By David Daintree
I intend to confine myself generally to commenting on the grammar and structure, so that those who love the poetry may come to understand how it works, may get inside it and appreciate the skeleton, nerves and musculature, rather than just its shiny coat!
I have written eight articles with this title for Oriens over the past few years, all dealing with Latin grammar and vocabulary, and all aimed towards making that language more accessible to beginners and to those who have forgotten almost all they knew1. But now I think it’s time to change tack. From now on, with the Editor’s indulgence [happily granted – Ed], I propose to examine each time a piece of real Latin literature, such as a few verses from one of the great Latin hymns, or a piece of Scripture.
So let’s begin with the 24-line hymn that S Thomas Aquinas wrote for Lauds at Corpus Christi. The last two stanzas are particularly well known for their inclusion in the rite of Benediction.
Verbum supernum prodiens, 1
Nec Patris linquens dexteram,
Ad opus suum exiens,
Venit ad vitæ vesperam.
In mortem a discipulo 5
Suis tradendus æmulis,
Prius in vitæ ferculo
Se tradidit discipulis.
Quibus sub bina specie
Carnem dedit et sanguinem; 10
Ut duplicis substantiæ
Totum cibaret hominem.
Se nascens dedit socium,
Convescens in edulium,
Se moriens in pretium, 15
Se regnans dat in præmium.
O salutaris hostia,
Quæ cæli pandis ostium,
Bella premunt hostilia;
Da robur, fer auxilium. 20
Uni trinoque Domino
Sit sempiterna gloria:
Qui vitam sine termino
Nobis donet in patria.
The metre is the so-called Ambrosian Quatrain2, much loved by Christian writers in Latin since the days when S Ambrose himself chose this metre for popular use in Milan.
Since it is easy to find translations of great works [see eg Britt’s], I intend to confine myself generally to commenting on the grammar and structure, so that those who love the poetry may come to understand how it works, may get inside it and appreciate the skeleton, nerves and musculature, rather than just its shiny coat! All numerical references that follow are to line numbers.
An interesting feature of this hymn is S Thomas’s use of present participles (all conveniently in the nominative!). In the first stanza we have prodiens (1) going forth, linguens (2) leaving, exiens (4) going out. In the fourth stanza we have another cluster: nascens (13) being born, convescens (14) feeding, moriens (15) dying, regnans (16) reigning.
In the first group the Word from on high is going forth from the Father and going out to do his work yet paradoxically not leaving his Father’s right hand; the next group describes some of the momentous attributes of God incarnate. All these generalized attributes are, as it were, nailed down by finite verbs. He has come (venit 4) to the evening of his life. He has given himself up (se tradidit 8). He has given (dedit 10 and 13) his own flesh and blood.
Latin has a very useful verbal adjective called the gerundive, which is passive and future, and implies obligation or necessity. The one example in this hymn (tradendus 6) cannot be translated by a single English word. The meaning is something like he-who-must-be-betrayed. Of course it takes a dative: suis aemulis means to those who envy him.
Quibus (9) reminds us that Latin is a declined language, a quality that enables it to have a more flexible word order than is possible in modern English. Pronouns are used more in Latin that in English because, being declined, they can convey more information. Frequently, as here, they are used to connect a sentence to the preceding one: He gave himself to his disciples, to whom he gave… In English we would usually to start a new sentence, sometimes adding a connective such as moreover to assist the transition. English in this respect sometimes has a lumpen quality, which Latin avoids by this subtle use of pronouns.
There is one purpose clause in this otherwise elegantly simple hymn. In lines 11 and 12 S Thomas teaches us that He who is of twofold substance gave himself that he might feed the whole man. He is thus at pains to make it clear that the body and blood of Christ are both present in each of the two species, for a heretical view had been current that the bread contained his flesh alone, and the wine his blood.
The reader should also note the fourfold repetition of the reflexive pronoun se (himself 8, 13, 15, 16). In every case it occurs at the beginning of its line, that is to say in the position of greatest emphasis. The cluster of three in the fourth stanza produces a sort of climax before the descent into the dignified grandeur of the fifth and sixth stanzas in which we shift to the vocative and address Christ and the Godhead directly.
Finally, notice two optative subjunctives in the final stanza: sit (22) may there be, and donet (24) may he give. We express the wish (that’s the optative sense) that the threefold God be glorified, and that he grant us endless life in our fatherland.
In my opinion the last word should go to John Mason Neale, the nineteenth century Anglican priest whose translations of so many of so many of the best office hymns and sequences are incomparable:
O Saving Victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to man below:
Our foes press on from every side,
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.
1 I shall be happy to send a copy of my previous articles to anybody who would care to write to me at email@example.com.
2 The technical term for the metre is Iambic Dimeter (i.e. each line consists of two pairs of iambs, an iamb being a metrical ‘foot’ of two syllables, the first short or unstressed, the second long or stressed.