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HYMNS ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL
The congregational singing of hymns came into the Christian church by unbroken tradition from the old Hebrew worship. Both the hymns and the manner of singing them were continued, clearly, by the primitive Christians without any sense of change. The compilation of the old Hebrew book of religious lyrical poems, it seems, was begun for the Temple by that marvelous figure, David, who stands a towering figure as musician, statesman, warrior, athlete, economist, king, deep sinner, great man of God, and world’s greatest hymnist; and it not only continued to be the hymn-book of the primitive church but is to-day still unaltered—except as translations necessarily alter poetry—a treasury of hymnody for general Christendom. The various branches of the church have various hymnals, official and unofficial, but the Book of Psalms is the book of lyrics that all agree upon and use. There is no good book of worship of any kind used by any section of Christianity in which the Psalms do not hold an important place. It is perhaps not going too far to name this old book of hymns as the most often quoted and generally the most familiar single book in the possession of Occidental civilization. It is not 53 strange, therefore, considering the place it holds to-day and considering the peculiar intimacy of the early Christians with it, that they quite naturally retained it as their own. One may not read the records far and fail to perceive indications of its continuous presence in the thought and affection of these people; that is, if one is at all familiar with the spirit and poetical manner of the Psalms. How near this book of poetry is to the heart of Christianity is indicated by its intimate connection with the life of Christ himself, from the story of the Annunciation on. His last words from the cross are quotations from the hymns of his people, Psalms 32:1 and 31:5.
The writers of the gospel and the epistles, concise and swift-moving as their style generally is, find time and occasion, according to a careful study made by Professor Crawford H. Toy, of Harvard, in his “Quotations in the New Testament,” for 137 quotations from the Psalms. That the writers of the New Testament in their stupendous earnestness quote verses of lyrical poetry to so large an extent has its significance. It shows surely that this poetry was not only deeply based in the common popular affection but it stood in a place of highest intellectual power and literary dignity. The early Christians continued to sing, as their forefathers had done, from their most familiar and best beloved book.
But while this was the main source of its hymns, the church did not confine itself, even from the very early days, entirely to the Psalms. In the Book of Luke, Chapters I and II, are recorded four new 54 hymns; the song of Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist, beginning, “Blessed art thou among women”; the song of the Virgin Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”; the song of Zacharias, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”; and the song of Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” It is not certain when these particular new songs were first sung in primitive places of worship.
The office of hymn singing in the early Christian church was much the same as it is found over the world to-day, especially among what are known as the more liberal branches of the church. This is evident from the descriptions we have of the singing of the time; few and concise descriptions they are, but quite clear. The first account of the singing of a hymn by an assemblage of Christians is given by both Matthew and Mark in identical words. The story is told with characteristic brevity and impressiveness. “And when they had sung an hymn [καὶ ὑμνάσαντες] they went out into the Mount of Olives.”
It was at a meeting which took place in a large upper room, the guest-chamber of a house in Jerusalem. There were thirteen persons present, Christ and his twelve disciples. They had supper together, the last, a final solemn conference or communion. Church historians believe they can say with certainty that the hymn sung here was a part of the “Hallel,” beginning with the ninety-fifth Psalm, “O come let us sing,” and closing with the one hundred and eighteenth, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for 55 he is good.” The occasion was the feast of the Passover; it was the custom to sing all or part of these psalms at that time. Whether it was one of these, or whatever the hymn was, we have a very definite account of hymn singing at the beginning of the Christian era. And it is significant that at the close of this highest feast in the history of mankind they should have sung a hymn.
It is not surprising that we do not find in the early records any detailed description of the manner of the religious exercise of singing. One might take the records of yesterday or of last year, and though he would find abundant mention of hymns even in the daily newspapers, he might search far without finding any detailed description of the singing. Still, in the comparatively few records of early days there are glimpses such as the one given above, which shows beyond a doubt that what is known familiarly to-day as congregational singing was a very prominent feature in the worship of the primitive church. The epistles make frequent mention of religious song, and urge the people to sing. St. Paul, writing to “the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse,” says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16.) That Paul was not writing merely an abstract theory about the socially and individually elevating effect of music and lyrical poetry is made evident by a dramatic glimpse of 56 him and his companion Silas, in jail at Philippi, given by St. Luke in the Acts. St. Paul is putting his theory of poetry into very definite practice. “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God, and the prisoners heard them.” (Acts 16:25.)
The Epistle of James, “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” has this admonition in regard to hymns: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.” (James 5:13.) It may be mentioned here that the words “psalm” and “hymn” seem to have been used almost interchangeably. The distinction in our use of the words seems to have been made arbitrarily and much later. The Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms was “Book of Praise”; the Greek term is in some manuscripts ψαλμοί, and in others ψαλτήριον, both from ψάλλειν, which meant the twanging of strings. It is significant that the Hebrew title-word for the book looked toward the poetry, and the Greek toward the music. The Latin and modern languages have followed the Greek in nomenclature, but the Hebrew in idea. “Psalm” and “psalter” come from “psaltery,” a stringed instrument, as “lyric” from “lyre.”
