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§ 114. The Poetry of the Oriental Church.


Comp. the third volume of Daniel’s Thesaurus hymnologicus (the Greek section prepared by B. Vormbaum); the works of J. M. Neale, quoted sub § 113; an article on Greek Hymnology in the Christian Remembrancer, for April, 1859, London; also the liturgical works quoted § 98.


We should expect that the Greek church, which was in advance in all branches of Christian doctrine and culture, and received from ancient Greece so rich a heritage of poetry, would give the key also in church song. This is true to a very limited extent. The Gloria in excelsis and the Te Deum are unquestionably the most valuable jewels of sacred poetry which have come down from the early church, and they are both, the first wholly, the second in part of Eastern origin, and going back perhaps to the third or second century.12351235   That the so-called Hymnus angelicus, based on Luke ii. 14, is of Greek origin, and was used as a morning hymn, is abundantly proven by Daniel, Thesaurus hymnol. tom. ii. p. 267 sqq. It is found in slightly varying forms in the Apostolic Constitutions, l. vii. 47 (al. 48), in the famous Alexandrian Codex of the Bible, and other places. Of the so called Ambrosian hymn or Te Deum, parts at least are Greek, Comp. Daniel, l. c. p. 276 sqq. But, excepting these hymns in rhythmic prose, the Greek church of the first six centuries produced nothing in this field which has had permanent value or general use.12361236   We cannot agree with the anonymous author of the article in the “Christian Remembrancer” for April, 1859, p. 282, who places Cosmas of Maiuma as high as Adam of S. Victor, John of Damascus as high as Notker, Andrew of Crete as high as S. Bernard, and thinks Theophanes and Theodore of the Studium in no wise inferior to the best of Sequence writers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It long adhered almost exclusively to the Psalms of David, who, as Chrysostom says, was first, middle, and last in the assemblies of the Christians, and it had, in opposition to heretical predilections, even a decided aversion to the public use of uninspired songs. Like the Gnostics before them, the Arians and the Apollinarians employed religious poetry and music as a popular means of commending and propagating their errors, and thereby, although the abuse never forbids the right use, brought discredit upon these arts. The council of Laodicea, about a.d. 360, prohibited even the ecclesiastical use of all uninspired or “private hymns,”12371237   Can. 59: Οὐ δεῖ ἰδιωτικοὺς ψαλμοὺς λέγεσθαι ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ. By this must doubtless be understood not only heretical, but, as the connection shows, all extrabiblical hymns composed by men, in distinction from the κανονικὰ βιβλία τῆς καινῆς καὶ παλαιᾶς διαθήκης . and the council of Chalcedon, in 451, confirmed this decree.

Yet there were exceptions. Chrysostom thought that the perverting influence of the Arian hymnology in Constantinople could be most effectually counteracted by the positive antidote of solemn antiphonies and doxologies in processions. Gregory Nazianzen composed orthodox hymns in the ancient measure; but from their speculative theological character and their want of popular spirit, these hymns never passed into the use of the church. The same may be said of the productions of Sophronius of Jerusalem, who glorified the high festivals in Anacreontic stanzas; of Synesius of Ptolemais (about a.d. 410), who composed philosophical hymns; of Nonnus of Panopolis in Egypt, who wrote a paraphrase of the Gospel of John in hexameters; of Eudoxia, the wife of the emperor Theodosius II.; and of Paul Silentiarius, a statesman under Justinian I., from whom we have several epigrams and an interesting poetical description of the church of St. Sophia, written for its consecration. Anatolius, bishop of Constantinople († 458), is properly the only poet of this period who realized to any extent the idea of the church hymn, and whose songs were adapted to popular use.12381238   Neale, in his Hymns of the Eastern Church, p. 3 sqq., gives several of them in free metrical reproduction. See below.

The Syrian church was the first of all the Oriental churches to produce and admit into public worship a popular orthodox poetry, in opposition to the heretical poetry of the Gnostic Bardesanes (about a.d. 170) and his son Harmonius. Ephraim Syrus († 378) led the way with a large number of successful hymns in the Syrian language, and found in Isaac, presbyter of Antioch, in the middle of the fifth century, and especially in Jacob, bishop of Sarug in Mesopotamia († 521), worthy successors.12391239   On the Syrian hymnology there are several special treatises, by Augusti: De hymnis Syrortim sacris, 1814; Hahn: Bardesanes Gnosticus, Syrorum primus hymnologus, 1819; Zingerle: Die heil. Muse der Syrer, 1833 (with German translations from Ephraim). Comp. also Jos. Six. Assemani: Bibl. orient. i. 80 sqq. (with Latin versions), and Daniel’s Thes. hymnol. tom. iii. 1855, pp. 139-268. The Syrian hymns for Daniel’s Thesaurus were prepared by L. Splieth, who gives them with the German version of Zingerle. An English version by H. Burgess: Select metrical Hymns and Homilies of Ephraem S., Lond. 1853, 2 vols.

