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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 115. The Latin Hymn.


More important than the Greek hymnology is the Latin from the fourth to the sixteenth century. Smaller in compass, it surpasses it in artless simplicity and truth, and in richness, vigor, and fulness of thought, and is much more akin to the Protestant spirit. With objective churchly character it combines deeper feeling and more subjective appropriation and experience of salvation, and hence more warmth and fervor than the Greek. It forms in these respects the transition to the Evangelical hymn, which gives the most beautiful and profound expression to the personal enjoyment of the Saviour and his redeeming grace. The best Latin hymns have come through the Roman Breviary into general use, and through translations and reproductions have become naturalized in Protestant churches. They treat for the most part of the great facts of salvation and the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. But many of them are devoted to the praises of Mary and the martyrs, and vitiated with superstitions.

In the Latin church, as in the Greek, heretics gave a wholesome impulse to poetical activity. The two patriarchs of Latin church poetry, Hilary and Ambrose, were the champions of orthodoxy against Arianism in the West.

The genius of Christianity exerted an influence, partly liberating, partly transforming, upon the Latin language and versification. Poetry in its youthful vigor is like an impetuous mountain torrent, which knows no bounds and breaks through all obstacles; but in its riper form it restrains itself and becomes truly free in self-limitation; it assumes a symmetrical, well-regulated motion and combines it with periodical rest. This is rhythm, which came to its perfection in the poetry of Greece and Rome. But the laws of metre were an undue restraint to the new Christian spirit which required a new form. The Latin poetry of the church has a language of its own, a grammar of its own, a prosody of its own, and a beauty of its own, and in freshness, vigor, and melody even surpasses the Latin poetry of the classics. It had to cast away all the helps of the mythological fables, but drew a purer and richer inspiration from the sacred history and poetry of the Bible, and the heroic age of Christianity. But it had first to pass through a state of barbarism like the Romanic languages of the South of Europe in their transition from the old Latin. We observe the Latin language under the influence of the youthful and hopeful religion of Christ, as at the breath of a second spring, putting forth fresh blossoms and flowers and clothing itself with a new garment of beauty, old words assuming new and deeper meanings, obsolete words reviving, new words forming. In all this there is much to offend a fastidious classical taste, yet the losses are richly compensated by the gains. Christianity at its triumph in the Roman empire found the classical Latin rapidly approaching its decay and dissolution; in the course of time it brought out of its ashes a new creation.

The classical system of prosody was gradually loosened, and accent substituted for quantity. Rhyme, unknown to the ancients as a system or rule, was introduced in the middle or at the end of the verse, giving the song a lyrical character, and thus a closer affinity with music. For the hymns were to be sung in the churches. This accented and rhymed poetry was at first, indeed, very imperfect, yet much better adapted to the freedom, depth, and warmth of the Christian spirit, than the stereotyped, stiff, and cold measure of the heathen classics.12461246   Archbishop Trench (Sacred Latin Poetry, 2d ed. Introd. p. 9): “A struggle commenced from the first between the form and the spirit, between the old heathen form and the new Christian spirit—the latter seeking to release itself from the shackles and restraints which the former imposed upon it; and which were to it, not a help and a support, as the form should be, but a hindrance and a weakness—not liberty, but now rather a most galling bondage. The new wine went on fermenting in the old bottles, till it burst them asunder, though not itself to be spilt and lost in the process, but to be gathered into nobler chalices, vessels more fitted to contain it—new, even as that which was poured into them was new.” This process of liberation Trench illustrates in Prudentius, who still adheres in general to the laws of prosody, but indulges the largest license. Quantity is a more or less arbitrary and artificial device; accent, or the emphasizing of one syllable in a polysyllabic word, is natural and popular, and commends itself to the ear. Ambrose and his followers, with happy instinct, chose for their hymns the Iambic dimeter, which is the least metrical and the most rhythmical of all the ancient metres. The tendency to euphonious rhyme went hand in hand with the accented rhythm, and this tendency appears occasionally in its crude beginnings in Hilary and Ambrose, but more fully in Damasus, the proper father of this improvement.

Rhyme is not the invention of either a barbaric or an overcivilized age, but appears more or less in almost all nations, languages, and grades of culture. Like rhythm it springs from the natural esthetic sense of proportion, euphony, limitation, and periodic return.12471247   Comp. the excellent remarks of Trench, l. c. p. 26 sqq., on the import of rhyme. Milton, as is well known, blinded by his predilection for the ancient classics, calls rhyme (in the preface to “Paradise Lost”) “the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; a thing of itself to all judicious ears trivial and of no true musical delight.” Trench answers this biassed judgment by pointing to Milton’s own rhymed odes and sonnets,” the noblest lyrics which English literature possesses.” It is found here and there, even in the oldest popular poetry of republican Rome, that of Ennius, for example.12481248   “It is a curious thing,” says J. M. Neale (The Eccles. Lat. Poetry of the Middle Ages, p. 214), “that, in rejecting the foreign laws in which Latin had so long gloried, the Christian poets were in fact merely reviving in an inspired form, the early melodies of republican Rome;—the rhythmical ballads which were the delight of the men that warred with the Samnites, and the Volscians, and Hannibal.” It occurs not rarely in the prose even of Cicero, and especially of St. Augustine, who delights in ingenious alliterations and verbal antitheses, like patet and latet, spes and res, fides and vides, bene and plene, oritur and moritur. Damasus of Rome introduced it into sacred poetry.12491249   In his Hymnus de S. Agatha, see Daniel, Thes. hymnol. tom. i. p. 9, and Fortlage, Gesänge christl. Vorzeit, p. 365. But it was in the sacred Latin poetry of the middle age that rhyme first assumed a regular form, and in Adam of St. Victor, Hildebert, St. Bernard, Bernard of Clugny, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Thomas a Celano, and Jacobus de Benedictis (author of the Stabat mater), it reached its perfection in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; above all, in that incomparable giant hymn on the judgment, the tremendous power of which resides, first indeed in its earnest matter, but next in its inimitable mastery of the musical treatment of vowels. I mean, of course, the Dies irae of the Franciscan monk Thomas a Celano (about 1250), which excites new wonder on every reading, and to which no translation in any modern language can do full justice. In Adam of St. Victor, too, of the twelfth century, occur unsurpassable rhymes; e.g., the picture of the Evangelist John (in the poem: De, S. Joanne evangelista), which Olshausen has chosen for the motto of his commentary on the fourth Gospel, and which Trench declares the most beautiful stanza in the Latin church poetry:


“Volat avis sine meta

Quo nee vates nec propheta

Evolavit altius:

Tam implenda,12501250   The Apocalypse. quam impleta12511251   The Gospel history.

Nunquam vidit tot secreta

Purus homo purius.”

The metre of the Latin hymns is various, and often hard to be defined. Gavanti12521252   Thesaur. rit sacr., cited in the above-named hymnological work of Königsfeld and A. W. Schlegel, p. xxi., first collection. supposes six principal kinds of verse:

1. Iambici dimetri(as: “Vexilla regis prodeunt”).

2. Iambici trimetri(ternarii vel senarii, as: “Autra deserti teneris sub annis”).

3. Trochaici dimetri(“Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium,” a eucharistic hymn of Thomas Aquinas).

4. Sapphici, cum Adonicoin fine (as: “Ut queant axis resonare fibris”).

5. Trochaici(as: “Ave maris stella”).

6. Asclepiadici, cum Glyconicoin fine (as: “Sacris solemniis juncta sint gaudia”).

In the period before us the Iambic dimeter prevails; in Hilary and Ambrose without exception.



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