Saturday, January 15, 2011

Diamond in the Rough

Here is another little Latin gem, which in our opinion is still waiting for an English translation.

Peter the Venerable was the Abbott of Cluny from 1122, and from all accounts one heckuva guy. These days, he gets talked about for his interest in studying Islam using its own sources. He was also the friend and counselor of Peter Abelard and Bernard of Cluny, and on occasion Bernard of Clairvaux's fraternal antagonist. There's a swell story about the time that a group of monks was attacked by robbers; Peter pulled out his sword and laid them flat. Personally. (Can your bishop do that?) Under a comparatively gentle rule, he built Cluny form 300 to 10,000 monks. And, yes, he visited Spain, commissioned a Latin version of the Qu'ran, and wrote a refutation of the same.

We stumbled on this Easter hymn today, and were struck at once. The rhyme scheme is practically dizzying -- apparently the monks of Cluny liked that sort of thing. It makes the best possible use of Latin's economy of expression. And those virtues are what make it so difficult to translate; English just doesn't work the same way. Our own feeling is that John Skelton, he of the ultra-terse line, is the only poet who could have done the job. Although Auden might have, too.

Or maybe you, dear Reader. Why not give it a try?

Presented here are the Latin hymn and two English translations. The first, by S.W. Duffield, is more literal; the second, collected by Orby Shipley but apparently not his own work [EDIT:  it seems to be the work of Elizabeth Rundle Charles], is more metrical. They both have their charms, but neither seems to capture the combination of gravity and playfulness that we see in lines like Hinc Creator, ne peccator / Moreretur, moritur.

So we invite Egg readers to waste a few hours of their copious free time on this. Translate, paraphrase, parody if you must. And post any results worth posting. It may be that together we can give this old standard a place in the English canon.

Peter the Venerable
S.W. Duffield
Orby Shipley
Mortis portis fractis, fortis
Fortior vim sustulit;
Et per crucem regem trucem
Infernorum perculit

Lumen clarum tenebrarum
Sedibus resplenduit;
Dum salvare, recreare,
quod creavit, voluit.

Hinc Creator, ne peccator
Moreretur, moritur;
Cuius morte nove sorte
Vita nobis oritur.

Inde Sata victus gemit,
Unde victor nos redemit;
Illud illi fit letale,
quod est homini vitale,
Qui, dum captat, capitur,
Et, dum mactat, moritur.

Sic decenter, sic potenter,
Rex devincens inferos,
Linquens ima die prima,
Rediit ad superos.

Resurrexit, et revexit
Secum Deus hominem,
Reparando quam creando
Dederat originem.

Per Auctoris passionem
Primus redit nunc colonus:
Unde laetus fit hic sonus.
The gates of death are broken through,
The strength of hell is tamed,
And by the holy cross anew
Its cruel king is shamed.

A clearer light has spread its ray
Across the land of gloom
When he who made the primal day
Restores it from the tomb.
For so the true Creator died
That sinners might not die.
And so he has been crucified
That we might rise on high.

For Satan then was beaten back
Where he, our Victor stood ;
And that to him was deathly black
Which was our vital good.
For Satan, capturing, is caught,
And as he strikes he dies.

Thus calmly and with mighty thought
The King defeats his lies,
Arising whence he had been brought.
At once, to seek the skies.

Thus God ascended, and returned
Again to visit man ;
For having made him first, he yearned
To carry out his plan.

To that lost realm our Saviour flew,
The earliest pioneer,
To people Paradise anew
And give our souls good cheer.
Lo! the gates of Death are broken
And the strong Man armed is spoiled
Of his armour which he trusted,
By the stronger Arm despoiled.
Vanquished is the prince of hell,
Smitten by the Cross he fell.

Then the purest Light resplendent
Shone those feats of darkness through,
When, to save whom He created,
God willed to create anew.
That the sinner might not perish,
For him the Creator dies,
By whose death our dark lot changing,
Life again for us doth rise.

Satan groaned, defeated then,
When the Victor ransomed men;
Fatal was to him the strife,
Unto man the source of life;
Captured as he seized his prey,
He is slain as he would slay.

This the King all Hell hath vanquished
Gloriously and mightily;
On the first day leaving Hades,
Victor he returns on high.

Thus God brought man back to Heaven,
When he rose from out the grave,
The pure primal light bestowing,
Which creating first he gave.

By the sufferings of his Maker,
To his perfect Paradise
The first dweller thus returneth --
Wherefore these glad songs arise.

  • Latin: William A. Merrill, ed., Latin Hymns (1917), p. 46.
  • English: Samuel Willoughby Duffield, The Latin Hymn-Writers (NY & London: Funk & Wagnall's, 1899), p. 220.
  • English: Orby Shipley, Lyra Messianica (London, Longman, 1864), p. 291; reprinted from [Elizabeth Ann Rundle,] The Voice of Christian Life in Song.


Veronica Brandt said...

Great hymns of the Middle Ages says that Elizabeth R Charles wrote the second translation, collected by Shipley.

Veronica Brandt said...

Great Hymns of the Middle Ages credits Elizabeth R Charles with your second translation here.

Father Anonymous said...

Thanks! I've edited the post accordingly. Since posting it, a couple of years ago, I have found this particular hymn haunting my imagination. I'm still eager to see an English version that tries to recover the playfulness and exuberance of the Latin.