24 September 2015

Euripides and our Lady of Walsingham

I wish all readers much joy on this Solemnity of our Lady of Walsingham. And I beg their generous prayers for the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham and Blessed John Henry Newman. And, not least, for those due to be received into the Ordinariate at this time.

In the Anglican Pilgrims' Manual at Walsingham, the first edition of which was put together in the 1920s by Fr Hope Patten when the Shrine was still in the Parish Church, is given a somewhat mangled text of the Vow which Erasmus composed for his 1511 pilgrimage to our Blessed Lady (the self-same year that a bare-foot Henry VIII made the pilgrimage: see lines 7-8). That Manual does not reveal that the original was a delightful exercise in perfect Attic Greek iambic trimetra. Here is a complete if wooden translation; I spotted the Greek text, by the way, while browsing through the Merton Priory copy of Erasmus in Bodley.

Hail! Jesus' Mother, blessed,
Alone of women God-bearing and Virgin,
Others give to thee other gifts,
This man gold, that man again silver,
Yet another brings and offers freely precious stones
In return for which they ask in return, some, health of body,
Others, wealth, and some hope for their wives
To conceive, that they have the lovely name of Father.
Some of them hope to obtain lives as long as [Nestor] the Old Man of Pylos.
But I, a poet, devoted but poor,
Bringing verses - for I cannot bring anything else -
Beg as a return for my worthless gift,
The greatest prize, a devout heart
Free once for all of all sins.

This is a reworking of the Greek topos, going back through Horace to Sappho, which Eduard Fraenkel, whom in a wondrous benefaction Adolf Hitler sent to Oxford to transform Classical studies here, taught us to call a priamel; "Some .... Some ... Some ... but I ... ". And, in this text, we find also the old convention of the Poor Poet.

Did Erasmus read his poem by the flickering lights in the Holy House at Walsingham? I like to imagine that he did; to think of the New Learning, the Renaissance world, there at our Lady's feet; to imagine that funny little Dutchman as he murmured verses that Euripides could have written ... if only Euripides had been a Catholic Christian. Which he would have been if ...

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