Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


One of the most precious bequests of the Thirteenth Century to all the succeeding centuries is undoubtedly the great Latin hymns. These sublime religious poems, comparable only to the Hebrew psalms for their wondrous expression of the awe and devotion of religious feeling, present the beginnings of rhymed poetry, yet they have been acclaimed by competent modern critics as among the greatest poems that ever came from the mind of man. They come to us from this period and were composed, most of them at least, during the Thirteenth Century itself, a few, shortly before it, though all of them received during this century the stamp of ecclesiastical and popular approval, which made them for many centuries afterward the principal medium of the expression of congregational devotion and the exemplar and incentive for vernacular poetry. It is from these latter standpoints that they deserve the attention of all students of literature quite apart from their significance as great expressions of the mind of these wondrous generations.

These Latin hymns have sometimes been spoken of with perhaps a certain degree of contempt as "rhymed Latin poetry," as if the use of rhyme in conjunction with Latin somehow lowered the dignity of the grand old tongue in which Cicero wrote his graceful periods and Horace sang his tuneful odes. As a matter of fact, far from detracting from the beauties of Latin expression, these hymns have added new laurels to the glory of the language and have shown the wonderful possibiliies of the Roman speech in the hands of generations long after the classical period. If they served no other purpose than to demonstrate beyond cavil how profoundly the scholars of this generation succeeded in possessing themselves of the genius of the Latin language, they would serve to contradict the foolish critics who talk of the education of the period as superficial, or as negligent of everything but scholastic philosophy and theology.

At least one distinguished philologist, Professor F. A. March, who has now for the better part of half a century occupied the chair of comparative philology at Lafayette College, does not hesitate to say that the Latin hymns represent an expression of the genius of the Latin people and language, more characteristic than the classical poetry even of the golden or silver ages. "These hymns," he says, "were the first original poetry of the people in the Latin language, unless perhaps those Latin critics may be right who think they find in Livy a prose rendering of earlier ballads. The so-called classic poetry was an echo of Greece, both in substance and in form. The matter and meters were both imitated and the poems were composed for the lovers of Grecian art in the Roman Court. It did not spring from the people, but the Christian hymns were proper folk poetry, the Bible of the people -- their Homeric poems. Their making was not so much speech as action. They were in substance festive prayers, the simplest rythmic offering of thanks and praise to the Giver of Light and of rest both natural and spiritual, at morning and evening and at other seasons, suited to the remembrance and rythmical rehearsal of the truths of the Bible." Prof. March's opinion has been echoed by many another enthusiastic student of these wonderful hymns. It is only those who do not know them who fail to grow enthusiastic about them.

This of itself would stamp these great poems as worthy of careful study. There is, however, an additional reason for modern interest in them. These hymns were sung by the whole congregation at the many services that they attended in the medieval period. In this regard it seems well to recall, that it was the custom to go to church much oftener then than at present. Besides the Sundays there were many holy days of obligation, that is, religious festivals on which attendance at Church was obligatory, and in addition a certain number of days of devotion on which, because of special reverence for some particular saint, or in celebration of some event in the life of the Lord or his saints, the people of special parts of the country found themselves drawn to attendance on church services. It seems probable that instead of the sixty or so times a year that is now obligatory, people went to Church during the Thirteenth Century more than a hundred times in the year. Twice a week then, at least, there was the uplifting cultural influence of this congregational singing of wonderful hymns that are among the greatest poems ever written and that belong to literature of the very highest order. The educational value of such intimate contact with what is best in literary expression could scarcely fail to have a distinct effect upon the people. It is idle to say that the hymns being in Latin they were not understood, since the language of them was close akin to the spoken tongues, the subjects were eminently familiar mysteries of religion and constant repetition and frequent explanation must have led to a very general comprehension even by the least educated classes. For anyone with any pretension to education they must have been easy to understand, since Latin was practically a universal language.