After the fifth century the Greek church lost its prejudices against poetry, and produced a great but slightly known abundance of sacred songs for public worship.

In the history of the Greek church poetry, as well as the Latin, we may distinguish three epochs: (1) that of formation, while it was slowly throwing off classical metres, and inventing its peculiar style, down to about 650; (2) that of perfection, down to 820; (3) that of decline and decay, to 1400 or to the fall of Constantinople. The first period, beautiful as are some of the odes of Gregory of Nazianzen and Sophronius of Jerusalem, has impressed scarcely any traces on the Greek office books. The flourishing period of Greek poetry coincides with the period of the image controversies, and the most eminent poets were at the same time advocates of images; pre-eminent among them being John of Damascus, who has the double honor of being the greatest theologian and the greatest poet of the Greek church.

The flower of Greek poetry belongs, therefore, in a later division of our history. Yet, since we find at least the rise of it in the fifth century, we shall give here a brief description of its peculiar character.

The earliest poets of the Greek church, especially Gregory Nazianzen, in the fourth, and Sophronius of Jerusalem in the seventh century, employed the classical metres, which are entirely unsuitable to Christian ideas and church song, and therefore gradually fell out of use.12401240   See some odes of Gregory, Euthymius and Sophronius in Daniel’s Thes. tom. iii. p. 5 sqq. He gives also the hymn of Clement of Alex. (ὕμνος τοῦ σωτῆρος Χριστοῦ), the ὔμνος ἑωθινός ,and ὕμνος ἑσπερινὸς, of the third century. Rhyme found no entrance into the Greek church. In its stead the metrical or harmonic prose was adopted from the Hebrew poetry and the earliest Christian hymns of Mary, Zacharias, Simeon, and the angelic host. Anatolius of Constantinople († 458) was the first to renounce the tyranny of the classic metre and strike out a new path. The essential points in the peculiar system of the Greek versification are the following:12411241   See the details in Neale’s works, whom we mainly follow as regards the Eastern hymnology, and in the article above alluded to in the “Christian Remembrancer” (probably also by Neale).

The first stanza, which forms the model of the succeeding ones, is called in technical language Hirmos, because it draws the others after it. The succeeding stanzas are called Troparia (stanzas), and are divided, for chanting, by commas, without regard to the sense. A number of troparia, from three to twenty or more, forms an Ode, and this corresponds to the Latin Sequence, which was introduced about the same time by the monk Notker in St. Gall. Each ode is founded on a hirmos and ends with a troparion in praise of the Holy Virgin.12421242   Hence this last troparion is called Theotokion, from θεοτόκος, the constant predicate of the Virgin Mary. The Stauro-theotokion celebrates Mary at the cross. The odes are commonly arranged (probably after the example of such Psalms as the 25th, 112th, and 119th) in acrostic, sometimes in alphabetic, order. Nine odes form a Canon.12431243   Κανών.Neale says (Hymns of the East. Ch. Introd. p. xxix.): “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 (εἰς τὸν Ὄρθρον), on the model of which those in every Canon are formed. The first: that of Moses after the passage of the Red Sea—the second, that of Moses in Deuteronomy (ch. xxxiii.)- the third, that of Hannah—the fourth, that of Habakkuk—the fifth, that of Isaiah (ch. xxvi. 9-20)—the sixth, that of Jonah—the seventh, that of the Three Children (verses 3-34, our “Song” in the Bible Version)—the eighth, Benedicite—the ninth, Magnificat and Benedictus.” The older odes on the great events of the incarnation, the resurrection, and the ascension, are sometimes sublime; but the later long canons, in glorification of unknown martyrs are extremely prosaic and tedious and full of elements foreign to the gospel. Even the best hymnological productions of the East lack the healthful simplicity, naturalness, fervor, and depth of the Latin and of the Evangelical Protestant hymn.

