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A More Brotherly Song, a Less Passionate Passion: Abstraction and Ecumenism in the Translation of the Hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” from Bloodier Antecedents

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2013

Abstract

When nineteenth-century American Presbyterian pastor James Waddel Alexander wrote the lyrics of the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” he created what has become the most popular of numerous English translations of seventeenth-century German Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt's hymn “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” That text was, in turn, a translation of part of an anonymous thirteenth-century cycle of passion poems, one dedicated to each of Christ's wounds. From the medieval original through Gerhardt to Alexander, each subsequent translation has diminished its depictions of blood and rendered its narrator's interaction with the crucified body of Christ less passionate, dictated by the theological needs and aesthetic sensibilities of the translator's religious tradition. At the same time, both Gerhardt and Alexander included significant elements from the original that were anomalous in their own contexts. The inclusion of a medieval poem in the worship of seventeenth-century Lutherans and nineteenth-century Presbyterians may reveal an ecumenical bent on their part, albeit with clear limits. A comparison of the various versions of the hymn demonstrates the complex interrelationship between an original text and translations of it, some of which may properly be called versions of it and some of which may have become something altogether different.

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Copyright © American Society of Church History 2013 

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References

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23 “cruentatum,” “conquassatum, vulneratum,” “sputis illita.” Mabillon and Migne, S. Bernardi, 1323–1324.

24 Mabillon and Migne, S. Bernardi, 1323–1324.

25 “attritus aegra macie.” Mabillon and Migne, S. Bernardi, 1323–1324.

26 “Omnis vigor atque viror.” Mabillon and Migne, S. Bernardi, 1323–1324.

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32 “amator amplectende.” Mabillon and Migne, S. Bernardi, 1323–1324.

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61 “Du weites Tor der Gnaden.” Gerhardt, Dichtungen und Schriften, 64.

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63 Ibid., 69–70.

64 “Wie bist du so bespeit! ” Gerhardt, Dichtungen und Schriften, 70.

65 “Wie bist du so erbleichet! ” Gerhardt, Dichtungen und Schriften, 70.

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