The Latin hymnus is from the Greek ὕμνος, a song of praise. “Psalms,” as St. James used the word, perhaps did not differentiate the one hundred and fifty lyrics which we call the Psalms from the other religious lyrics, such as the Song of Miriam or the “Magnificat” or the “Nunc Dimittis.”57
There is another kind of indication that the people were interested in hymnody in those days. In our time the interest is sometimes so warm as to give rise to flurries of contention. There is a hint of the same thing in a letter of St. Paul to his flock at Corinth. “How is it, then, brethren?” he writes; “when ye come together every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” (I Corinthians 14:26.)
To his group of converts in the desperate environment at Ephesus he writes, “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the spirit speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts unto the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19.) The clear ringing poetry of the passage, and the fact that the latter part is repeated in Colossians 3:13, suggest that the passage is itself the fragment of an early lost hymn, written possibly by St. Paul. The words are highly significant, too, as embodying for the scholarly saint and citizen of the world his theory of the nature and use of poetry. The idea clearly implied is that poetry in its origin is a sort of drunkenness, not of wine but of spiritual possession: be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the spirit.33Compare with this the idea of Plato and Aristotle as to the origin of poetry in the touch of the Muses’ madness; and that of Cicero, that there is no good poetry, sine quodem afflatu quasi furoris; and Shakspere’s “fine frenzy.”
The idea of the poise and composure of soul by 58 poetry is implied in the antithesis of “wine wherein is excess.” The idea of the use, communally and individually, of the lyrics in question, shows how exalted was St. Paul’s conception of the use of poetry in the world. The passage reminds one of another and lesser minister of religion, Robert Herrick, and his remark about “lyric” feasts contrasted with feasts where wine flowed freely. The poets, he said, were “not mad, but nobly wild.” St. Paul was writing from a depth of earnestness and wisdom of which Herrick probably never dreamed; still, they both were touching upon the same mystery, the mystery of poetic inspiration and participation.
The diffusion of lyrical poetry among the people from whom sprang the Old and New Testaments is clear. They were profoundly religious people, and at the same time a profoundly poetical people. The blocked-out generalization that the Romans taught the world how to organize and prosecute efficiently the practical affairs of life, that the Greeks taught it broad-mindedness and good taste, and that Israel taught it religion, is a convenient generalization, and, of course, largely true. But the life of these dwellers among the Palestine hills was, if we judge by their literature, vibrant with poetic impulse. Their religious nature found utterance in their poetry. Their poetry is mainly lyrical. It is therefore to be expected that glimpses which we have of their daily life should show them singing hymns in their great temple choirs, in congregations, in smaller assemblages, and at home.59
The leaders of the early church saw the power of the religious lyric not only as a means of spiritual gratification and nurture but also as a means of propagating the new doctrine. That is a matchless lyric which St. Paul himself writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter XIII: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” To the Christians at Rome he sends a letter urging them to show spiritual hospitality to the Gentiles, quoting from the Psalms themselves, and pointing out the force of hymnody: “And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.” (Romans 15:9-12; Psalms 117:1 and 18:49.) He quotes to the same effect from the twenty-second Psalm in the letter to the Hebrews: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.” (Hebrews 2:12; Psalms 22:23-25.) In the Apocalypse there are visions of the whole world come to so high a place of justice and concord that the nations sing hymns together in celebration of right judgment and of the Source of it.
As to the writing of new hymns to sing, the early Christians probably felt no other restraint than the limit of their ability to write poetry. St. Paul’s poem on charity—Love for Humanity—mentioned above, may or may not have been sung as a hymn or 60 “spiritual song.” There is a passage in the writings of St. Paul, Romans 8:35-39, which seems to be a complementary poem, on Love for God. It closes:
For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Both might have been written for hymns, and sung in the congregation. Surely both are magnificent lyrics.
The following quotation in Ephesians 5:13 may be from a hymn the rest of which has been lost: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
Certainly among the earliest hymns besides those mentioned are the “Gloria Patri,” the “Ter Sanctus,” the “Song of the Three Hebrew Children,” and the “Te Deum.” No one knows just when and by whom these hymns were written or first sung.
Objections to “new songs,” as such, probably did not arise until the first great heretical controversies. These controversies between the orthodox and the Gnostics and the Arians gave rise to outbursts of hymnody on opposing sides. Up to the end of the first century there was probably little hindrance to the free composition and use of hymns in the meetings for worship. The famous letter of Pliny the 61 Younger, in Book X, written while he was governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, describes the singing of Christians as he saw them in his province. It is a disappointing view of those pioneers of the faith; but one must remember that they were still frail human beings, and moreover that the letter is written by a pagan Roman governor to his pagan master. One must admit at the same time that Pliny’s letter has a tone of fairness.
The letter, part of which follows here, was written from Bithynia about seventy-five years after the death of Christ. Pliny explains that the information concerning the meetings of Christians for worship was obtained by torture from two slaves who were called “deaconesses.”
An anonymous placard was posted accusing a large number of persons by name. All those who denied being or having been Christians repeated after me prayers to the gods, and offered worship, with frankincense and wine, to your statue and to the images of the gods which I had brought in for the occasion; and they finally uttered malediction to Christ—none of which things it is reported a true Christian can be forced to do; these persons I thought fit to release.
