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


The poets of this period, Prudentius excepted, are all clergymen, and the best are eminent theologians whose lives and labors have their more appropriate place in other parts of this work.

Hilary, bishop of Poitiers (hence Pictaviensis, † 368), the Athanasius of the West in the Arian controversies, is, according to the testimony of Jerome,12531253   Catal. vir. illustr. c. 100. Comp. also Isidore of Seville, De offic. Eccles. l. i., and Overthür, in the preface to his edition of the works of Hilary. the first hymn writer of the Latin church. During his exile in Phrygia and in Constantinople, he became acquainted with the Arian hymns and was incited by them to compose, after his return, orthodox hymns for the use of the Western church. He thus laid the foundation of Latin hymnology. He composed the beautiful morning hymn: “Lucis largitor splendide;” the Pentecostal hymn: “Beata nobis gaudia;” and, perhaps, the Latin reproduction of the famous Gloria in excelsis. The authorship of many of the hymns ascribed to him is doubtful, especially those in which the regular rhyme already appears, as in the Epiphany hymn:


“Jesus refulsit omnium

Pius redemptor gentium.”

We give as a specimen a part of the first three stanzas of his morning hymn, which has been often translated into German and English:12541254   The Latin has 8 stanzas. See Daniel, Thesaur. hymnol. tom. i. p. 1.


“Lucis largitor splendide,

“O glorious Father of the light,


Cuius serene lumine

From whose efflugence, calm and bright,


Post lapsa noctis tempora

Soon as hours of night are fled,


Dies refusus panditur:

The brilliance of the dawn is shed:



“To verus mundi Lucifer,

“Thou art the dark world’s truer ray:


Non is, qui parvi sideris,

No radiance of that lesser day,


Venturae lucis nuntius

That heralds, in the morn begun,


Augusto fulget lumine:

The advent of our darker sun:



“Sed toto sole clarior,

“But, brighter than its noontide gleam,


Lux ipse totus et dies,

Thyself full daylight’s fullest beam,


Interna nostri pectoris

The inmost mansions of our breast


Illuminans praecordia.”

Thou by Thy grace illuminest.”


Ambrose, the illustrious bishop of Milan, though some-what younger († 397), is still considered, on account of the number and value of his hymns, the proper father of Latin church song, and became the model for all successors. Such was his fame as a hymnographer that the words Ambrosianus and hymnus were at one time nearly synonymous. His genuine hymns are distinguished for strong faith, elevated but rude simplicity, noble dignity, deep unction, and a genuine churchly and liturgical spirit. The rhythm is still irregular, and of rhyme only imperfect beginnings appear; and in this respect they certainly fall far below the softer and richer melodies of the middle age, which are more engaging to ear and heart. They are an altar of unpolished and unhewn stone. They set forth the great objects of faith with apparent coldness that stands aloof from them in distant adoration; but the passion is there, though latent, and the fire of an austere enthusiasm burns beneath the surface. Many of them have, in addition to their poetical value, a historical and theological value as testimonies of orthodoxy against Arianism.12551255   Trench sees in the Ambrosian hymns, not without reason (I. c. p. 86), “a rocklike firmness, the old Roman stoicism transmuted and glorified into that nobler Christian courage, which encountered and at length overcame the world.” Fortlage judged the same way before in a brilliant description of Latin hymns, l. c. p. 4 f., comp. Daniel, Cod. Lit. iii. p. 282 sq.