It is not always realized by the students whose interests have been mainly confined to modern literature, in what estimation these Latin hymns have been held by those who are in the best position to he able to judge critically of their value as poetry. Take for example the Dies Irae, confessedly the greatest of them, and it will be found that many of the great poets and~ literary men of the Nineteenth Century have counted it among their favorite poems. Such men as Goethe, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Scott, Milman and Archbishop Trench were enthusiastic in its praise. While such geniuses as Dryden, Johnson and Jeremy Taylor, and the musicians Mozart and Hayden, avowed supreme admiration for it. Herder, Fichte and August Schlegel besides Crashaw, Drummond, Roscommon, Trench and Macaulay gave the proof of their appreciation of the great Thirteenth Century hymn by devoting themselves to making translations of it, and Goethe's use of it in Faust and Scott's in the Lay of the Last Minstrel, show how much poets, whose sympathies were not involved in its religious aspects, were caught by its literary and esthetic merit.

In very recent times the Latin hymns have been coming more to their own again and such distinguished critics as Prof. Henry Morley, and Prof. George Saintsbury, have not hesitated to express their critical appreciation of these hymns as great literature. Prof. Saintsbury says in his volume of the Thirteenth Century literature:{1}

"It will be more convenient to postpone to a later chapter of this volume a consideration of the exact way in which Latin sacred poetry affected the prosody of the vernacular; but it is well here to point out that almost all the finest and most famous examples of the medieval hymns, with perhaps the sole exception of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, date from the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries. Ours (that is, from this period) are the stately rhythms of Adam of St. Victor, and the softer ones of St. Bernard the Greater. It was at this time that Jacopone da Todi, in the intervals of his eccentric vernacular exercises, was inspired to write the Stabat Mater. From this time comes that glorious descant of Bernard of Morlaix, in which, the more its famous and very elegant English paraphrase is read beside it (Jerusalem the Golden), the more does the greatness and the beauty of the original appear.

"And from this time comes the greatest of all hymns, and one of the greatest of all poems, the Dies Irae. There have been attempts -- more than one of them -- to make out that the Dies Irae is no such wonderful thing after all; attempts which are, perhaps, the extreme examples of that cheap and despicable paradox which thinks to escape the charge of blind docility by the affectation of heterodox independence. The judgment of the greatest (and not always of the most pious) men of letters of modern times may confirm those who are uncomfortable without authority in a different opinion. Fortunately there is not likely ever to be lack of those who, authority or no authority, in youth and in age, after much reading or without much, in all time of their tribulation,and in all time of their wealth, will hold these wonderful triplets, be they Thomas of Celano's or another's, as nearly or quite the most perfect wedding of sound to sense that they know."

This seems almost the limit of praise but Prof. Saintsbury can say even more than this: "It would be possible, indeed, to illustrate a complete dissertation on the methods of expression in serious poetry from the fifty-one lines of the Dies Irae. Rhyme, alliteration, cadence, and adjustment of vowel and consonant values -- all these things receive perfect expression in it, or, at least, in the first thirteen stanzas, for the last four are a little inferior. It is quite astonishing to reflect upon the careful art or the felicitous accident of such a line as:

Tuba mirum spargens sonum,

with the thud of the trochee falling in each instance in a different vowel; and still more on the continuous sequence of five stanzas, from Judex ergo to non sit cassus, in which not a word could be displaced or replaced by another without loss. The climax of verbal harmony, corresponding to and expressing religious passion and religious awe, is reached in the last --

Quaerens me sedisti lassus,
Redemisti crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus!

where the sudden change from the dominant e sounds (except in the rhyme foot) of the first two lines to the a's of the last is simply miraculous and miraculously assisted by what may be called the internal sub-rhyme of sedisti and redemisti. This latter effect can rarely be attempted without a jingle: there is no jingle here, only an ineffable melody. After the Dies Irae, no poet could say that any effect of poetry was, as far as sound goes, unattainable, though few could have hoped to equal it, and perhaps no one except Dante and Shakespeare has fully done so."