Others under the accusation at first confessed to being Christians, then denied it—they had been, indeed, but they had given it up, some, three years, others many years, and some as many as twenty-five years ago. They affirmed, however, that the extent of their error or wrongdoing was in the fact that they were accustomed to meet on stated days before dawn, and to sing songs to Christ as god, binding themselves by solemn oath (sacramento) 62 not to commit crime, but to abstain from cheating, adultery, perjury, to meet to take food together; the meal was an ordinary one, however, with nothing wrong about it.
As the adherents of Christianity increased in numbers, and as Christian gatherings became established in towns and cities through a constantly widening range, it was but natural that new converts and new environments should add new elements to the hymnody. They of course retained the Psalms. But naturally this poetry would have to be translated into the tongues of the people over whom Christianity was making its new conquests. The new religion recognized no racial or national barriers; St. Paul and St. John had won that fight. If the Syrians, Greeks, or Romans had anything good and innocent to contribute, Christianity was, at least ideally, ready to accept it. So new rhythms, new music, and new songs came into the church as it spread its bounds. Eusebius in his “History of the Church,” V:xxvii, speaks of the “psalms and hymns written by the brethren from the beginning” with evident approval. The first powerful influence directed toward curbing the poetic impulse of the church was that of Paul of Samosata. He translated the Psalms, emending them to suit his own notions, and adding his peculiar ideas to them. He insisted insolently that his translation should be the only one allowed, and that, moreover, nothing but the Psalms should be permitted to be sung. At the second council at Antioch, an appeal is made to the bishops of Alexandria and 63 Rome against him, charging that he had “put a stop to the psalms that were sung to our Lord Jesus Christ, as being innovations, the work of later times.”
It was inevitable that in regard to the poetry of the church there should be a conservative element tending to exclude the new, and a forward element eager for untried things—that there should be extremists, the hidebound and the radical, the one rejecting much that was good and beautiful in rejecting all that was new; the other running after follies because they were merely new. Then followed lusty fighting among the hymners. The free-thinking saints and the orthodox saints were not only composing and singing hymns embodying their articles of faith, but they were organizing rival choirs of men and women. The streets of Constantinople rang at midnight with the songs of the choirs of Chrysostom, who was aided and encouraged by the empress, and with the songs of the Arians on the other side.
In Syria during the second century, probably near 150 A. D., Bardesanes, a poet and scholar, wrote many hymns and psalms tinged with Gnostic views. He was followed by other poets. Only fragments of this early Syrian hymnody remain now. But clearly it was much alive and influential in the middle of the fourth century, when Ephrem Syrus came out to do battle against it.
This champion of Christ put on his arms and proclaimed war against the forces of the enemies, especially against 64 the wickedness of Bardesanes and his followers. And the blessed Ephrem, seeing that all men were led by music, rose up and opposed the profane choruses of the young people, and taught them odes and scales and responses . . . and things of spiritual wisdom. . . . And he, like a father in the midst of them, in the churches, a spiritual harper, arranged for them different kinds of songs, and taught them the variation of chants; until the whole city was gathered to him, and the party of the adversary was put to shame and defeated.
Ephrem admits his opponent’s skill, in these lines:
Thus in his odes he testifieth—
(This wizard by his blandishments,
And this lax one of his melodies),—
That he dishonors the fair names
Of the Holy Spirit.
He says further,
He therefore set in order
Psalms one hundred and fifty
But he deserted the truth of David,
And only imitated his numbers.
These passages are from “Opera Ephraemi,” Tom. VI, translated by Henry Burgess, “Lyric Hymns,” London, 1853.
Ephrem deliberately set out to study the science of poetry in order to better what his rival had done. The following one of his hymns shows an entirely new element in Christian religious song. It shows 65 a more detailed and leisurely kind of speculation than is found in the Hebrew or New Testament lyrics. Its style is more after that of Mars Hill than of Mount Zion:
The soul having left the body,
Is in great suffering,
And feels much grief;
And she is distracted hither and thither,
Hither and thither,
As to her destination;
For the evil spirits desire
That she should go with them
Into the midst of Gehenna;
And the angels also,
That she should journey with them,
To the region of light.
In that moment,
The soul lightly esteems
Her beloved friends and brethren
Whom she held dear,
And her neighbors,
And those with whom she was familiar.
In that hour she despises
Whatever pertains to riches,
Or worldly possessions;
But respecting her trespasses
She has great anxiety,
They being so many.
Then the soul standing separate,
Above the body she hath left,66
Speaks to it thus,—
“Death hath dismissed me,
Remain thou here in peace
For I am going away.”
Then the body replies,—
“Depart thou in peace,
O soul tenderly loved!
The Lord who hath fashioned us,
He will procure our deliverance
The following is a stanza from a hymn which may have been written to be sung in the assemblies and in the processions against the rival sects. The verses show that in spite of the fact that the singers have taken on much of the style of the extra-Judaic environment, they are sternly set against the Greek-world spirit of free speculation:
He is allied with the infidel
Who presumptuously investigates;
At the threshold of death
Standeth that daring one,
Who hath laid aside
His faith with his research
To descend to fathom
The sea of hidden mysteries.
