Help Now >
Hymnody and Hymnology
FREE Catholic Classes
Hymnody, taken from the Greek ( hymnodia ), means exactly " hymn song", but as the hymn-singer as well as the hymn-poet are included under ( hymnodos ), so we also include under hymnody the hymnal verse or religious lyric. Hymnology is the science of hymnody or the historico-philogical investigation and æsthetic estimation of hymns and hymn writers.
I. PRELIMINARY REMARKS
Hymnology is still recent in its origin. Until lately the vast material of Latin hymnody lay buried for the most part in the manuscripts of the different libraries of Europe, notwithstanding the interest taken in spreading among the people a knowledge and love of hymns, especially of Latin hymns, as early as the twelfth century; and despite the activity with which the subject has been investigated in England, France, and Germany since the middle of the last century. As the "realencyclopadie fur protestantische Theologie" asserts: "Research in regard to hymns, as in general concerning the Latin ecclesiastical poetry of the Middle Ages has made as yet but little progress in spite of the studies so actively pursued during the nineteenth century. Although it may have been thought that the compilations of Neale, Mone, Daniel, and others had provided fairly complete materials for research, we have since learnt how incomplete in quantity and quality the hitherto known material was by the publication of the "Analecta Hymnica", begun by the Jesuit Father Dreves in 1886, continued after 1896 with his fellow Jesuit Father Blume [and since 1906 carried on by the latter aided by Rev. H.M. Bannister] . . . . Until this magnificent compilation is completed a comprehensive description of the Latin hymnody of the Middle Ages will be impossible; and even then it will first of all requite a most minute and thorough examination " (Op. cit., 3rd ed., s.v. "Kirchenlied", II). The "Analecta Hymnica" in the meantime has reached the fifty-second volume and will be completed in six more volumes and several indexes. This work, however, only lays the foundations for a history of hymnody, which had hitherto been practically nonexistent. We have been and are still in an incomparably worse state in regard to the hymnody of the Orient; for the Syrian, Armenian, and Greek hymns, in spite of the meritorious work of Pitra, Zingerle, Bickell, Krumbacher, and others, remain for the most part unpublished and even uninvestigated. For this reason also, only the broadest outlines of the origin and development of hymnody can be given at present, and we must expect many future corrections and many additions to the long list of hymn writers. The latest researches have already changed the whole aspect of the subject.
II. THE EARLIEST BEGINNINGS OF HYMNODY
To praise God in public worship through songs or hymns in the widest meaning of the word (see HYMN) is a custom which the primitive Christians brought with them from the Synagogue. For that reason the ecclesiastical songs of the Christians and the Jews in the first centuries after Christ are essentially similar. They consisted mainly of the psalms and the canticles of the Old and New Testaments. The congregation (in contradistinction to the cantors ) took part in the service, it seems, by intoning the responses or refrains, single acclamations, the Doxologies, the Alleluias, the Hosannas, the Trisagion, and particularly the Kyrie-Eleison, and so originated the Christian folk-song. Genuine hymns even in the broadest sense of the term were not yet to be met with. Even the four songs handed down to us through the "Constitutiones Apostolicae" which were intended as hymns in the morning, in the evening, before meals, and at candle lighting, cannot be considered hymns. They are rather prayers which, in spite of the lyric tone and rhythmic quality evident in some passages, must be considered as songs in prose, similar to the Prefaces of the Mass, and which are mainly composed of extracts from the Scripture.
The first of these four interesting songs is the Morning Hymn ( hymnos heoinos is its heading in the Codex Alexandrinus of the fifth century in London ; and proseuche heothine in the seventh book of the "Constitutiones Apostolicae"; we call it the "Hymnus Angelicus"): Doxa en hypsistois theo (Gloria in excelsis Deo). The first part of this song of praise was written before 150 A.D., and Saint Athanasius , after translating it into Latin, inserted the whole in the Western Liturgy (see Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, LXXXII, iv. 43 sqq.). The Evening Hymn : Aineite, paides, Kyrion, aineite to onoma Kyriou is the same as the "Gloria in excelsis" in a shorter form and with the first verse of Psalm cxii as introduction. The Hymn of Grace at meals begins: Eulogetos ei, Kyrie, ho trephon me ek neotetos mou, ho didous trophen pase sarki . These words show plainly their origin in the Holy Scripture , and from them can be seen to what extent, if at all, they are ruled by rhythm and metre. The fourth song, the celebrated "Candle-light Hymn " beginning Phos ilaron which St. Basil describes as old in his day, is more rhythmical than the others. It is usually divided into twelve verses; these verses vary between five, six, eight, nine, ten and eleven syllables. This at most is the very beginning of what is termed a hymn in metrical language. The fact that in the fifth and later centuries these songs and prayers were called " hymns " is another instance of the error committed in determining the origin of hymnody by deductions from passages in ancient writers where the expression hymnos or hymnus occurs.
