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Philip Nicolai

Hitherto the hymns of the Reformation had been distinguished by their simplicity and appropriateness to church use; their models had been found in the earlier Latin hymns, or in the Psalms of the Old Testament and the hymns handed down to us by St. Luke. Now, however, for the first time we encounter a new style, afterwards very prevalent, which reminds us of some of the later mediaeval hymns addressed to the Virgin and saints, and finds its scriptural ground in the Song of Solomon and the Apocalypse. As yet most hymns were addressed to God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, or to the Holy Trinity, or in the case of 159 hymns of sorrow and penitence to the Saviour. But afterwards the mystical union of Christ with the soul became a favourite subject; more secular allusions and similes were admitted, and a class of hymns begins to grow up, called in Germany "Hymns of the Love of Jesus." Some of these are extremely beautiful, and express most vividly that sense of fellowship with Christ, of His presence and tender sympathy, of personal love and gratitude to Him, which are among the deepest and truest experiences of the Christian life; but it is a style which needs to be guarded, for it easily degenerates into sentimentality of a kind very injurious alike to true religion and poetical beauty.

The earliest examples of this style are two celebrated hymns written by Dr. Philip Nicolai in 1597, during a fearful pestilence in Westphalia, where he was pastor of the little town of Unna. More than 1,400 persons died in a very short time, and from his window he saw all the funerals pass to the graveyard close at hand. From these scenes of death he turned to the study of St. Augustine's "City of God" and the contemplation of the eternal life, and so absorbed himself in them that he remained cheerful and well amid the surrounding distress. In 1599 he published the fruit of his meditations in a treatise called "The Joyous Mirror of Life Eternal," a book of pious and devout reflection, to which be affixed two hymns that speedily attained a remarkable popularity, and are indeed admirable for their fervour of emotion and mastery over difficult but musical rhythms. One is--

"Wake, awake, for night is flying,

The watchmen on the heights are crying,

Awake, Jerusalem, at last!"


which is well known in England from the use of its splendid chorale in Mendelssohn's "Elijah" to the words,

"Sleepers, wake, a voice is calling."

The other hymn, "O Morning-Star," also possesses a very fine chorale; and so popular did it soon become, that its tune was often chimed by city chimes, lines and verses from it were printed by way of ornament on the common earthenware of the country, and it was invariably used at weddings and certain festivals. It is still to be found in all German hymn-books, but in a very modified form to suit more modern tastes. A translation of the original hymn is here attempted. Nicolai's title for it is--

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