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CHARACTERISTICS OF GERHARDT AS A HYMN WRITER.
ROM the close of the Thirty Years' War until 1680 there occurred in
German hymnody a transition from the churchly and confessional to the pietistic and devotional hymns. It is during this transitional period that the religious song of Germany finds its purest and sweetest expression in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, who is as much the typical poet of the Lutheran, as Herbert is of the English church. In Gerhardt more than in any other author all the requisites for the religious poem are united. He possessed a firm conviction of the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of salvation and also a genuine sentiment for all that is purely human. His deep Christian feeling together with sterling good sense, and a fresh and healthy appreciation of life in the realm of nature and in the intellectual world are the sources for his splendid work. His hymns are among the noblest contributions to sacred poetry, giving him a place second only to Luther and even surpassing Luther's work in poetic fertility. Gervinus says of him :2
“He went back to Luther's most genuine type of hymn in such a manner as no one else had done, only so far modified as the requirements of his time demanded. In Luther's time the belief in Free Grace and the work of the Atonement in Redemption and the bursting of the gates of Hell was the inspiration of his joyful confidence; with Gerhardt it is the belief in the Love of God. With Luther the old wrathful God of the Romanists assumed the heavenly aspect of grace and mercy; with Gerhardt the merciful Righteous One is a gentle loving man. Like the old poets of the people he is sincerely and unconstrainedly pious, naive and hearty; the blissfulness of his faith makes him benign and amiable; in his way of writing he is as attractive, simple and pleasing as in his way of thinking."
Scherer gives an even clearer characterization of the two hymn writers:
"Geistlicher Ernst des Vortrags schlieszt Heiterkeit des Gemütes nicht aus, und diese bildet in der That den sittlichen Grundcharakter von Gerhardts Poesie. Wenn bei Luther die Welt voll Sturm und Gewitter ist, so liegt sie bei Gerhardt in beständigem Sonnenglanz; die Wohltaten des
1 Or as the German says : From the "Bekenntnislied” to the "Erbauungslied." 2 Geschichte d. d. Nationallitteratur, ed. 1842, Pt. III, p. 366. 3 Geschichte d. d. Literatur, 1899, pp. 340-341.
Schöpfers erfreuen das Herz; alles ist so schön zum Besten der Menschen eingerichtet; Tod und Hölle haben längst ihre Macht verloren; die Seele frohlockt in der Gewiszheit der Erlösung; Gnade geht vor Recht, Zorn musz der Liebe weichen. Luther steht wie ein Mann dem Bösen, Gerhardt sieht wie ein Jüngling darüber hinweg; und schlieszlich weisz er zu und Zufriedenheit, Geduld zu predigen, das rechte Mittelmasz zu preisen und auch dem Uebel gute Seiten abzugewinnen; selbst die Sünde dient zum Heil. Bei Luther ruft die Gemeinde zu Gott, bei Gerhardt redet der Einzelne. Seine Lyrik ist nicht mehr Chorpoesie; sie beschränkt sich nicht auf das, worin alle betenden Christen einig sind; sie holt aus der Tiefe des individuellen Seelenlebens ihre Schätze; sie macht (um die Schulausdrücke zu gebrauchen) den Uebergang vom objektiven Bekenntnisliede zum subjektiven Erbauungslied.”
Gerhardt sings his hymns with conviction, embodying in them such phases of feeling as might be experienced by any large body of sincere Christians. In all the religious lyrics even in the congregational hymns from the middle of the seventeenth century on we note a more personal and individual tone and with it a tendency to reproduce special forms of Christian experience often of a mystical character. Gerhardt's whole tone and style of thought belong to the confessional school, but the distinct individuality and expression of personal sentiment which are impressed on his poems already point to the devotional school.