The earliest safe historical data we find in endeavouring to trace the origin belong to the fourth century. The writing of Christian hymns intended to be sung in Christian congregations was first undertaken to counteract the activity of the heretics. The Gnostics Bar-Daisan, or Bardesanes, and his son Harmonius had incorporated their erroneous doctrine in beautiful hymns, and, as St. Ephraem the Syrian says, "clothed the pest of depravation in the garment of musical beauty". As these hymns became very popular an antidote was needed. This induced St. Ephraem (d. 378) to write Syrian hymns. His success inspired St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389) to counteract the heresy of the Arians by Greek hymns. About the same time St. Ambrose (d. 397) composed Latin hymns although the productions of his forerunner in Latin hymnody, St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 366), had been unsuccessful because they failed to please the popular taste. Thus the earliest known founders of hymnody in the East and West appear at the same period. Even before them Clement of Alexandria (d. about 215) had composed a sublime "song of praise to Christ the Redeemer" which begins with Stomion polon adaon , and at the end of the third century we had the glorious song of the virgins Anothen, parthenoi, bons egersinekros echos of St. Methodius (d. about 311). But the latter song from the Symposion of the Bishop of Olympus is to be classed rather under Christian dramatic than lyric verse, while the song added to the Paidagogos of Clement is probably not by him, but is of an earlier date. Thus, to conclude from known facts, the writing of hymns proper begins towards the middle of the fourth century in the East and soon afterwards appears in the West. There are many points of contact between the two hymnodies; just as a certain influence was exerted by the Syrians on the Greeks and by both together on the Armenians in respect to the content and form of hymns, in like manner the East, particularly the half-Semitic, half-Greek Syrian Church influenced the development of Western Latin hymnody. But as to the extent of this influence, there is still much uncertainty and opinions consequently differ greatly. Most likely this influence is often over-estimated. At all events the East and West followed separate paths in hymnody from the very beginning, and in spite of their common characteristics the outward form of the hymns was very different.
III. METRE OF CHRISTIAN HYMNODY
By degrees Christian hymnody became more opposed in outward form to the ancient pagan verse. Nor was this a disadvantage. Christian verse was intended specially for the congregation, for the people, who in those days took a much more active and important part in the Liturgy than is now the case. Christian hymnody is therefore originally and essentially a poetry of the people. The popular and primitive principle of poetic forms is the rhythmical principle; the rise and fall of the verse is governed, not by quantity of syllables--which only the learned recognize--but by the natural accent of the word. To this principle of rhythm or accentual principle the quantitative principle is directly opposed as the latter regards only to length of syllables without heeding the usual intonations of the word. The Kunst-Dichtung or artificial verse used the latter principle, but not with lasting success. For the essence of language and the natural tendency of the people favor the accentual principle. The Humanists and many of the learned for a long time regarded the rhythmical verse form with contempt; but this false prejudice has disappeared. The decisive verdict of the Krumbacher on Greek hymnody, which is of great importance for the right valuation of Christian hymnody, is as follows: "None could reach the heart of the people with tones that found no echo in their living speech. The danger that lurked here will not be under-estimated by the historian; for had there not been invented and received at the appointed time another artistic form of expression, the Greek nation would have lost forever the treasure of a true religious poetry. Thanks to this new form alone a sort of literature arose which in poetical feeling, variety, and depth may be placed beside the greatest productions of ancient poetry. This effective artistic form which awoke with a mighty cry the poetic genius of the Hellenes and lent to the lethargic tongues measures of ancient power in rhythmical verse" ("Gesch. der byzant. Lit.", Munich, 1897, p. 655). To a greater degree the above is true in regard to Latin hymnody, especially for the Middle Ages.
