27 December 2022

Magnus aeterni logotheta Verbi

Vatican II very sensibly suggested that the old Breviary collection could be enriched by rescuing other hymns from the treasury of the Western Church. Happily, a gorgeous composition by S Peter Damian (d1072) was found for the Festum of S John the Evangelist: Virginis virgo venerande custos, in the Sapphic metre (I wonder what the dear old girl would have made of it if she could have known how much Christian Latins would make enthusiastic use of her metrical innovation). The bad news: Dom Anselmo Lentini and his merry men decided to Correct it.

Starting even before the Carolingian Renaissance, Latin writers and especially hymnographers, often when they wanted an effect of majesty and grandeur, reached for the Greek language. So, after the first line with its alliterative wordplay (O venerable virgin guardian of the Virgin) S Peter went one better in his second line: magnus aeterni logotheta Verbi. Given a pedestrian translation, this would be 'Great wordplacer of the eternal Word', where the Greek neologism logotheta hits you, in all its quadrisyllabic sonority, immediately after the caesura. It plays with the Johannine description of our Lord as the Word, the Logos, Verbum, and a suggestion of assonance in aeterni ... logotheta. But whereas in the first line, with its "Virginis ... virgo", the Saint uses the same Latin word but changes the case ('anaphora with polyptoton'; an elegance particularly associated with the 'hellenistic' poets), in the second line he achieves an elegant variatio by creating a Greek compound containing logos to match his Latin Verbi.

The post-Conciliar Revisers detested any sort of fun with words; in their austere schoolmasterly comments there are few stricter see-me-afterwardses than nimius lusus verborum. Here they call in aid the principle of 'graecismum nunc insuetum'. And Dom Anselmo claims to find the nominative 'magnus' (instead of the vocative 'magne') unacceptable: naughty Anselmo; he must have known perfectly well that this little problem, if problem it is*, could have been corrected by "magne et".

So what did the revisers write? 'praeco qui Verbi coleris fidelis'.

Oh dear. (But to be fair, Lentini was himself a Latin poet of no mean ability, and did his best with the assonance 'praeco ... coleris'.)


*Nominatives in place of vocatives seem to be no problem in the Gloria in excelsis Deo, Sanctus, Agnus ... the more you look for them, the more of them you find both in Classical Latin and in Ecclesiatical.


From Fr. Khouri said...

Sad that none of the hymns of the Eastern Church could find their way into the upcoming revised breviary. I know it's a Latin Church book, but to share some of the great but unknown treasures of the East (Hymns by St. Romanos the Melodist or St. Ephrem of Syria) would be more "catholic."

frjustin said...

My own monastery incorporates many of the Hymns of St Romanos the Melodist and St Ephrem the Syrian as texts for the 2nd reading at the Office of Vigils. The Easter Kontakion of St Romanos, for example, is divided into parts and read from Mon - Sat of the Easter Octave. The English translation is from this book:

"On the life of Christ : kontakia"/ St. Romanos the Melodist ; translated with an introduction by Ephrem Lash, with a foreword by HH the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and introductory essay by Andrew Louth San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995

For St Ephrem the Syrian, we use the Hymns on the Nativity from this book:
"Ephrem the Syrian : hymns" / translated and introduced by Kathleen E. McVey ; preface by John Meyendorff; New York : Paulist Press, c1989.

vetusta ecclesia said...

Revolutionaries and reformers reforming for the “ good” of others rarely have any sense of humour, fun, or play

Carol said...

I have come across some interesting patterns of the use of Nominative and Vocative throughout the Missal, not just in the Ordinary of the Mass. Take, for example, the Introit for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: Populus Sion, ecce Dominus veniet…This has a parallel in Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita 1.24 where the people of Alba are addressed in the Nominative: Audī tū, populus Albānus. Occasional examples appear in both Christian and Classical Latin in poetic style texts or elevated discourse.

In the Gloria, there is an intriguing mixture of Nominatives and Vocatives in the same phrases e.g.
Domine Deus, rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris
with parallels in Classical literature.

If anyone would like a further explanation of this unusual construction – technically called Enthesis – I will gladly oblige.