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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Très Mediocre"

That is how some French historian described the hymn Sol hodie nobis apparuit. But what do the Frogs know about art, culture or religion, especially in the Middle Ages?

The song is by Hildebert of Tours -- oops! He was French! -- but John Mason Neale, whose translation we offer below (and also, ahem, in our almost-ready-to-sell Latin/English breviary), does not seem to have been in love with the song either. In his Mediaeval Hymns, he gives the whole thing in a footnote.

But then he adds something to the effect of, "The reader cannot help but be reminded of Dr. Donne." And you know what that means, readers: Behold our new favorite Christmas hymn!

Two Suns appear to man to-day: one made,

One Maker: one eternal, one to fade.

One the stars' King; the King of their King, one:

This makes,―that bids him make,―the hours to run.

The Sun shines with the True Sun, ray with ray,

Light with light, Day with Him That makes the day.

Day without night, without seed bears she fruit,

Unwedded Mother, Flower without a root.

She than all greater: He the greatest still:

She filled by Him Whose glories all things fill.

That night is almost day, and yields to none.

Wherein God flesh, wherein flesh God, put on.

The undone is done again; attuned the jar:

Sun precedes day: the Morn, the morning star.

True Sun, and Very Light, and Very Day:

God was that Sun, and God its Light and ray.

How bare the Virgin, ask'st thou, God and man?

I know not: but I know God all things can.

This is to Easter what Mortis, Portis, Fractis, Fortis is to Easter -- monks at play, but pious play. (And, yes, French monks. it was a joke, okay?)

Neale is right; this does remind us of Big Jack. For that very reason, Neale's translation seems a little ... different. Better, in our opinion, than his work on many more run-of-the-mill hymns -- and a reminder of just how skilled Neale was at translation. He routinely matched meter and rhyme scheme to the original texts; but he also made a point of matching the poet's style -- elevated, robust, literary, or -- in this case -- almost too clever. Almost.


mark said...

Excellent! And the tune, pray tell?

Father Anonymous said...

I have no idea. Not sure it ever made it into any English hymnal, and a lot of the medieval ones are lost.

Looking at it quickly, I think that Neale's version might be hard to sing. Somebody probably needs to write something for the couplet, which is an unusual addition to a hymn.

The good news is that there are lots of 10-10-10-10 hymn tunes. With some textual tweaking, I think it could be made to work with "Abide With Me" or "God of Our Fathers."

But, seriously, let's be honest: I only do words.