Of the thirty to a hundred so-called Ambrosian hymns,12561256   Daniel, ii. pp. 12-115. however, only twelve, in the view of the Benedictine editors of his works, are genuine; the rest being more or less successful imitations by unknown authors. Neale reduces the number of the genuine Ambrosian hymns to ten, and excludes all which rhyme regularly, and those which are not metrical. Among the genuine are the morning hymn: “Aeterne rerum conditor;”12571257   The genuineness of this hymn is put beyond question by two quotations of the contemporary and friend of Ambrose, Augustine, Confess. ix. 12, and Retract. i. 12, and by the affinity of it with a passage in the Hexaëmeron of Ambrose, xxiv. 88, where the same thoughts are expressed in prose. Not so certain is the genuineness of the other Ambrosian morning hymns: “Aeterna coeli gloria,” and “Splendor paternae gloriae.” the evening hymn: “Deus creator omnium;”12581258   The other evening hymn: “O lux beata Trinitas,” ascribed to him (in the Roman Breviary and in Daniel’s Thesaur. i. 36), is scarcely from Ambrose: it has already the rhyme in the form as we find it in the hymns of Fortunatus. and the Advent or Christmas hymn: “Veni, Redemptor gentium.” This last is justly considered his best. It has been frequently reproduced in modern languages,12591259   Especially in the beautiful German by John Frank: “Komm, Heidenheiland, Lösegeld,” which is a free recomposition rather than a translation. For another English version (abridged), see “The Voice of Christian Life in Song,” p. 97:
   “Redeemer of the nations, come;

   Pure offspring of the Virgin’s womb,

   Seed of the woman, promised long,

   Let ages swell Thine advent song.”
and we add this specimen of its matter and form with an English version:


“Veni, Redemptor gentium,

“Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,


Ostende partum Virginis;

Come, testify Thy Virgin Birth:


Miretur omne saeculum:

All lands admire—all times applaud:


Talis partus decet Deum.

Such is the birth that fits a God.



“Non ex virili semine,

“Begotten of no human will,


Sed mystico spiramine,

But of the Spirit, mystic still,


Verbum Dei factum est caro,

The Word of God, in flesh arrayed,


Fructusque ventris floruit.

The promised fruit to man displayed.



“Alvus tumescit Virginis,

“The Virgin womb that burden gained


Claustrum pudoris permanet,

With Virgin honor all unstained


Vexilla virtutum micant,

The banners there of virtues glow:


Versatur in templo Deus.

God in His Temple dwells below.



“Procedit e thalamo suo,

“Proceeding from His chamber free,


Pudoris aulâ regiâ,

The royal hall of chastity,


Geminae Gigas substantiae,

Giant of twofold substance, straight


Alacris ut currat viam.12601260   This is an allusion to the “giants” of Gen. vi. 4, who, in the early church, were supposed to have been of a double substance, being the offspring of the “sons of God,” or angels, and the “daughters of men,” and who furnished a forced resemblance to the twofold nature of Christ, according to the mystical interpretation of Ps. xix. 5. Comp. Ambr. De incarnate Domini, c. 5.

His destined way He runs elate.



“Egressus ejus a Patre,

“From God the Father He proceeds,


Regressus ejus ad Patrem,

To God the Father back He speeds:


Excursus usque ad inferos

Proceeds—as far as very hell:


Recursus ad sedem Dei.

Speeds back—to light ineffable.



“Aequalis aeterno Patri,

“O equal to the Father, Thou!


Carnis tropaeo12611261   On the difference of reading,tropaeo, trophaeo, and stropheo or strophio (strophium = “cincugulum aureum cum gemmis”), see Daniel, tom. i. p. 14. cingere,

Gird on Thy fleshly trophy (mantle) now


Infirma nostri corporis

The weakness of our mortal state


Virtute firmans perpeti.

With deathless might invigorate.



“Praesepe jam fulget tuum,

“Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,


Lumenque nox spirat novum,

And darkness breathe a newer light,


Quod nulla nox interpolet,

Where endless faith shall shine serene,


Fideque jugi luceat.”

And twilight never intervene.”