Higher praise than this could scarcely be given and it comes from an acknowledged authority, whose interests are moreover in secular rather than religious literature, and whose enthusiastic praise is therefore all the more striking. Here in America, Schaff, whose critical judgment in religious literature is unquestionable and whose sympathies with the old church and her hymns were not as deep as if he had been a Roman Catholic, has been quite as unstinted in laudation.

"This marvelous hymn is the acknowledged masterpiece of Latin poetry, and the most sublime of all uninspired hymns. . . The secret of its irresistible power lies in the awful grandeur of the theme, the intense earnestness and pathos of the poet, the simple majesty and solemn music of its language, the stately meter, the triple rhyme, and the vowel assonances, chosen in striking adaptation to the sense -- all combining to produce an overwhelming effect, as if we heard the final crash of the universe, the commotion of the opening graves, the trumpet of the archangel summoning the quick and the dead, and saw the 'king of tremendous majesty' seated on the throne of justice and of mercy, and ready to dispense everlasting life and everlasting woe."

Neale says of Thomas Aquinas' great hymn the Pange Lingua: "This hymn contests the second place among those of the Western Church, with the 'Vexilla Regis,' the 'Stabat Mater,' the 'Jesu Dulcis Memoria,' the 'Ad Regias Agni Dapes,' the 'Ad Supernam,' and one or two others, leaving the 'Dies Irae' in its unapproachable glory," thus furnishing another supreme testimony to the hymn we have been discussing, which indeed only needs to be read to be appreciated, since it will inevitably tempt to successive readings and these bring with them ever and ever increasing admiration, showing in this more than in any other way that it is a work of sublime genius.

With regard to rhyme particularly the triumph of art and the influence of the Latin hymns is undoubted. This latest beauty of poetry reached its perfection of expression in the Latin hymns. It is rather curious to trace its gradual development. It constitutes the only feature of literature which apparently did not come to us from the East. The earlier specimens of poetry of which we know anything among the Oriental nations other than the Hebrews, are beautiful examples of the possibilities of rhythm and the beginnings of meter. As poetry goes westward meter becomes as important as rhythm in poetry and these two qualities differentiated it from prose. Both of these literary modes, however, are eastern in origin. Rhyme comes from the distant west and seems to have originated in the alliteration invented by the Celtic bards. The vowel assonance was after a time completed by the addition of consonantal assonance and then the invention of rhyme was completed. The first fully rhymed hymns seem to have been written by the Irish monks and carried over to the Continent by them on their Christianizing expeditions, after the irruption of the barbarians had obliterated the civilization of Europe. During the Tenth and Eleventh centuries rhyme developed mainly in connection with ecclesiastical poetry. During the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries it reached an acme of evolution which has never been surpassed during all the succeeding generations.

It must not be thought that, because so much attention is given to the Dies Irae, this constitutes the only supremely great hymn of the Thirteenth Century. There are at least five or six others that well deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. One of them, the famous Stabat Mater of Jacopone da Todi, has been considered by some critics as quite as beautiful as the Dies Irae in poetic expression, though below it as poetry because of the lesser sublimity of its subject. Certainly no more marvelously poetic expression of all that is saddest in human sorrow has ever been put into words, than that which is to be found in these stanzas of the Franciscan Monk who had himself known all the depths of human sorrow and trial. Most people know the opening stanzas of it well enough to scarce need their presentation and yet it is from the poem itself, and not from any critical appreciation of it, that its greatness must be judged.

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa,
  Dum pendebat filius,
Cuius animan gementem,
Contristantem et dolentem
  Pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
Fuit illa benedicta
  Mater unigeniti,
Quae moerebat et dolebat
Et tremebat, dum videbat
  Nati poenas inclyti.

Quis est homo, qui non fieret,
Matrem Christi si videret,
  In tanto supplicio?
Quis non posset contristari,
Piam matrem contemplari
  Dolentem cum filio!