Another stanza shows that while Ephrem Syrus did not, like some of the early fathers—and some of the English Puritans—forbid all except the canonical biblical verses in public worship, he did insist upon the Psalms as the only pattern. Still, as we 67 see, however much he tried to model them so, his own compositions were far from being like the Psalms.
Sing not, therefore,
What is derogatory to God,
Instead of his praise;
Lest thou err and sing folly.
Sing as David did
To the son of David,
And call him Lord and Son,
As David did.
This early religious struggle seems to have called forth an outburst of singing. Ephrem Syrus urges the faithful to compose and sing new songs.
Make thy praise ripe,
And offer to him
Of the clusters of grapes
Which thy tongue hath gathered.
A part of one of his hymns is addressed directly to the devil, examples of which in Christian hymnody are rare.
Cursed be thou, O Satan,
In the name of Jesus the God;
And let thy profane mouth be closed
At the command of Christ the Lord!44William Blake’s song addressed to the devil is another: “Truly, my Satan, thou are but a dunce, And dost not know the garment from the man . . . Tho’ thou art worshipped by the names Of Jesus and Jehovah, thou art still The son of Morn in weary Night’s decline, The lost traveller’s dream under the hill.”
These hymns of Ephrem say much about death. One of the songs examines into the graves of a beggar and a king, finding the ashes the same. Particularly frequent is the mention of singing itself, and making verses of praise, and playing accompaniments.
St. Basil, who died in the year 279, testifies to the power and beauty of the hymnody of his time. In the following passage, it is quite clear that he is speaking of what we now call congregational singing:
If the ocean is beautiful and worthy of praise to God, how much more beautiful is the conduct of the Christian assembly where the voices of men and women and children, blended and sonorous like the waves that break upon the beach, rise amidst our prayers to the very presence of God.
It will be noted that the part of women in the singing of the early church is not left in doubt here; nor is it left doubtful in the accounts of Ephrem, Chrysostom, and Augustine. It is also noteworthy in this connection that two of the four great hymns of the New Testament are attributed to the authorship of women. There is no question that the singing of this age among the Christians was very general and very spirited.
These glimpses of the life of the Christians in the early centuries are enough to indicate that congregational 69 singing was a very prominent and important part of their worship.
Especially is it noticeable and significant that from the death of Christ on down through the ages, when the saints and martyrs and other faithful come to die they go out repeating or singing some verse or snatch of hymn or psalm. It shows how deeply this form of lyrical poetry has entered into their lives. Whether the church was suffering martyrdom or inflicting martyrdom, it seems to have been the rule that the smoke rising up around the stake choked the martyr’s singing.
It is not within the scope of this work to discuss the origins and differences of the Christian liturgies. The purpose at this point is to show that from the very first hymn singing was an important part of Christian worship. Cantors or leaders were certainly employed in some places, as were trained choirs later. But this was by no means to the exclusion of congregational singing—the men, women, and children singing in concert. Old hymns, psalms, and canticles, as well as new hymns composed from time to time by men and women, were sung in the churches in smaller assemblages, and by individuals. St. Paul’s prohibition of women’s speaking in the churches was not a prohibition of their singing the hymns. The injunction that women should not speak is, by the way, good evidence that they had been speaking. Some think that the prohibition referred only to the women of the church at Corinth, 70 to which St. Paul was writing; but this is hardly likely, for the order seems to be general and is repeated in the letter to Timothy.
The fourteenth chapter of First Corinthians sheds a good deal of light on the primitive church worship. The writer directs that the service—singing, prayers, preaching, and discussions—is to be carried on in the language of the majority of the people present. This of course necessitated the translation of the songs. He says that although the people may have the spirit of prayer while repeating prayers in a language they do not know, it is better that they should understand what they are saying. He says, too, that he wishes to sing both with the “spirit and understanding.” He further offers what seems a half-humorous rebuke to certain ones who, at least partly out of vanity, insist on using a foreign tongue. He tells them that while he is acquainted with more languages than all of them, he had rather say five words that could be understood than five thousand words in a strange tongue.
As for the psalms and spiritual songs which they sang, how or by whom they were translated is not clear; that is, of course, in the very early church. It is quite clear that before long the Psalms were translated many times. There were innumerable translations of the favorite ones, and many translations of the entire one hundred and fifty.
The oldest hymn of the Christian church, outside 71 of the Bible, say the historians of the times, is one by Clement of Alexandria. The well known translation by E. H. Plumptre begins, “Curb for stubborn steed.” But Alexander’s translation,
Bridle of colts untamed,
Over our will presiding;
Wing of the unwandering birds,
Our flight securely guiding;
Rudder of youth unbending,
Firm against adverse shock,
is the most literal and picturesque rendering. It is mainly a list of vivid metaphors addressed to Christ as the good Providence.
