Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The firmament sheweth his handywork

There are just a little more than two weeks left to the semester, and I'm having a little trouble with the whole "keep calm and carry on" maxim. Perhaps it's not a fantastic idea to listen to Mozart's Requiem mass while reading my advisor's comments on my project... But, it's too late for that. What's done is done. The "Dies Irae" has never felt more a propos (at least, this draft isn't graded).
The project in question is a translation and commentary upon one of Jakob Balde's elegies. Now, you may ask, who is Jakob Balde and why am I wading through the trackless wilderness of his poetry? Well, the first question is simple enough: Balde was a 17th century German poet, who wrote in Latin. Actually, he was Alsatian. Should I make a distinction? Probably. Anyways, he lived and wrote for the most part in Germany, serving as chaplain to the elector Maximilian I.
The second question is a little more difficult. In the first place, it's a bit harsh of me to refer to his poetry as a trackless wilderness. It's really quite lovely, sublime even, when you're not completely perplexed by his eccentric word order and obscure references (thanks to Jakob, I'm developing a knowledge of 17th century botany). What's also exciting is that the poem I'm working with is hitherto untranslated and uncommented upon. I'm actually doing something that matters (at least, that's what I tell myself). I'm not just following in a chain of commentators and translators, all more intelligent than myself. Furthermore, I love the poem. It's beautiful and touching. The title, in English, is "The Garden of Gethsemane, representing the weapons of Christ’s Passion flowering in mid Spring, and allegorically described." Typical of his era, Balde's title is verbose and bland, compared with the content of the poem. But, the poem! Not bland at all. Rather, it is lithe and understated. Balde continually switches between three narratives: a description of the Garden of Gethsemane blooming in mid Spring, a description of Christ's Passion, and an exhortation to the Christian soul. He switches so effortlessly between his three topics that one forgets they are separate. In fact, so natural is his presentation that one begins to realize that they are not separate. Balde links Christ's Passion, and thus, the salvation of mankind, with the beauty of nature. He unites the God we discern in nature with the God we read about in scripture. And, in so doing, he reminds us that, not only scripture, but nature also, is an exhortation to virtue, a reminder of God's love and majesty. As the psalmist writes, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day untoday uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2).

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