As in the case of the Dies Irae there have been many translations of the Stabat Mater, most of them done by poets whose hearts were in their work and who were accomplishing their purpose as labors of love. While we realize how many beautiful translations there are, it is almost pitiful to think what poor English versions are sometimes used in the devotional exercises of the present day. One of the most beautiful translations is undoubtedly that by Denis Florence MacCarthy, who has been hailed as probably the best translator into English of foreign poetry that our generation has known, and whose translations of Calderon present the greatest of Spanish poets, in a dress as worthy of the original as it is possible for a poet to have in a foreign tongue. MacCarthy has succeeded in following the intricate rhyme plan of the Stabat with a perfection that would be deemed almost impossible in our harsher English, which does not readily yield itself to double rhymes and which permits frequency of rhyme as a rule only at the sacrifice of vigor of expression. The first three stanzas, however, of the Stabat Mater will serve to show how well MacCarthy accomplished his difficult task:

By the cross, on which suspended,
With his bleeding hands extended,
    Hung that Son she so adored,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
She whose heart, its silence keeping,
Grief had cleft as with a sword.

O, that Mother's sad affliction --
Mother of all benediction --
  Of the sole-begotten One;
Oh, the grieving, sense-bereaving,
  Of her heaving breast, perceiving
The dread sufferings of her Son.

What man is there so unfeeling,
Who, his heart to pity steeling,
  Could behold that sight unmoved?
Could Christ's Mother see there weeping,
See the pious Mother keeping
  Vigil by the Son she loved?

A very beautiful translation in the meter of the original was also made by the distinguished Irish poet, Aubrey de Vere. The last two stanzas of this translation have been considered as perhaps the most charmingly effective equivalent in English for Jacopone's wonderfully devotional termination that has ever been written.

May his wounds both wound and heal me;
His blood enkindle, cleanse, anneal me;
  Be his cross my hope and stay:
Virgin, when the mountains quiver,
From that flame which burns for ever,
  Shield me on the judgment-day.

Christ, when he that shaped me calls me,
When advancing death appalls me,
  Through her prayer the storm make calm:
When to dust my dust returneth
Save a soul to thee that yearneth;
  Grant it thou the crown and palm.

Even distinguished professors of philosophy and theology occasionally indulged themselves in the privilege of writing these Latin hymns and, what is more surprising, succeeded in making poetry of a very high order. At least two of the most distinguished professors in these branches at the University of Paris in the latter half of the Thirteenth Century, must be acknowledged as having written hymns that are confessedly immortal, not because of any canonical usage that keeps them alive, but because they express in very different ways, in wondrously beautiful language some of the sublimest religious thoughts of their time. These two are St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan, and St. Thomas of Aquin, the Dominican. St. Bonaventure's hymns on the Passion and Cross of Christ represent what has been most beautifully sung on these subjects in all the ages. St. Thomas' poetic work centers around the Blessed Sacrament in whose honor he was so ardent and so devoted that the composition of the office for its feast was confided to him by the Pope. The hymns he wrote, far from being the series of prosy theological formulas that might have been expected perhaps under such circumstances, are great contributions to a form of literature which contains more gems of purest ray in its collection than almost any other. St. Thomas' poetic jewels shine with no borrowed radiance, and their effulgence is not cast into shadow even by the greatest of their companion pieces among the Latin hymns of a wonderfully productive century. Neale's tribute to one of them has already been quoted in an earlier part of this chapter.

It has indeed been considered almost miraculous, that this profoundest of thinkers should have been able to attain within the bounds of rhyme and rhythm, the accurate expression of some of the most intricate theological thoughts that have ever been expressed, and yet should have accomplished his purpose with a clarity of language, a simplicity and directness of words, a poetic sympathy of feeling, and an utter devotion, that make his hymns great literature in the best sense of the word. One of them at least, the Pange Lingua Gloriosi, has been in constant use in the church ever since his time, and its two last stanzas beginning with Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, are perhaps the most familiar of all the Latin hymns. Few of those most familiar with it realize its place in literature, the greatness of its author, or its own marvelous poetic merits.