By far the most celebrated hymn of the Milanese bishop, which alone would have made his name immortal, is the Ambrosian doxology, Te Deum laudamus. This, with the Gloria in excelsis, is, as already remarked, by far the most valuable legacy of the old Catholic church poetry; and will be prayed and sung with devotion in all parts of Christendom to the end of time. According to an old legend, Ambrose composed it on the baptism of St. Augustine, and conjointly with him; the two, without preconcert, as if from divine inspiration, alternately singing the words of it before the congregation. But his biographer Paulinus says nothing of this, and, according to later investigations, this sublime Christian psalm is, like the Gloria in excelsis, but a free reproduction and expansion of an older Greek hymn in prose, of which some constituents appear in the Apostolic Constitutions, and elsewhere.12621262   “For instance, the beginning of a morning hymn, in the Codex Alexandrinus of the Bible, has been literally incorporated into the Te Deum:
   Καθ ̓ ἑκάστην ἡμέραν εὐλογήσω σε,
Per singulas dies benedicimus te,

   Καὶ αἰνέσω τὸ ὄνομά σου εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα
Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum

   Καὶ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ αἰῶνος.
Et in saeculum saeculi.

   Καταξίωσον, κύριε, καὶ τὴν ἡμέραν ταύτην
Dignare, Domine, die isto

   Ἀναμαρτήτους φυλαχθήναι ἡμᾶς.
Sine peccato nos custodire.

   Comp. on this whole hymn the critical investigation of Daniel, l.c. vol. ii, p. 289

Ambrose introduced also an improved mode of singing in Milan, making wise use of the Greek symphonies and antiphonies, and popular melodies. This Cantus Ambrosianus, or figural song, soon supplanted the former mode of reciting the Psalms and prayers in monotone with musical accent and little modulation of the voice, and spread into most of the Western churches as a congregational song. It afterwards degenerated, and was improved and simplified by Gregory the Great, and gave place to the so-called Cantus Romanus, or choralis.

Augustine, the greatest theologian among the church fathers († 430), whose soul was filled with the genuine essence of poetry, is said to have composed the resurrection hymn: “Cum rex gloriae Christus;” the hymn on the glory of paradise: “Ad perennis vitae fontem melis sitivit arida;” and others. But he probably only furnished in the lofty poetical intuitions and thoughts which are scattered through his prose works, especially in the Confessions, the materia carminis for later poets, like Peter Damiani, bishop of Ostia, in the eleventh century, who put into flowing verse Augustine’s meditations on the blessedness of heaven.12631263   This beautiful hymn, “De gloria et gaudiis Paradisi,” is found in the appendix to the 6th volume of the Benedictine edition of the Opera Augustini, in Daniel’s Thesaurus, tom. i. p. 116, and in Trench’s Collection, p. 315 sqq., and elsewhere. Like all the new Jerusalem hymns it derives its inspiration from St. John’s description in the concluding chapters of the Apocalypse. There is an excellent German translation of it by Königsfeld and an English translation by Wackerbarth, given in part by Neale in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, p. 59. The whole hymn is very fine, but not quite equal to the long poem of Bernard of Cluny (in the twelfth century), on the contempt of the world, which breathes the same sweet home-sickness to heaven, and which Neale (p. 58) justly regards as the most lovely, in the same way that the Dies irae, is the most sublime, and the Stabat Mater the most pathetic, of mediaeval hymns. The original has not less than 3,000 lines; Neale gives an admirable translation of the concluding part, commencing “Hic breve vivitur,” and a part of this translation: To thee, O dear, dear Country” (p. 55), is well worthy of a place in our hymn books. From these and similar mediaeval sources (as the “Urbs beata Jerusalem,” &c.) is derived in part the famous English hymn: “ O mother dear, Jerusalem!” (in 31 stanzas), which is often ascribed to David Dickson, a Scotch clergyman of the seventeenth century, and which has in turn become the mother of many English hymns on the new Jerusalem. (Comp. on it the monographs of H. Bonar, Edinb. 1852, and of W. C. Prime: ” O Mother dear, Jerusalem,” New York, 1865.)—To Augustineis also ascribed the hymn: “O gens beata ccelitum,” a picture of the blessedness of the inhabitants of heaven, and: Quid, tyranne! quid miraris? ” an antidote for the tyranny of sin. Damasus, bishop of Rome († 384), a friend of Jerome, likewise composed some few sacred songs, and is considered the author of the rhyme.12641264   Jerome(De viris ill.c. 103) says of him: “Elegans in versibus componendis ingenium habet, multaque et brevia metro edidit.” Neale omits Damasus altogether. Daniel, Thes. i. pp. 8 and 9, gives only two of his hymns, a Hymnus de S. Andrea, and a Hymnus de S. Agatha, the latter with regular rhymes, commencing:
   “Martyris ecce dies Agathae
Christus eam sibi qua sociat

   Virginis emicat eximiae,
Et diadema duplex decorat.”

