In the interesting and now very rare old Psalmodia Germanica1 compiled and edited by J. C. Jacobi there are three of Gerhardt’s hymns—”Wie soll ich dich empfangen,” “Wach auf, mein Herz, und singe,” and “Befiehl du deine Wege.” The book is dedicated to
Their Royal Highnesses,
and in one paragraph of this dedication we read:
“As a sincere Desire to promote Divine Psalmody has prompted me to this Translation; so I presume to address the same, such as it is to YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESSES, for no other End than to promote thereby the Singing the Praises of our blessed Redeemer”; etc.
In most cases facing the beginning page of the hymns is an inserted leaf (not numbered) containing the traditional melody unharmonized. It is a reasonably safe conjecture that these books of Jacobi were among the very first printed copies of anglicized German hymns, and the historical value and interest of the books themselves as well as the versions they contain cannot be overestimated.
The version of “Befiehl du deine Wege” is so free a paraphrase, combining, as it does, in the five stanzas ideas from the twelve of the original, and introducing new elements altogether, that except for the first and fifth strophes it is difficult to connect the themes definitely with any particular lines in Gerhardt’s poem. The correspondence seems, however, to be approximately as follows:
|7, 3, 4, 8, 10
Which line of Gerhardt suggests the injunction “Shake off that yoke of Hell” (2, 6) is not clear: possibly here Jacobi had in mind the scriptural passage (Psalm XXXVII, 5, ff.) where in verse 8 we read “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath.” Stanza 4:
And he shall clear the Dullness
That sits upon thy Mind
perhaps finds its basis in stanza VII:
. . . was das Herze
Betrübt und traurig macht!
or in stanza VIII:
Wann Er . . .
Das Werk hinausgeführet,
Das dich bekümmert hat.
To conclude his hymn, Jacobi again, as in strophe 2, dwells upon the punishment for sin, entirely an interpolation of his own, with no bearing on the original whatever:
Redeem us all together
From Sin, World, Death, and Hell.
Finally it must be said that for the modern reader this version must seem little more than a distorted paraphrase, made still further difficult of interpretation and appreciation through the use of words far more remote from our modern English than is the German vernacular of the seventeenth century from the modern German. Phrases such as:
His Fatherly Dilection
is never at a stand (3, lines 7 and 8)
Our Life and Conversation
Lead by Thy Holy Hand (5, lines 5 and 6)
seem not well calculated to carry out the hope that the translator utters on the last page of his “dedication”:
“If the Lover of Psalmody, can find in these Hymns an edifying Sunday’s Entertainment, which, it seems, has hitherto been too much wanting in Abundance of Families, the Translator will think his Time well bestow’d,
In another chapter mention has been made of the relation of John and Charles Wesley to the Moravians. It is altogether probable that it was the singing of this hymn with its reference to winds and seas that first appealed to these Englishmen when on their voyage to America on the same vessel with a company of Moravians. John Wesley’s version (1739) is the second of the three earliest translations of this hymn which has come into such extensive use both in Germany and English-speaking lands. A number of changes have been made by the translator, but in general the main features 119are quite faithfully reflected. Firstly he has divided the 8-line strophes into quatrains, has disregarded the feminine rhymes of lines 1 and 3 and changed to iambic tetrameter the original iambic trimeter ending in a feminine rhyme. These variations enable him often to introduce an additional thought, e. g. in line 3 “To his sure truth and tender care,” where in Gerhardt there is only the idea of “faithful care.” Again he profits by being able better to express in English the more pithy German; for example, in stanza 14: “When fully he the work hath wrought” reproduces very acceptably the idea contained in the compound “hinausgeführt.”
Omitting stanza V Wesley gives a free but spirited version of the stanza beginning
Hoff, O du arme Seele
Hoff und sei unverzagt…
Give to the winds thy fears
Hope and be undismayed
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears
God shall lift up thy head.
