by David Daintree
English is naturally more verbose than Latin, which can sound abrupt and terse if translated verbatim.
Last time, taking a change of direction from grammar to literary exegesis (you might call that grammar in action) we looked at St Thomas Aquinas’s lovely hymn Verbum supernum prodiens. This time, I propose to discuss a sacred poem affectionately known as the Rosy Sequence. Its inspiration lay in St Bernadino’s cult of the Holy Name of Jesus and it was written for that Feast. Its authorship was long ascribed to St Bernard of Clairvaux, and that could be correct, but it seems to have originated in England (it was included in the Sarum rite) and is usually now considered to be the work of an anonymous English Cistercian.
Jesu, dulcis memoria,
dans vera cordis gaudia:
sed super mel et omnia
ejus dulcis praesentia.
Nil canitur suavius, 5
nil auditur jucundius,
nil cogitatur dulcius,
quam Jesus Dei Filius.
Jesu, spes paenitentibus,
quam pius es petentibus! 10
quam bonus te quaerentibus!
sed quid invenientibus?
Nec lingua valet dicere,
nec littera exprimere:
expertus potest credere, 15
quid sit Jesum diligere.
Sis, Jesu, nostrum gaudium,
qui es futurus praemium:
sit nostra in te gloria,
per cuncta semper saecula. 20
The metre is the so-called Ambrosian Quatrain, much loved by Christian writers in Latin since the days when St Ambrose himself chose this metre for popular use in Milan.
Let’s open our discussion, very sensibly, by looking at the first stanza. There is no verb. That might worry the novice but it’s no problem really: when you find such a sentence, you must always supply some part or parts of the verb to be to make up the sense. Bear in mind, too, that all punctuation has been added by modern editors and is not binding on us: Jesu can be either vocative or genitive. If we want to read it as genitive in line 1, delete the comma and read the memory of Jesus is sweet. Alternatively you could translate, O Jesus, your memory is sweet. In either case we have had to supply words not actually in the Latin to make the English sound normal. English is naturally more verbose than Latin, which can sound abrupt and terse if translated verbatim.
There’s another trap for young players here. Feminine singulars and neuter plurals look alike in the nominative – both end in –a. In stanza 1 memoria and praesentia are singulars, but gaudia and omnia are plurals. Dans is the present participle giving (from dare). It’s the closest thing we have to a verb, but it’s important to be careful about categories and remember that a participle is not a finite verb.
Moving to stanza 2, we see that each of the first three lines concludes with a neuter comparative adjective agreeing with nil. And there are three verbs, this time, all of them in the passive. The first line can be literally translated nothing sweeter is sung about. I leave you to do the others, but I anticipate that suavius and dulcius will pull you up – don’t they mean the same thing? Not quite. A clue is perhaps found in modern Italian, where dolce means a sugary dessert. So perhaps translate dulcius as ‘sweeter’ and suavius as ‘more charming’. Quam in the last line is the comparative particle than: ‘nothing is sweeter…than’.
Stanza 3 presents us a very tidy set of four present participles in the dative plural. Moreover it actually supplies us with a single verb es, to be understood as applying to each line. And this time quam is not comparative (‘than’) but exclamatory (‘how’): ‘how good you are to those seeking you’, (line 11). The writer thus makes three statements about the generosity of God. You might need help with the last line (12) of the stanza, for quid turns it round and asks a question: ‘what are you to those who find?’
Stanza 4 of this beautifully crafted poem employs four infinitives. The first three are dependent on either valet or potest, which actually mean the same thing, ‘can’. Expertus is the person who has actually experienced the love of God. ‘No tongue can tell…only he who has known Jesus can appreciate what it is to love him’. Quid sit – literally ‘what it might be’ (Latin requires the subjunctive).
The rest is pretty plain sailing. There is a nice future participle in line 18: ‘you who are going to be our prize’.
Following is John Mason Neale’s translation. His first four stanzas are pretty much on the money, but his final two are a sort of pastiche: good in themselves, but a far cry from the tightness of the original single closing stanza. In my opinion this is not one of Neale’s best translations, but it’s the best we have.
Jesus! the very thought is sweet;
in that dear name all heart-joys meet;
but O, than honey sweeter far
the glimpses of his presence are.
No word is sung more sweet than this,
no sound is heard more full of bliss,
no thought brings sweeter comfort nigh,
than Jesus, Son of God most high.
Jesus, the hope of souls forlorn,
how good to them for sin that mourn!
To them that seek the, O how kind!
But what art thou to them that find?
No tongue of mortal can express,
no pen can write, the blessedness:
he only who hath proved it knows
what bliss from love of Jesus flows.
O Jesus, King of wondrous might!
O Victor, glorious from the fight!
Sweetness that may not be expressed,
and altogether loveliest!
Abide with us, O Lord, today,
fulfill us with thy grace, we pray;
and with thine own true sweetness feed
our souls from sin and darkness freed.