The Christian poets did not all immediately abandon the old classic quantitative metre for the accentual. Many even reverted to its use later particularly in the age of the Carlovingians. It is interesting, however, to note that such hymns found no real favour with the people and therefore were rarely incorporated in the Liturgy. Occasionally, indeed, their lack of rhythm was redeemed by excellent qualities; for instance, when they employed a very popular metrical form and took care that the natural word accent should correspond as far as possible with the accent required by the quantitative metre, i.e. the accented syllables of the word should occur in the long accented place of the verse scheme. The last case is therefore a compromise between the quantitative and the accentual or rhythmical principles. We have an example of all these excellent qualities in the hymns of St. Ambrose. He observes the rules of quantity, but chooses a popular metre, the iambic dimeter, with its regular succession of accented and unaccented syllables, from which arises the so-called alternating rhythm which marks the human step and pulse and is, therefore, the most natural and popular rhythm. He usually avoids a conflict between the word accent and the verse accent; his quantitative hymns can therefore be read rhythmically. This is one of the reasons of the lasting popularity of the hymns of St. Ambrose. The meter he selected, a strophe consisting of four iambic dimeters, was so popular that a multitude of hymns were composed with the same verse scheme, and are called hymni Ambrosiani . Soon, however, many writers began to neglect the quantity of the syllables and their verses became in the fifth century purely rhythmical. The earliest known writer using such rhythmical iambics is Bishop Auspicius of Toul (d. about 470); hence, the purely rhythmical strophe is called the Auspician strophe. Both these iambic dimeters probably sprang from the versus saturnius , the favourite metre of the profane popular poetry of the Romans.
Next to this metre in popularity was the versus popularis or politikos , the name of which explains its character. Christian poetry adopted this metre also on account of its popularity. For instance, let us compare the following child-puzzle verse:Réx erét, quí récte fáciet | quí non fáciet, nón erít
This versus popularis and the iambic dimeter are the two metres in which most of the early Christian hymns were written, both in Latin and in Greek. This proves that Christian hymnody strove for popularity even in its outward form. For a similar reason the quantitative principle was gradually abandoned by hymn writers in favour of the rhythmical. "It is certainly no mere chance", as has been very justly said in the "Byzantinische Zeitschrift" (XXII, 244), "that Christians were the first to break away from the learned game of long and short syllables intended for the eye alone; for they wished to reach the ear of the masses. These early Christians strove for and attained by means of the metrical system of their ecclesiastical poetry that which in German religious poetry was first achieved by Luther. . . . contact with the people, with their ear, and thus, with their heart." The further development of this rhythmical poetical form, especially in Latin, is thus briefly described by Meyer: "First, from the fifth century a slow groping struggle with the many essays, clumsy but still attractive in their ingenuousness. In the eleventh century begins the contrast of a finished art which in complete regularity creates the most various and beautiful forms, on the surviving examples of which the Romance poets and also, to some extent, the Germanic poets model their work even today" (Meyer, "Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur mittellateinischen Rhythmik", Berlin, 1905, 1, 2). The rhythmical principle, especially in its union with rhyme, gained a complete victory over the ancient classic prosody.
IV. HYMNODY OF THE ORIENT A. Syriac Hymnody
The first known Christian hymn writer among the Syrians is also the first in point of importance and fecundity, St. Ephraem the Syrian (c. 373). It is impossible to say which of the many songs ascribed to him are authentic as there is no satisfactory edition of his works. His poems may be divided into the two classes so common in Syriac hymnody : "Mêmrê" and "Madraschê". The former are poetic speeches or expositions of the Holy Scripture in uniform metre without division into strophes; they scarcely come within our present scope. The "Madraschê" on the contrary are songs and hymns composed in strophes, the strophes consisting of from four to six verse lines and closing as a rule with a refrain. St. Ephraem was particularly fond of the seven-syllable verse line, hence called the Ephraemic. The quantity of the syllables is scarcely regarded, the syllables for the most part being simply counted. Among the songs which are ascribed to St. Ephraem, no fewer than sixty-five are directed against different heretics ; others have as their theme Christmas, Paradise, Faith, and Death. To this last subject he dedicated eighty-five hymns, probably intended for funeral services. Many of his songs, of which several are set to the same tune, was adopted by the Syriac Liturgy and have been preserved in it ever since. The main tenor of these hymns is often very dissimilar to that in the early Greek and especially the Latin hymnody. The sensuousness and the glow of Oriental imagination and the love of symbolism are evident, in some hymns more, in others less. Among the disciples and imitators of Ephraem we may note in particular Cyrillonas (end of the fourth century) whose hymns on the Crucifixion, Easter, and the Grain of Wheat are still extant; Balaeus (c. 430) after whom the Syriac pentasyllabic verse is called the "baleasic"; James of Sarugh (d. 521) named by his contemporaries the "flute of the Holy Spirit and the harp of the believing church", though he was a Monophysite. None of these equalled St. Ephraem in poetic gift. Syriac hymnody may be said to have died out after the seventh century as a result of the conquest of Syria by the Arabs, though the following centuries produced several poets whose hymns are chiefly to be found in the Nestorian Psalter.
