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CHAPTER III.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GERHARDT AS A HYMN WRITER.

From 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.3737Or as the German says: From the "Bekenntnislied" to the "Erbauungslied." 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:3838Geschichte d. d. Nationallitteratur, ed. 1842, Pt. III, p. 366.

"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."

Scherer4040Geschichte d. d. Literatur, 1899, pp. 340-341. 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 Gethardts Poesie. Wenn bei Luther die Welt voll Sturm und Gewitter ist, so liegt sie bei Gerhardt in beständigem Sonnenglanz; die Wohltaten des 14 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 trösten 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. Critics4141Cf. J. Smend: "P. Gerhardt u. das evangel. Kirchenlied" in "Der Protestantismus am Ende des 19. Jahrh." I, pp. 301, ff. 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.


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