Omitting also stanzas IX-XI inclusive, in which the original emphasizes or repeats in sameness of strain the thoughts of the earlier part of the poem, Wesley offers in his final strophe a strong conclusion, though he departs from the idea of Gerhardt’s theme of distress for which termination is besought, and dwells upon the weakness to which man is prone. While Gerhardt asks to be guided to Heaven, to be entrusted (“empfohlen”) to God’s care, which one would expect for the appropriate conclusion of a poem beginning “Befiehl du deine Wege,” Wesley prays only that God’s children may remember His care:
Let us, in life, in death,
Thy steadfast truth declare
And publish, with our latest breath,
Thy love and guardian care!
The nearest date that can be set for the other early English translation of this most famous of Gerhardt’s hymns is 1754 in the Moravian Hymn Book of that year where it appeared without the name of the author. It is very likely the work of the editor himself, Dr. J. Gambold; for it has many of the characteristics of other hastily made translations in his collection of “German Hymns in the Seventeenth Century.” Many of the hymns of the early and exuberant development of Moravian hymnody seem at first sight like a highly-colored and almost morbid growth that had been grafted from without upon the stem of English church song. If the immediate impression 120this version makes is that of foreignness owing to its phraseology,2 it must be remembered that in reality these efforts are part of a new development of a real spiritual life, at first perverted into fantastic forms, but certainly capable of culture and ultimately becoming a characteristic and permanent type of English hymn. An unbiassed critic must concede that the whole atmosphere of this hymn in spite of its crudity is still that of childlike simplicity and tender devotion to Christ.
The author has rendered all stanzas but the fifth (“Und ob gleich alle Teufel,” etc.), omitting this possibly because Wesley before him (1739) had omitted it. The stanza is not far inferior to its prototype, stanza III3 of Luther’s “Ein’ feste Burg,” and would seem worthy of being included. The diction of the concluding lines shows evidently the influence of Wesley, who, as has been seen, departs here widely from the idea of Gerhardt. Wesley has:
Let us, in life, in death,
Thy steadfast truth declare,
And publish, with our latest breath, Thy love and guardian care!
The Moravian version reads:
Till, and beyond death’s valley
Let us thy Truth declare
Yea then emphatically
Boast of thy Guardian care.
Miss Cox preserves the eight-line form and the original metre in her complete translation of the twelve stanzas. Taken as a whole her appeal is far less direct than Wesley’s, her sentences and the ideas contained in them being much more involved. On the other hand, in the very first quatrain her word “Trust” gives the keynote of the whole poem at once, a touch that the original certainly contains and which no other translator has successfully reproduced in the first stanza. Strophe IX which is among those passed over by Wesley finds here a good English parallel in what appears to be a well-studied rendering:
|Er wird zwar eine Weile
Mit seinem Trost verziehen . . .
|Awhile, perchance to try thee,
He seems to hear thee not,
All comfort to deny thee,
As if thou wert forgot; . . .
But undeniably the closest parallel, showing too that she was at home in both languages, is the concluding stanza. Where others fail her translation here excels in that it follows the idea which Gerhardt emphasizes throughout the poem, that of the heart trusting4 in God:
End if thou wilt our sorrow,
And our probation close;
Till then we fain would borrow
Strength to support life’s woes:
To thee our way commending,
Whose wisdom orders best,
We tread the pathway tending
To heaven’s eternal rest.
Much of the native beauty and lyric grace of this charming hymn is to be found in one of the less well known translations–that of Dr. John Guthrie (1869). He very appropriately designates the hymn “The Triumph of Trust,” and seems to have divined Gerhardt’s meaning and use of “Trost”5 as being that comfort which has its source in Trust and Faith. Note Guthrie’s treatment of this theme in stanza 2:
Trust him and soon with wonder
His goodness shalt thou see . . .
Tis faith and prayer and waiting
That draw the blessing down.
or again in stanza 8 where the true “Stimmung” is present:
Trust Him to guard and guide thee,
And bid thy troubles flee
Trust Him, whate’er betide thee . . .