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
Here also we must be contented with the barest outlines. Only a small part of the material has been gathered from the libraries, notwithstanding the publications, by Pitra, Christ, Paranikas, Daniel, and Ampnilochius and the detailed investigations by Mone, Bouvy, Wilhelm Meyer, and especially Krumbacher. Greek hymnody, if we take hymn in the wider sense of the word, begins with St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389). In their outer form his numerous and often lengthy poems still rest on ancient classical foundation and are exclusively governed by the laws of quantity. Their language unites delicacy and verbal richness to subtility of expression and precision of theological definition while glowing with the warmth of feeling. The smaller portion of his poetical compositions are lyrical, and even among these only hymns in the wider sense of the word are found, as the glorious hymnos eis Christon beginning as follows:Se, ton aphthiton monarchen, Dos anymnein, dos aeidein, Ton anakta, ton despoten, Di on hymnos, di on ainos
These hymns in artistic form did not reach the people nor did they ever form part of the Liturgy. The same is true of the stirring songs of Synesius (d. 430), which were also written in classical form. They are a rosary of twelve hymns of singular sublimity, delicacy, and polish, whose contents at times betray the neo-Platonist ; six of them, however, written probably at a later period of the author's life, are distinctly Christian in tone. To all of them the term metrical prayer rather than hymn should be applied. "The easy metros that have something playful in them are unsuited to the dignity of the contents, while the failure to separate the verses into strophes and their prominent subjective tone disqualified them for use in the Liturgy " (Baumgartner, "Gesch. der Weltlit.", IV, 62).
We may look upon the inventive and stirring writer Romanos (d. probably c. 560) as the real founder of Greek hymnody. In his poems the quantitative principle has completely given way to the accentual, rhythmical principle; and with the triumph of this principle the great day of the Greek Christian hymnody begins. About eighty hymns of Romnos have come down to us; nearly all of them show the artistic form of the "contakia". These contakia consist of from twenty to thirty or even more strophes of uniform structure to which is prefixed as a rule one, but occasionally two or three strophes of varying structure; every strophe ( troparion or oikos ), the numerous verses of which are generally different, is followed by a refrain of one or two short lines. The most popular of his hymns was the Christmas hymn which was performed with great festal pomp at the imperial court every year, until the twelfth century, by a double choir from the St. Sophia and the Church of the Apostles. It may well be called a performance, for such a lengthy song, set to music, sung by choirs and counterchoirs, and supplied with proem and refrain, resembles rather a dramatic oratorio that what we are accustomed to call a hymn. It begins thus:
Kai he ge to spelaion to aprosito prosagei.
Alleloi meta poimenon doxologousin,
Magoi de meta asteros hodoiporousin.
Romanos deserves, as the greatest of the Byzantine poets, the surname ho melodos . Clear and precise in theological language, he possesses in a high degree the depth and fire of a true lyric poet. He was unable, however, to avoid monotony and repetition owing to the uncommon length of the hymns, and a comparison with the father of Latin hymnody, Saint Ambrose, must leave him at a disadvantage. The Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, a Monothelite (610-41), followed as a poet very closely in the path of Romanos. It is, however, more than doubtful if the Akathistos hymnos (so called because the clergy and people were obliged, to stand while intoning it) should be ascribed to him; it is also impossible to ascertain whether this lengthy song of thanksgiving to the Mother of God, inspired by the rescue of Constantinople and the empire from the Avars was composed in the year 626 or 711. At all events it is still greatly reverenced in the Greek Church and is a shining witness of the poetical creative power of the seventh century. "Whatever enthusiasm for the Blessed Virgin, whatever knowledge of Biblical types and in general of religious objects and ideas was able to accomplish, whatever ornament of speech, versatility of expression, skill of rhythm and rhyme could add, all that is effected here in an unsurpassed degree" ("Zeitschrift für Kirhengeschicte", V, 228 sq.). The Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem (629) devoted himself more to a learned, and often very arid, artificial form of poetry. To these chief representatives of the florescence of Greek hymnody may be added Andreas-Pyrrhos, eight of whose charming "idiomela" on the chiefs of the Apostles are preserved; and Byzantios and Chprianos, of whom, however, only the names are known. At the opening of the eighth century St. Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (d. about 726), created the artistic measure of the "canons". A canon is a hymn composed of eight or, in remembrance of the nine Canticles of the Old Testament, of nine different songs, each of which has a peculiar construction and consists of three, four and, originally, more strophes. St. Andrew wrote one hymn of as many as 250 strophes that became proverbial on account of its length and is called ho megas kanon . The influence of the great Romanos is unmistakable in the poems of St. Andrew; besides, the reflections and great verbosity often give a jarring and tiring impression. The canons were particularly cultivated in the eighth century by St. John of Damascus and his half-brother St. Cosmos. Their model in language and metre was St. Gregory of Nazianzus, so they tried to revive the use of the old classical quantitative principle. In this artificial verse their description grew subtilized and often obscure, and genuine poetic feeling suffered from pedantry. These were not songs for the people. But however inferior they were to the natural stirring contakia, these canons were greatly admired and imitated by contemporary hymn writers.