Coelius Sedulius, a native of Scotland or Ireland, presbyter in the first half of the fifth century, composed the hymns: “Herodes, hostis impie,” and “A solis ortus cardine,” and some larger poems.

Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius († 405), an advocate and imperial governor in Spain under Theodosius, devoted the last years of his life to religious contemplation and the writing of sacred poetry, and stands at the head of the more fiery and impassioned Spanish school. Bently calls him the Horace and Virgil of Christians, Neale, “the prince of primitive Christian poets.” Prudentius is undoubtedly the most gifted and fruitful of the old Catholic poets. He was master of the classic measure, but admirably understood how to clothe the new ideas and feelings of Christianity in a new dress. His poems have been repeatedly edited.12651265   2 E.g., by Th. Obbarius, Tub. 1845; and by Alb. Dressel, Lips. 1860. They are in some cases long didactic or epic productions in hexameters, of much historical value;12661266   The Apotheosis, a celebration of the divinity of Christ against its opponents (in 1,063 lines); the Harmatigenia, on the origin of sin (in 966 lines); the Psychomachia, on the warfare of good and evil in the soul (915 lines); Contra Symmachum, on idolatry, &c. in others, collections of epic poems, as the Cathemerinon,12671267   Καθημερινῶν = Diurnorum (the Christian Day, as we might call it, after the analogy of Keble’s Christian Year), hymns for the several hours of the day. and Peristephanon.12681268   Περὶ στεφάνων, concerning the crowns, fourteen hymns on as many martyrs who have inherited the crown of eternal life. Many of them are intolerably tedious and in bad taste. Extracts from the latter have passed into public use. The best known hymns of Prudentius are: “Salvete, flores martyrum,” in memory of the massacred innocents at Bethlehem,12691269   3 De SS. Innocentibus, from the twelfth book of the Cathemerinon, in Prudentii Carmina, ed. Obbarius, Tüb. 1845, p. 48, in Daniel, tom. i. p. 124, and in Trench, p. 121. and his grand burial hymn: “Jam moesta quiesce querela,” which brings before us the ancient worship in deserts and in catacombs, and of which Herder says that no one can read it without feeling his heart moved by its touching tones.12701270   It is the close of the tenth Cathemerinon, and was the usual burial hymn of the ancient church. It has been translated into German by Weiss, Knapp, Puchta, Königsfeld, Bässler, Schaff (in his Deutsches Gesangbuch, No. 468), and others. Trench, p. 281, calls it “the crowning glory of the poetry of Prudentius.” He never attained this grandeur on any other occasion. Neale, in his treatise on the Eccles. Latin Poetry, l.c. p. 22, gives translations of several parts of it, in the metre of the original, but without rhyme, commencing thus:
   “Each sorrowful mourner be silent!

   Fond mothers, give over your weeping!

   None grieve for those pledges as perished:

   This dying is life’s reparation.”

   Another translation by E. Caswall: “Cease, ye tearful mourners.”

We must mention two more poets who form the transition from the ancient Catholic to mediaeval church poetry.