There was a great mass of Greek hymnody. To Gregory of Nazianzus alone are attributed more than thirty thousand hymns. John Mason Neale, in his “Hymns of the Eastern Church,” computed that there are in the office-books of the Eastern Church at least four thousand closely printed quarto pages, in double columns, of hymnic verse. This does not include the earlier Greek hymns written in classical meters. There must have been, then, a great deal of hymn singing among the early Greek Christians. Even in their homes when they lighted their candles in the evening they had a particular song to sing; it is still a famous hymn used in the Eastern Church, and known in English hymnals as the “candle-light hymn.” The translation by E. W. Eddie begins:72
O, brightness of the immortal Father’s face,
Most holy, heavenly, blest,
Lord Jesus Christ, in whom his truth and grace
Are vividly expressed;
The sun is sinking now, and one by one
The lamps of evening shine,
We hymn the eternal Father and the Son,
And Holy Ghost Divine.
This hymn is in the new hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
St. Basil (A. D. 370) refers to the custom and the hymn; it was “ancient” then, he says:
It seemed fitting to our fathers not to receive the gift of light at eventide in silence, but on its appearing immediately to give thanks. Who was the author of these words of thanksgiving at the Lighting of the Lamps we are not able to say.
There is frequent reference in this poetry to singing, and to musical accompaniment.
Wake, wake, I pray thee, shrill-toned lyre!
No more to fan the Teian fire,
No more the Lesbian strain to raise!
Wake, wake to hymn of nobler praise.
The following quotations are from A. W. Chatfield’s “Songs and Hymns of the Greek Christian Poets”:
And in the depth of sky
Unfathomed we descry
Thy ruling hand and power; for it is there73
That thou the stars doth lead
And in Light’s pastures feed
The glittering hosts with a true shepherd’s care.
Notice the Greek way of saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” This is from the hymn of Bishop Synesius (375-430).
The following stanza from “A Hymn to Christ” by Gregory, Bishop of Nazianzus (325-389), is typical of much of the Greek hymnody, more speculative, less concrete than the Hebrew:
Beginning none, nor end;
The self-spring Light art thou;
We cannot comprehend,
But to thy brightness bow,
Whose eye, repelling mortal gaze,
All things above, below, surveys.
His “Hymn to God,” two stanzas of which in Chatfield’s translations are given here, show the Platonic cast of mind:
Unuttered Thou, all uttered things
Have had their birth in thee;
The One unknown! from thee the springs
Of all we know and see.
And all things as they move along
In order fixed by thee,
The watchword heed in silent song
Hymning thy majesty.
Of all the images used to represent the Deity in these Greek hymns, it is significant that “light” occurs more often than any other, probably more often than all other figures combined.
John Mason Neale made a number of free renderings of Greek hymns which seem to have come into the permanent treasury of English hymnody. The dramatic lyric,
Christian, dost thou see them
On the holy ground?
is a powerful hymn. An example of almost purely descriptive lyric is seen in the hymn beginning:
Fierce was the wild billow;
Dark was the night;
Oars labored heavily;
Foam glimmered white,
Trembled the mariners;
Peril was nigh;
Then said the God of Gods
—“Peace! it is I!”
One of the few dialogue hymns of the English hymnody and one of the most beautiful of English hymns is Neale’s translation, or rather paraphrase, of a hymn by St. Stephen the Sabaite (725-794):
Art thou weary, art thou languid?
Another with much of the Greek spirit left in the translation begins:
Unity of threefold Light.
It was written by Metrophanes, Bishop of Smyrna, around 910. Another,
The day is past and over,
All thanks, O Lord, to thee,
Neale tells us is still a great favorite in the Greek isles, and “is to the scattered villages of Chios and Mitylene what Bishop Ken’s Evening Hymn is to the villages of our own land.”
Since the middle of the last century there has been a growing interest in the discovered wealth of Greek Christian hymnody. The “Bishop of Jerusalem” controversy doubtless did something to stir up an interest in England. Hymnody seems to thrive during controversies and stirrings of soul.
In 1862 John Mason Neale’s “Hymns of the Eastern Church” attracted much notice. Littledale, Dix, Chatfield, Brownlie, and Moorsom have made important contributions both in translation and criticism. In Leipsic, 1876, appeared the most important collection of Greek hymns, that of Paranikas and Christ, “Anthologia Græca Carminum Christianorum.”
It is not surprising that this new knowledge of Greek hymnody has given the English church a new sense of the ideal unity of Christians, and has done much to minimize the differences between the Anglican and Eastern churches. Interest was aroused among some by the discovery of an old letter saying that John Wesley had received, before leaving for America, episcopal ordination from a bishop of 76 the Greek Church. If this were true, it would make John Wesley a priest in the Church of England, bishop of the Eastern Church, and a sort of archbishop of the Methodists all at the same time. This is mentioned merely as an example of discussions resulting from the interest aroused concerning the Eastern Catholic Church by the introduction of its hymnody into the Protestant churches.