Disastrous as was its effect on hymnody the iconoclasm of the eighth and ninth centuries called forth a spiritual reaction which was forcibly expressed in religious poetry and inspired many excellent songs. These songs in particular have been the longest retained in the Greek Liturgy. After the Syracusians, Gregory and Theodosius, St. Joseph the Hymnographer (d. about 883) and the imposing succession of Studies are especially to be noted here. The great monastery of the Studium (Studion) at Constantinople became a nursery of hymnography. The hegumen (or abbot ) of the monastery, St. Theodore (d. 826), began with the triumphal canon for the great festival that commemorated the victory of the icons, with his canon on the Last Judgment which is described by Neale as "the grandest judgment-hymn of the Church ", and with numerous other hymns. After him come his brother Joseph, later Bishop of Thessalonica, who suffered martyrdom, the Studites, Theophanes, Antonios, Arsenios, Basilios, Nicolaos, and lastly George of Nicomedia and Theodorus of Smyrna. In the hymns of all these poets, along with some excellent qualities, there is more or less Byzantine bombast or inflated exaggeration and heaping of epithets. A remarkable personality at this time is the talented poetess Kasia ( Ikassia ) who about 830 was chosen as a bride for the future Emperor Theophilus on account of her beauty, but was rejected because of her too great frankness. She then founded a convent of nuns in which she devoted herself to profane and sacred poetry, as did the celebrated nun Hroswitha von Gandersheim long after her. Her best known poems are the three idiomela on the birth of Christ on the birth of St. John the Baptist, and on the Wednesday of Holy Week, all of which were incorporated in the Liturgy. A disastrous event for hymnody was the revision of the hymnal undertaken in the ninth century. Many beautiful contakia were dropped from the Liturgy in favour of the canons, and may of the old hymns were "improved", that is, mutilated. This kind of renovation showed that poetic feeling was declining. Hymnody now gleaned only a scanty aftermath. In the eleventh century even the Greek Liturgy ceased to develop and there remained no soil in which Greek religious poetry could thrive. Only a few isolated hymn writers appeared in the Byzantine Empire after that time ; such were Johannes Mauropus, Johannes Zonaras , and Nicephorus Blemmida . On foreign soil, in Italy, There was, however, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries a reflorescence, especially in the Basilian convent at Grottaferrata near Rome, founded by Nilus the Younger in 1005.
V. HYMNODY OF THE WEST Latin Hymnody
The West began to cultivate religious poetry at the same time as did the East. From the beginning in spite of some similarity the Western poems were of a very different nature and were hymns in the more restricted sense of the word. They were incorporated into all parts of the Liturgy. As hymnody began to decline in the East, it revived in the West becoming more vigorous and fruitful than ever; this was especially so from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. The works of the religious lyric poetry give us an instructive picture of the culture and spiritual life of the early Christian Age and of the Middle Ages that is wholly unexpected. "In this religious poetry, the entire Church co-operated, popes, kings, cardinals, bishops, the brightest lights of science, influential statesmen and ambassadors, humble monks, and simple schoolmasters. . . . The versatility and universality of religious culture, the harmony of mental life with the life of feeling lent to religious poetry that richness and depth, that fullness and fervour, which irresistibly attract even the unbelievers" (Baumgartner, "Geschichte der Weltliterature", IV, 441).
