, “I will show another person like myself that same transcendent beauty which the eagle revealed to me.” Because Gabriel has made himself open to the Spirit, the Spirit may reveal Himself to the friends just as easily through Gabriel and He first revealed Himself through the eagle. Gabriel has become the eagle. A man becomes what he beholds.
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
Gabriel no longer needs “replacement,” or feigned joy. He is now ready for true joy. First coming down from the hill, Gabriel was overjoyed, but embarrassed and ashamed to reveal the cause of that joy. At the prompting of the eagle, he is ready to recapture that divine joy. He is nearly at the point of responding to the eagle’s riddle.
My heart going boom boom boom
The third appearance of the line harkens back to the first (A B A’). Gabriel is ready to lose “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields” for the sake of Christ. He is ready to gain back those things one hundred fold in the life to come (Matthew 19:29). The joy of the divine revelation is returned, and his heart is quickened once again. He is ready to make his final confession, but he will make that confession without anxiety.
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
they’ve come to take me home.”
The test of the eagle is at last solved. Gabriel did not need to grab his things in order to take them to his eternal home. He needed to grab his things that he might give them away. Here he sells all he has and gives to his spiritually impoverished friends. However, he does not merely sell all his physical possessions, he also turns himself over to a life of closed doors and accusations of madness. This means nothing to him, though, for with his earthly possessions gone, the angels will welcome him into his “eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).