24 March 2023


So here come those lovely Passiontide hymns, which are permitted in the Liturgia Horarum for this coming week even though it has officially abolished Passiontide.

Having a powerful and well-connected Mother Superior in your patch is not every cleric's preference, especially if she's inclined to start the day after Mass by just happening to mention 'By the way, father, my friend the Emperor of Constantinople is sending me a nice big relic of the True Cross. Will you be around? Could you just knock up a new hymn or two for the occasion?' But I jest: undoubtedly Venantius Fortunatus, the bishop of Poitiers who died in 609, was just as excited by the prospect of such a glamorous relic as was the Rt Revd and Rt Royal Lady Abbess Radegunde herself.

Sing my tongue the glorious battle, sing the ending of the fray,
now above the Cross, the trophy, sound the loud triumphant lay;
tell how Christ, the world's Redeemer, as a Victim won the day.
What a wonderful expression of joy at the thought of Jesus' Crucifixion. Some people used to say that only the Orthodox really understand S John's perception that Jesus' death on the Cross is the high triumphant moment of his glory (doxa). But this hymn (Pange lingua) and its twin (Vexilla regis) coming from so very Western a Christian as Venantius prove what nonsense that is.

Triumphant, yes, but before that word Venantius uses another: a Greek word, tropaion. This refers to what you did after winning a glorious battle: first you found a tree; then you lopped its branches off; and you clad it with armour stripped from your defeated foes. Clever of Venantius, to see the Cross as a Victory Tree, and neat to think of the diabolical powers as stripped naked in defeat. Next we have a Latin word, Triumph, which refers to the boisterous procession into Rome after a victory: the Triumphator, his face painted red so that he looked like Juppiter, processed in his chariot with his legions following and singing. By the chariot wheels marched the leaders of the defeated enemy; they were facing a decisive end in a dark little cellar on the Capitoline Hill (you'll remember that Cleopatra didn't look forward to making her last public appearance in such a way). And what the soldiers chanted was the Triumphant Lay: io triumphe io triumphe. Venantius neatly suggests that we Christans have our own Triumphant Lay: immolatus vicerit; The Sacrificial Victim has won the day. An oxymoron: sacrificial victims usually ended up dead rather than in glory. Or you could call it a paradox; G K Chesterton rightly observed that it's not easy to be a Christian if you can't take paradox.

The metre of this hymn calls for comment: the trochaic tetrameter catalectic (tumtytumty four times with the final syllable chopped off). What is interesting here is that this metre was used by writers such as Menander in Athenian New Comedy for scenes that are pretty nearly slapstick - Aristotle called it kordakikoteron or 'tending to a lively vulgarity'*. Caesar's soldiery chanted their ritual abuse at him (to avoid the the risk of the Gods taking offence as he rode in triumph) in this metre. I wonder if Venantius chose it because of the joyous exuberance of the procession accompanying Abbess Radegunde's spectacular new acquisition into Poitiers. Roman Triumph Processions were boisterous to the point of being disorderly, the soldiers probably having already made bibulous inroads into their bounties. I'm not suggesting that Pange lingua was written to accompany a drunken orgy, but I bet the procession at which it received its premiere was not quite the sort of prim and stately event that Anglican Outdoor Religious Processions usually are.

The same may be true of some of those first Corpus Christi processions in Avignon after one of my favourite popes, John XXII, got that festival going and thus gave an airing to the great hymn in which S Thomas Aquinas borrowed Venantius' first three words, and his metre.

(And I wonder if Prudentius danced a bit as he composed Corde natus - also in this metre.)

*Sandbach wrote, in 1973, that "such passages in this metre are distinguished in tone from the adjacent iambics, but not always in the same way". In his 2013 edition of the Samia Sommerstein wrote "trochaic tetrameters  were clearly considered suitable both for farcical scenes (such as the latter part of the present act [Samia IV]) and for passages of unusual solemnity (such as Demeas' speech in [Samia] 694-712 or Knemon's in Dyskolos 708-47)."

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