The seven great hymns of the mediaeval church/Introduction to this Edition

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THE first edition of the Seven Great Hymns was published anonymously, years ago, because I did not wish to assume a scholarship which I did not possess. In framing the book the process of selection and rejection was instinctive or intuitive rather than the operation of a well-informed judgment. It was the case of one reaching out for something which he intensely deſired to find with the result of finding it. The purpose of the book was what might be termed exposition—to give to American readers an exposition of the subject by placing before them the greatest of the mediæval hymns, and an exposition of each hymn by appending to it its best translation. Since then there have been immense additions to the English branch of the subject in the form of translations and commentaries; and it would be an easy task now with the material at hand to make this volume three times its present size; but after traveling around the circle of these years I stop very nearly where I began, for I am now of the opinion that the present edition, with the alterations and additions which it embodies, does about all for the reader in the way of exposition, either of the general subject or of the several hymns, which it is possible for me to do.

During this lapse of years there have been three books published which should be brought to the attention of any person who may be interested in early religious poetry. The first is the "Christ in Song" of Dr. Schaff. This is not limited to mediæval times, but on the contrary contains a wealth of the best hymns of all times and lands. In it will be found many translations of mediæval hymns with Dr. Schaff's annotations—the annotations of one of the most learned and judicious commentators who ever touched the subject. The second is a small volume of mediæval hymns with translations and notes by the late Erastus C. Benedict, a member of the New York bar. Its title is "The Hymn of Hildebert." The third is the "Christian Life and Song" of Mrs. Charles, better known as the author of the Schonberg-Cotta Family. This work sweeps over the whole wide horizon of Greek, Latin and German hymns, and is, in my opinion, the most interesting and trustworthy work of combined history and translation that has ever been published in English. Indeed, I know of no book which so combines the fervor of a religious and poetic temperament with the calm discrimination and good sense of a judicial mind.

During these intervening years, I have not, in the proper sense of the term, pursued the study of mediæval hymns, but there are some conclusions of my maturer judgment which I wish to note; and there are some changes in this final edition which should be explained:


The De Contemptu Mundi is not properly a hymn. It has come to be classed as such in consequence of the admiration of Archbishop Trench and the beautiful paraphrase of Dr. Neale. It cannot, therefore, be compared with the other hymns in this volume, but stands alone a fragment taken from an extended poem. The subsequent notes, retained from the first edition, will disclose the difficulty, the almost impossibility of translation into English and the incomparable adaptability of the Latin, both for measure and rhyme. Nevertheless, the Rev. Samuel W. Duffield has made a translation in the measure of the original with the intermediate dactylic rhymes and the final double-rhymes, which moreover, is a literal rendering of the poem line for line and often word for word. The introduction of Mr. Duffield is also a valuable essay upon the construction of the verse.

The great difficulty of rendering these mediæval hymns into English is caused by the fact that generally they are both in Latin and in rhyme, and the rhyme is often double-rhyme, an element which is little better than artificial in our monosyllabic English tongue. If the reader will compare the following specimens he will see how far apart translators can be.

The first translation is Mr. Duffield's; the second is one which I made for the Seven Great Hymns; the third, it is needless to say, is Dr. Neale's.

Hora novissima, || tempora pessima || sunt, vigilemus.
Ecce minaciter || imminet arbiter || ille surpremus.
Imminet, imminet || et mala terminet, || æqua coronet,
Recta remuneret, || anxia liberet, || æthera donet,
Auserat aspera || duraque pondera || mentes onustæ,
Sobria muniat, || improba puniat, | utraque juste.

These are the latter times, these are not better times,
let us stand waiting:
Lo, how with awfulness He, first in lawfulness,
comes arbitrating!
Nearer and nearer yet!—Wrong shall in terror set,
right shine refulgent.
Sad ones He liberates, righteous renumerates, ever
Harshness He mitigates, burdened souls animates,
freeing them lightly;
Holy ones blesseth He, wicked distresseth He—
each alike rightly.

Hours of the latest! times of the basest! our vigil before us!
Judgment eternal of Being supernal now hanging o'er us!
Evil to terminate, equity vindicate, cometh the Kingly;
Righteousness seeing, anxious hearts freeing, crowning each singly,
Bearing life's weariness, tasting life's bitterness, life as it must be
Th' righteous retaining, sinners arraigning, judging all justly.

