27 December 2015

Some jolly hymns

Leo XIII deserves to be better known. And he deserves to be better known for his hymns. He wrote two of those which we use on the feast of the Holy Family, which some of you may be observing today ... and the rest of you in a fortnight's time.

Dulce fit nobis is a cut-down version of his Sacra iam splendent. Leo wrote it in the Sapphic Metre, which was either invented or brought into prominence by Sappho, a poetess of the Greek island of Lesbos around 600ish BC, and made popular in Latin by Catullus and Horace; a metre which has always been popular among schoolboys because it is one of the easier metres in which to write Latin verse. Perhaps that is why it became a popular metre in the Carolingian period; but Leo was too good a Latinist to have chosen it from such a base motive. [Incidentally, you can always recognise this metre  it because it is the metre where the fourth line is shorter than the first three, and goes Tumtitty Tumtum; e.g. English Hymnal 335 Wherefore, O Father, we thy humble servants, which was used (and probably written) to cover the silent repetition by the Anglican Catholic clergy of the Unde et memores etc. of the Canon Romanus, the oblatory language of which it echoes.]

Back to Leo and his Holy Family hymn. He bequeathed three problems to the post-Vatican II revisers.
(1) Horror of horrors, the hymn was ten (10!!) stanzas long. Far too long for modern clergy.
(2) The first stanza contains a lovely picture of a Catholic (or Orthodox) church at festival time; lights burning; altars wreathed; clouds of incense. That had to go for obvious reasons.
Sacra iam splendent decorata lychnis
Templa, iam sertis redimitur ara,
Et pio fumant redolentque acerrae
Thuris honore. 
(3) "fessis". Disgusting? You may wonder what is problematic about that word.

Leo wrote that Mary, a good Mother and a good spouse, gave a helping hand to both Son and husband,
.................. felix
si potest curas relevare fessis
       munere amico.
[ ................. happy
if she can lighten, with a friendly duty,
      cares for the weary.]
But, apparently, 'fessis' suggests to the Francophone ear not 'weary' but 'buttocks'. So Dom Anselmo Lentini changed it to the problem-free word 'lassis', thus spoiling the alliterative "felix ... fessis" but sparing the blushes of that notoriously bashful constituency, the French clergy. (I will award this Blog's Order of Chastity, Fourth Class, which authorises you to have a pink pompom on your biretta, to any reader who can demonstrate that there is another language in which 'lassis' is even more indelicate than 'fessis' is in French.)

Leo was a fluent French speaker. Yet, as a cultivated Latinist, he wrote "fessis" without a moment's anxiety. What sort of cultural shift has landed us with an 'emancipated' society in which the word is too sniggerworthy to be printable?

8 comments:

Chris said...

Well, by the same token, any parts of scio which add a t to the stem are off limits to English speakers (in Italianate pronunciation).

Gregory DiPippo said...

Optime Pater,

I suspect Dom Lentini was also thinking of the Italians when he banned "fessis." In modern Italian, "fesso" (plur. "fessi") means "silly, stupid, idiotic, foolish", and is considered fairly rude.

Fr Reginald Foster OCD, who served as one of the Latinists in the Vatican for over 40 years, used to tell the very pleasing story that Pope Leo once woke up in the middle of the night and began furious ringing the bell to call the servants. When they came running into room, he said "Il piede, il piede!!" ("the foot, the foot!!") They thought at first that he had somehow hurt his foot, and wanted a doctor, but then he called for paper and pen. He had just solved a metrical problem in a poem he was working on, by sleeping on it, as it were; he woke up with the solution in his head, and wanted to write down his verse before he forgot it.

John Vasc said...

To American-English ears, perhaps, (or to tv-accultured British ones) 'lassis' might suggest 'doglike'? :-)

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dr Michael Tait points out to me the simple pleasures of asking people to be quiet by barking SILEAS! I wish i'd thought of that when I was still teaching.

Pastor in Monte said...

It is said of the late and great Archbishop-Bishop Peter Amigo of Southwark that he once barked SILEAS! at a subdeacon who had begun the Epistle too early during a pontifical high Mass in the seminary at Wonersh. He was delightfully grumpy on the sanctuary. A seminarian who spilt water into the episcopal buskins was clouted over the head, hard: he himself became Bishop Francis Walmsley of HM Forces, and he still delights to tell the story.

vetusta ecclesia said...

May I digress to another Archbishop-Bishop Amigo story? It would seem he had a phenomenal memory. In his time the see of Southwark covered S. London, Kent, Sussex and Surrey. At a confirmation in rural Sussex during the war he eyed a nervous little boy candidate, an evacuee from London, and barked, "Haven't I confirmed you before?" "Yes,sir". "Then I can't do it again, can I?"

I had this from my parents, who were present.

Gregory DiPippo said...

Optime Pater,

I took the liberty of posting on NLM your request for information about a language in which "lassis" would be more indelicate than "fessis". According to one commenter, " 'lasso' (weary, fatigued; flabby, slack; loose; lewd) in Brazilian Portuguese is pretty mean and base."

http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2015/12/fr-hunwicke-needs-your-help-linguistic.html

According to Wikipedia (caveat lector), Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, while French is the 18th, and Italian (re: 'fessi') is 23rd.

Pastor in Monte said...

I must confirm vetusta ecclesia's comment that Peter Amigo had an extraordinary memory. His anecdote is entirely credible, as countless other anecdotes can testify, and some still living people. He died in 1947 but is still remembered almost as acutely as he remembered others. Few would disagree that he was the greatest bishop that the (Arch)diocese of Southwark has had.