The seven great hymns of the mediaeval church/Dies Iræ

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A FRANCISCAN monk named Thomas, born near the beginning of the thirteenth century, at Celano, a Neapolitan village, achieved some reputation in his time as the friend and biographer of St. Francis de Assisi, founder of the Order of Minorites. About the year 1250, as is supposed, he wrote a brief lyric, which, reaching above and beyond his creed and time, has entered in some form into the worship of every Christian people. In the Romish Burial Service it forms the Sequence for the Dead, and is sung with solemn majesty at the great Sixtine Chapel, while portions of it enter into the praise or meditations of nearly "all who profess and call themselves Christians." So that, becoming more highly esteemed, and more generally known with each century of its long history, it is at the present time both sung at Rome and approved by all Protestant Christendom.

A long list might be framed of the great who have avowed for it a supreme admiration, excelling that yielded to any other composition of its kind. And such a roll would contain the names of men of different countries as of different creeds; of soldiers, statesmen and poets; of historians, Churchmen, and composers, upon whose lips it has hovered, and in whose works it has been engraved. Mozart, Haydn, Goethe, Schlegel, Johnson, Dryden, Scott, Milman, and Jeremy Taylor would be among these names.

This lyric, which is the greatest of hymns, nevertheless is cast in the simplest of forms. Beginning with an exclamation from the Scriptures, it continues through its few stanzas the address of a single actor upon a single subject. Its measure could not be more artless, nor its stanzas more simple. The august language in which it is clothed, it has bent into the form of rhyme, and this rhyme is of a kind which is said to be wanting in dignity, and better adapted to comic than to elevated verse. Yet it commands the homage of the Englishman, the German, the Italian, and the modern Greek; and even possesses so strange a gift of fascination, a gift in which no other composition equals and but one other approaches it, that the very found of its words will allure him who is ignorant of their meaning.

This marvellous power cannot be measured and defined, yet a distinguished American clergyman has thus closely analyzed it: "Combining somewhat of the rhythm of classical Latin, with the rhymes of the mediæval Latin, treating of a theme full of awful sublimity, and grouping together the most startling imagery of Scripture as to the last Judgment, and throwing this into yet stronger relief by the barbaric simplicity of the style in which it is set, and adding to all these its full and trumpet-like cadences, and uniting with the impassioned feelings of the South, whence it emanated, the gravity of the North, whose severer style it adopted."—Dr. W. R. Williams.

The Great Hymn has ever allured and eluded translators. Its apparent artlessness and simplicity indicate that it can be turned readily into another language, but its secret power refuses to be thus transferred. A German theologian (Lisco, Berlin, 1843) has collected and published eighty-seven versions, nearly all of which are in the German. In our English tongue the task of rendering the Latin into verse of the same measure is more difficult, and some of our translators have sought to reproduce the form, and others to preserve the power of the original. The reader of Scott will remember with what strength a few stanzas burst on us in the first reading of "The Lay." In form and meaning they hardly claim the name of a translation, yet they have caught the spirit of the hymn with a vividness that nothing in our language equals.

The mass was sung, and prayers were said,
And solemn requiem for the dead;
And bells toll'd out their mighty peal,
For the departed spirit's weal;
And ever in the office close
The hymn of intercession rose;
And far the echoing aisles prolong
The awful burden of the song—
Dies Iræ, Dies Illa!
Solvet Sæclum in favilla;
While the pealing organ rung;
Were it meet with sacred strain
To close my lay so light and vain,
Thus the holy Fathers sung:

That day of wrath, that dreadful day!
When heaven and earth shall pass away,
What power shall be the sinner's stay?
How shall he meet that dreadful day?

When shrivelling like a parchèd scroll
The flaming heavens together roll;
When louder yet, and yet more dread,
Swells the high trump that wakes the dead!

Oh! on that day, that wrathful day
When man to judgment wakes from clay,
Be Thou the trembling sinner's stay,
Though heaven and earth shall pass away!


The established version of the hymn is known as that of Paris. It differs in but one line from that of Rome, which has for the third line of the first stanza, Crucis expandens vexilla.

There have been stanzas prefixed to the hymn and others added; but, in its great strength, it has shaken off all such spurious additions. A marble slab in the Church of St. Francis, at Mantua, bore a copy of the hymn prefaced by five stanzas, which many scholars have thought, from the great age of the church, authentic. But the church is a century younger than the hymn, and these stanzas condemn themselves:

Dies illa, dies iræ
Quam conemur prævenire,
Obveamque Deo iræ.

