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Ever since the Renaissance taught men the richness of their heritage in the remote past, students of Latin have (quite naturally) given most of their attention to the literature of the Ciceronian and the Augustan Age; and though the growing study of history in recent years has emphasized the continuity of experience from ancient to modern times, most of us are still prone to think of Latin literature as coming to an end with the fall of Rome. And yet the stream which we know best in the last century before Christ flows on (in different channels, to be sure, and with some loss of power, yet with amazing force and freshness) for many hundred years. So extensive and so varied is the Latin literature of the Middle Ages that one could spend a lifetime without mastering it. In this great body of material the Latin hymns form a comparatively small group, and they lend themselves well to discussion because, aside from their intrinsic interest, it is possible to trace here perhaps better than in any other department of literature an unbroken tradition from classical times until our own day."
The use of hymns in the Christian church is of course a direct inheritance from Jewish custom. In the period after the return from Exile, the temple ritual provided a different song for each day in the week. (We can still read in our Bibles the superscription of the ninety-second Psalm, "A Psalm or Song for the sabbath day.”) A group of fifteen psalms (120-134), which includes some of the most beautiful in the whole collection, was probably
1 The standard collections of Latin hymns are those of H. A. Daniel, 5 vols., Halis Lipsiae, 1841-1856, and F. J. Mone, 3 vols., Freiburg, 18531855. More accessible to the average reader are the one-volume editions of F. A. March, New York, 1898, and W. A. Merrill, Boston, 1904. G. M. Dreves, Die Kirche der Lateiner in ihren Liedern, München, 1908, gives a historical sketch of Latin hymnology, with biographies of important authors and German translations of representative hymns. A. K. MacGilton, A Study of Latin Hymns, Boston, 1918, traces the use of hymns in the Christian church from New Testament times to the 16th century. In the present article, hymns are cited by their opening phrases, and page references are given to the editions of March and Merrill.
sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem, and Psalms 113-118, the “ Hallel,” formed a regular part of the celebration of the Passover. It must have been one of these psalms that Jesus and his disciples sang on the night of the Last Supper before they went out to the Mount of Olives. The early church evidently followed the custom cf psalm-singing, for the sixteenth chapter of Acts records the incident in the prison at Philippi, when“ about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God"; and the Apostle bids his fellow-Christians at Ephesus and Colossae admonish one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5. 19; Col. 3. 16). When the Younger Pliny, as governor of Bithynia, wrote his famous letter to the Emperor Trajan concerning the Christians, the gravest charge that he could bring against them was that they were in the habit of assembling before daybreak and singing a hymn to Christ as god.?
Students of the New Testament have thought that they could detect in certain passages of Paul's epistles traces of such songs; the clearest case is I Tim. 3. 16:
He who was manifested in the flesh,
Seen of angels,
Received up into glory.
The rhythm is even more marked in the original Greek:
“Ος εφανερώθη εν σαρκί,
άνελήμφθη εν δόξη. (Cf. also Eph. 5. 14; I Tim. 6. 15-16; II Tim. 2. 11-13.) The complete lyrics of the first two chapters of Luke have the same balanced structure, and show, even more than these fragments in
. Plin. Epist., x, 96, 7, Adfirmabant autem hanc fuisse summam vel culpae suae vel erroris, quod essent soliti stato die ante lucem convenire carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem.
the epistles, the influence of Old Testament psalmody on thought and phrasing.3
The earliest hymns were of course composed in Greek-the language in which the "good news" was first proclaimed, and in which the earliest documents of the church were written. They were all rhythmical in structure, and the rhythmical form persisted when the Greek hymns were translated into Latin for the use of converts in Western Europe. The opening lines of the "Te Deum" give an excellent idea of this rhythmical effect:
Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur.
Tibi omnes angeli, tibi caeli et universae potestates,
Before long, however, definite metrical forms develop. These are not (as a student of Horace and Vergil might expect) the meters that the poets of the Golden Age had made famous, but certain other forms which had been identified much more closely with the life and thought of the people. One is the familiar trochaic septenarius of Latin comedy, which continued to be used in the mimes, farces, satires, and versus populares of the classical period, although, outside the fragments of the tragic poets, there is little trace of it in dignified literature. In the age of the Antonines (or possibly a century or two later) some unknown pagan lyricist sang in this meter the haunting cadences of the Pervigi
'H. O. Taylor, The Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages, ed. 2, New York, 1903, pp. 249-250, notes that the Magnificat, etc., preserve in their structure the parallelism of Hebrew poetry; and W. Meyer, Fragmenta Burana, Berlin, 1901, pp. 145-154, finds definite imitation of the forms of Semitic poetry by the Greek and Latin Christians. On the other hand, E. Norden, Antike Kunstprosa, Leipzig, 1898, pp. 841-870, regards the rhythmical structure of the Greek and Latin hymns as a direct inheritance from rhythmical prose. It is possible that both these theories are partly rightthat the earliest hymns in Greek were direct adaptations from the Hebrew, but that the form found a congenial soil in Greek because of the very similar structure of rhetorical prose.
