In Translation: Restless Heart/Urolige Hjerte

grundtvig.dk
Herre, du har skabt os til dig, og vort hjerte er uroligt, indtil det finder hvile hos dig.
Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
(St Augustine, Confessions)

When I first started learning Danish last year and was looking for anything to help me, I stumbled across an eerily beautiful song called “Urolige Hjerte” by Kloster. Though all I could tell you about the song at the time was that it had something to do with hearts, I was drawn to the song from the start, finding it strangely comforting. Then I learnt that the song was a hymn by 19th-century Danish pastor, poet and educational philosopher N.F.S. Grundtvig. I’ve since written about Grundtvig on this blog and have had a wild stab at some translation of another of his texts. But all this time I’ve been working away at translating “Urolige Hjerte” into English, finding no other full translation of it anywhere online (only this paraphrase, which was still very helpful for some of Grundtvig’s trickier expressions.)

Thanks go to Mikael Rahbæk Andreasen of Kloster, both for first introducing me to this hymn and for giving generous help and guidance in the translation.

Restless Heart (Urolige Hjerte) – N.F.S. Grundtvig

Restless heart, what ails you?
What makes you feel so much pain?
Is He not your very good Father,
Who over everything reigns?
Does He not know your every thought?
Has He not counted the hairs on your head?
Has not He chosen you to be
His very closest friend?

And have you not that precious gift,
That rare, cherished hope?
Or don’t you remember your baptism waters,
And the words that Jesus spoke?
Words that only fit the ones
Who enter God’s heaven, true?
Weren’t the words He spoke to you,
“Peace be with you”?

What then, my soul, can harm you
When you’ve the peace of God?
God’s angels are all joyful,
Forever, on and on.
Will you not join the heavenly shout?
She holds wide the door, God’s loveliest bride.
Won’t you, joyful, come inside,
Embraced by their, “Welcome from God”?

The heavenly bride now enters;
She firmly takes her hold,
With all the bold ones, the warriors,
The ones who strive for their God.
Where the bride has her house, there God’s angels will be.
Where she dwells in stillness, there all worries will end.
There lives all our hope,
And our faith is firmly held.

Restless heart, hold fast:
Let the peace of God enclose you.
Soon all of our pain will dull
And fade away from view.
God’s peace is like a much-prized queen;
Who binds to her is truly wise,
And where she sits upon her throne
Is God’s paradise.

Uncovered Gems #5: The Danish Psalmist

In the Danish Golden Age of literature and philosophy, there were three significant names that still stand out today: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The non-Danish world has very much heard of the first two but the third is as unknown as it is unpronounceable.

And perhaps understandably so. He is of much greater importance at home than overseas. Grundtvig (pronounced Groont-vi) had a significant impact on Danish nationalism and education, and his role in the Danish Lutheran church was profound. But outside Denmark he doesn’t seem so have had much impact. Nor is he particularly the kind of figure to easily win fans a century and a half after his death. With his formidable muttonchops, Lutheran clerical ruff and an almost permanently austere look on his face, Grundtvig does not exactly appear to be one to welcome 21st-century popularity. My first encounter with him was when ultra-right party leader Svend Åge Saltum quoted him in Danish political drama Borgen. Yet there is much more to Nicolaj Frederik Severin than austerity and Danish nationalism. Basically, imagine English church life without John Newton or the Wesleys and that would be the Danish church without Grundtvig. And the comparison’s a fair one, at least when it comes to his hymns, because it turns out that one way in which Grundtvig is kept alive and well is in Danish worship.

My first proper encounter with the 19th-century poet, pastor, philosopher and translator was in the music of Danish band Kloster who set a whole bunch of his hymns to some gorgeous, otherworldly tunes on their album Ni Salmer og en Aftensang (Nine Psalms and an Evening Song). The track that first arrested me was the magically tender “Urolige Hjerte“, with its gently thrumming guitars and the opening words:

Restless heart, what ails you?
Why are you in pain?
Is there anything you need?
Is He not your father who has your everything?
And aren’t all my thoughts and hairs numbered by Him?
And hasn’t He chosen me to be His best friend?

Urolige hjerte!
Hvad fejler dig dog?
Hvi gør du dig smerte,
du ej har behov?
Er han ej min Fader, som råder for alt?
Er ej mine tanker og hovedhår talt,
og har ej den bedste til ven mig udvalgt?

Sadly, lack of interest in Grundtvig’s poetry means that almost none of it is available easily in English – a little ironic for a man who translated one of the most significant English poems, Beowulf, back into the language that inspired it. There is one substantial collection of his poems in English but it’s expensive and not easily available. So, if I want to listen to his songs – which I do – and want to understand them too, then I have to try translating them myself.