The inversion of the Scriptural text, the poverty of the rhyme, and the weakness of the thought, are not faults of the Dies Iræ. Its author undoubtedly took the quotation from Zephaniah as a text, and placed it at the head of his composition; and the inversion, "Dies illa, dies iræ" is the play upon words to which an imitator alone would resort.


The author of the first translation given in this volume, in a preface to his work, says:

"A production universally acknowledged to have no superior of its class should be as literally rendered as the structure of the language into which it is translated will admit. Moreover, no translation can be complete which does not conform to the original in its rhythmic quantities. The music of the Dies Iræ is as old as the hymn, if not older; and with those who are familiar with both, they are inseparably connected in thought. To satisfy the exactions of such minds, the cadences must be the same."

In this endeavor the author has so well succeeded, that when this version is compared stanza by stanza with the original, it will be found to be in the same trochaic measure, in the same difficult double rhyme, in stanzas of the same triplicate construction, and, with fewest errors, to be as a translation the most literal and just that has been made. Yet this success in letters was achieved by a soldier, during the gloomiest period of a great and distracting war. The author is Major-General John A. Dix, U. S. V., and the translation was made at Fortress Monroe, in the second year of the Rebellion.


The intense power of the Great Hymn is also exemplified in the different renderings which have been made by the same author. Dr. Abraham Coles, an American physician, has performed indeed the remarkable task of making thirteen different versions; six of which are in the trochaic measure and double rhyme of the hymn, and all are sufficiently distinct and original to form the creditable work of thirteen different men. This version is the first of Dr. Coles.


The next version is that of the Rev. Franklin Johnson, spoken of in the introduction and now substituted in the place of one of Dr. Coles’.


This version is by that nobleman of whom Pope has written:

"Such was Roscommon, not more learned than good,
Of manners generous as his noble blood:
To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known,
And every author's merit but his own."

And of whom Dryden has confessed:

"It was my Lord Roscommon's essay on translated verse which made me uneasy till I tried whether or no I was capable of following his rules, and of reducing the speculation into practice."

And of whom Johnson has recorded:

"At the moment in which he expired, he uttered, with an energy of voice that expressed the most fervent devotion, two lines of his own version of Dies Iræ:

'My God, my Father, and my Friend,
Do not forsake me in my end.'"

In the beautiful fervor of its devotion, Roscommon's excels all other translations, but its verse is not that of the Dies Iræ.


Crashaw, the contemporary of Herbert, and friend of Cowley, is the author of this version. It is the oldest in our language (1646), though there is a weak paraphrase by Drummond of Hawthornden, beginning:

Ah, silly soul! what wilt thou say
When He, whom heaven and earth obey,
Comes man to judge in the last day!

No translation surpasses Crashaw's in strength, but the form of his stanza and the measure of his verse are least like those of the original.


The version of Dr. W. J. Irons may be regarded as the accepted version of the present day in Great Britain, and is the one selected by the Hymnal Noted. It is in the double rhyme and measure of the original, and parts of it bear a striking resemblance to the American version of General Dix. But a much more curious coincidence in conception, with an absolute identity of language in many parts, exists in the unpublished version of an accomplished translator (Mr. A. Périès, of Philadelphia), wherein several stanzas differ but little from those of General Dix. The eleventh stands as follows:

"Righteous Judge of retribution,
Grant us sinners absolution.
Ere the day of dissolution!"


It is a notable fact in the history of the Dies Iræ, that the best English translations which we possess are not the work of our great poets. A recent version, which so capable and accomplished a critic as Mr. Prime pronounces to be "in many respects the best English version hitherto produced, and peculiarly valuable for those who do not read the Latin, and who desire to gain some idea of the power and beauty of this most celebrated hymn of the Church," also illustrates this remarkable fact. The author is Edward Slosson, Esq., of the bar of New York.

And in this connection it may be observed, that even so accomplished a master in prose and verse as Macaulay has succeeded no better in the difficult task than is shown by his version written for the London Christian Observer in 1826, beginning—

"On that great, that awful day,
This vain world shall pass away.
Thus the Sibyl sang of old;
Thus hath holy David told.
There shall be a deadly fear
When the Avenger shall appear;
And, unveiled before his eye,
All the works of men shall lie."

Chapters (not listed in original)