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 isn’t He the very best friend I could choose?

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!

2o Contemplations #17:

Silent Harmony Painting by Wassily Kandinsky; Silent Harmony Art Print for sale
Wassily Kandinsky, “Silent Harmony”

…the music seems to come out of the silence like the colors come out of the night…
(Olivier Messiaen)

After such a climax, what reflection?
Light refracts from His glory; sun and moon
bow. Let all mortal flesh keep silent. Soon,
very soon, we shall see His intention
erupt in purposed rapture. Explosion
of brightness dancing will colour His tune:
now mauve, now gold, now rose, now violet-bloom,
more radiant than mind’s widest conception.
So stop. Silence best befits a king
when all our lips are broken, our tongues split.
Let the Word be our only word. Let Light
illuminate the dark of our speaking.
What crowns we weave for Him can never fit;
all space dances around Him, bursting, bright.

 

Damascus Road: Midday

image

Indeed, my friends, let us not forget in our wakefulness…
(Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns of the Nativity)

Do I assume this peace?
Some peasants once, I am told,
when they had had enough of false liberty,
took cobblestones and made them missiles.
And men of another age were warned
that their panelled houses could fall,
while others, trusting horses,
were told whom they should fear.

For the quiet of now, give thanks.
The sun is your friend today and streets whistle with silent birdsong.
Later, I may collect chairs from the street or sit in a library to read.
But remember the shelves which Eratosthenes kept,
more famous for ruin than what they contained.
Look for the library without any walls;
look for the Word which shines like today.
Bend knees as you walk or stones will rise up.
Today’s beauty must make you bow.

Lent: Humility 6

Teacher, they say, grant us whatever we ask of you.
Assumptions rich in self, they see
a throne, and seats on either side;
surely theirs? For what other reason do they fight?

Yet His kingdom is not of this world;
its great ones do not presume, nor grasp.
Losing and finding self, they serve,
seeing the king Himself on His knees.

Here it begins: on knees;
and it ends here too, for humble delight
is eternal delight, having nothing to lose but the object of its joy.

So far to go, I cannot go further than this;
I kneel, confess, rip off my face.
If worship is bowing, then see, O my king,
this death of self now as my song.