9 January 2022

A happy hymn

Leo XIII deserves to be better known. And he deserves to be better known for his hymns. 

He wrote the hymns we use on today's feast of the Holy Family. Gregory diPippo once passed on to me a splendid story about Pope Leo waking up in the middle of the night and frantically ringing the bell for his servants, and shouting "Il piede! Il piede!". [Piede is Italian for Foot, and metres as well as popes have feet.] They assumed he had hurt his foot and wanted a medic; instead, he called for pen and paper. He had just solved, in his sleep ... as one does ... a metrical problem in a poem he was working on ... waking up with the solution in his head, he needed to jot it down before he forgot it. I wonder if he explained this to his footman. (Yes!! It's Pantomime Time!!!)

Back to today's Holy Family hymns.

The Mattins hymn Sacra iam splendent. was composed by Leo in the Sapphic Metre, which was either invented or brought into prominence by Sappho, a poetess of the Greek island of Lesbos (which PF loves to visit) around 600ish BC, and made popular in Latin by Catullus and Horace; a metre which has always been a favourite among schoolboys because it is one of the easier metres in which to write Latin verse. Perhaps that is why it was so widely used 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 on a printed page 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 yet again 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 evokes a lovely picture of a Catholic (or Orthodox) church at festival time; lights burning; altars wreathed; clouds of incense. Just think how maddened PF and Arthur Roche would have been, had it been allowed to remain! Just imagine the spittle-flecked pontifical tirades!
Sacra iam splendent decorata lychnis
Templa, iam sertis redimitur ara,
Et pio fumant redolentque acerrae
        Thuris honore. 

(3) "fessis". Disgusting? It is disgusting. Let me tell you why.

Leo wrote that our blessed Lady, 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 'fessis' suggests to the Francophone or Italophone ear not 'weary' but 'buttocks'. [A Late Latin word? Cognate with fascia?] So Dom Anselmo Lentini, boss of the coetus which revised the hymns of the Divine Office after the Council, changed it to the problem-free word 'lassis', thus spoiling the nicely alliterative "felix ... fessis" but sparing the blushes of those notoriously bashful constituencies, the French and Italian 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' sounds even more indelicate than 'fessis' does to French and Italians.

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? 

I wonder if Dom Anselmo considered spelling fessis as f***is.


Fr. C. A. Fogielman said...

Dear Father, "fesse" does mean "buttock in French, but not in Italian. It derives from late Latin "fissa", meaning "crack"... in all senses of the latter word.

Stephen v.B. said...

I may have some additional details about the story of Pope Leo's nocturnal versification. In the version familiar to me, it involves one of the Latin secretaries, Mgr. Vincenzo Tarozzi, and goes back to Giulio Belvederi's 1919 biography of Mgr. Tarozzi. Unfortunately, I have no access to the book itself, but can translate the relevant passage from a citation elsewhere:

"That literary Pope [Leo XIII] used to labour at his compositions almost exclusively during the night. One night, when he was writing the poem Ruit hora, he ran to Mgr. Tarozzi's room, which was adjacent to his own, and shook him until he woke up, shouting that he was 'missing a foot'. The good Monsignor calmly answered that he should not say so, not even as a jest, because it would have grieved the whole world if it were so! But Leo XIII insisted and read the poem to him, up to the point where the 'foot' was missing; and without further ado Mgr. Tarozzi offered him the suggestion he was looking for. Alas, having been so suddenly disturbed, he passed a sleepless night ... because of the Pope's 'missing feet'."

In a later - unsourced and somewhat more sensational - version of the story, the groggy Monsignor cried out for help, assuming that the pontiff was gravely injured, inducing a flock of concerned clerics to rush into the papal apartments. Se non e vero ... And, lastly, a pupil of Tarozzi told a version of this story (under oath, to the diocesan tribunal), which he may well have heard from the Monsignor himself: here, no 'missing feet', alas, but simply the story that Pope Leo knocked on Tarozzi's door at 2 AM, waking the secretary, because he had been pondering a Latin poem all night and was unable to sleep until he had resolved his problem.

The poem Belvederi mentioned in this context is one of Pope Leo's very last, a fine short elegy entitled Nocturnae ingemiscentis animae meditatio and beginning: Fatalis ruit hora, Leo .... That would place the incident early in 1903, but the connection between that nocturnal poem and the anecdote may well be too good to be true.

As an aside, the saintly Latinist Vincenzo Tarozzi (whose cause was opened in 1955), was - among other things - responsible for the Latin text of the bull Apostolicae Curae.

Albertus said...

In italian "fessi" means "fools".

PM said...

But, then again, our 'emancipated' society had to skip over nu and xi in favour of omicron for the latest version of the Chinese Communist Party plague.

John Patrick said...

Oh for the days when popes wrote poetry, instead of multi hundred page documents explaining how the need to deal with climate change is the Church's most pressing issue.