Not as successful in the concluding quatrain as Miss Cox, but nevertheless sensible of what Gerhardt intended to be the closing theme, as has been noted already, Dr. Guthrie gives us this couplet:
That on thy care depending,
We heavenward still may go. . . .
Dr. John Kelly’s version adheres more closely than any other to the metre and language, but it would be impossible by this means to popularize for the English reader Gerhardt’s poetry. The translator’s effects are altogether too labored, as is apparent in stanza 2 where the only virtue is the very doubtful one of the retention of the feminine rhyme:
The Lord thou must repose on
If thou wouldst prosper sure,
His work must ever gaze on
If thine is to endure.
Throughout the poem occurs the same defect, a forcing of the rhyme:
In the last quatrain Kelly fails, as do the other translators, to bring out Gerhardt’s strong repetition of the dominating theme, ending with the very inferior couplet
So come we where prepar’d for
Us is our bless’d abode.
Another translation that, like Kelly’s is somewhat ultra-faithful to the original metres is that of Dr. A. T. Russell (1851). He has divided the hymn into three separate poems:
Part I, stanzas I, II, III, IV.
Part II, stanzas V, VI, VII, VIII.
Part III, stanzas IX, X, XI, XII.
In the very passage where others have made their poorest offering Russell has been unusually successful, namely in the last quatrain of stanza II (“Mit Sorgen und mit Grämen,” etc.):
God yieldeth nought to sorrow
And self-tormenting care:
Nought, nought with Him availeth;— No power save that of prayer.
He has obtained literality in a marked degree in the fourth stanza as a close examination will show:
|Weg hast du allerwegen,
An Mitteln fehlt dirs nicht;
Dein Thun ist lauter Segen,
Dein Gang ist lauter Licht,
Dein Werk kann niemand hindern,
Dein Arbeit darf nicht ruhn,
Wann du, was deinen Kindern
Ersprieszlich ist, willst thun.
|Thy way is ever open;
Thou dost on nought depend;
Thine act is only blessing;
Thy path light without end,
Thy work can no man hinder,
Thy purpose none can stay,
Since Thou to bless Thy children
Through all dost make a way.
The success is plainly due to the fortunate choice of Anglo-Saxon equivalents and the coincidence of verse accent and important words. Contrast with this in Miss Cox’s otherwise good translation her only poor stanza, all but unintelligible to modern readers through the use of the obsolete word “let” (line 6) for “hindrance.”
Resources rich possessing,
That love still finds a way,
Thy every act a blessing,
Thy pathway cloudless day;
In one unbroken tissue,
Which no let e’er withstood,
It brings to happy issue
Plans for thy children’s good.
It is unfortunate that a version so excellent in other respects should include this wide departure from the fervor and whole-heartedness of Gerhardt.
One final observation is interesting that in his last strophe Russell offers a compromise between Wesley’s interpretation and that of Miss Cox:
Thy truth and Thy protection
Forevermore we pray:
With these in heavenly glory
Shall end our certain way.
This prayer for protection is closer to Gerhardt’s lines and therefore better than Wesley’s bold paraphrase, but it falls far short of the simple and forceful conclusion of Miss Cox:
To Thee our way commending,
Whose wisdom orders best,
We tread the pathway tending
To heaven’s eternal rest.
1st ed. 1720, later eds. in 1722 and 1732. Through the kindness of the Hartford Theological Seminary Library it was the privilege of the writer to have access to the 1722 edition. ↩
Cf. Stanza 2. Rely on God who good is Fix on his work thy notice. Stanza 8. Sometimes he his Assistance Does not directly show. Stanza 9. When least thou hop’st that Favour He extricate thee will. ↩
Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär Und wollt uns gar verschlingen, etc. ↩
Lasz . . . uns . . . deiner Pflege . . . empfohlen sein (stanza XII) ↩
For a discussion of Gerhardt’s use of the word “Trost” cf. p. 22. ↩