Venantius Fortunatus, an Italian by birth, a friend of queen Radegunde (who lived apart from her husband, and presided over a cloister), the fashionable poet of France, and at the time of his death (about 600), bishop of Poitiers, wrote eleven books of poems on various subjects, an epic on the life of St. Martin of Tours, and a theological work in vindication of the Augustinian doctrine of divine grace. He was the first to use the rhyme with a certain degree of mastery and regularity, although with considerable license still, so that many of his rhymes are mere alliterations of consonants or repetitions of vowels.12711271   Such as prodeunt—mysterium, viscera—vestigia, fulgida—purpura, etc. He first mastered the trochaic tetrameter, a measure which, with various modifications, subsequently became the glory of the mediaeval hymn. Prudentius had already used it once or twice, but Fortunatus first grouped it into stanzas. His best known compositions are the passion hymns: “Vexilla regis prodeunt,” and “Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium (lauream) certaminis,” which, though not without some alterations, have passed into the Roman Breviary.12721272   Daniel, Thes. i. p. 160 sqq., gives both forms: the original, and that of the Brev. Romanum. The “Vexilla regis” is sung on Good Friday during the procession in which the consecrated host is carried to the altar. Both are used on the festivals of the Invention and the Elevation of the Cross.12731273   Trench has omitted both in his Collection, and admitted instead of them some less valuable poems of Fortunatus, De cruce Christi, and De passione Domini, in hexameters. The favorite Catholic hymn to Mary: “Ave maris stella,”12741274   3 Daniel, i. p. 204. is sometimes ascribed to him, but is of a much later date.

We give as specimens his two famous passion hymns, which were composed about 580.


Vexilla Regis Prodeunt.12751275   274 The original text in Daniel, i. p. 160. The translation by Neale, from the Hymnal of the English Ecclesiological Society and Neale’s Mediaeval Hymns p. 6. it omits the second stanza, as does the Roman Breviary.


“Vexilla regis prodeunt,

“The Royal Banners forward go:


Fulget crucis mysterium,

The Cross shines forth with mystic glow:


Quo carne carnis conditor

Where He in flesh, our flesh who made,


Suspensus est patibulo.12761276   The Roman Breviary substitutes for the last two lines:
   Qua vita mortem pertulit

   Et morte vitam protulit.”

Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.



“Quo vulneratus insuper

“Where deep for us the spear was dyed,


Mucrone diro lanceae,

Life’s torrent rushing from His side:


Ut nos lavaret crimine

To wash us in the precious flood,


Manavit unda et sanguine.

Where mingled water flowed, and blood.



“Impleta sunt quae concinit

“Fulfilled is all that David told


David fideli carmine

In true prophetic song of old:


Dicens: in nationibus

Amidst the nations, God, saith he,


Regnavit a ligno Deus.

Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.



“Arbor decora et fulgida

“O Tree of Beauty! Tree of Light!


Ornata regis purpura,

O Tree with royal purple dight!


Electa digno stipite

Elect upon whose faithful breast


Tam sancta membra tangere.

Those holy limbs should find their rest!



“Beata cuius brachiis

“On whose dear arms, so widely flung,


Pretium pependit saeculi,

The weight of this world’s ransom hung


Statera facta saeculi

The price of human kind to pay,


Praedamque tulit tartaris.”12771277   Brev. Rom.: “Tulitque praedam tartari.”

And spoil the spoiler of his prey!”


Pange, Lingua, Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis.12781278   See the original, which is not rhymed, in Daniel, i. p. 163 sqq., and in somewhat different form in the Roman Breviary. The masterly English translation in, the metre of the original is Neale’s, l.c. p. 237 sq., and in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, p. 1. Another excellent English version by E. Caswell commences:
Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory; tell His triumph far and wide.”


“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,12791279   Proelium certaminis, which the Roman Breviary spoiled by substituting lauream. The poet describes the glory of the struggle itself rather than the glory of its termination, as is plain from the conclusion of the verse. with completed victory rife,

And above the Cross’s trophy, tell the triumph of the strife;

How the world’s Redeemer conquer’d, by surrendering of His life.


“God, his Maker, sorely grieving that the first-born Adam fell,

When he ate the noxious apple, whose reward was death and hell,

Noted then this wood, the ruin of the ancient wood to quell.


“For the work of our Salvation needs would have his order so,

And the multiform deceiver’s art by art would overthrow;

And from thence would bring the medicine whence the venom of the foe.


“Wherefore, when the sacred fulness of the appointed time was come,

This world’s Maker left His Father, left His bright and heavenly home,

And proceeded, God Incarnate, of the Virgin’s holy womb.


