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THE MODERN ICELANDIC HYMN BOOK AND BISHOP VALDIMAR BRIEM

The present Hymn Book of the Icelandic Lutheran Church appeared first in the year 1886. It is the fourth in order since the Reformation. First came the Grallari (from the Latin "Graduale") of 1594—a book which maintained its position as the official Icelandic Church Book for two centuries. The Evangelisk-Kristileg Sálmabók followed in 1801, a work of a mildly rationalistic type. In 1871 a new hymn book appeared, which was an improvement on its predecessor. 13 At last in 1886 the present book was authorized, a book which won immediate recognition as a vast improvement on all its predecessors, a book which, speaking generally, contains what was best in them with much admirable new material besides.

On examination one remarkable feature is revealed. The book contains 650 hymns. Of this entire number, two men alone are responsible for 353, Helgi Hálfdánarson for 211, and Bishop Valdimar Briem for 142. Each of these two writers makes his characteristic contribution. The work of the former consisted in making available for the Icelandic Church, flowers culled from the wider field of Lutheran Hymnology. Helgi Hálfdánarson excelled as a translator. Not only did he translate hymns, untranslated into Icelandic before, but he retranslated hymns, faulty versions of which had appeared in the previous Icelandic Hymn Books. The present book owes an immense debt to this work of his.

The characteristic contribution, on the other hand, of Bishop Valdimar Briem lies in his original hymns. Of these the book contains 106, and they may be said to form its most outstanding feature. It was through these hymns mainly that the new book achieved its immediate popularity. The editor of Sameiningin wrote: "Icelandic sacred poetry has been raised to new honour. For that our people have chiefly Valdimar Briem to thank." 14 Valdimar Briem takes his place beside Hallgrim Petursson.

This pastor-poet's outward life has been uneventful. Born at Grund, near the Eyjafjörthur, in 1848, he was sent at the age of ten (being one of a large family) to live with an uncle. In 1863 he entered the Latin School at Reykjavik, and in 1870 was transferred to the Theological College. He was ordained priest in 1873. Subsequently he was appointed to Stórinúpur, a little country charge about fifteen miles to the north-west of the famous volcano of Hekla, and there he still lives and writes, although raised recently to the episcopal rank. His output has been immense. He has published two volumes of "Bible Songs" (a collection of metrical pictures of biblical events), a volume of translations from the Psalms, a metrical paraphrase of the Book of Job, as well as hymns and many occasional poems. It is however in his hymns that he makes his chief appeal. As the Icelandic Hymn Book is scanned, it is they which first catch the eye and invite translation.

And wherein lies their power? Not least in the wonderful music which the poet makes, playing on the instrument of his exquisitely musical language. His verses also live with the charm of nature, the grim charm of Icelandic nature. The long dark winter days, the biting frost, the barren surf-beaten coast, the blocking snow-drifts 15 and the rushing torrents, have all left their impress on his hymns, as well as the fair Icelandic flowers, the summer sunlight, and the snow-capped mountain peaks. In this connection it is interesting to notice how often a kind of Christian melancholy sounds in these poems. Death and sorrow are mentioned more frequently than life and service, though always the heavenly hope shines through to lighten the darkness.

Our author's special strength however lies in his original treatment of the parables and miracles of Our Lord. In this he excels. Is he writing on the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard? He is not content to think of different men being called at different hours, but his voice rings out, "Remember that God calls you in baptism, in youth, in manhood, and in old age." Is he treating of the scene on the Mount of Transfiguration? He allegorizes it into a picture of the present prayer-life of the soul. Does he sing of the miracle at Cana? His hymn is an invitation to the Divine Guest to come into our hearts, there to transform sin into holiness. So noticeable is this feature of Bishop Briem's writing, that in the section of the Icelandic Hymn Book in which are grouped hymns on Christ's "Life and Teaching," those bearing the signature "V. B." vastly preponderate over those of any other Icelandic author.

Perhaps we might fitly describe his chief work 16 by saying that as Hallgrim Petursson was the singer of Our Lord's Death and Passion, so Valdimar Briem has sung of His Life.

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