The seven great hymns of the mediaeval church/The Celestial Country
BERNARD DE MORLAS, monk of Cluni, is not to be confounded with the great Bernard his contemporary, Abbot of Clairvaux, and Saint in the Romish calendar. The place of his nativity is uncertain, and the years of his birth and of his death are alike unknown. He lived during the first half of the twelfth century; he was born, according to one authority, at Morlaix, in Bretagne; according to another, at Morlas, in the lower Pyrenees; whilst a third gives his birth-place to England, and classes him with her illustrious writers (De illustribus Angliæ Scriptoribus). After seven centuries of comparative forgetfulness, the genius of two English scholars has revived a portion of his works; and hereafter his name will be best known in that country, which may possibly possess his birth-place.
There still survive of his writings five poems, the greatest of which is De Contemptu Mundi. It was written about 1145, and contains three thousand lines, divided into three books. In substance the poem is a satire, unforgiving and severe: in form it is in dacylic hexameter verse. According to Dr. Duffield, to whose judgment I defer, "each line consists of a first part composed of two dactyls, a second containing two more dactyls, and a third made up of a dactyl and a trochee. The last dactyls of the first and second parts rhyme together, and the lines are in couplets—the final trochees also rhyming. This remark upon the dactylic nature of the rhymes in the first two parts is not made by Neale or Coles or the compiler of the Seven Great Hymns. They all italicise the last two syllables, whereas it should be the last three, i. e., the foot itself.
Sobria muniat || improba puniat || utraque juste,
is in all respects a perfect line—each foot being a word, and the rhyme unimpeachable."
This verse, so difficult that the English language is incapable of expressing it, is continued through the three thousand lines of the poem. In his preface the monk avows the belief that nothing but the special inspiration of the Spirit of God enabled him to employ it through so long a poem. After recounting its difficulties, and alluding to the faint attempts of the two great versifiers of his day, Hildebert de Lavardin and Wichard of Lyons, he exclaims: "I may then assert, not in ostentation, but with humble confidence, that if I had not received directly from on high the gift of inspiration and intelligence, I had not dared to attempt an enterprise so little accorded to the powers of the human mind."
"This work," says the author of the Histoire Littéraire de la France, "was drawn from the dust in 1483, and its publication was achieved on the tenth of December of the same year, at Paris, in magni domo campi Gaillardi. The Protestants, eager to gather every thing which appears unfavorable to the Church of Rome, have since multiplied the editions. Some Catholics have also given to it some praises; and surely it merits them, at least by the sentiments of piety which it exhales, and by the zeal with which the author attacks the abuses of his time."
"In holy Rome the only power is gold;
There all is bought—there every thing is sold.
Because she is the very way to right,
There truth is perished by unholy sleight.
Even as the wheel turns, Rome to evil turns,
Rome, that spreads fragrance as when incense burns.
Rome wrongs mankind, and teaches men the road
To flee far off from Righteousness' abode!
To seek for ruinous and disgraceful gain,
The pallium's self with simony to stain.
If aught you wish, be sure a goodly bribe
Will haste the sealing of the lingering scribe.
Rise! follow! let your penny go before,
Seek boldly then the threshold; fear no more
That any stumbling-blocks will bar the way,
The Pope's own favor you can get for pay—
Without that help, 'tis best to keep away."
The opening of this monkish satire on the corruptions of its barbarous age, glows with a description of the Heavenly Land more beautiful than ever before was wrought in verse. This a great scholar of our time has taken from the poem and brought within the reach and notice of the world (Trench). It also has been re-woven into simple English verse, and has received the appropriate name of The Celestial Country.
The translator of The Celestial Country is Dr. John Mason Neale, Warden of Sackville College, Sussex, England, the most successful translator of mediæval hymns, and one of the most varied and voluminous writers of the time. "Lays and Legends of the Church of England;" "A Church History for Children;" seven volumes of romances; a history of Greece; a history of Portugal; of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and of the Jansenist Church of Holland; a large number of tales and hymns for children, and a most learned and elaborate commentary on the Book of Psalms, are included in the long catalogue of his works.
This scholar of Cambridge, and this monk of Cluni, have given to the religious world the sweetest and dearest religious poem that our language contains. Dr. Neale says that he looks upon the lines of Bernard "as the most lovely, in the same way that the Dies Iræ is the most sublime, and the Stabat Mater the most pathetic of mediæval poems," but his own poem may claim more justly that word. The Celestial Country is better than De Contemptu Mundi. The beautiful simplicity of its artless, childlike lines portrays more naturally the fervid imagery of the monk. After seven hundred years of darkness, the holy fervor of Bernard re-kindles in it as warmly as when in the warmth of his devotion he believed himself specially inspired by the Most High. In another language, at another time, and among those who can but dimly trace his name in the crumbling record of his works, the Rhyme of the poor monk relives to gladden the hearts of other Christians, loved by such as possess its faith, and treasured by the gentlest and the best of earth.