Quaint and homely as it is, this hymn has done much to enkindle devotion and strengthen grace among Christian readers in Germany, and is now familiar to English-speaking peoples through the beautiful translations of Miss Winkworth and Mrs. Findlater. Both they and Dr. Guthrie have successfully imitated the sweetly domestic tone in poems that have soothed many a careworn spirit at the close of day.
In the version which appeared in her Lyra Germanica Miss Winkworth evidently overlooked the fact that line 3 of her first stanza had an extra foot:
O’er field and city, man, and beast.
In the version for church singing printed in her Chorale Book the line is changed to the normal six-syllable iambic measure to admit of its being set to the old German melody,1 “O Welt, ich musz dich laszen.”
Gerhardt’s stanza VIII, “Breit aus die Flügel beide,”2 has been a special favorite in Germany, and Lauxmann in Koch VIII, 194, says of it:
“How many a Christian soul, children mostly, but also God’s children in general, does this verse serve as their last evening prayer. It has often been the last prayer uttered on earth, and in many districts of Germany is used at the close of the baptismal service to commend the dear little ones to the protection of their Lord Jesus.”
Miss Winkworth has successfully caught the truly childlike popular spirit of the stanza in the lines:
My Jesus, stay Thou by me,
And let no foe come nigh me,
Safe shelter’d by Thy wing;
But would the foe alarm me,
O let him never harm me,
But still Thine angels round me sing.
Interesting and amusing by its grotesqueness is the Moravian version of this stanza,3 printed as a separate hymn in the edition of 1754:
Breit aus die flugel (sic) beide.
Display thy both Wings over
Thy Chickens and them cover,
O Jesu, Savior mild!
If devils would disturb ‘em,
Let holy angels curb ‘em
And bid them never touch thy Child.
In the rich language in which such hymns were conceived and expressed they possess a force that is not easily retained in a translation especially where as in the present instance there is such an abundance of double rhymes. Dr. J. Guthrie’s version has in England gained some popularity through the melodious rhythm he has given his lines by not restricting himself to Gerhardt’s metre,4 and certainly the iambic line is more suited to an English treatment of the theme of rest and repose. Note this effect in Guthrie’s lines:
The woods are hushed o’er town and plain (1).
Now hastes the body to repose (19).
My laden eyes to slumber yield (31).5
The sound sequence in stanza VIII to which the lines owe some of their popularity Dr. Guthrie has obviously endeavored to imitate by the alliterative,
My Savior, Shield and Sun!
When Satan on my soul would spring,
which would indeed do justice to Gerhardt. However a less unpleasant sound than the repeated sibilant which he has used, would suit the English ear better.
As an attempt to translate with scrupulous faithfulness Kelly’s version is of some interest. The difficulties in the double rhymes he overcomes by the device of inflectional endings and repetition of pronouns which although at first moderately satisfactory must eventually become monotonous:
Mrs. Findlater has in her version changed the metre of the original for all lines except the third and sixth; in the closing couplet or even the concluding line of each stanza she has more than any other translator reproduced the idea of peaceful repose which was so evidently Gerhardt’s intention.
|Stanza 3, lines 5 and 6.
|When I hear my Lord’s command
To leave this earth and upward fly.
|Stanza 8, lines 5 and 6.
|Give to my beloved sleep,
And angels send to guard their home.
The omission of stanza VIII containing the figure of the hen gathering in her chicks is partially justifiable on the ground that the poem is complete without it, and that such similes while appropriately introduced into hymns of the seventeenth century are out of place in nineteenth century hymnody. On the other hand by this ruthless pruning the distinctive touch that Gerhardt gave the hymn is lost. It is interesting to note in the examination of the various English versions of Gerhardt’s poetry the treatment which the “homely element” receives from the translator. The poem under consideration will form a good basis for discussion. Almost invariably the translator offers a paraphrase departing more or less widely from the original and effecting a colorless result: Gerhardt writes in stanza IV:
Der Leib eilt nun zur Ruhe,
Legt ab das Kleid und Schuhe.
Miss Winkworth renders:
The body hastes to slumber
These garments now but cumber.
Now the body seeks for rest
From its vestments all undrest.
To rest the body hasteth
Itself of clothes divesteth.
Guthrie, however, whose version as a whole would doubtless be considered the best literary production, is not content with what is in the German but takes the opportunity offered by the extra syllables in his longer line to describe the vestment more explicitly:
Now hastes the body to repose
Throws off its garments, shoes and hose.
In Mittenwalde, where Gerhardt had a pastoral charge from 1651-1657 (cf. p. 3 ff.), there prevailed the custom of playing an evening hymn from the tower. The one used up to that time was the old and then well- known lay, “Innsbruck, ich musz dich laszen.” Gerhardt liked the air, but longed to see it associated with a better and more really evening hymn. For this end he composed “Nun ruhen alle Wälder.” The melody was originally composed in 1488(?) by Heinrich Isaac, conductor of the choir of Maximilian I. The great masters Bach and Mozart are reported to have said that they would gladly give their best works for this single tune. In our hymnals it is usually called “Innsbruck,” but in German hymn books it is given as “O Welt, ich musz dich laszen,” from the first line of the hymn of Johann Hesse, 1855, which was set to it. ↩
Breit aus die Flügel beide O Jesu, meine Freude, Und nimm dein Küchlein ein! Will Satan mich verschlingen, So lasz die Englein singen: Dies Kind soll unverletzet sein. ↩
Founded on St. Matthew XXIII, 37. “O Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” ↩
Line 3 in his stanza is the same length as Gerhardt’s. ↩
Cf. the same effect in Adelaide Procter’s hymn: The shadows of the evening hours Fall from the dark’ning sky Upon the fragrance of the flowers The dews of evening lie; etc. ↩
This rhyme occurs in two successive stanzas. ↩