The world is very evil,
The times are waxing late;
Be sober and keep vigil,
The Judge is at the gate—
The Judge that comes in mercy,
The Judge that comes with might,
To terminate the evil,
To diadem the right.
When the just and gentle Monarch
Shall summon from the tomb,
Let man, the guilty, tremble,
For Man, the God, shall doom!


The Dies Iræ is undoubtedly the greatest of the mediæval hymns. It stands "majestic and solitary" in the words of Mr. Benedict; its strain is "so clear and deep that its softest tones are heard throughout Christendom," in the words of Mrs. Charles. The zeal of the translator has not cooled, and many translations have been published, and many, unpublished, have been sent to me since the first edition of this work. A second version was made by General Dix, which he deemed superior to the first, but which was unquestionably inferior. The first stanza, for example, is as follows:

Day of vengeance, lo! that morning
On the earth in ashes dawning,
David with the Sibyl warning.

For this he displaced the stanza of the first version which the Rev. Franklin Johnson has characterized as never surpassed in "its high finish, its delicate suggestion of the antique and its perfection of form." I have, therefore, retained the first version. The effort of translators generally has been to reproduce the double-rhyme of the original; but the truth is that the single-rhyme better preserves for the English reader the two important elements of simplicity and strength. Of such translations I have found none better than that of Mr. Slosson.

In 1883 a translation of the Dies Iræ was published by the Rev. Franklin Johnson, of Chicago, which I regard as the most nearly perfect in form that has ever been made, and which I have incorporated in this edition. Dr. Johnson says in his preface that he published a previous edition in 1865; that the work of translation occupied his attention at frequent intervals during a period of fifteen years, and that there were weeks in succession during which, both day and night, his mind was filled with the stanzas. I may well believe this, for nothing has ever been published which denotes in the translator such fervor of admiration restrained by such exacting criticism. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that Dr. Johnson so scrupulously complied with his own inexorable canons as to dispoil his translation of poetic beauties which might better have been retained. For example, he sacrificed the most exact and poetical translation of the thirteenth stanza that has ever been made because it contained the word "shriven"—because the word shrive "is a sectarian term, and is used in general with reference to the Romish Church, the Dies Iræ being singularly free from everything peculiar to the communion of which its author was a member." When the word is taken in connection with Him "by whom the thief was shriven," I deem this criticism is too technical and the translation is as free from sectarianism as the original. I have, therefore, taken the liberty of restoring the rejected stanza. Taking this version all in all, its adherence to the measure of the original, its retention of the double-rhyme, its avoidance of the English participle ending in "ing," its preservation of the ideas and imagery of the original, I doubt whether a better translation will ever be made by a translator of the critical school.

Nevertheless, these things must be borne in mind—that power is the great characteristic of the Dies Iræ; that its power cannot be transferred to English verse by means of the weakest form of English words; that the double-rhyme has, to the English ear, something of the jingle of the humorous ballad; and that, if we would feel the strength of the great hymn, we must, foregoing form, go to the old version of Crashaw, or to single-rhyme translations like that of Mr. Slosson.


The Stabat Mater loses more by translation, probably, than any other piece of poetry that was ever written. "The soft, sad melody of its verse is untranslatable " (Dr. Schaff). If we take the lines, melodious in their pathos,

Quæ mœrebat et dolebat,
Pia mater, dum videbat,

and render them into English as Dr. Schaff has done,

Who stood grieving, sighs upheaving,
Spirit-reaving, bosom-cleaving;

or as Dr. Coles translates them,

Trembling, grieving, bosom-heaving;
While perceiving, scarce believing,

we bring them perilously near to the absurd.

In a word, free translations do not catch the delicate pathos of the Stabat Mater, and are not echoes of its melody. I have hitherto had an occasion to say that a translator may well make three translations of a poem; one to portray its structure, that is, its measure, melody, movement and rhyme; one to present in detail its ideas and images; and one to produce an impression as similar as possible to that of the original on the mind of the reader. But many renderings do not seem to bring nearer to us the elusive power of this original. The more the Stabat Mater is translated, the farther it drifts from us.