Many of our poet's hymns show the influence of Opitz' Trostgedichte in Widerwärtigkeit des Krieges. Critics4 have gone so far as to say that "without Opitz there would be no Gerhardt.” There can be no doubt but that the smoothness and elegance of form, the complete mastery of technique and the purity of language are a distinct heritage from him. But without consciously differing from Opitz and his school, Gerhardt has brought into prominence the popular expression of feeling, using the popular form of verse in which there prevails the natural flow of rhythm, so that no striving after correctness of form is evident.
Compared with most authors of his time Gerhardt wrote but little. His contemporary, Rist (1607–1667), and his successor, Schmolk (1672–1737), composed respectively 659 and 1188 hymns, while Gerhardt has the modest number of 132 poems in all. Yet a complete hymnal might be compiled from them, so thoroughly do they embrace all religious and domestic experiences. They appeared at intervals from the year 1649 on, many of them for the first time in the Praxis pietatis melica, a collection of hymns and tunes by Johann Crüger, the famous organist and composer of chorals.
*Cf. J. Smend: "P. Gerhardt u. das evangel. Kirchenlied” in “Der Protestantismus am Ende des 19. Jahrh.” I, pp. 301, ff.
* Among them are 18 poems for occasions, 27 founded on Psalms and 24 founded on other parts of Holy Scripture.
Crüger died in the year 1662 and Cristoph Runge took over further editions of the book. Gerhardt made no further contributions to these publications because henceforth he became more intimately associated with Johann Georg Ebeling, Crüger's successor in his church and organ work. Ebeling was so much pleased with Gerhardt's hymns, that he at once began to set them to music and eventually he published them dividing them by “dozens” into separate books. Gerhardt put at Ebeling's disposal the first copy of his hymns hitherto published and also thirty-one separate strophes which had for various reasons been omitted in previous editions. Finally he turned over to him twenty-six more poems which the Praxis pietatis melica had not published up to this time. Among them are a number which in all probability belong to his early period of poetic activity, such as: "O Tod, O Tod, du greulichs Bild,” a paraphrase of one of Röber's? hymns. Also among them are several which from content and form must be regarded as products of his mature years, and from which the poet himself derived much comfort and strength.8
• The tenth and last “dozen” of Gerhardt's hymns which Ebeling had set to music for four voices and with an accompaniment of two violins and a bass, appeared in 1667. The full title, characteristic of Ebeling, reads: Paul Gerhardt's spiritual devotions, consisting of one hundred and twenty hymns, collected into one volume, at the request of a number of eminent and distinguished gentlemen; first to the honor of the Divine Majesty and then also for the consolation of esteemed and distressed Christendom, and for the increase of the Christianity of all believing souls-in sets by dozens, embellished with melodies for six parts." With such eagerness were these hymns sought after that Ebeling had to publish a new edition two years later. The melodies which proved most popular were those set to "Voller Wunder, voller Kunst," "Schwing dich auf zu deinem Gott" and "Warum sollt' ich mich denn grämen.” Each single dozen was again dedicated to a particular class of men with a characteristic preface. The first dozen he dedicated “to the prelates, counts, lords, knights, and estates of the Electorate of Brandenburg, this side the Oder and beyond the Elbe”; the second dozen, “To the high, noble-born, honored, and virtuous women of Berlin" and so on. 'Cf. pp. I and 2.
8 “Die güldne Sonne" Goed. 293.
The most important fact about the Ebeling edition is this, that the personality of Gerhardt, the poet, was for the first time presented to the German people's heart and mind. Hitherto his poems had been grouped together in collections of hymns with those of other and perhaps better known authors. Ebeling's publication placed Gerhardt's works on their own merit. The texts of the hymns in the editions of Crüger and Ebeling and later of Feustking in 1707 have often different readings so that it is difficult to determine which the authentic version may be. It is quite within the limits of possibility that Gerhardt himself undertook revisions, as Feustking's title indicates.
