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Reformation Couplets

by michwo 

Posted: 22 October 2017
Word Count: 511
Summary: These are taken from a long poem in German written in rhyming couplets by the Swiss writer C.F.Meyer about the final days of the Reformer Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) who died on an island in Lake Zurich after leading a Knights' Revolt against the Archbishop of Trier.

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Stall for the Sale of Indulgences
"Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Croesus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" (Martin Luther: Thesis 86 of 95)
I cried:  Men, lend a hand and help me out.
To make the Pope rich this stall’s all about!
If only money buys eternal life
Indulgences will everywhere be rife.
These wares both young and old will loud demand
And paupers by their lack of funds be damned.
Turn out your pockets!  Are they empty?  Then
Be bold enough to join us, lucky men!
Take my advice, redemption-hungry breed,
No signed indulgence chit to wave you need!
Our path to heaven’s not denied or barred!
Salvation is a present not a card!
I spoke a raucous language in my haste.
And yet my warning did not go to waste.
My answer came back in a righteous din:
“We’ll break these tables, not condone a sin!”
The Bible in German
A joyful day as, stretched out in the mead,
I Martin Luther’s German scripture read.
I love to listen, Luther, to the lilt
Of speech that no-one more than you has built.
Hidden behind walls with green overgrown
New Bible, new German, both strong as stone.
I read and ancient stories from the East
Become incarnate right down to the least.
I hear the Saviour as He teaches me
From fishing boat upon Lake Galilee.
Perhaps He wanders out there by the shore
Through high corn down a hidden path, footsore.
A monk no longer, Luther broke his vows –
No more to fate or fellow men he bows!
He feels the massive fault-line of these days
And fast he clings to Holy Writ always.
The past, the future struggle in his soul
Like wrestlers who, sore panting, give their all.
There where the village stream falls in the lake
A crowd is seething, children in its wake.
They images of saints with a great shout
From a small church are dragging roughly out,
Removing what their forebears had amassed
To topple in the stream: their time was past.
The current carried off the stony dross,
And martyrs’ wounds were permanently lost.
Relics, votive offerings, stumps of wax
To be borne by the brisk brook were not lax.
And then I of a statue grew aware,
Heavy to lift - it took of men a pair,
And I was shocked.  It was a tender form:
The Virgin Mary smiled a smile so warm
And gazed so touchingly upon this zoo
As if to say:  “What have I done to you?”
How came this work to this parish church small?
In Nuremberg none better I recall.
You felt that a master’s effort and love
Had gone to create it, blessed from above.
To wantonly destroy a work of art
Is heinous!  I felt forced to stand apart.
But did I stop them?  No, I have to say.
With such idolatry we must away.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 20:47 on 24 October 2017  Report this post
Hello Michael – I’m not sure whether these poems are direct translations from Ulrich von Hutten, or your own poems drawing on his ideas. I’ll treat them as the latter meantime.
These three poems are very interesting, each making a clear statement about a significant aspect of the Reformation. For the most part the couplets work well, and I think the rhyming couplet is the appropriate form. Some of the couplets don’t work very well and need to be looked at again, but we can discuss this later.
I’m interested too  in the voice of the poems, that of a contemporary of Luther as Ulrich von Hutten must have been, according to his dates. I don’t know if it's von Hutten himself; perhaps someone in a position of local power, able for example to stop the destruction of the Virgin statue if he so decides. His brief dilemma comes across quite tellingly through the first person narrator: first he is struck by the face of Mary, kind and benevolent, and understands that it is so touching because the of the artist’s skill; he begins to feel strongly that such a piece, indeed any work of art, should not be destroyed. Finally, perhaps mistakenly but understandably in the context of the times, he decides not to intervene. ‘Iconoclasts’ captures what seems to me a realistic moment from Reformation times, something that might well have happened in reality.
For that reason I think ‘Iconoclasts’ is the best of the three – but the others have their strengths. In ‘The Bible in German’ it’s the setting, where the narrator reads Luther’s Bible on a ‘joyful day’, ‘stretched out in the mead’. There’s a sharp contrast, of course, between this and the noisy crowd in the previous poem. I think too that the initial atmosphere of peace is continued in the references to the New Testament that follow – these too being quiet and serene.  I like this couplet:
Hidden behind walls with green overgrown
New Bible, new German, both strong as stone.
I take this to allude to the fact that Luther translated the Bible while in hiding in Wartburg, and it’s one of the best couplets because it begins with the idea of the stone walls of Luther’s ‘prison’ and very neatly turns to the idea that the new vernacular Bible and the enriched German language are ‘strong as stone’.
The piece on indulgences brings out the absurdity of the practice, and also that it so blatantly favoured the wealthy and excluded the poor. Again there’s a good couplet which encapsulates this:
These wares both young and old will loud demand
And paupers by their lack of funds be damned.
Now, Michael, would you like to ‘workshop’ these poems? It would mean mainly looking at some of the couplets, and if you agree that they are somewhat below par, thinking about how to revise them. It would be worth doing even if this is a translation.They're well worth ‘polishing’, and I may be able to help.

