The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi/The Canticle of the Sun
The Canticle of the Sun.
Of the several "cantica in vulgari" which St. Francis composed, the only one that has come down to us, as far as is known, is the "Praises of the Creatures," or, as it is now more commonly called, "The Canticle of the Sun." Celano, who alludes to this laud, says of St. Francis that he was of the race of Ananias, Azarias and Misael, inviting all creatures with him to glorify Him who made them. It is this side of St. Francis' thoughts which finds expression in the Canticle; and in this particular order of ideas modern religious poetry has never produced anything comparable to this sublime improvisation into which have passed alike "all the wealth of the Saint's imagination and all the boldness of his genius." Tradition tells us that Fra Pacifico had a hand in the embellishment of this laud, about which a whole controversial literature has grown. Some light may perhaps be thrown on this delicate question in the new critical edition of the Canticle promised by Luigi Suttina.
The Canticle appears to have been composed toward the close of the year 1225 in a poor little hut near the Monastery of San Damiano, whither St. Francis had retired on account of his infirmities, and, if we may believe the tradition which finds formal expression in the Speculum Perfectionis, two strophes were subsequently added by the Saint to the original composition,—the eighth strophe upon the occasion of a feud between the Bishop and the magistrates of Assisi, and the ninth one when the Saint recognized the approach of death. M. Renan, with what Canon Knox Little calls "his characteristic inaccuracy," asserts that we do not possess the Italian original of the Canticle, but have only an Italian translation from the Portuguese, which was in turn translated from the Spanish. And yet the original Italian text exists, as M. Sabatier notes, not only in numerous MSS. in Italy and France, notably in the Assisi MS. 338 and at the Mazarin Library, but also in the Book of the Conformities.
The Canticle is accepted as authentic by Professors Boehmer and Goetz in their recent works on the Opuscula of St. Francis. If it does not figure in the Quaracchi edition, the reason is that the Bibliotheca Franciscana Ascetica Medii Ævi, of which the Opuscula forms part, is confined to works written in Latin, and hence M. Sabatier's animadversions on the "theological preoccupations" of the Quaracchi editors are altogether aside the mark.
The text of the Canticle here translated is that of the Assisi MS. 338 (fol. 33), from which the version given in the Conformities (pars. 2, fol. ii) differs only by some unimportant variants. The following is an attempt to render literally into English the naïf rhythm of the original Italian, which necessarily disappears in any formal rhymed translation:
HERE BEGIN THE PRAISES OF THE CREATURES WHICH THE BLESSED FRANCIS MADE TO THE PRAISE AND HONOR OF GOD WHILE HE WAS ILL AT ST. DAMIAN'S:
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord,
Praise, glory and honor and benediction all, are Thine.
To Thee alone do they belong, most High,
And there is no man fit to mention Thee.
Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,
Especially to my worshipful brother sun,
The which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give;
And beautiful is he and radiant with splendor great;
Of Thee, most High, signification gives.
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair.
Praised be my Lord for brother wind
And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather,
By the which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment.
Praised be my Lord for sister water,
The which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire,
By the which Thou lightest up the dark.
And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth,
The which sustains and keeps us
And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.
Praised be my Lord for those who for Thy love forgive
And weakness bear and tribulation.
Blessed those who shall in peace endure,
For by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, the bodily death,
From the which no living man can flee.
Woe to them who die in mortal sin;
Blessed those who shall find themselves in Thy most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no ill.
Praise ye and bless ye my Lord, and give Him thanks,
And be subject unto Him with great humility.
- See 2 Cel. 3, 138–139, and 1 Cel. 80.
- See Cherancé, Life of St. Francis, p. 260.
- See on this head Ozanam, Les Poètes Franciscains, p. 82, and Arnold, Essays on Criticism, pp. 243–248. Mr. Arnold's translation of the Canticle is well known.
- For a list of the more important studies on it, see Speculum Perfectionis (ed. Sabatier), p. 2S9; L. Suttina, Appunti bibliografici di studi francescani, p. 19; also Gasparry's Italian Literature to the death of Dante, p. 358.
- See his St. Francis of Assisi, p. 235, note 2.
- See Nouvelles Etudes d'histoire religieuse, p. 331.
- Vie de S. François, p. xxxiv and chap, xviii.
- This text was published by Fr. Panfilo da Magliano, O.F.M., in his Storia Compendiosa, also by M. Sabatier in his Vie de S. François and later in his Speculum, pp. 334–35.
- Professor Boehmer published the text of the Maz. MS, 1350 in his Sonnengesang v. Fr. d'A., in 1871.
- I have had the advantage of studying two of the oldest MSS. of this work known,—those of the convents of La Verna and Portiuncula.