(1) First Period up to the Carlovingian Age
At the cradle of Latin hymnody stands the great opponent of the Arians, St. Hilary of Poitiers (d.366). While exiled to Asia Minor he was inspired by the example of the Easterns to compose hymns, on which a verdict cannot now be pronounced as we possess only the fragments of three or four. The first celebrates in asclepiadic alternating with glyconic metre, the birth of the Son co-equal with the Father:Ante saecula qui manens
Semperque nate, semper ut est pater.
From this abecedary, that is, a hymn in which every strophe begins with the corresponding letter of the alphabet, there are missing the strophes beginning with the letters from U to Z. The second hymn, also an abecedary, is apparently the song of the new birth of a soul in baptism ; the whole song would enable us to ascertain this, but the first five strophes (beginning with A to E) have been lost. The first of the eighteen remaining strophes, which consist each of two iambic senaries, begins:Fefellit saevam verbum factum et caro.
In the third hymn, each strophe of which consists of three versus politici , that is, of trochaic tetrameters, is described the "Hostis fallax saeculorum et dirae mortis artifex" (str. ü, 1); in the tenth strophe the single handwriting in which these three hymns are given us breaks off. The language is profound and obscure, and it is only too clear that St. Hilary could not have become popular with such hymns. All other hymns ascribed to him must be rejected as spurious with the exception of the hymn to Christ, written in twenty-four strophes:Hymnum dicat turba fratrum, | hymnum cantus personet,
Christo regi concinnantes | laudem demus debitam.
It was reserved for St. Ambrose (d. 397) to become the real "Father of Latin hymnody". Of his pithy and profound hymns fourteen genuine ones have come down to us in addition to four others which are now used at Tierce, Sext, and None in the Roman Breviary, and the hymn of the virgins "Jesu corona virginum", which are of very doubtful authenticity. Their outer form has been described above. They became at once favourites with the people, drew tears of devotion from the great St. Augustine, and were committed to memory by his mother St. Monica and others. They gave a model and form for all the later Breviary hymns, and from the beginning they remained as component parts of the Liturgy, the revisors of the Breviary having left at least three of them in the prayers of the canonical hours, namely: "Aeterna Christi munera", "Aegerne rerum conditor" and the inimitably beautiful hymn at Lauds "Splendor paternae gloriae". The first strophes of the last named hymn give an idea of the profound poetry of the Bishop of Milan (note that the two strophes form one sentence ):Splendor paternae gloriae, Verusque sol, illabere
De luce lucem proferens, Micans nitore perpeti
Lux lucis et fons luminis, Iubarque sancti spiritus
Dies dierum, illuminans Infunde nostris sensibus.
Richard Chenevix Trench, Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, writes of the hymns of St. Ambrose as follows: "After being accustomed to the softer and richer strains of the later Christian poets . . . it is some little while before one returns with a hearty consent and liking to the almost austere simplicity which characterizes the hymns of St. Ambrose. . . . Only after a while does one learn to feel the grandeur of this unadorned metre, and the profound, though it may have been more instinctive than conscious, wisdom of the poet in choosing it; or to appreciate that noble confidence in the surpassing interest of his theme, which has rendered him indifferent to any but its simplest setting forth. It is as though, building an altar to the living God, he would observe the Levitical precept, and rear it of unhewn stones, upon which no tool has been lifted. The great objects of faith in their simplest expression are felt by him so sufficient to stir all the deepest affections of the heart, that any attempt to dress them up, to array them in moving language, were merely superfluous. The passion is there, but it is latent and represt, a fire burning inwardly, the glow of an austere enthusiasm, which reveals itself indeed, but not to every careless beholder. Nor do we presently fail to observe how truly these poems belonged to their time and to the circumstances under which they were produced, how suitably the faith which was in actual conflict with, and was just triumphing over, the powers of this world, found its utterance in hymns such as these wherein is no softness, perhaps little tenderness; but a rock-like firmness, the old Roman stoicism transmuted and glorified into that nobler Christian courage, which encountered and at length overcame the world" ("Sacred Latin Poetry", London, 1874m 87 sq.).
Notwithstanding the deep impression made by St. Ambrose's hymns on St. Augustine, the latter did not contribute to hymnody but left us only an interesting rhythmical abecedary composed in the year 393 and intended for singing as the repetition verse proves. This hymn cannot be classed as lyric poetry but is a purely didactic exposition of the history and nature of Donatism. Nor can Pope Damasus I (d. 384), to whom a hymn in honour of St. Agatha and one to St. Andrew are erroneously ascribed, be counted among hymn writers, although the elegance of expression and polished form of his epigraphic poems display poetic talent. In general it seems that for decades at least, and perhaps longer, after St. Ambrose no poet essayed to enrich the Latin Liturgy with genuine hymns. The round of ecclesiastical feasts was still small; for the then customary canonical hours, the great feast of Easter, Christmas, and Epiphany, the festal anniversaries of the chief Apostles and the Martyrs splendid hymns had been composed by St. Ambrose which were adopted with enthusiasm wherever hymns were used with the Liturgy. The liturgical need was abundantly satisfied therewith and perhaps in the beginning no one had the courage to claim for his poems a place in the Liturgy side by side with those of St. Ambrose .