michwo at 23:51 on 24 October 2017  Report this post
These couplets are indeed translations, but of a long narrative poem in rhyming couplets by Conrad Ferndinand Meyer (1825-1898) about Ulrich von Hutten thinking back over his life while dying on the Ufenau, an island on Lake Zurich.  There are 70 pages like this and I was so interested in the poem that I translated the lot!  I even sought help from a C.F.Meyer scholar now a Benedictine nun in the Roman Catholic diocese of Peoria, Illinois, but I don't think she took me very seriously on the whole.  I'm no academic and to understand some of the finer points of this poem you need to be ideally.  I'm not quite sure what 'workshopping' involves, but I'm up for it in this case as I would like to see this extract from a much greater whole to be as polished as it possibly can be.

James Graham at 20:27 on 25 October 2017  Report this post
Thanks for your explanation, Michael. It was clear from your introduction that the original poem was by C.F. Meyer, but I managed to get it wrong. If you will bear with me, we can begin 'workshopping' - looking at ways to improve some of the couplets - in a couple of days. I'm working on Thomas's poem 'To Venus' and it has taken up quite a lot of time. I'll get back to you soon.


James Graham at 20:27 on 27 October 2017  Report this post
Hello Michael – I’ve reviewed the three poems looking for any couplets that seem to need attention. In fact it turns out there are very few. I’ll go through them in order and you can let me know what you think.
Stall for the Sale of Indulgences
1. In the second couplet, ‘If only money buys eternal life’ reads almost like a wish: If only money could buy…’ I know it’s not quite that, but it would be better rephrased:
If cash alone will buy eternal life
If wealth alone will buy eternal life
2. ‘Our path to heaven’s not denied or barred!’ – there’s a repetition of meaning here. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a perfect synonym, but ‘denied’ and ‘barred’ come very close. You have to keep ‘barred’ for the rhyme, but the rest of the line could be filled out. You need not adopt this alternative; it’s just an example and you may find something else that you’re happier with.
The way to everlasting life’s not barred
The current carried off the stony dross
I don’t know what Meyer’s original poem says, but it seems a bit odd that objects made of stone would be carried away by the current. They would sink! Perhaps it should say ‘The river swallowed up the stony dross’ or words to that effect. In the next couplet, the line ‘To be borne by the brisk brook were not lax’ would have to change too. I suppose if the original says stones were carried away by the river, you can be excused for leaving it at that, but it still doesn’t seem quite right.
Well, that’s all. If anything else occurs to me I’ll let you know. As I say, it would be interesting to know what you think of these few suggestions.

michwo at 00:25 on 29 October 2017  Report this post
I've implemented your suggestions, James, and altered one or two things on my own initiative.
The idea of a stream or even a brisk brook did not seem consistent with the idea of a river, so I took it that the river that flows through Zurich, the Limmat, actually empties into Lake Zurich at some point.
Better but not perfect even now?  I'll settle for that.

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