It is a work of scholarly distinction. The field of Latin hymnology is vast in extent and rich in resources, and translators have roamed far and wide amid its fertile reaches for highly varied blooms and fruits. The compiler has therefore had many rich stores to draw upon, but he has wisely restricted himself to very definite limits of choice. The hymns of the Roman Missal and Breviary form a thesaurus by themselves. Many of them are world-famous classics. Some of them have won translation and commentary that fill volumes devoted to them singly. All of them deserve rendition into English verse and, indeed, have been more than once so rendered. Father Caswall and Archbishop Bagshawe, each for his own day, translated all of the Missal and Breviary hymns. Caswall did more, it is true, finding other treasures in the Parisian and various Monastic Breviaries. His competency for the task he essayed was manifold and excellent, and his Lyra Catholica will doubtless forever remain a Catholic classic. Bagshawe confined his attention to the Roman liturgical hymns, setting himself the somewhat ungrateful task of closely literal translation. In our own day, Judge Donahoe has published two series of Early Christian Hymns, including very many from the Roman liturgy, and has merited the high praise accorded him by critics. Catholic renderings into English of individual liturgical hymns are well-nigh innumerable. While Catholics have naturally been active in such appropriate work, it may seem at first blush astonishing that Protestants should have issued so many volumes of translation, history, commentary and appreciation of our Latin hymnody, and should have exhausted the language of eulogy in appraisal of the masterpieces—the Dies Irae, the Stabat Mater, the Lauda Sion, the Golden Sequence, and the like. Charles Warren found sufficient matter in the history and the translations of the Dies Irae for a good-sized volume. Dr. Coles, an American physician, gave a volume to the Stabat Mater, Judge Noyes unostentatiously issued his Seven Great Hymns of the Medieval Church, and the book ran through many editions. The name of Protestant editors and translators of our Latin hymns is legion. One of the most earnest and reverent students of Latin hymnody, and perhaps the most felicitous of all the translators, was an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. J. M. Neale, D.D. The distinction achieved by Father Britt in the present volume, however, does not lie in the fact that he has ventured, with catholicity of literary taste, to include renderings by other than Catholic pens. Orby Shipley in his Annus Sanctus and the Marquess of Bute in his Roman Breviary had already drawn a sharp contrast—the former excluding, the latter including, non-Catholic renderings. But the present compiler has, more largely than any other, given representation to non-Catholic pens. He has mainly sought for translations that should best combine a just literalness with the just freedom in phrase and form accorded by literary canons in the art of translation. There is obvious danger, on the one hand, that the ray of doctrinal truth will suffer refraction when it passes from the medium of the Latin idiom into the medium of the English tongue. On the other hand, there is danger that excessive devotion to literalness in phrase rather than in thought will issue in idiomatic awkwardness, questionable rhyming, stilted or crabbed rhythm.
While the work of Father Britt derives distinction from this largeness of view in selection, it also aims to secure elegant artistry in the translation of our wonderfully rich hymnody. The task is trying beyond ordinary apprehension, for the editor must minutely weigh questions of accuracy in the rendering, must measure relative felicities of phrase, must compare stanza with stanza, must evaluate sensitively by appropriateness of an English metre to that of the Latin original. Meanwhile, he must remain always fearful lest some subtle essence or quintessence of the Latin poet’s fine frenzy may have been lost, some hardly discernible antithesis in thought or phrase overlooked (as Dr. Neale pointed out in several English translations of the Angelic Doctor’s Pange Lingua), some curiosa felicitas of the Latin handled with unlaboriously heavy touch. The art of selection in the midst of many fairly satisfactory renditions is indeed, to the conscientious anthologist, a most trying one. But the artistic labor does not end here. Merely to select at random will hardly suffice. But to chose the version always which seems best to satisfy the canons of art might result in the too frequent recurrence of the same names—those of Caswall, Neale, Newman, for instance—with an undesirable monotony. A large volume must have a large variety in authorship, when it is an anthology in the field of Latin hymnody. The difficulty confronted is not the superficial one, however, of a mere variety in names. In the domain of music, one may tire of the majesty of Bach, the stormy emotionalism of Beethoven, the “cloying sweetness” of Mendelssohn. In literature, one may desire a change even from the morning freshness of Chaucer, the vivid heart-searchings of Shakespeare, the sententious rhythms of Pope. More is needed than a mere variety in metric forms—a device used by translators in order to avoid monotony. There should be variety in mental and spiritual experience and outlook, in poetic gifts, in rhymic and rhythmic facilities, in variant literary modes. To sum it up briefly, there should be a variety in the unmeasurable thing called personality. For the style is the man—the complex, like himself, of his culture, his loves and hopes, his anxieties and fears. Accordingly, the compiler has availed himself of the labors of some sixty translators of the one hundred and seventy-three hymns included in his volume. The reader may therefore confidently look for that variety which is the spice of literature as of life. Incidentally, he will receive a broad vision of the hymnologic work going on in the world around him.
The utility of Father Britt’s labor of love is practical in many ways. A
good translation is really an interpretation. It does not render merely the words
or even the thoughts of the original writer into another tongue, but seeks as
well to pierce into his mood, to reproduce it for the reader, to catch and fix
that first passion which
beggars all behind,
Heirs of a tamer transport prepossessed.
It remains by to felicitate the compiler upon the completion of his long and loving labor and to bespeak for his volume the attention of all students of Latin hymnology and all lovers of the venerable hymns of the Roman Missal and Breviary.
H. T. Henry
The Catholic University of America,