This explains, perhaps, the singular fact that Aurelius Prudentius (d. after 405), the poet who comes next after St. Ambrose in point of date, composed hymns only for private devotion, and that in construction and form they stood in complete contrast to the hymns of his great predecessor. The muse indeed that speaks in the songs of the Spaniards is quite different from the Muse of the hymns of the Milanese ; Dreves has termed it the romantic Muse. The highly poetic songs which compose the two books "Kathemerinon" and "Peristephanon" of Prudentius should not be compared with St. Ambrose'shymns ; the former as well as the latter are masterpieces of their kind. St. Ambrosia's hymns, like the old Roman dome, impress us by their classical dignity and weight, while Prudentius, like the Gothic cathedral, elevates our souls by the richness of his form and the bold flights of his fancy. The exquisite beauty of the hymns of Prudentius induced the Mozarabians to incorporate in their Liturgy some of the martyr hymns from the "Peristephanon" notwithstanding their great length and their private devotional character. In the Roman service as well, several beautiful extracts or centos were used in the Liturgy. Such are those hymns which were used for Lauds on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and are still retained in the Roman Breviary, namely: "Ales diei nuntius"; "Nox et tenebrae et nubili"; "Lux ecce surgit aurea" and the charming hymn to the Holy Innocents : "Salvete flores martyrum". It is regrettable that others have been given up for instance, the Christmas hymn which was widely known in the Middle Ages, the first strophe of which is as follows:Corde natus ex parentis | ante mundi exordium,
Alpha et O cognominatus, | ipse fons et clausula
Omnium, quae sunt, fuerunt, | quaeque post futura sunt
Prudentius had apparently no followers, but St. Ambrose, as soon as the desire and courage awoke to introduce other hymns than his into the Liturgy, was the permanent model and pattern. These additions were made in the fifth century and were occasioned by the increased number of festivals. The so-called hymni Ambrosiani bear witness to this fact, as they are identical in outer form with the hymns of St. Ambrose ; while each strophe consists of four iambic dimeters, as a rule, eight strophes form a hymn. The authors are mostly unknown. It cannot be determined whether the Bishop Paulinus of Nola (d. 431) is the first among them. According to Gennadius he is said to have written among other works a book of hymns ; but it cannot be ascertained what they were, as among the extant lyrical poems of Paulinus there is no hymn proper to be found, though there are three poetical paraphrases of the Psalms and a morning prayer written in hexameters:Omnipotens genitor, rerum cui summa potestas, etc.
Pope Gelasius I (d. 496) wrote genuine Ambrosian hymns as Gennadius tells us; but no single hymn can be ascribed with certainty to this pope. Of the poet Caelius Sedulius (about 450) we have two hymni so entitled by him, besides a great "Carmen et opus paschale" (a kind of harmonized Gospel). Of these hymni , one in spite of the refrain, is really a didactic poem; the other is still preserved in the Liturgy. The latter is the abecedary:A solis ortus cardine
Ad usque terrae limitem,
Christum canamus principem
Natum Maria virgine, etc.
The metre and form of these strophes are those favoured by St. Ambrose while the number of strophes corresponding to the letters of the alphabet is much greater. From the "Carmen paschale" were taken later several hexameter verses which now form the Introit of the votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin: "Salve, sancta parens, enixa puepera regem", etc. The most faithful, one might almost say slavish, imitator of St. Ambrose was Magnus Felix Ennodius, Bishop of Pavia (d. 521) who, while archdeacon of Milan, wrote twelve hymns which corresponded in outer structure with those of St. Ambrose ; but they were not incorporated in the Liturgy.
In the empire of the Frankish dynasty of the Merovingians Venantius Fortunatus , Bishop of Poitiers (d. about 605), is the most prominent poet. He was chiefly a non-liturgical poet; but he left a lasting monument in the Liturgy in the two fine hymns on the Crucifixion:Pange lingua gloriosi
Proelium certaminis, etc.,
andVexilla regis prodeunt,
Fulget crucis mysterium, etc.,
and in the one to Our Lady :Quem terra, pontus, aethera,
Colunt, adorant, praedicant.