The principal church poets of the East are Anatolius († 458), Andrew of Crete (660–732), Germanus I. (634–734), John Of Damascus († about 780), Cosmas of Jerusalem, called the Melodist (780), Theophanes (759–818), Theodore of the Studium (826), Methodius I. (846), Joseph of the Studium (830), Metrophanes of Smyrna († 900), Leo VI. (886–917), and Euthymius († 920).

The Greek church poetry is contained in the liturgical books, especially in the twelve volumes of the Menaea, which correspond to the Latin Breviary, and consist, for the most part, of poetic or half-poetic odes in rhythmic prose.12441244   Neale, l. c. p. xxxviii., says of the Oriental Breviary: “This is the staple of those three thousand pages—under whatever name the stanzas may be presented forming Canons and Odes; as Troparia, Idiomela, Stichera, Stichoi, Contakia, Cathismata, Theotokia, Triodia, Stauro-theotokia, Catavasiai—or whatever else. Nine-tenths of the Eastern Service-book is poetry.” Besides these we find poetical pieces also in the other liturgical books: the Paracletice or the Great Octoechus, in eight parts (for eight weeks and Sundays), the small Octoechus, the Triodion (for the Lent season), and the Pentecostarion (for the Easter season). Neale (p. xli.) reckons that all these volumes together would form at least 5,000 closely-printed, double column quarto pages, of which 4,000 pages would be poetry. He adds an expression of surprise at the “marvellous ignorance in which English ecclesiastical scholars are content to remain of this huge treasure of divinity—the gradual completion of nine centuries at least.” Respecting the value of these poetical and theological treasures, however, few will agree with this learned and enthusiastic Anglican venerator of the Oriental church. These treasures, on which nine centuries have wrought, have hitherto been almost exclusively confined to the Oriental church, and in fact yield but few grains of gold for general use. Neale has latterly made a happy effort to reproduce and make accessible in modern English metres, with very considerable abridgments, the most valuable hymns of the Greek church.12451245   Neale, in his preface, says of his translations: “These are literally, I believe, the only English versions of any part of the treasures of Oriental Hymnology. There is scarcely a first or second-rate hymn of the Roman Breviary which has not been translated: of many we have six or eight versions. The eighteen quarto volumes of Greek church-poetry can only at present be known to the English reader by my little book.”

We give a few specimens of Neale’s translations of hymns of St. Anatolius, patriarch of Constantinople, who attended the council of Chalcedon (451). The first is a Christmas hymn, commencing in Greek:


Μέγα καὶ παράδοξον θαῦμα.


“A great and mighty wonder,

The festal makes secure:

The Virgin bears the Infant

With Virgin-honor pure.


The Word is made incarnate,

And yet remains on high:

And cherubim sing anthems

To shepherds from the sky.


And we with them triumphant

Repeat the hymn again:

’To God on high be glory,

And peace on earth to men!’


While thus they sing your Monarch,

Those bright angelic bands,

Rejoice, ye vales and mountains!

Ye oceans, clap your hands!


Since all He comes to ransom,

By all be He adored,

The Infant born in Bethlehem,

The Saviour and the Lord!


Now idol forms shall perish,

All error shall decay,

And Christ shall wield His sceptre,

Our Lord and God for aye.”


Another specimen of a Christmas hymn by the same, commencing ἐν Βηθλεέμ:


“In Bethlehem is He born!

Maker of all things, everlasting God!

He opens Eden’s gate,

Monarch of ages! Thence the fiery sword

Gives glorious passage; thence,

The severing mid-wall overthrown, the powers

Of earth and Heaven are one;

Angels and men renew their ancient league,

The pure rejoin the pure,

In happy union! Now the Virgin-womb

Like some cherubic throne

Containeth Him, the Uncontainable:

Bears Him, whom while they bear

The seraphs tremble! bears Him, as He comes

To shower upon the world

The fulness of His everlasting love!


One more on Christ calming the storm, ζοφερᾶς τρικυμίας, as reproduced by Neale:


“Fierce was the wild billow

Dark was the night;

Oars labor’d heavily;

Foam glimmer’d white;

Mariners trembled

Peril was nigh;

Then said the God of God

—’Peace! It is I.’


Ridge of the mountain-wave,

Lower thy crest!

Wail of Euroclydon,

Be thou at rest!

Peril can none be—

Sorrow must fly

Where saith the Light of Light,

—’Peace! It is I.’


Jesu, Deliverer!

Come Thou to me:

Soothe Thou my voyaging

Over life’s sea!

Thou, when the storm of death

Roars, sweeping by,

Whisper, O Truth of Truth!

– ’Peace! It is I.’ ”



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