Here, however, I should add that Dr. Franklin Johnson has published a translation of the Stabat Mater—a beautiful poem in a beautiful setting—which probably comes as near to the spirit of the original as English verse will ever bring us.

The Mater Speciosa is not one of the Seven Great Hymns. It has been inserted here because it is closely associated with the other poem and in some degree an exposition of it. Like the Stabat Mater, it has generally been ascribed to Jacobus de Benedictus, and I have left his name as the reputed author. My own opinion, however, is that it was neither written by him nor before the Stabat Mater. These conclusions rest on what we know of Jacobus and on the internal evidence of the two poems. 1. One of them is undisputably secondary—a companion-piece to the other. 2. The Stabat Mater is founded on the scriptural basis of the text in John, "there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother," as the Dies Iræ is founded on the scriptural basis of the terrible text in Joel. This fact alone is suficient to be termed conclusive; i. e., the poem springs from that text and not from another poem. Conversely, the Mater Speciosa springs from the other poem and not from a scriptural image. The picture in John was the germ of both poems. 3. The Stabat Mater is the poem of the great tragedy of the world; the Mater Speciosa runs upon lines of ordinary human emotions. It follows the measure and catches the melody and adopts the sentiment of its original; but it is of inferior texture, and in places its pathos verges on the extravagant. 4. One or the other of these two poems has the fundamental element of imitation; it is necessarily a clever piece of literary workmanship, following the other in stanza, in measure, in words, and often in the repetition of lines; it may be melodious, poetical, beautiful, but confessedly it cannot be in the true sense of the term original. If I must choose between the two, I do not hesitate to say that the secondary poem is the Speciosa. The Stabat Mater seems to me one of those marvelous outbursts which seize the hearts and imaginations of men and come down the centuries with unabated power.


The Veni Sancte Spiritus is still represented by a single translation, that of Catherine Winkworth, which is indeed but a translation of a translation, the German. The reader will find a much more actual rendering in Mrs. Charles' "Christian Life in Song." But here again the two renderings illustrate how the more free is occasionally the more literal; how it may give the leading thought or image of the author which the more critical may overlook. Thus the

Come, Thou Father of the poor,
Giver from a boundless store
Light of Hearts, O shine!

of Mrs. Charles, misses the impressive Veni, Veni, Veni of the original, which is splendidly rendered by Miss Winkworth:

Come, Father of the poor, to earth;
Come with Thy gifts of precious worth;
Come, Light of all of mortal birth!


The Veni Creator Spiritus has been ascribed to Charlemagne, and in the first edition it was said, with some reservation, that his authorship is not impossible. I have allowed his name to remain at the head of it, but my present conclusion is that it was written before the time of the Great King. Mr. Benedict, judging from internal evidence alone, ascribes it to St. Ambrose, who died in 397. It seems to me improbable that so well known a hymn would not have been always classed with his other hymns, and that it would have slept, if written before 397, for at least three hundred years.


The Vexilla Regis is the sixth of these expositional hymns. The first five, as it were, selected themselves, i. e., there was no question as to their being taken and others left. But at this point the work of rejection began. This hymn is not one of the great spiritual hymns of the world; but the object of this compilation was to give an exposition of the subject: by hymns which were both representative and celebrated. The Vexilla has indeed been a famous hymn—a hymn of ecclesiastical warfare and victory which has rung around the world. "In the churches of our own country and time," as the late President Welling has said, "may be heard snatches and echoes of that antique poesy which was first intoned in the New World by the Jesuit missionaries and Romish ecclesiastics who planted the cedar and the cedar-cross along the shores of the Great Lakes and the waters of the West, chanting the while, amidst the painted savages who stood around in their robes of beaver and buffalo, the sonorous passion-hymn of Fortunatus, "Vexilla regis prodeunt."


The Alleluiatic Sequence may likewise be classed as a famous hymn. It was selected for the same reasons as the Vexilla Regis, and for the additional reason that it is regarded as the parent of every Hallelujah Chorus that has been written since. At the time of the original compilation I hesitated for a long time between it and the De Gloria et Gaudiis Paradisi of Damiani, but at last compromised with my doubts by selecting the chorus but setting forth Mr. Wackerbarth's translation of the De Gloria in the notes to the Celestial Country, where it will now be found.

C. C. Nott.

January, 1902.