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Hymns of the Eastern Church
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As a general rule, the first poetical attempts of the Eastern, like those of the Western, Church, were in classical measures. But as classical Greek died out from being a spoken language,—as new trains of thought were familiarized,—as new words were coined,—a versification became valueless, which was attached with no living bonds to the new energy, to the onward movement. Dean Trench has admirably expressed this truth in the introduction to his “Sacred Latin Poetry,” and showed how the “new wine must be put into new bottles.” Ecclesiastical terms must be used, which rebel against classical metre: in Greek, no less than in Latin, five words in eight would be shut out of the principal classical rhythms. Now, the Gospel was preached to the poor. Church hymns must be the life-expression of all hearts. The Church was forced to make a way for saying in poetry what her message bade her say.22   As an illustration of this remark, it is worth while noticing how very few examples of Hexameters occur in the New Testament. I believe that the following are all that are tolerable; that is, that can so be scanned without one or two false qualities:— S. Luke 21:18. Θριξ εκ της κεψαλησ υμων ου μη αποληται. S. John 8:5. βαλλει υδωρ εισ τον νιπτηρα, και ηρξατο νιπτειν. S. John 8:16. ουκ εστι [ν] δουλος μειζων του κυριον αυτου. S. John 17:20. και περι των πιστευσοντων δια του λογου αυτων. Titus 3:2. μηδενα βλασϕημειν, αμαχουσ ειναι, επιεικεις. Heb. 12:13. και τροχιας ορθας ποιησατε τοισ ποσιν υμων.
   There are some which are very near a hexameter: as S. Matt. 23:6

   και τας προτοκαθεδριας εν ταις συναγωγαις.

   A tolerable pentameter occurs in Rom. 6:13

   και τα μελη υμων οπλα δικαιοσυνης.

   and a remarkable iambic in the Lord’s Prayer.

   τον αρτον ημων τον επιουσιον διδου.

S. Gregory Nazianzen, the first Greek Church poet, used only the ordinary classical measures. S. Sophronius of Jerusalem employed (and in their way not unhappily), Anacreontics: and his hymns on various festivals have some elegance. But there is a certain degree of dilittante-ism, rather than of earnestness, in these compositions; and the most airy, tripping, frivolous measure that the Greek Muse possessed, never, by any possibility, could form the ordinary utterance of the Church. The Church compositions of S. Sophronius, though called ποιηματα, are in fact mere prose: as those grand prayers on the Epiphany.

How then was the problem to be solved as to the composition of Eastern Church Song? In Latin, somewhat before the time of S. Sophronius, A.D. 630, it was answered by that glorious introduction of rhyme. Why not in Greek also?

Now, it is no less true in Greek, than in Latin, that there was a tendancy to rhyme from the very beginning. Open Homer: look for caudate rhymes:—

Νημερτης τε και Αψευδης και Καλλιανασσα

Ενθαδ εην Κλυμενη, Ιανειρα και Ιϕιανασσα.

Il. 18:46

Αστεος αιθομενοιο θεων δε Fε μηνις ανηκεν.

Πασι δε θηκε πονον, πολλοισι δε κηδε εϕηκεν

Ως Αχιλευς Τρωεσσι πονον και κηδεα θηκεν

Il. 21:523

Ου μεν γαρ μειζον κλεος ανερος, οϕρα κεν ησιν

Ηο τι ποσσιν τε πεξει και χερσι Fεησιν

Odyss. 8:147

Leonines are still more common. The reader’s attention is particularly requested to those that follow:—

Il. 2:220. Εχθιστος δ Αχιλει μαλιστ ην, ηδ Οδυσηι
484. Εσπετε νυν μοι, Μουσαι, Ολυμπια δωματ εχουσαι
475. Ρεια δοακρινωσιν, επει κε νομω μιγεωσιν.
3:84. Ως εϕαθ οι δ εσχοντο μαχης, ανεω τ εγενοντο.
5:529. Ω ϕιλοι, ανερες εστε, και αλκιμον ητορ ελεσθε.
6:242. Τον δ Ελενη μυθοισι προσηυδα μειλιχιοισι.
Od. 1:40. Εκ γαρ Ορεσταο τισις εσσεται ΑτρεFιδαο.
397. Αυταρ εγω Fοικοιο Fαναξ εσομ ημετεροιο.
4:121. Εκ δ Ελενη θαλαμοιο θυωδεος υψοροϕοιο.
14:371. Ασπιδας, οσσαι αρισται ενι στρατω ηδε μεγισται.

And I might mark multitudes more: but these are enough by way of example. The question then occurs at once, Why did not the new life, instilled into the Greek as well as into the Latin language by Christianity, seize the grand capability of RHYME in the one case as well as in the other? How stately it would have been in anapaestics! how sweet in trochaics! Why was it neglected?

For this reason: the reader must remember that HARDLY ONE331st ed.: NONE OF THE RHYMES I HAVE BEEN POINTING OUT IN HOMER WOULD BE RHYMES TO A GREEK EAR. Read them accentually, and you find αρισται and μεγισται are no more double rhymes to a Greek than gloriously and furiously are to us: μουσαι and εχουσαι, no more than glory and victory. Accent, in the decline of the language, was trampling down quantity. Now accent is not favourable to such rhymes, though many poems have been thus composed in the newer Greek:

ευρον ϕιλον κοματακη

καθ οπερ τετραγωνακη.

But it was not sufficiently removed from every-day life,—too familiar,—had too little dignity. There was an innate vulgarity about it which rendered it impossible to the Church.

Now, let it be observed, accentuation even in Latin was not without its difficulty. In the new style, dissyllables, whatever their real quantity, were always read—and so we read them today—as trochees. Férox, vélox, scéptrum. Hence a verse in the early metrical hymns, such as—

“Castos fides somnos juvat,”

a dimeter iambic, would have been read in mediaeval times, Cástos fídes sómnos júvat, and so have virtually become a demeter trochaic.

Popular poetry soon devised its own metre, political verse, as it was called, because used for every-day domestic matters. This was none other than a favourite metre of Aristophanes,—iambic tetrameter catalectic, our own ballad rhythm:—

“A captain bold of Halifax,
who lived in country quarters.”

And this, sometimes with rhyme, sometimes without, is the favourite Romaic metre to the present day. For example:—

μη δια θυρας βαινειν δε λεγω τους κλεπταββαδας,

χωστους, εγκλειστους, ελκοντας θηρια, στελοβατας,

παντας οσοι παρα τα νομιμα δρωσι τον βιον,

και τον μονωτροπουντων δε, πλην εν ερημου τροποις.

The Church never attempted this sing-song stanza, and preferred falling back on an older form.

From the brief allusions we find to the subject in the New Testament, we should gather that “the hymns and spiritual songs” of the Apostles were written in metrical prose. Accustomed as many of the early Christians were to the Hebrew Scriptures, this is not unlikely; and proof seems strong that it was so. Compare these passages:—

Eph 5:14. Wherefore he saith: εγειρε ο καθευδων,
και αναστα εκ των νεκρων
επιφαυσει σοι ο Χριστος.

Undoubtedly the fragment of a hymn. Again:—

Rev 4:8. μεγαλα και Θαμαστα τα εργα σου,
Κυριε ο Θεος ο παντοκρατωρ
δικαιαι και αληθιναι αι οδοι σου,
ο βασιλευς των εθνων.

And nearly coeval with these we have the Gloria in Excelsis, the Ter Sanctus, and the Joyful Light. Also the Eastern phase, so to speak, of the Te Deum; the καθ εκαστην ημεραν. And to this rhythmical prose the Church now turned.


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