Tag Archives: hymn

Translating the “Dies Irae.”

Working through Wheelock’s grammar is tough.  (I’m at chapter 16!)  Naturally, I decided to liven up my Latin by reading a famous medieval dirge for the dead.  The “Dies Irae” is ascribed to Thomas of Celano, thirteenth-century author of the first hagiography of Francis of Assisi.  Think what you may, I am sure you have heard this hymn before, especially if you saw Amadeus:

Here I’d like to look over the first two stanzas of the hymn and supply some translations.  I have given up trying to keep the meter, rhyme, and meaning intact.  I figure two out of three ain’t bad!

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla
teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus
quando iudex est venturus
cuncta stricte discussurus!

Notice that each line is in trochaic tetrameter, “Dies irae, dies illa,” with eight beats in each line.  In each stanza, all three lines rhyme: illa / favilla / Sibylla.”  Peter Walsh’s translation in his fantastic Dumbarton Oaks One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas volume is the most literal I have seen:

Day of fury, that sad day
will reduce the world to dust,
as claim David and the Sibyl.

What a trembling there will be
when the judge is to appear
all things harshly to review! (Walsh 347)

As amazing as Wash’s volume is, his translation doesn’t even try to keep the poetic elements of the hymn.  I tried my hand at keeping the rhyme.

The day, that day of fury
When the world will turn to ashes in a hurry
As David and Sibyll told us to worry.

How greatly all will be trembling,
When the judge is assembling,
The world gone to disassembling.

[Alternate translation of the second stanza:]
A great tremor will be scattering,
When the judge with his feet the earth battering,
The world gone to shattering.

Despite my best efforts, some of my wording is just awkward: “As David and Sibyll told us to worry” doesn’t capture the eschatological urgency of the original.  Sometimes the languages provide their own obstacles.  The participles that rhyme so well in Latin translate into static gerunds in English that don’t adequately capture the drama and action.

Two other translators tried to keep the rhyme:

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
(William Josiah Irons, 1849 — link)

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.

What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind! (link)

Irons’ is the loosest, even switching the second and third lines in the first stanza.  I like it more, despite its archaisms. The other one uses very limpid verbs (“lay,” “say”) — not appropriate for eschatology!

Still, there seems to be a certain energy in the original Latin that rhyme-oriented translations don’t capture.  So I worked on keeping the meter instead:

Day of wrath, that day when all burns
World turns ashes, God breaks, smashes,
David, Sibyll witness’d, told us.

Tremor breaks out, how great, how loud,
When the Judge is coming, sitting,
Viewing souls, soon shatters bad ones.

I love the energy of the first stanza.  The second stanza did not come out as well, especially the third line.  (Any suggestions?)  Ironically, to keep the meter of the Latin, I have to use short, one-syllabled Germanic words!

I could only find one translation that preserves both meter and rhyme.  Ambrose Bierce satirically throws meaning out the window:

Day of Satan’s painful duty!
Earth shall vanish, hot and sooty;
So says Virtue, so says Beauty.

Ah! what terror shall be shaping
When the Judge the truth’s undraping!
Cats from every bag escaping!

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  How would you translate it?

The Cosmic Scope of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Caedmon’s Hymn.

Although the Old English corpus is rich with history, homilies, and saints’ lives, I suspect that most students of the language are most enthusiastic about the poetry: the elegies, the riddles, the rune-poem, the hymns, and Beowulf of course.  I certainly am.  So it was with great joy that I was able to decipher Caedmon’s Hymn:

Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte   on his modgeðanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,   swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten,       or onstealde.
He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend;
þa middangeard  moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten,       æfter teode
firum foldan,     Frea ælmihtig.

Now (we) should praise   of the kingdom of heaven  the Warden,
Of the Creator the might,  and his mind-thought (purpose),
the work of the Gloryfather,  just as he of wonders,
eternal Lord, created the beginning (of each).
He first created  for the children of earth
heaven as a roof,  holy Shaper;
then Middle Earth  mankind’s Warden,
eternal Lord,   after created
for men the earth,  Ruler almighty.
(Translation taken from Dennis Baron)

To get a taste of the sound:

Although we have this hymn preserved in several manuscripts, we learn its background only from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.  He writes that Caedmon was a monk of little musical talent, who would walk away from singing contests in shame.  One day, however, God revealed this hymn to him in a dream, thus beginning Caedmon’s career as a hymn-shaper whose skills came directly from God.  Pope and Fulk date his career between 657-680, but the earliest manuscripts we have of the poem come from the eighth century.

Scholars have written reams about the way this poem uses Anglo-Saxon pagan terminology for gods and kings, applying them to the God of Bede’s Christianity:

  • Wuldorfæder, “father of wonders,” echoes the Norse epithet for Woden, “Father of Armies”
  • heofonrices Weard, “ward of the heavenly kingdom,” echoes the Anglo-Saxon phrase for kings as “guardians of the realm” (Mitchell, A Guide to Old English, 228).  (Note that the rices, “kingdom/realm,” is cognate with the modern German word Reich.)
  • Drihten, “Lord,” also referred to lords such as King Hrothgar in Beowulf (Barney, Word-Hoard, 9)
  • Frea, “lord, king,” is perhaps cognate with the name of the Norse goddess Freya (Barney, Word-Hoard, 53)

My take away from this poem, apart from its mixing of literary-religious cultures, is its technique of appositive variation.  It proliferates titles for God.  It’s very associative.  Take the last two lives, with their contrast of ece Drihten and Frea ælmihtig: “Eternal Lord” and “Ruler Almighty.”  Each epithet for God conjures up another set of associations, mapping the attributes for God onto the attributes of a king or ruler.  Pope and Fulk are right to remark that this hymn is very psalm-like.

The epithets in this poem relate to the power, the transcendence of God the Father.  It’s very cosmic.  God created the universe, He holds it together, He fashioned it like a lord’s hall, like the Heorot hall in Beowulf, with heofon to hrofe (“heaven as a roof”).  In Sunny California, thinking of the universe as a hall does not mean much: what’s wrong with the great outdoors?  But surviving a snowy winter was a big deal.  Anglo-Saxons measured someone’s life by how many winters they had lived.  Being in a hall with a fire meant survival.  The vast universe, mostly inhospitable to human life, is like the killing cold of an English winter.


Cozy, eh?

If anything, this poem reminds me of what we Episcopalians affectionately call the “Star Wars Prayer” in the Book of Common Prayer:

God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of
glory and praise.
Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of
interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.

From the primal elements you brought forth the human race,
and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us
the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed
your trust; and we turned against one another.
Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

Amen, Caedmon.