Advent 9: No despair

...we are almost ready to fall in love with our own desolation.
(Christina Rossetti, Seek and Find)

Whether height of summer or bleak midwinter, there’s death:
in bare-branched trees or brittle grass.
Fire or frost, the end’s the same,
both killers and destroyers alike.
And the greatest foe of all’s despair,
the sickness blighting not only this
but every future season’s crop.
There’s a sickness that can end in life,
that kills illusions, opens eyes.
Wisest farmers wait their time
and learn the seasons’ darkest signs.
Wiser still the one who turns
despair of here to hope beyond.

Poetic Translations: The King and the Maiden

One of the great mysteries and wonders that we can be reflecting on this Advent season is the Incarnation: the mystery that the God of the universe would become a human, even a defenceless baby. To explore this mystery, Søren Kierkegaard tells the story of a king who loves a poor and humble girl and wants her to be lifted by his love, not always ashamed of the difference between them. Here is a slightly playful, poetic translation of the story. You can find fuller, more accurate renditions of it in abundance online, but they often leave out the playfulness of Kierkegaard’s style. So here is my offering, for what it is worth. May it give some food for thought this advent.
 

You ask me how God might be teacher
 	and saviour;
you ask how His love might drive Him to teach.
You ask how His Love could love over vast distance
as divides all low learners from this teacher of Love?

Well, once upon a time, a king loved a maiden –

	No, wait! Is this kids’ stuff?
		A fairy tale? Where
	is the systematic doctrine?
		Don’t patronise
			with tales…

Well, so thought old Athens, when Socrates spoke
of food, and drink, and doctors, and trifles;
I wish I could only speak of such trifles,
for we all, from birth, understand food and drink
(and the need to see doctors)
and the high ways of kings are so often removed
from the eating and drinking of mere men.

But let us move on; we mustn’t get stuck.
A king loved a maiden; let’s leave it like that.
And this king, unlike poets, was not tied up tight
with the “wisdom” that hampers clear-headedness; he
loved that low maiden (this much we’ve seen),
and he loved her without the High Rule of a king.

His courtiers said, What a favour the king
will bestow on the low one! These words made him sick.
They drove him to fury; that wasn’t his love.
He would love her, this maiden, 
      such that she’d never see
a high, lofty patron, 
      a detached, distant king.

Impossible! say the king’s courtiers. You
are the king! 		Overshadow her 
with your king’s grandeur!
Make her feel lowly! 	Unworthy! 	You’re king!

How can Love straddle
 the high and low 	yet
not overshadow the low 	into their grave?

Love must become
like the lowly it loves.

The teacher must be like the student;
 	the king
must make Himself low	
	
	like the maiden.

(Adapted and translated from Søren Kierkegaard, “God as Teacher and Saviour (Guden som Lærer og Frelser)”, from Philosophical Fragments (Philosophiske Smuler), http://sks.dk/ps/txt.xml)

Poetic Translations: From the Aphorisms of Søren Kierkegaard

What is a poet?
An unhappy man who
deep in his heart hides
anguish, but whose lips
are so comprised that
when he screams
he makes sweet music.

I’d rather be
a swineherd of the hills
understood by pigs
than a poet
misunderstood by men.

***

I prefer to speak to children.
At least of them one may hope
that here will grow
a Reasonable Being.
But to those who think they have arrived already…
God have mercy.

***

Hear this marvel.
To the seventh heaven I was lifted,
and there all the gods sat together in council,
granting me one wish.
“What do you ask for?” Mercury spoke.
“Is it power, or youth, or beauty, long life?
The most beautiful girl?
Or any of what we have to give?
But only take one. What shall it be?”

I paused for a moment,
thrown by the choice,
then I spoke:
“I ask only this:
that laughter might always be on my side.”
Silence. Not one of the gods said a word.
They only laughed, and I thought it was apt.
It would have been crude to say,
“As you wish.”

Retreat

…yo​u will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”

St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.

My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?

My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.

My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.

Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.

Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.

Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,

Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.

Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –

the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.

My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.

O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

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!