We have seen that St. Paul and the early fathers urged the composing and singing of hymns in the new languages as Christianity made its new advances. No hymns in Latin, however, are now extant that were written before about the middle of the fourth century. The first Latin hymn-writer, a native of what is now France, named Hilary, was born at Poitiers, about 300. He was made bishop of his native city in 353. Banished three years later by the Emperor Constantine to Phrygia for being too zealous in theological controversy, he hears the Eastern Christians singing their hymns. A good deal of the four years’ exile must have been spent in writing hymns after the manner of the East. His volume of hymns, “Liber Mysteriorum,” has been lost. St. Alcuin ascribed the “Gloria in Excelsis” to him. He may have translated and introduced it. On his return from exile he seems to have aroused a new and fervid interest in hymn singing. His hymn beginning,
Hymnum dicat turba fratrum,
Hymnum cantus personet,
is typical of the frequent exhortation to singing.
Ambrose (340-397) was, like Hilary, a Frenchman, a great fighter, and a great singer. Both of these men were evidently strong and brilliant characters. The poetical powers of Ambrose are indicated in the old legend that at the conversion of St. Augustine in the church at Milan Ambrose and the new convert stood before the altar and composed and sang responsively the “Te Deum,” which is marked by many as the greatest Christian hymn.
The writings of St. Augustine have frequent mention of the singing of psalms and hymns. For example, he advised his followers to memorize the Psalms, so that they might “with godly melody cheer up their very heart.” In his “Confessions” he says, “I will call to mind the tears I shed at the hearing of the church songs in the beginning of my recovered faith.” Before his time and since, many of the good and noble men of the world have attributed, with Augustine, much to the early influence of hymns sung by pious mothers. In his comment on the Psalms he says, concerning some Christians who had been driven out from their homes: “Were there then held any congregations and jubilees to the honor of God? Were those hymns chanted in concert from the churches of God what they were wont to be sung in concert in time of peace and to be sounded in a sweet accord of brotherhood in the ears of God?”
Doubt as to the matter of congregational singing of hymns in the churches at this time would, it 78 seems, be cleared by the words of Augustine himself. In his “Confessions” he writes,
How did I weep in thy Hymns and Canticles, sharply affected by the voices of the church sweetly singing them. . . . Not long had the church begun to practise this kind of consolation and exhortation, the brethren giving great care to the tuneful harmony of voices and hearts. . . . The devout people kept watch in the church ready to die with their bishop thy servant. There my mother, thy handmaid, bearing a chief part of those anxieties and watchings, lived in prayers. Then it was first instituted that, according to the custom of Eastern regions, hymns and psalms should be sung, lest the people should faint through fatigue and sorrow, and from that day to this the custom has been retained; and to-day indeed almost all thy congregations throughout other parts of the world follow that example.
Describing the death of his mother, the famous and pious Monica, he says:
The boy Adeodatus being stilled from weeping, Eudius took up the psalter and began to sing (our whole house answering him) the Psalm—“I will sing of mercy and judgment; to thee, O Lord, will I sing.”
After days of unutterable grief [says Augustine], as I was alone in my bed, I remembered those true verses of thine Ambrose:
Maker of all, the Lord,
And ruler of the height,
While robing day in light, hath poured
Soft slumbers o’er the night.
Marcus Prudentius, a Spaniard, born in 348, eight years later than Ambrose, contributed many hymns to the Latin hymnody. Neale calls him “the prince of early Christian poets.” A famous lawyer, judge, and soldier, he entered the church at the age of fifty-seven, and for the rest of his life was an ecclesiastical apologist and poet.
Now then at last, close to the very end of life,
May yet my sinful soul put off her foolishness,
And if by deed it cannot, yet at least by words give praise to God,
Join day to day by constant hymns.
Fail not each night in songs to celebrate the Lord,
Fight against the heresies, maintain the Catholic faith.
Merely the titles of his poems bear witness to the place of hymnody in the lives of the people: “For Cock-Crow”; “For Morning”; “Before Meat”; “After Meat”; “At the Lighting of Lamps”; “Before Sleep”; “Fasting”; “Burial.”
The hymn “For Cock-Crow” shows his deep piety, and his mastery of the hymn form:
Ales, diei nuntius,
Lucem propinquam præcinit;
Nos excitator mentium
Iam Christus ad vitam vocat.
“Auferte,” clamat, “lectulos
Ægros, soporos, desides,
Costique, recti, ac sobrii
Vigilante; iam sum proximus.”
Iseum ciamus vocibus,
Flentes, precantes, sobrii:
Dormire cor mundum vetat.
Tu, Christe, somnum disice;
Tu rumpe notis vincula;
Tu solve peccatum vetus,
Novumque lumen ingere!
Two stanzas of Neale’s translation follow; he adds rime, which had not yet come into Latin hymns:
The winged herald of the day
Proclaims the morn’s approaching ray;
And Christ the Lord our souls excites,
And so to endless life invites.
“Take up thy bed” to each he cries,
“Who, sick, or wrapped in slumber, lies,
And chaste and just and sober stand,
And watch, my coming is at hand.”
The fourth century must have seen an outburst of song somewhat like that which Germany saw in Luther’s time, France in Marot’s time, and England in the times of Wyclif and of the Wesleys. St. Jerome, speaking of the hymnody of the period, says, “One cannot go into the field without hearing the plower at his halleluiahs, and the mower at his hymns.” Augustine speaks with great feeling of the influence of the hymns which his mother had learned at the church of Milan.
