23 March 2016


Let me introduce you to an interesting Graeco-Latin metre: the trochaic tetrameter catalectic. You should be equipped with this information, because it is the metre of the two great Pange lingua hymns used in the Holy Week Liturgy: the one about the Cross, written by Venantius Fortunatus for a royal Mother Superior who had succeeded in begging a Relic of the True Cross from the Emperor in Constantinople; we sing that on Good Friday at the Liturgy of the Cross (and in the Divine Office). The other, written by S Thomas Aquinas for Corpus Christi, is sung as the Most Holy is taken to Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday. But this metre got its first recorded Christian use in the hymn Corde natus ex Parentis, often used at Christmas, centonised from (i.e. made up of extracts from) the Cathemerinon of Prudentius (348-c410).

Tumpty is a trochee; two of them, tumpty tumpty, make up a 'trochaic metron'; four of these are described as a trochaic tetrameter; and if you chop off the very last syllable of the sixteen, what's left is a trochaic tetrameter catalectic. (Some people call it a trochaic septenarius, but then, they would, wouldn't they.) The line is very long, and, since there is a regular word-break after the eighth syllable, printers commonly split it up into two lines respectively of eight and of seven syllables.

What is surprising about this metre is that it was seen and used by the ancients as comic and vulgar (and so described, kordakikoteron, by Aristotle ... the kordax was a very obscene dance). It is used by the great writer of New Comedy, Menander (you could go and see a nice bust of him among the Howard marbles in the Ashmolean; he more or less invented the 'situation comedy' and perfected the eternally fertile formula 'Boy loves Girl: there is an Obstacle: the help of a Clever Slave solves it so that all live Happily Ever After'). In one of his 'latest' plays ('latest' in the sense that lost plays keep turning up on papyri preserved in the dry sand of the Egyptian desert), the Girl from Samos, it is used in a hilarious slapstick scene featuring Girl's comically nasty Father, Niceratus. Menander's Roman imitators adapted it into Latin, and so Plautus uses this metre in his Mostellaria for the scene where Boy, drunk, comes across Girl while she is putting her make-up on and goes for an inopportune contact.

So how did this frivolous, indeed indecent, metre come to be used for what we might think of as the stateliest and most dogma-laden hymns of our Latin tradition? One possibility: Think Roman Squaddies. Think Roman Squaddies in a happy mood, particularly after a great victory; they have returned to Rome; the Senate has voted a Triumph; and so the troops, heavy with gold and alcohol, are singing in the Triumph Procession as they process behind their general. You may be surprised by this; but they are singing obscene songs insulting the general, probably to avert from him divine jealousy. And Suetonius preserves for us three lines in just this metre which were sung during C Iulius Caesar's Gallic triumph (interesting that, just as with the Christian hymnographers, three lines seem to make up a stanza):
Gallias Caesar subegit, Nicomedes Caesarem:
Ecce Caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit Gallias;
Nicomedes non triumphat qui subegit Caesarem.

Which is best left untranslated; well, anyway, I am going to leave it untranslated. And so, turning now to the Christian hymnwriters, we find the sense of military triumph already vividly present in one of Prudentius' stanzas:
Solve vocem mens sonoram, solve linguam mobilem,
Dic tropaeum passionis, dic triumphalem crucem,
Pange vexillum, notatis quod refulget frontibus*.

This, of course, is the inspiration of Venantius Fortunatus' first stanza (and, indeed, of his hymn Vexilla Regis):
Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis,
Et super crucis tropaeo dic triumphum nobilem,
Qualiter redemptor orbis immolatus vicerit.

The idea is of the Tree of the Cross as the tropaion [trophy], i.e. the battlefield Tree upon which the rejoicing soldiery hung the spoils (mainly armour) looted from their defeated enemies. It is both clever and appropriate; compare S Paul (Colossians 2:14-15) proselosas auto toi stauroi; apekdusamenos tas archas ... thriambeusas autous en autoi. No wonder Venantius Fortunatus thought the idea, and the metre, appropriate to express the exuberant joy of processing into Poitiers with a Relic of the Redeeming Tree.

And is there not a whiff of a Triumph Procession as the priest bends the ends of the Humeral Veil over the ciborium containing God's Body and then carries It through the adoring People of God?
*Literally: Loose, O mind, the sonorous voice, loose the mobile tongue, speak the trophy of the Passion, speak the triumphal Cross, sing the banner which shines on marked foreheads [referring to the Cross marked on the foreheads with Chrism at Confirmation/Consignation].


Riddley said...

Thanks very much for keeping this blog, Father!

If you'll permit me to be a little off-topic, I wondered if you could spare a moment to make a recommendation please. I would like to start reading the Church Fathers but I don't really know where to begin! Could you perhaps suggest a handful of books (in English) that would be a good starting point? If an email would suit you best my address is hamer627@hotmail.com

Many thanks in advance.


Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Father. God Bless you for this joyful post for, among other things, it brought to my mind the beautiful prose of Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

And yet at that moment when a tree of his own creation turned against Him and became a cross, when the iron of His earth reacted against Him and became nails, when roses rebelled against Him and became thorns, at that second when a sickle and a hammer combined to cut down the weeds on Calvary’s hill to erect a gallows and drive nails through hands to render impotent the blessings of love incarnate, He, like a tree which bathes in perfume the ax which kills it, lets fall from His lips for the earth’s first hearing the answer to the riddle of hate and anger: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Andreas Meszaros said...

Perhaps this is a little useful also:

Pange Lingua ...
pango, pangis, pangere, panxi, panctus, a, um vel pepigi, pactus, a, um

pangere - fingere, constituere, definire, statuere: imperativus "pange, pangite"

Exempla: clavum pango, litteram pango in cera, plantam pango, filios pango - procreo (Tertuliani Apologeticum 9:16 “facile possunt ... filios pangere”)
versus pango - litteras stylo inscribo
poemata pango (Horatius ep. lib I, 18:40 “poemata panges”)

Vocabula derivata: pactum, impingo impactus, compingo compactus, paciscor, pax, pacare, pagus, pagina, paganus, et alia.

Pange lingua ...

John said...

Ah, so that's what they were! Many years ago the firm I worked for hired outside counsel to handle something or other and their name was a perfect trochaic tetrameter catalectic: Crosby, Heafey, Roche, and May. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. Only that they were the most musically named firm we had ever dealt with. (Although, I may have gotten the trochee part right. But even then Brother Claude's class in Latin hymnody and poetry had been a long time past. So maybe not.)

But in any event, after all this time I'm delighted to have the proper description for Crosby, Heafey, Roche, and May.

Anonymous said...

Would it be too irreverent to observe that the theme from The Archers fits the rhythmic bill?

And would it be too fanciful to see a wonderful pun in "Chi Rho" being inscribed onto the cross in his own blood deleting the decree of condemnation "quod adversum nos erat chirografum"?

Mary Kay said...

Thank you, Father! As a (want-to-be) choir director and long-time chorister, I have long been fascinated with the origins of our oldest chant.
Kind regards from Mary in the west coast USA

Donna Bethell said...

"It is used by the great writer of New Comedy, Menander (you could go and see a nice bust of him among the Howard marbles in the Ashmolean; he more or less invented the 'situation comedy' and perfected the eternally fertile formula 'Boy loves Girl: there is an Obstacle: the help of a Clever Slave solves it so that all live Happily Ever After')."

Ah, so that's where the great Wodehouse got the idea for Jeeves.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

It is posts like these especially that make your blog such a delight! Thank you, Father ... and Happy Easter.