• The adoption at the close of the classical period of popular verse forms which had been at least partially submerged during that period supplies an interesting parallel to recognized tendencies in diction, grammatical form, and syntax.
lium Veneris. When next we meet it, it is a medium for the longings and aspirations of the Christian heart; and how admirably adapted it was to this use such hymns as Pange lingua and Stabat mater show. In the hymns, the pause at the end of the fourth foot is very marked, so that the septenarius becomes virtually two short lines, and is generally so printed. For the other of the two favorite meters, a similar history may be postulated. An eight-foot iambic line had been used by both comic and tragic poets (e. g., Plaut., Bacch., 957; Sextus Turpilius, Frag. Com., 196; Accius, Frag. Trag., 32). With a pause at the end of the fourth foot (such as appears in the lines of Plautus and Sextus Turpilius just cited) this line too might break into two lines of dimeter, and so provide the verse form which we find in the wistful address of the Emperor Hadrian to his soul, and again, with a fuller resonance and a more solemn majesty, in the hymns of Hilary of Poictiers and Ambrose of Milan."
These meters from the beginning showed a closer correspondence between verse ictus and word accent than the meters of Vergil and Horace; and in the course of time the quantity of syllables came to be wholly neglected, and word accent became the one important thing. Along with the change from quantitative to accentual verse went the gradual development of rhyme."
"This is the most commonly used verse form in mediaeval hymnology, and has come down to us under the name of "Long Meter." The trochaic septenarius appears in our hymnals as "Ss 7s," and is familiar in such bymns as "In the cross of Christ I glory."
I have not attempted to settle the perplexing question of the reasons for the change from quantitative to accentual verse. Trench (Sacred Latin Poetry, ed. 3, London, 1874, pp. 15-25), points out that quantitative verse had never been wholly assimilated by the Italians, and that with the general breaking down of standards in classical literature it was natural that there should be a return to the old accentual verse. He notes too that many members of the congregations for whom the hymns were designed would have failed to appreciate the quantitative value of words, whereas accent would have made a much more direct and universal appeal.
'Norden, Antike Kunstprosa, p. 843, followed by H. O. Taylor, Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages, pp. 258-259, finds the source of rhyme for Greek and Latin hymnology in the Gorgianic figures of rhythmical prose. It seems much more likely, as Trench suggests (Sacred Latin Poetry, pp. 25-45) that the element of rhyme, which had been present in Latin poetry
appears first in the occasional use of terminal assonance-one couplet showing assonance and the next neglecting it, or a stanza in which there is no attempt at rhyme followed by one in which the
last syllable of all four lines is the same.
stanzas of a Pentecostal hymn of Hilary run:
Beata nobis gaudia
The first and third
Anni reduxit orbita,
Cum Spiritus paraclitus
Linguis loquuntur omnium;
Turbae pavent gentilium:
Musto madere deputant,
Quos Spiritus repleverat.
An evening hymn which has been attributed both to Ambrose and
to Gregory the Great runs:
Lucis creator optime,
Lucem dierum proferens,
Caeleste pulset ostium,
Purgemus omne pessimum.
This half-unconscious groping toward rhyme is frequent in hymns written by followers of Ambrose in the fifth and sixth centuries; it gradually becomes surer and more purposeful, so that by the eleventh century rhymed accentual verse is the norm. To be sure, there are occasional returns to classical verse forms. Prudentius uses anapaests; Gregory the Great and Paulus Diaconus compose hymns in Sapphic strophes; Theodulph sang in elegiac couplets the splendid Palm Sunday hymn which, according to
from the beginning, came to be used more and more as a sort of compensation for relaxed strictness of metrical observance.
* It is interesting to notice how often, in this early stage, a syllable ending in e plus a nasal sound is coupled with another nasal of quite different spelling-fugiens and opem, for instance; omnipotens and memoremclear proof that the final syllable in these words had become merely a nasal glide.