In memory of Kathleen Mary Savage, 1929-2020
Beside thistled paddocks I make my way,
sun nestled in grey,
faint light peeking through.
These paddocks contain
the means of my flight,
and when I arrive where the fruit trees grow
I shall see what's lost of home.
When final breath is breathed in the night
and what faces we knew
we scarce recognise,
when all that we've lost
is in memories of home,
we will return, though some
And when the clouds part into light,
shall we see what the morning brings?
A grandmother young,
a conquering king?
In thistled paddocks,
still tied to ground,
the flight has not shown
what one day will be shown.
But this we know: the fighting shall cease
and when we set foot once more on ground
we shall be young among apple trees
and love upon love will return.
You shall turn again to earth.
(Christina Rossetti, “For Advent”)
Before leaving for our new home, we take
the last year’s compost and distribute
rich, fermenting soil across our garden bed,
while lawn – parched from summer – longs weakly for green.
I too am parched and though
made of mud I cannot rest in dirt
until the heat is passed.
And so I long
for earth to reform, reconstitute
my barren bones and take dead seed
to make things new again.
Moving always, I crave endless home,
crave dwelling beneath Your rain.
And what have we done?
The year will pass regardless, yet
opportunity arises now to ask
if our deeds have sown death or life,
has sprouted from our dying deeds.
Dying, however my breath may deceive,
I must ask if my hands have turned to tend
my own grave, or a garden; if my steps have bent
towards the straight, or the bent,
roads towards our inevitable death.
With clenched fist or cross taken, all of us walk
towards a year that, one year, will not renew.
And so in these dying, flowering
let the last things be our first things
as we tend our new year.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
You’ll be glad to hear your tree is sprouting leaves
and in the midst of blossom, tiny fruit.
Your little brother’s learning all the names
for almond, flowering gum and bottlebrush;
yet you by now will know far more than this.
The grass is thriving; this week we had it mown
and all about’s the fragrance of fresh lawn.
All this you’ve never seen: the buzzing stuff
of life, but life for us waiting like
an almond tree, a hopeful Jesse-shoot.
The bursting things of spring have nothing on
the harvest feast that sings where you now dwell.
We never knew your smile, yet this we’ve known:
for every tear we’ve shed, a seed is sown.
Climb the rugged beam to see
the scurry of life around the tree:
lion and baby, adder and lamb,
sheltered in this outstretched hand.
Thick with promise, the leaves gather birds
and the birds whisper secrets in long-forgotten words.
Turn your ear from self to sky
to hear the heavens in reply:
There’s hope for cut-down trees, the song
echoes in the on-and-on.
Lift your anxious stumpy fists
and open fingers out to grip
the hope that bursts, the life that beats.
Barren soul, the first fruit’s here.
A little child leads.
2017 is almost over, and today we have two choral pieces to conclude our year with, one early, one modern, both settings of one of the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 61:10-62:4. The first is the delightfully joyous “Gaudens Gaudebo in Domino” by the 16th century German composer Philip Dulchius. The text comes from the opening to the song, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord”, which Mary echoes in her Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel. A modern reimagining of this text is the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s beautiful “I will greatly rejoice”, similarly jubilant but with simpler harmony. Both settings, looking not only to our own salvation but the saving of all nations, are wonderful calls to praise and prayer at the end of 2017.
Rejoice in your new clothes,
for the old is done.
The saving one has clothed you with joy
and in the bright raiment of His saving day.
Look to the east, to the west, where the sun
is rising and setting and setting the way,
where the hope of the new is calling, and calling,
where the world is enwrapping in light.
Rejoice in your new clothes;
rejoice greatly now in renewing delight.
For the old is done, the new bright as son,
bright as bridegroom and bride,
bright as the new spring in their eyes,
bright as wedding dance of old foes,
bright as the diadem in your thinning hair,
bright though the year be dimming.
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?
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!
Sing to the Lord a new song –
The old song is tired; it has no breath.
Love and faithfulness have kissed;
sing their song and live.
Make way a path for righteousness –
a level path where knees won’t strain.
Sing body parts into new joy;
watch new steps form for feet.
O search my heart. O listen, song –
the old is dead. The new must come.
Before your feet, set righteousness;
let bodies learn His hymn.
Though fearfully and wonderfully made,
There are abscesses where my dirt is stored:
See here, the time I learnt to cry, to wade
In mud and mire, and hurt of my own accord.
Though Grace has breathed its breath in me, I still
Retain the sick fruit of Adam’s broken soil;
In pain, in guilt, in deeds of death I till
What many days will buckle at my toil.
Distorted are the instincts of my breath;
Upended are the ways I read my years.
Reorder, Grace, and open up what death
Has stultified, now brackish from these tears.
Take heart, poor soul; the future comes in flood,
Revivifies the past with mercy’s blood.