These statements give some idea of hymn singing 81 in Syria, Constantinople, and Rome. There is a curious account of a pilgrimage made to Palestine near the close of the fourth century, by St. Silvia of Aquitania. It may be that this pilgrim was partial to hymnody; but, at any rate, accounts of hymn singing have a large place in her story. Her party had been to the Mount of the Ascension singing:
And thence with hymns, all, down to the smallest child, descend on foot to Gethsemane. . . . When they arrived at Gethsemane, first a suitable prayer is offered, then a hymn is sung, then that passage of the gospel where the Lord is apprehended; and there is much moaning and groaning of all the people with weeping that the groans may be heard almost to the city. From that hour, they go on foot to the city with hymns.55“The Pilgrimage of St. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places.” Translated by John H. Bernard, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, London 1891.
She was at Jerusalem at Easter. After mass, she says:
Both men and women, as many people as wish, go up to Olivet. Hymns are sung and prayers offered. After that psalms have been sung and prayers offered, they descend again with hymns at the hour of vespers. . . . Selections are read there, and hymns interspersed; antiphons are also sung suitable to the day and place.
Another indication of the prevalence of singing is in a letter from Jerome concerning the death of Paula in Jerusalem:
No weeping nor lamentations followed her death, but 82 all present united in chanting the Psalms, each in their several tongues. . . . One after another they chanted the Psalms, now in Greek, now in Latin, now in Syriac, throughout the remainder of the week.66Ep. 108. 30
Clement of Alexandria in one of his homilies says, “A noble hymn of God is an immortal man established in righteousness in whom the oracles of truth are engraved.”
Ancient Latin hymns may be said to close with St. Gregory the Great. The hymn “Veni Creator”—translated, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,” by John Cosin—is attributed uncertainly both to Gregory and to Charlemagne. “The Gregorian tones or chants,” says Julian in his “Dictionary of Hymnology,” “we owe to his anxiety to supersede the more melodious and flowing style of church music, which is popularly attributed to St. Ambrose, by the severer and more solemn monotone which is their characteristic.”
With Fortunatus (530-609) and the Venerable Bede (637-735) begins the medieval hymnody which reached its splendid height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In form the Latin verse had tended more and more to break away from the classical quantity measure and to fall into the accented measure. With it came the decoration of rime. Hymnody became more and more popular, and more rich and splendid through the Middle Ages. The rime and the musical beat charmed the 83 ears of the common people and clung in their memory. “This verse,” says Clement Blume, in his article on hymns in “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” “was especially 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.” For influence, no other form of literature of the Middle Ages approached its hymnody. The fact that half a dozen of those hymns, translated into English within the last two generations, have taken their places among the most familiar and best loved hymns indicates that the praise lavished upon them by modern critics is just; but nothing can indicate their splendor and magnificence except the Latin poems themselves. The “Dies Iræ,” named the most splendid of them all, while it is what Theodore Parker termed a “damnation lyric,” has a tremendous music about it, and a combination of pathos and grandeur that would distinguish any century that produced such a song.
“Jerusalem the golden”; “Jesus the very thought of thee”; “Jerusalem, my happy home”; “O come, all ye faithful,” as the first lines of English translations, are powerful in themselves. The number of these medieval hymns still extant is enormous. The largest collection of them is that brought together by Dreves and Blume, “Analecta, Hymnica Medii Ævi” (Leipsic, 1866-1906); it is made up mainly 84 of hymns that had not been published by other compilers, such as Mone, who had previously brought out three large volumes. The Dreves and Blume collection fills fifty-four large volumes, averaging about two hundred and fifty poems to the volume. Ker, in “The Dark Ages,” says,
No literary work of the dark ages can be compared for the extent and far reaching results of its influence with the development of popular Latin poetry. The hymn went further and affected a larger number of people’s minds than anything else in literature.
Two things about the hymns are increasingly noticeable: the trend toward perfection of music, meter, and rime, and the trend toward the worship of the Virgin and the saints. The verse and structure and the riming effect are developed into marvelous creations.
Lines of Bernard of Cluny’s “Laus Patriæ Cœlestis” or “In Contemptu Mundi” will indicate the involved artistry:
Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt vigilemus;
Ecce minaciter, imminet arbiter ille supremus.
About 90 per cent of the hymns of the eleventh and twelfth centuries are addressed to or made in honor of the Virgin or the saints. The deeper thought of the people, and the gradual changes of thought, are clearly mirrored in their songs. “Hymns bear testimony,” says T. Hill Odell in his 85 “English Monasticism,” “not only literary but historical, as to the state of the church at any given time, and certainly it is one of the best and purest testimonies that can be found.”
Surely, then, these hymns are out of an age of lively and fervent faith. Those people believe with a will. Their hymns are triumphant statements of faith. Even the hymns picturing the misery of the world take on a swing and beat and rime that is all but joyous.
One proof of their consummate art is in the way with which the songs seem to feed the hungry spirit. The hungering mendicant could walk the road in his dirt and rags and sing himself into possession of lavish riches and comforts—palaces, clear fountains, gardens, and gallant walks, whitest clothes, and jewels.