It must not be forgotten that at the very time when these hymns were most popular the modern languages were just assuming shape. Even at the end of the Thirteenth Century none of them had reached anything like the form that it was to continue to hold, except perhaps the Italian and to some extent the Spanish. When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century, he was tempted to use the Latin language, the common language of all the scholars of his day, and the language ordinarily used for any ambitious literary project for nearly a century later. It will not be forgotten that when Petrarch in the Fourteenth Century wrote his epic, Africa, on which he expected his fame as a poet to rest, he preferred to use the Latin language. Fortunately Dante was large enough of mind to realize, that the vulgar tongue of the Italians would prove the best instrument for the expression of the thoughts he wished to communicate, and so he cast the Italian language into the mold in which it has practically ever since remained.

His very hesitation, however, shows how incomplete as yet were these modern languages considered by the scholars who used them. It was at this very formative period, however, that the people on whose use of the nascent modern languages their future character depended, were having dinned into their ears in the numerous church services, the great Latin hymns with their wonderful finish of expression. Undoubtedly one of the most effective factors of whatever of sweetness there is in the modern tongues, must be attributed to this influence exerted all unconsciously upon the minds of the people. The rhythm and the expressiveness of these magnificent poems could scarcely fail to stamp itself to some degree upon the language, crude though it might be, of the people who had become so familiar with them. It is, then, to no small extent because of the influence of these Latin hymns that our modern languages possess a rythmic melodiousness that in time enabled them to become the instruments for poetic diction in such a way as to satisfy all the requirements of the modern ear in rhyme, and rhythm, and meter. A striking corresponding effect upon the exactness of expression in the modern languages, it will be noticed, is pointed out in the chapter on the Prose of the Century as representing, according to Professor Saintsbury, the greatest benefit that was derived from the exaggerated practise of dialectic disputation in the curriculum of the medieval Universities.

Those who would think that the Thirteenth Century was happy in creative genius but lacking in the critical faculty that would enable it to select the best, not only of the hymns presented by its own generations but also of those which came from the preceding centuries, should make themselves acquainted with the history of these Latin hymns. Just before the Thirteenth Century the monks of the famous Abbey of St. Victor took up the writing of hymns with wonderful success and two of them, Adam and Hugh, became not only the favorites of their own but of succeeding generations. The Thirteenth Century received the work of these men and gave them a vogue which has continued down to our own time. Some of the hymns that were thus acclaimed and made popular are among the greatest contributions to this form of literature, and while they have had periods of eclipse owing to bad taste in the times that followed, the reputation secured during the Thirteenth Century has always been sufficient to recall them to memory and bring men again to a realization of their beauty when a more esthetic generation came into existence.

One of the hymns of the immediately preceding time, which attained great popularity during the Thirteenth Century -- a popularity that reflects credit on those among whom it is noted as well as upon the great hymn itself -- -- was Bernard of Cluny's or Bernard of Morlaix's hymn, concerning the contempt of the world, many of the ideas of which were to be used freely in the book bearing this title written by the first Pope of the century, Innocent III, whose name is usually, though gratuitously associated with quite other ideas than those of contempt for worldly grandeur. The description of the New Jerusalem to come, which is found at the beginning of this great poem, is the basis of all the modern religious poems on this subject. Few hymns have been more praised. Schaff, in his Christ in Song says: "This glowing description is the sweetest of all the new Jerusalem Hymns of Heavenly Homesickness which have taken their inspiration from the last two chapters of Revelation." The extreme difficulty of the meter which its author selected and which would seem almost to preclude the possibility of expressing great connected thought, especially in so long a poem, became under the master hand of this poetic genius, whose command of the Latin language is unrivaled, the source of new beauties for his poem. Besides maintaining the meter of the old Latin hexameters he added double rhymes in each line and yet had every alternate line also end in a rhyme. To appreciate the difficulty this must be read.

Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus,
Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus
Imminet, imminet ut mala terminet, aequa coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, aethera donet,
Auferat aspera duraque pondera mentis onustae,
Sobria muniat, improba puniat, utraque juste.

Hic breve vivitur, hic breve plangitur, hic breve fletur;
Non breve vivere, non breve plangere retribuetur;
O retributio! stat brevis actio, vita perennis;
O retributio! coelica mansio stat lue plenis;
Quid datur et quibus? aether egentibus et cruce dignis,
Sidera vermibus, optima sontibus, astra malignis.

There are many versions, but few translators have dared to attempt a close imitation of the original meter. Its beauty is so great, however, that even the labor required for this has not deterred some enthusiastic admirers. Our English tongue, however, does not lend itself readily to the production of hexameters, though in these lines the rhyme and rhythm has been caught to some extent:

"These are the latter times, these are not better times;
            Let us stand waiting;
Lo! how with, awfulness, He, first in lawfulness,
            Comes arbitrating."

Even from this it may be realized that Doctor Neale is justified in his enthusiastic opinion that "it is the most lovely, in the same way that the Dies Irae is the most sublime, and the Stabat Mater the most pathetic, of medieval poems."

While it scarcely has a place here properly, a word must be said with regard to the music of the Thirteenth Century. It might possibly be thought that these wondrous rhymes had been spoiled in their effectiveness by the crude music to which they were set. To harbor any such notion, however, would only be another exhibition of that intellectual snobbery which concludes that generations so distant could not have anything worth the consideration of our more developed time. The music of the Thirteenth Century is as great a triumph as any other feature of its accomplishment. It would be clearly absurd to suppose, that the people who created the Cathedrals and made every element associated with the church ceremonial so beautiful as to attract the attention of all generations since, could have failed to develop a music suitable to these magnificent fanes. As a matter of fact no more suitable music for congregational singing than the Gregorian Chant, which reached the acme of its development in the Thirteenth Century, has been invented, and the fact that the Catholic Church, after having tried modern music, is now going back to this medieval musical mode for devotional expression, is only a further noteworthy tribute to the enduring character of another phase of Thirteenth Century accomplishment.

Rockstro, who wrote the article on Plain Chant for Grove's Dictionary of Music and for the Encyclopedia Britannica, declared that no more wonderful succession of single notes, had even been strung into melodies so harmoniously adapted to the expression of the words with which they were to be sung, than some of these Plain Chants of the Middle Ages and especially of the Thirteenth Century. No more sublimely beautiful musical expression of all the depths there are in sadness has ever found its way into music, than what is so simply expressed in the Lamentations as they are sung in the office called Tenebrae during Holy Week. Even more beautiful in its joyousness is the marvelous melody of the Exultet which is sung in the Office of Holy Saturday. This latter is said to be the sublimest expression of joyful sound that has ever come from the human heart and mind. In a word, in music as in every other artistic department, the men of the Thirteenth Century reached a standard that has never been excelled and that remains to the present day as a source of pleasure and admiration for intellectual men, and will continue to be so for numberless generations yet unborn.

Nor must it be thought that the Thirteenth Century men and women were satisfied with Church music alone. About the middle of the century part singing came into use in the churches at the less formal ceremonials, and soon spread to secular uses. As the Mystery Plays gave rise to the modern drama, so church music gave birth to the popular music of the time. In England, particularly, about the middle of the century, various glee songs were sung, portions of which have come down to us, and a great movement of folk music was begun. Before the end of the century the interaction of church and secular music had given rise to many of the modes of modern musical development, and the musical movement was as substantially begun as were any of the other great artistic and intellectual movements which this century so marvelously initiated. This subject, of course, is of the kind that needs to be studied in special works if any satisfactory amount of information is to be obtained, but even the passing hint of it which we have been able to give will enable the reader to realize the important place of the Thirteenth Century in the development of modern music.

{1} The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, Volume II. of Periods of European Literature, Edited by George Saintsbury, New York, Scribners, 1899.

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