The two last-mentioned hymns are Ambrosian in metre, structure, and number of strophes. The processional hymn formerly sung at Easter, "Salve festa dies toto venerabilis aevo", is especially to be noted; it was taken from his soaring Easter song:Tempora florigero rutilant distincta serno
Et maiore poli lumine porta patet, etc.
Many of the Fortunatus's hymns have been lost. The "Hymnus ad Mandatum" on Holy Thursday was a very popular and widely known composition written in the Ambrosian style by the Bishop Flavius of Chalon-sur-Saone (d. 591). It begins:Tellus ac aethra rubilent
In magni cena principis.
No other hymns by this bishop are known. As curiosities from this age two hymns are to be mentioned in honour of St. Medardus by one of the Merovingians, namely the highly gifted but notorious profligate King Chilperic I (d. 584). They are bad verses but the contents are profound and the imagery is striking. These hymns never found a place in the Liturgy.
As in Italy, the cradle of hymnody, and in the Merovingian Empire, hymnody flourished more and more after the seventh century in Spain, whose great writer Prudentius we have already noticed. The object of the writers to supply the Mozarabian Liturgy with hymns was carried out so well that we can speak of a particular Mozarabian hymnody consisting of over 200 hymns independent of the songs adopted from the hymnal works of St. Ambrose, Prudentius, and Sedulius or borrowed from the Roman Liturgy. The writers of these hymns were without exception bishops, as Isidore of Seville (d. 636), Braulio of Saragossa (d. 651), Eugenius II of Toledo (d. 657), Quiricus of Barcelona, (d. 666) and Cyxilla of Toledo (d. about 783). With few exceptions it remains doubtful which Mozarabic hymns should be attributed to each of these poets. Most of these productions are in the metre of St. Ambrose, and as all the hymns of that saint, except the one in honour of the Milanese saints, were used in the Mozarabic service, his influence is unquestionable. The pietic value of the Mozarabic poems is far from being uniform; the greater part have only historico-literary interest.
Of a quite different order are the Latin poems of the ancient Irish Church. They are all intended for private devotion or non-liturgical uses. Not only the quantitative, but also the accentual principle is rejected. The number of syllables forms the verse but in union with rhyme and alliteration. Rhyme is used there as early as the sixth century; it develops steadily and appears in the seventh and especially in the eighth century in its richest and purest form. The progress in rhyme is so constant that it may be taken as a criterion of date. Singular, too, is the taste for alliteration as expressed in verses like "O rex o rector regiminis" or "Patrem precor potentiae". The oldest hymn written in Ireland, and at the same time the oldest purely rhythmical Latin hymn, is that of St. Secundus or Sechnall (d. about 448) to St. Patrick :Audite, omnes amantes Deum, sancta merita.
It is written in the rhythm of St. Hillary's "Hymnum dicat turba fratrum"; and the latter hymn may possibly have inspired it. St. Hillary was very popular in Ireland as were his compositions, and many ancient Irish hymns show exactly the scheme of this poem. The next poet in point of time to be mentioned is St. Gildas (d. 569), with his singular song (Lorica):Suffragare trinitatis unitas,
Unitatis miserere trinitas, etc.,
which found widespread popularity through Lathacan Scotigena (Laidcenn). Other hymn writers are St. Columba (Colum Cille, d. 597), five of whose hymns are extant; St. Columbanus (d. 615), St. Ultan of Ardgreccan (d. 656), Colman Mac Murchon, Abbot of Maghbile (died about 731), Oengus Mac Tipraite (about 741), Cuchuimne (about 746) and Saint Maolruain, Abbot of Tallaght (d. 792). In the beginning of the ninth century the productivity of ancient Irish hymnody seems to have ceased. An Irishman by birth, but not writing in the ancient Irish manner, was the Scholastic of Liège, Sedulius Scotus (d. after 874). Here the Venerable Bede, born in the British Isles, may be mentioned, though he exercised much less influence through his generally dry hymns than through his more important work "De arte metrica".
It is remarkable at first sight that no Irish Latin hymn was adopted into the Liturgy or into the ancient Irish Church. In seeking an explanation of this fact we are led back to one of the most striking personalities of the second half of the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604). According to an old Irish legend, he sent about the year 592 a hymn book to St. Columba with the " hymns of the week", i.e. with ;the
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.