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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Four Kingo, the Hymnwriter

Kingo's first hymns appeared shortly before Christmas, 1673, in a small volume entitled Spiritual Song-Choir, Part I. The book contained fifteen morning and evening hymns and seven paraphrases of the psalms. Later editions were enlarged by seven |Morning and Evening Sighs| short hymns that belong to the very best in the collection.

In a foreword addressed to the king, Kingo states that |he has written these hymns with the hope that they might serve to edify his fellow Christians, advance the teaching of the Gospel and benefit the royal household at those daily devotions which it is the duty of every Christian home to practice|. He prays, therefore, he continues, that |the king will graciously bestow the same approval upon this work that he has so kindly given to his previous efforts, and thereby encourage him to continue his endeavor until the Danes shall possess a hymnody that they have neither begged nor borrowed from other nations. For the Danish spirit,| he concludes, |is assuredly neither so weak nor so poor that it cannot fly as high toward heaven as that of other peoples without being borne upon strange and foreign wings|.

Spiritual Song-Choir, Part I

Commenting on the content of the book, Kingo further explains that he expects sensitive readers will discover imperfections in his work which he himself has failed to see, and that it would please him to have such blemishes called to his attention so that they might be corrected in future issues. His choice of tunes will, he fears, provoke criticism. He has set a number of hymns to the melodies of popular songs in order that |those, who for the sake of its tune, now gladly listen to a song of Sodom may, if they be Christians, with the more pleasure use it with a hymn about Zion. By examining the work of other hymnwriters possible critics might assure themselves, however, that he had in this matter only followed their example.| But Kingo need not have apologized for his choice of tunes, for they were on the whole fine and were received without objection.

It would be difficult to overstate the enthusiasm with which Kingo's hymns were received. Within a few years they were printed in numerous editions and translated into several foreign languages. Their enthusiastic reception was well deserved. Viewed against the background of literary mediocrity that characterized the period, Kingo's hymns stand out with amazing perfection. Danish hymnody contained nothing that could compare with them, and other countries, as far as morning and evening hymns were concerned, were in the same position. Paul Gerhardt's fine hymn, |Now Rests Beneath Night's Shadow|, which was written twenty years earlier, had been ridiculed into disuse; Ken's famous morning hymn dates from twenty years later; and none of these are as fine as the best of Kingo's.

As might be expected, the hymns are not all of the same merit. Some of them are exceedingly fine; others show the defects of an imperfectly developed language and a deficient literary taste. In the matter of style and form the author had almost nothing to guide him. It is not surprising, therefore, that his work shows crudities which no present day writer would commit, but that it should contain so much that is truly beautiful, even when measured by the standards of today.

Kingo had the true poet's ability to see things poetically. To him the rays of the rising sun were not only shining but |laughing on the roof| of his home. His imagery is rich and skillfully applied. Many of his hymns abound in striking similes. Their outstanding characteristic, however, is a distinctive, forceful realism. Kingo, when he chose to do so, could touch the lyre with enhancing gentleness, but he preferred the strong note and searched always for the most graphic expression, sometimes too graphic, as when he speaks of the |frothing wrath of God| and |the oozy slime of sin|. Yet it is this trait of robust reality that invests his hymns with a large part of their enduring merit. |When Kingo sings of God, one feels as though He were right there with him|, one of his commentators exclaims. Nor is that realism a mere literary pose. Like most great hymns, his best hymns are reflections of his own experiences. Kingo never attained a state of saintly serenity. Whatever peace he found was gained only through a continuous struggle with his own fiery and passionate nature. Few hymns convey a more vivid impression of a believing, struggling soul than Kingo's.

His morning hymns are among his best. He loved light and gloried in the birth of each new day. The sun is his favorite symbol. Its rising signifies to him the final triumph of life over death, and the new day is a token thereof. It sounds a joyful call to wake and resume life anew.

|Awake, my soul, the sun is risen,

Upon my roof its rays now laugh, -- |

Every Christian should rejoice in the newborn day and thank God for it:

Break now forth in Jesus' name,

Blessed morn, in all thy splendor!

I will sweetest music render

And thy wondrous gifts proclaim.

All my spirit with rejoicing

Thanks the Lord for rest and care

And, His grace and goodness voicing,

Wings its way to Him in prayer.

But the commencing day also calls for consecration lest its hours be wasted and its opportunities lost:

Grant me, Lord, that on this day

Now with light and grace beginning,

I shall not submit to sinning

Nor Thy word and way betray.

Blessed Jesus, hover ever

Over me, my Sun and Shield,

That I firm may stand and never

Unto sin and Satan yield.

And the passing hours must admonish the Christian to work while it is day and to prepare for the evening that is coming:

Let each fleeting hour of grace

And the chiming bells remind me

That to earth I must not bind me

But Thy life and gifts embrace.

And when dawns my final morrow,

Let me go to Thee for aye,

Let my sin and care and sorrow

With my dust be put away.

Finest of all Kingo's morning hymns is the splendid |The Sun Arises Now in Light and Glory|. This hymn presents all the finest traits of Kingo's poetry, its vivid imagery, forceful style and robust faith. The following translation is by the Rev. P. C. Paulsen.