It’s a wonderful experience, reverse-engineering a Grundtvig poem into English. Translating poetry is hard in any situation, harder still when your grasp of the source language requires a fair bit of Google Translate to get anywhere beyond, “The polar bear is drinking beer” and all those other useful phases Duolingo teaches. But, slow-going and humbling as it is, I feel closer to Grundtvig’s work for doing it. I have to marvel at the tautness of his metaphors, the subtlety of his rhymes – so hard to replicate in English, when we don’t have one word that could mean both bleed or fade that also rhymes with “regions” or “areas”. And I am struck by the deft way he melds Biblical text with the immediacy of everyday life. Take the hymn that I’m crawling through at the moment, “En Liden Stund” (“A Little While”). The hymn takes its title, and the first line of each stanza, from Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16:16 – “A little while and you will see me no longer…” But Grundtvig takes Jesus’ words and first looks at something that is beautiful and impermanent, a reminder of how our lives look next to eternity. There’s no translation that can fully capture what he says with the first lines, at least not without losing the rhyme:

A little while
in roses’ grove,
we only blush and fade…

En liden stund
I rosens lund
Vi rødmer kun og blegne…

For a man who looks most likely to either preach brimstone or thump the bar to ask where his Carlsberg is, there’s remarkable tenderness and pastoral heart in Grundtvig’s words, not to mention a sense of pure beauty. Like most nineteenth-century poets there’s some inverted sentences worked to fit in rhymes that sound sometimes cumbersome to our ears today. But his love for God and God’s people is fresh and alive. Not surprisingly; much as Kierkegaard laid into him in his final polemic days (Grundtvig, wisely, had less to say about Kierkegaard), they wanted the same thing: to see the dry bones of the state church animated with living faith. Fittingly, Grundtvig loved to sing about new life in Christ, whether symbolised in Christmas or Easter or the day of the Resurrection. So here is a lovely translation by S.A.J. Bradley of one of his poems on this theme:

1. Ring out, O bells, oh ring out while the world yet lies darkling;
shimmer, O stars, like the light in the angel-eyes sparkling.
Peace comes to earth,
peace from God through his Word’s birth:
Glory to God in the highest!

2. Christmas is come as a solstice to hearts that were fearful!
Christmas and Child, son of God, where the angels sing cheerful,
all is God’s gift,
bidding us our hearts uplift:
Glory to God in the highest!

3. Children of earth clap your hands and come dancing and singing,
raise up your voices till earth’s furthest corners are ringing.
Born is the Child
of the Father’s mercy mild:
Glory to God in the highest!

“And can it be that I should gain…”: Streaming Page CXVI’s “Lent to Maundy Thursday”

tumblr_inline_n1kjrsZuiP1qbj8fsWhat is the first note of Lent? Ash Wednesday – this year on March 5th, next Wednesday in fact, will in most churches sound a low and melancholy tone, pregnant with penitence and reflection. But contemporary hymnsters, Page CXVI, begin their “Lent to Maundy Thursday” with jubilation: Charles Wesley’s classic “And can it be that I should gain”, a reminder to all for whom the forthcoming season of Lent is a time of repentance and reflection, that Christ’s is our one sufficient sacrifice.

For the next week at The Consolations of Writing, we will be streaming an advanced preview of the next instalment in Page CXVI’s sequence of songs working through the church year. The album will be released on Tuesday 4th March. You can find out more about the album and related projects through the band’s blog here. Be sure to buy your own copy of the album when it’s released.

As an extra feature for these seven days, I will also be releasing a number of pre-Lent poems: a chance to think about who Jesus is and how He changes lives. Here is the first, to accompany the first song from “Lent to Maundy Thursday”. Happy listening.


Wednesday Before Lent

The Cross breaks expectations. Mine I bring
limply, tacitly, proudly – as though I
can change time and history to my ends.

And yet You, ever surprising,
rebuke and restore in seamless, swift
defiant fulfilment of law within Your flesh.

And can it be? Your eyes, staring deep
into souls' past and posterity, rich
with wisdom’s grace, know full well it can. 


“For mercies countless as the sands…”

John Newton, the famous hymn writer and pastor, certainly knew how to reflect on his life. Never forgetting his former life as a slave trader, womaniser and general no-good, he always approached life with a grateful heart, forever marvelling at the “amazing grace” he had known in his later life.

One birthday, towards the end of his life, he wrote the following in his diary:

My birthday…What a striking proof is my history of the deceitfulness and desperate wickedness of the heart, and of thy [God’s] wonderful, long-suffering patience and mercy…

The gratitude with which he considered each year of God’s grace in his life is reflected in a hymn he wrote based on the second half of the beautiful Psalm 116. In celebration of my recent birthday, I have recorded my own musical version of the hymn, and am sharing it here in the hope that some of you might appreciate the chance to reflect on God’s grace in your own lives. You can read Newton’s words, along with my chords, here.

Psalm 116 – “For mercies countless as the sands”

On reading a biography of John Newton

I’d have lived on Clapham Green
And played upon its soil;
I’d have joined their century
And burnt up slavery’s spoils.
 
I’d have lived in Olney too
And written hymns with men
Whose poor hearts burnt with Gospel flame
And kindled it with pen.
 
But God has made me live today:
The world of Now is mine;
And so I’ll share that freeing flame
Which must redeem this time.

Doxology (For Thomas Ken)

Today we remember Thomas Ken, the seventeenth-century British bishop and hymn-writer most famous for writing the hymn commonly known as “The Doxology”, a hymn much-loved to many people and which has had a recent revival in a lot of churches. I’ve based today’s poem around some of the lines of that hymn, in memory of a man who had strengths and weaknesses, like us all, but ultimately rested in God’s grace.

 
Doxology (For Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Teacher)
 
All praise to Thee, my God, this night:
Guard me in my coming and my flight;
Guard me amidst these changing things,
The arms of power and the oaths of kings.
 
Lord, beneath Thine own almighty wings
I will rest and with creation sing,
With all Your creatures here on earth below,
As dwelling in Your arms of grace we grow.
 
So praise God, from Whom all blessings flow:
He who watches everywhere we go,
Praise Him! When smallest, praise Him most.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
 
And when in history’s battles we are lost,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Who holds all history and will make it right:
All praise to Thee, great God of light.