In these hymns, too, we can see the heart speaking out in contradiction to certain dogmas. “Against the things ye bid me speak,” says Whittier’s hymn, “my heart within me pleads.” An example of this may be seen in Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Ad Christum a Cruce Pendentem.” The dogma and logic of the Middle Ages said that the human form is vile food for worms, hateful, shameful, a foul bond holding down the wings of the soul. But in this hymn the physical form is praised. There are seven sections of it, each devoted to a member of the body. And they could honor, sing hymns, to the rosy flesh of Mary. Not only was the body of a saint honorable, but even a piece of bone, 86 the dust of the foot, was holy. If their older theology degraded the physical being, their hymns cried out in the other extreme, exalting it.
There is a more striking instance of the poetic spirit and the human heart asserting itself in spite of dogma and scholastic logic. Womankind in the medieval days was held, with Eve as the prototype, to be distinctly the ally of the evil powers, and the one responsible for the deplorable state the world had got itself into. Chaucer’s Man of Lawe expressed the idea:
O Satan, envious sin thilke day
That thou wert chased from our heritage,
Wel knowestow to wommen the olde way!
Thou madest Eva bringe us in servage.
And yet in spite of themselves they were worshiping, as the special object of devotion, Mary, the type of the eternal woman; in her was gentleness, kindness, meekness, instinctive good sense, sympathy, wholesome womanly indignation. From the thousands of stories of Mary’s common sense and timely help, one sees what these men thought of woman in spite of dogma and tradition. The Blessed Virgin, an idealized type of their own womankind, was impetuous at times; she had been known to change her mind. It was after all the woman, in spite of the hard doctrines about her, that made the world livable. A good clerk was tired out and sleepy; the Virgin would take the book and sing in his place, who had always been punctilious in 87 showing toward her image the proper tokens of respect. She would reach out her arm and deal a sound miraculous slap to some undutiful clerk or layman who needed it. She once gave a bishop a good beating for deposing one of the younger clergy who had never yet passed her statue without obeisance. Good Walter of Birback, delayed for a tournament, found when he reached the field that he had already vanquished his evil opponents; the Virgin had taken his place. A man sold his wife to the devil. The wife, suspecting something, stopped at Mary’s shrine. The Virgin took her place, rode to the rendezvous, and sent the old dragon howling into hell.
The hymns of this period were to Mary. If their hard logic made God an angry, unreasonable, and unlovable deity whom they could not truly worship, they could praise their gracious ideality, the kind, just, humane Virgin. Their scheme of thought condemned woman, but their hearts and their hymns adored her. If their dogma took the kindness and humaneness out of religion, their hearts put it back and their hymns asserted it in great joy and beauty.
In England, both the Latin hymnody and the vernacular had flourished from the first. Augustine’s missionaries landed and swung up the beach into line singing Latin hymns. The first poetic note in native English poetry, as we have seen, was hymnal, as had been the case in French poetry. And in Germany hymns had their most familiar home. Hymns had been sounding through Europe for these centuries, 88 and had become part of the bone and sinew of the people.
A volume of verses might be cited to show the astonishing skill with which the later medieval poets wrote their hymns. But the art fell off finally into mere verbal ingenuity.
From the many thousands of Latin hymns the English hymn-books have chosen a few of the great ones. Doubtless more of them will be adopted as better translations appear. Among the most familiar are: “Adeste Fideles,” of the eighteenth century, authorship unknown; the “Dies Iræ,” probably by Thomas of Celono, about 1250; “Pange Lingua Gloriosi,” by Thomas Aquinas, about 1260; “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” by Jocopone de Todi, in the thirteenth century; “Veni Creator Spiritus,” authorship uncertain, about 800; and “Vexilla Regis Prodeunt,” by Fortunatus, 569.
The Dark Ages were dark—but not utterly dark. Grant all the dust and woe, the inarticulate want, the ignorance, the dirt, and wretchedness of the common people; the gorgeous finery and stupid cruelty of the upper few; the barbaric enthusiasms, the spiritual hysteria, the plagues, the brooding superstitions, the fiendish persecution: still the human spirit was alive and striving.
There were the great waves of popular devotion, acts of faith, self-renunciation for the love of God, which drew men together as one to raise the towering churches, and to move away into the Crusades. Simple peasants, kings, and little children did their 89 cheerful parts; princesses strained their shoulders against the ropes that pulled the huge stone-cart toward the rising cathedral, hymns of praise in stone. There was much of faith and hope and charity. The surging hymns of the Middle Ages were proof of it; they were born of faith and hope and charity and love of light and beauty; they could not so have sounded through hall and hut by the road-sides, down the foot-paths, through fields and pasture-lands, in the churches and the cloisters, without themselves kindling and keeping alive the Christian virtues. Their words and music, sometimes pensive, sometimes hilarious, helped to break the hold of unknown terrors, enchanters, dragons, and fiends; they gave surcease to grief and pain; they called the voices of neighbors into unison and their hearts as well; they kept alive a common zeal for the City of God. The old age was not the golden age, but there was a glow of gold in it which would never have been there but for the great hymns that moved like the winds through Europe.
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