Kingo, Thomas, 1634-1703

tr., Paulsen, Paul Christian, 1881-1948

The sun arises now

In light and glory

And gilds the rugged brow

Of mountains hoary.

Rejoice, my soul, and lift

Thy voice in singing

To God from earth below,

Thy song with joy aglow

And praises ringing.

As countless as the sand

And beyond measure,

As wide as sea and land

So is the treasure

Of grace which God each day

Anew bestoweth

And which, like pouring rain,

Into my soul again

Each morning floweth.

Preserve my soul today

From sin and blindness;

Surround me on my way

With loving kindness.

Embue my heart, O Lord,

With joy from heaven;

I then shall ask no more

Than what Thou hast of yore

In wisdom given.

Thou knowest best my needs,

My sighs Thou heedest,

Thy hand Thy children leads,

Thine own Thou feedest.

What should I more desire,

With Thee deciding

The course that I must take,

Than follow in the wake

Where Thou art guiding.

Evening naturally inspires a different sentiment than morning. The rising sun calls for activity, the setting sun for reflection. As the sun sets, as work ceases and the busy day merges into the quiet night the soul begins to take account of its gains and losses, its assets and liabilities. The dying day also conveys a sense of insecurity, of approaching death and the need for pardon and protection. All these sentiments, so different from the hopes and prospects of the morning, are wonderfully portrayed in Kingo's evening hymns, as for instance:


Kingo, Thomas, 1634-1703

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Vanish now all sinful dreaming,

Let the joy from heaven streaming

Occupy my soul and mind.

Watch, my spirit, and prepare thee,

Lest the cunning foe ensnare thee

When repose hath made thee blind.

Sleep now in God's care appeasing.

While the noise of day is ceasing,

Lean upon thy Savior's breast.

He will guard thee through the somber

Night and make thy final slumber

Quiet, peaceful, happy, blest.

In the last line with its crescendo of peace and happiness one almost sees the night merge into the final rest.

Among his evening hymns now available in English, the following, perhaps, is the best known.


Kingo, Thomas, 1634-1703

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Softly now the day is ending,

Night o'er hill and vale descending,

I will kneel before Thee, Lord.

Unto Thee my thanks I render

That Thou didst in mercy tender

Life and peace to me accord.

May Thy church Thy peace inherit,

Guide our leaders by Thy spirit,

Grant our country strength and peace.

To the straying, sad and dreary,

To each Christian faint or weary

Grant Thou solace and surcease.

Keep me, Jesus, while I slumber!

From my perils without number,

Shield me, Master, in Thy might,

That, released from sin and sorrow,

I may sing this song tomorrow:

Jesus was my Sun this night.

The publication of these hymns firmly established Kingo's reputation as the foremost poet of his country. Expressions of appreciation poured in upon him from high and low. The king, to whom the hymns were dedicated, so greatly appreciated the gift that, only three years later, he called their otherwise obscure author to become bishop of Fyn, one of the largest and most important dioceses of the country.

Kingo was only forty-two years old when he assumed his new position. His quick elevation from an obscure parish to one of the highest offices within the church might well have strained the abilities of an older and more experienced man. But there can be no doubt that he filled his high position with signal ability. He was both able and earnest, both practical and spiritual. His diocese prospered under his care and his work as a bishop, aside from his renown as a poet, was outstanding enough to give him an enviable reputation in his own generation.

But since his permanent fame and importance rest upon his achievement as a hymnwriter, his appointment as bishop probably must be counted as a loss, both to himself and to the church. His new responsibilities and the multifarious duties of his high office naturally left him less time for other pursuits. He traveled, visited and preached almost continuously throughout his large charge, and it appears like a miracle that under these circumstances, he still found time to write hymns. But in 1684, only two years after his consecration as bishop, he published the second part of Spiritual Song-Choir.

This book bears a dedication to the queen, Charlotte Amalia. She was German by birth and a pious, able and distinguished woman in her own right. Kingo praises her especially for her effort to learn and speak the Danish language. In this respect, he declares, |Her Majesty put many to shame who have eaten the king's bread for thirty years without learning to speak thirty words of Danish, because they hold it to be a homespun language, too coarse for their silky tongues|.

Spiritual Song-Choir, Part II contains twenty hymns and seventeen |sighs|, thus outwardly following the arrangement of Part I. But the content is very different. The hymns are songs of penitence, repentance and faith. They show mastery of form, a wealth of imagery, a facility for concentrated expression and a range of sentiment from stark despair to the most confident trust that is, perhaps, unequalled in Danish poetry. It is an embattled soul that speaks through these hymns, a soul that has faced the abyss and clung heroically, but not always successfully, to the pinnacle of faith. One feels that the man who penned the following lines has not merely imagined the nearness of the pit but felt himself standing on the very brink of it.

Mountains of transgressions press

On my evil burdened shoulders,

Guilt bestrews my path with boulders,

Sin pollutes both soul and flesh,

Law and justice are proclaiming

Judgment on my guilty head,

Hell's eternal fires are flaming,

Filling all my soul with dread.