Of these 132 poems a large proportion have become embodied in church music of Germany and many of them may be counted among the most beautiful in German hymnody. How widely they have been adopted into general use is shown by the fact that in modern hymnals in Germany there appear either in expanded or cento form,1o altogether 78 of his hymns, while in the Schaff-Gilman "Library of Religious Poetry," which may be regarded as a representative collection of universal hymnody, the proportion among German hymn writers is as follows:-Luther 10, Goethe 8, Gerhardt 7,11 Spitta 6, Scheffler 4, Schmolk 4, etc. · Pietism and rationalism transferred the centre of gravity in hymnody to a different point; that is, it changed the type of hymn or required of it other features, and thus it is that during the XVIIIth century, while Gerhardt's hymns lived on with others they are rarely accorded a leading place. It was only the reawakening of a life of faith that needed worship and strong evidence of reverence such as followed the wars of liberation that brought his hymns into the forefront once more and prompted further publications of them.
Rarely has there been, taking all in all, a time when there existed a greater gulf between poets and their effusions than in the XVIIth century. Most poets of that time gave forth what they had learned and what they knew,—not what they really were. Theirs was a play of the intellect and imagination on objects outside them. Hence their works displayed a universal lack of inner truth. In the biographical sketch of Gerhardt we have given a broken account of his life. Different from this is the story of the individual in his poems which are his very personality. His work is not what he learned from others. Instead, he gives us his own life unadorned
Johann Heinrich Feustking: Ausgabe, Zerbst, 1707, text "nach des seligen Autors eigenhändigem revidirten Exemplar mit Fleisz übersehen.”
Cf. Dietz: "Tabellarische Nachweisung des Liederbestandes," Marburg, 1904. Fischer-Tümpel: "Das deutsche evangelische Kirchenlied des 17. Jahrhs.” (Gütersloh, 1906) includes 116 of Gerhardt's hymns.
There is an exact total of 10 of Gerhardt's poems, different versions being given of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” and “Befiehl du deine Wege.”
and true, and for the very reason that he leads a rich inner life is he able to give it. He wrote preeminently as a living member of Christ's church. The same quiet sincerity, depth of feeling and warmth that are seen in his face, stand out in his poetry.
Luther sang: "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott," but Gerhardt has: “Ist Gott für mich, so trete,"12 and "Ich singe dir mit Herz und Mund.13 Thus, as has been said in the early part of this chapter 14 the hymns no longer acknowledge the truths of the Gospel as in the days of the Reformation, but the poet lives them. Approximately one-eighth15 of Gerhardt's hymns begin with "Ich,” while not one of Luther's begins this way. Gerhardt's hymns, then, proclaim his own personal experiences, many of them having their inspiration in the intimate circle of his own family and friends. Yet observe that in none of them is there any personal experience that is not enlightened by its relation to the external truths of Christian Belief so that it has a universal significance. Assuming that one takes for granted the incontestable truth of evangelistic Philosophy of Life as does Gerhardt, one may find one's own thoughts and feelings expressed in these poems. Every pious worshipper can follow Gerhardt, every one may find in him peace for the soul, the consecration of happiness and comfort in dark hours. Universal life and not merely the life of one reared in the church is unfolded in his hymns.
Mention has several times been made of Luther16 in connection with Gerhardt. Every Protestant hymn writer must undergo comparison with the great father of German hymnody and none can stand the test better than Gerhardt. Let us take the hymns cited above: "Ein' feste Burg," and “Ist Gott für mich.” In the very choice of material the likeness is striking. In Luther's song of defiance the XLVIth Psalm is born anew. In Gerhardt it is the triumphant song of Paul that they who are in Christ are free from condemnation. We see, then, that while the one is concerned with the congregation of God's church, the other treats of life's experiences. In the form of the verse Luther displays the greater strength and Gerhardt the greater art.
Although Gerhardt's hymns are written in the vernacular of the XVIIth century, at a time when many of the forms characteristic of the writers of the two preceding centuries still survived, nevertheless his hymns are remarkably free from the tendency of this period to use words coined from foreign tongues. He belongs to no poetic school or literary circle of the