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Now the perfection of Greek poetry is attained by the Canons at Lauds, of which I proceed to speak.
A Canon consists of Nine Odes,—each Ode containing any number of troparia from three to beyond twenty. The reason for the number nine is this: that there are nine Scriptural canticles, employed at Lauds, (εις τον Ορθρον), on the model of which those in every Canon are formed:
- of Moses after the passage of the Red Sea
- of Moses in Deuteronomy (chap. 33)
- of Hannah
- of Habakkuk
- of Isaiah (26:9-20)
- of Jonah
- of the Three Children (verses 3-34 of our “Song” in the Bible Version)
- Benedicite (the “Prayer of Azarias”, verses 35-66)
- Magnificat and Benedictus.
From this arrangement two consequences follow. The first, that, as the Second Canticle is never recited except in Lent, the Canons never have any second Ode. The second, that there is generally some reference, either direct or indirect, in each Ode, to the Canticle of the same number: in the first Ode, e.g., to the Song of Moses at the Red Sea: in the third to that of Hannah. This gives rise, on the one hand, to a marvellous amount of ingenuity, in tracing the most far-fetched connexions,—in discovering the most remote types;—it brings out into the clearest 41 light the wonderful analogies which underlie the surface of Scripture narration; and so far imbues each Ode with a depth of Scriptural meaning which it could scarcely otherwise reach. On the other, it has a stiffening and cramping effect; and sometimes, especially to the uninitiated, has somewhat of a ludicrous tendency. It would be curious to sum up the variety of objects of which, in a thousand Sixth Odes, we find Jonah’s Whale a type. On the whole, this custom has about the same disadvantages and advantages which Warton points out as resulting from the four rhymes of a Spenserian stanza;—the advantages,—picturesqueness, ingenuity, discovery of new beauties: the disadvantages,—art not concealed by art, tautology, imparity of similitudes, a caricature of typology, painful and affected elaboration.
The Hirmos, on which each Ode is based, is 42 sometimes quoted at length at the commencement, in which case it is always distinguished by inverted commas; or the first few words are merely cited as a note to the singer, for whose benefit the Tone is also given.
The next noticeable matter is that these Odes are usually arranged after an acrostich, itself commonly in verse: sometimes alphabetical. The latter device was probably borrowed from the Psalms; as for example the 25, 112, 119. The arrangement is not to be considered as a useless formality or pretty-ism: it was of the greatest importance, when so many Canons had to be remembered by heart. We know to what curious devices the Western Church, in matters connected with the Calendar, had recourse as a Memoria Technica; and not a few of her short hymns were alphabetical, either by verses or by lines. I know no instance of any other kind of 43 acrostich. Besides the line which forms the initials of Greek Canons, the name of the composer likewise finds a frequent place. And it is worth noticing that, whereas the authors of the world-famous hymns of the West, with a few exceptions (such as the Vexilla Regis, the Dies Irae, the Veni Sancte Spiritus), are unknown, the case in the East is reversed. The acrostich may, or may not, run through the Theotokia, of which I now proceed to speak.
Each Ode is ended by a troparion, dedicated to the celebration of S. Mary, and thence named Theotokion. Sometimes there is another, which commemorates her at the Cross; and then it is a Stauro-theotokion. In long Canons, a stanza, sometimes intercalated at the end of the third or sixth Odes, is called a Cathisma, because the congregation are then allowed to sit. There is also the Oicos, literally the House,—which is the 44 exact Italian Stanza,—about the length of three ordinary troparia. The Catavasia is a troparion in which both choirs come down together, and stand in the middle of the Church, singing it in common.
The acrostichs are usually in iambics,—sometimes none of the best: e.g.—
εκπληττομαι σου τους λογους Ζαχαρια,
on the feast of S. Zacharias the Prophet:—and generally bringing in some paronomasia on the Saint’s names; as—
ϕερωνυμον σε του Θεου δωρον σεβω, on that of S. Dorotheus.
τρυϕης μεθεξειν αξιωσον με, Τρυϕων& 183;
and of S. Clement:
μελπω σε, κλημα της νομτης αμπελου.45
But there are examples of acrostichs which take the form of an hexameter, as—
εικαδι ουρανου εις ξενιην Ξενη ηλθε τεταρτη.
τον παναριστον εν ασκηταις Μακαριον κυδαινω·
Τιμοθεον τον Αποστολον, ασμασιτοισδε γεραιρω·
τον θεορημονα Γρηγοριον τον αιοδιμον αδω·
I shall more than once have occasion to observe that, while the earlier Odes, which treat of such subjects as the Resurrection, Ascension, Nativity, are magnificent specimens of religious poetry, the later ones, composed in commemoration of martyrs, of whom nothing but the fact of their martyrdom is known, are often grievously dull and heavy. Herein the Eastern Church would have done well; to have had, for such as these, a Canon of the Common of Martyrs, instead of 46 celebrating each differently; if the tautology which composes such Odes can indeed be called different.
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