Of an even darker mood is the great hymn: |Sorrow and Unhappiness|, with the searching verse:

Is there then no one that cares,

Is there no redress for sorrow,

Is there no relief to borrow,

Is there no response to prayers,

Is the fount of mercy closing,

Is the soul to bondage sold,

Is the Lord my plea opposing,

Is His heart to sinners cold?

The poet answers his questions in the following stanzas by assuring himself that the Sun of God's grace can and will pierce even his |cloud of despair|, and that he must wait therefore in quietness and trust:

O my soul, be quiet then!

Jesus will redress thy sadness,

Jesus will restore thy gladness,

Jesus will thy help remain.

Jesus is thy solace ever

And thy hope in life and death;

Jesus will thee soon deliver;

Thou must cling to that blest faith.

The uncertainty of life and its fortunes furnished a favored theme for many of his hymns, as for instance in the splendid --

Sorrow and gladness oft journey together,

Trouble and happiness swift company keep;

Luck and misfortune change like the weather;

Sunshine and clouds quickly vary their sweep.

which is, poetically at least, one of his finest compositions. The poet's own career so far had been one of continuous and rather swift advancement. But there was, if not in his own outward fortune, then in the fortunes of other notables of his day, enough to remind him of the inconstancy of worldly honor and glory. Only a few months before the publication of his hymns, Leonora Christine Ulfeldt, the once beautiful, admired and talented daughter of Christian IV, had been released from twenty-two years of imprisonment in a bare and almost lightless prison-cell; Peder Griffenfeldt, a man who from humble antecedents swiftly had risen to become the most powerful man in the kingdom, had been stript even more swiftly of all his honors and thrown into a dismal prison on a rocky isle by the coast of Norway; and there were other and well known instances of swift changes in the fortunes of men in those days when they were subject not only to the ordinary vicissitudes of human existence but to the fickle humor of an absolute monarch. It is, therefore, as though Kingo at the height of his own fortune would remind himself of the quickness with which it might vanish, of the evanescense and vanity of all worldly glory. That idea is strikingly emphasized in the following famous hymn:


Kingo, Thomas, 1634-1703

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Vain world, fare thee well!

I purpose no more in thy bondage to dwell;

The burdens which thou hast enticed me to bear,

I cast now aside with their troubles and care.

I spurn thy allurements, which tempt and appall;

'Tis vanity all!

What merit and worth

Hath all that the world puts so temptingly forth!

It is naught but bubbles and tinctured glass,

Loud clamoring cymbals and shrill sounding brass.

What are their seductions which lure and enthrall;

'Tis vanity all!

O honor and gold,

Vain idols which many with worship behold!

False are your affluence, your pleasure and fame;

Your wages are envy, deception and shame,

Your garlands soon wither, your kingdom shall fall;

'Tis vanity all!

O carnal desire,

Thou tempting, consuming and treacherous fire,

That catches like tinder and scorches like flame,

Consigning the victim to sorrow and shame,

Thy honeyest potion is wormwood and gall;

'Tis vanity all!

Then, fare thee farewell,

Vain world, with thy tempting and glamorous spell!

Thy wiles shall no longer my spirit enslave,

Thy splendor and joy are designed for the grave

I yearn for the solace from sorrows and harm

Of Abraham's arm!

There shall all my years

I bloom like the lily when summer appears;

There day is not ruled by the course of the sun

Nor night by the silvery light of the moon;

Lord Jesus shall shine as my sun every day

In heaven for aye.

This is an eloquent farewell, clothed in all the expressive wealth of language and imagery of which Kingo was such a master. One cannot repress the feeling, however, that it presents a challenge rather than a farewell. A man that so passionately avows his repudiation of the world must have felt its attraction, its power to tempt and enthrall. He fights against it; the spirit contends with the flesh, but the fight is not easy. And it is in part this very human trait in Kingo that endears his song to us. What Christian does not recognize some of his own experiences in the following characteristic song:


Kingo, Thomas, 1634-1703

tr., J. C. Aaberg

Ever trouble walks beside me,

Ever God with grace provides me,

Ever have I fear and grief,

Ever Jesus brings relief.

Ever sin my heart accuses,

Ever Jesus help induces,

Ever am I weighed with care,

Ever full of praise and prayer.

So is joy by grief attended,

Fortune with misfortune blended;

Blessings mixed with grief and strife

Is the measure of my life.

But, O Jesus, I am crying:

Help that faith, on Thee relying,

Over sin and grief alway

Shall prevail and gain the day.

Some statements in this hymn have frequently been criticized as contradictory, for how can one be |always| full of care and |always| full of praise and prayer? The terms cancel each other. But are not such contradictions expressive of life itself? Few -- if any -- are wholly one thing or wholly another. People are complex. Their joys struggle with their sorrows, their most earnest faith with their doubts and fears. It brings Kingo nearer to us to know that he shared that struggle. His songs have appealed to millions because they are both so spiritual and so human. How expressive of human need and Christian trust are not the following brief lines:

Lord, though I may

The whole long day

Find no relief from sorrow,

Yea, should the night

Afford no light

To ease my plight --

Thou comest on the morrow.

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