This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on November 22, 2013.
I’m not a religious person. That much is obvious from reading some of the stuff I’ve posted here in the past.
I do, however, quite like hymns. I’m not sure why; perhaps it’s the extent of the devotion that goes into creating a hymn that sets it apart from other similar genres, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a well-written hymn. On an unrelated note, I’ve never understood the saying ‘soft spot’. Sounds to me like a bruised apple, in which case I guess what I’m saying is that hymns can quite happily break through my wounded skin, sending chunks of my flesh flying everywhere. Anyway, I’m a particular fan of hymns in languages I don’t speak, which seems an oddly specific taste but I rather like any sort of music in languages I don’t understand. It seems to give it a purer sort of musical experience: you can enjoy the lyrics for their phonetic quality rather than making sense of any actual sort of grammatical expression. In the case of hymns, not understanding the lyrics also takes away any sort of aversion I might have to them on personal grounds (although I’m usually quite happy to appreciate a hymn’s lyrics, since they’re often rather nice even if they don’t line up with my world view).
One particular hymn I’ve found myself liking lately is an Icelandic one, which became quite popular recently due to a viral video of it being performed in a train station. It’s called Heyr himna smiður – or some variation thereof, I’ve seen it with various commas and words joined together – and it really is quite something. For one thing, this particular performance seems to have resonated with a lot of people on the basis that it’s an extremely accomplished feat to sing a six-part hymn in a public environment, particularly one as noisy as a train station. It’s an exceedingly well-written piece, too, but I’m finding myself strangely drawn to the lyrics.
Gæt þú, mildingur, mín,
mest þurfum þín,
helzt hverja stund
á hölda grund.
Send þú, meyjar mögur,
öll er hjálp af þér,
í hjarta mér.
That’s the final verse, and it’s probably worth listening to rather than attempting to pronounce it if you don’t speak Icelandic (broadly, though, just remember that þ is a ‘th’ sound and ö is pronounced kind of like ‘eugh’ and you’ll have some idea). I have very little idea what these words mean, although I did watch a version which included both the Icelandic lyrics and their translation. I do, however, just really like the sound of them. I’m a lot more accepting of straight-up perfect rhymes in other languages than I am of English ones, perhaps because in my native tongue they often seem to come across as either a bit childish, somewhat forced, or heavy-handed; when I don’t know what the words mean, though, there’s a more appealing quality about those sounds just lining up together.
Even the words written down have a strange sort of inexplicable beauty, with all those accents and unfamiliar letters decorating them, but it really is when heard aloud that this hymn becomes phenomenal. Icelandic has a wonderful kind of fluttering to its ‘r’ sounds, and pretty much every vowel sound is just slightly removed from its Anglophone counterpart. Maybe I just like the strange and foreign, but I’m a far bigger fan of poetry when I don’t know what it means. Which I suppose means that anyone reading this who speaks any language other than English could send me a poem that read along the lines of ‘you are a smelly poohead’ and I would probably think it was transcendental and amazing, but that’s life. Sometimes being a smelly poohead is a truly beautiful aesthetic experience, and that’s the conclusion I have somehow come to. This isn’t where I planned for this to end up.