“Weeps the Infant in the manger that in Bethlehem’s stable stands;

And His limbs the Virgin Mother doth compose in swaddling bands,

Meetly thus in linen folding of her God the feet and hands.


“Thirty years among us dwelling, His appointed time fulfilled,

Born for this, He meets His Passion, for that this He freely willed:

On the Cross the Lamb is lifted, where His life-blood shall be spilled.


“He endured the shame and spitting, vinegar, and nails, and reed;

As His blessed side is opened, water thence and blood proceed:

Earth, and sky, and stars, and ocean, by that flood are cleansed indeed.


“Faithful Cross! above all other, one and only noble Tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peers may be;

Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee!12801280   The Latin of this stanza is a jewel:
   Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis

   Nulla talem silva profert fronde, flore, germine:

   Dulce lignum, dulci clavo, dulce pondus sustinens.”

   (In the Roman Breviary: “Dulce ferrum, dulce lignum, dulce pondus sustinent.”)


“Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory! thy relaxing sinews bend;

For awhile the ancient rigor, that thy birth bestowed, suspend;

And the King of heavenly beauty on thy bosom gently tend.


“Thou alone wast counted worthy this world’s ransom to uphold;

For a shipwreck’d race preparing harbor, like the Ark of old:

With the sacred blood anointed from the wounded Lamb that roll’d.


“Laud and honor to the Father, laud and honor to the Son,

Laud and honor to the Spirit, ever Three and ever One:

Consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run.



Far less important as a poet is Gregory I. (590–604), the last of the fathers and the first of the mediaeval popes. Many hymns of doubtful origin have been ascribed to him and received into the Breviary. The best is his Sunday hymn: “Primo dierum omnium.”12811281   See Daniel’s Cod. i. p. 175 sqq. For au excellent English version of the hymn above alluded to, see Neale, l. c. p. 233.

The hymns are the fairest flowers of the poetry of the ancient church. But besides them many epic and didactic poems arose, especially in Gaul and Spain, which counteracted the invading flood of barbarism, and contributed to preserve a connection with the treasures of the classic culture. Juvencus, a Spanish presbyter under Constantine, composed the first Christian epic, a Gospel history in four books (3,226 lines), on the model of Virgil, but as to poetic merit never rising above mediocrity. Far superior to him is Prudentius († 405); he wrote, besides the hymns already mentioned, several didactic, epic, and polemic poems. St. Pontius Paulinus, bishop of Nola († 431), who was led by the poet Ausonius to the mysteries of the Muses,12821282   Ausonius yielded the palm to his pupil when he wrote of the verses of Paulinus:
   “Cedimus ingenio, quantum praecedimus aevo:

   Assurget Musae nostra camoena tuae.”
and a friend of Augustine and Jerome, is the author of some thirty poems full of devout spirit; the best are those on the festival of S. Felix, his patron. Prosper Aquitanus († 460), layman, and friend of Augustine, wrote a didactic poem against the Pelagians, and several epigrams; Avitus, bishop of Vienne († 523), an epic on the creation and the origin of evil; Arator, a court official under Justinian, afterwards a sub-deacon of the Roman church (about 544), a paraphrase, in heroic verse, of the Acts of the Apostles, in two books of about 1,800 lines. Claudianus Mamertus,12831283   Not to be confounded with Claudius Claudianus, of Alexandria, the most gifted Latin poet at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century. The Christian Idyls, Epistles, and Epigrams ascribed to him, were probably the work of Claudianus Mamertus, of Vienne (Comp. H. Thompson’s Manual of Rom. Lit. p. 204, and J. J. Brunet’s Manual du libraire, tom. iii. p. 1351 of the 5th ed. Par. 1862). For Claudius Claudianus was a heathen, according to the express testimony of Paulus Orosiusand of Augustine(De Civit. Dei, v. p. 26: “Poeta Claudianus, quamvis a Christi nomine alienus,” &c.), and in one of his own epigrams, In Jacobum, magistrum equitum, shows his contempt of the Christian religion. Benedictus Paulinus, Elpidius, Orontius, and Draconti



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