Should Latin hymns be rhymed?

John Rose, 7/17/2021 (updated 8/01/2021)

Here is a technical note on some uses of English rhyme in translations on Latin hymns, with a single case study. It is a followup to the brief notice I posted on the Hymnal for the Hours by Fr. Weber and his team.

Like poetic translations in many other books, the hymns in this Hymnal often make a significant concession to the English ear: They rhyme. This choice sweetens the sound to our hearing, and (along with certain word choices, or “diction”) the choice decorates the text so we can say, “yep, that’s poetry”. (Not all poetry needs to rhyme; much of Shakespeare and Browning does not, for example.) This agreeable choice costs something, since a word that rhymes is usually not a word that most faithfully conveys the original intent, in the place where the rhyme must be set. Within a poem limited by a specific meter (i.e., a set budget of lines and syllables), nothing is free: If you want a rhyme, and it doesn’t happen to be there naturally already, you have to give up something else, usually some supporting observation or description, to make room for a rhyme. A less capable translator will simply paraphrase the whole stanza using stock rhymes and phrases from English, and move on to another task. This leaves the original poet with little or nothing to say to the now-cheated English reader.

I have to say I am impressed by the discipline of the translations chosen in the Hymnal for the Hours. Everywhere I have checked, the work is accurate, of comparable quality to past efforts such as the “Englishing” of Prudentius by R.M. Pope and J.M. Neale. In fact, it builds on work by Neale, a master craftsman. (Update: After spending more time in the book, I have found poorer translations mixed in. I don’t fault the editors for this, because they can only include what is available, and translation quality must necessarily vary for those hymns which are seldom translated.)

I wish this were the usual case for hymn books, but they seem to be subject to some sort of Gresham’s Law. Hymn book editors tinker with texts they don’t understand for momentary forgettable reasons (or for no discernible reason), all the while nose-blind to the odd smells they introduce into the clean work they are editing. (Glad I got that off my chest, and a tip of the hat to Tony Esolen’s ongoing work making a proper survey of hymns and their vicissitudes. And don’t get me started on Bible translations.) But the present translators, especially Neale and Weber, are free of this problem, because it is abundantly clear both that they care about their original sources, and that (when they are able to find or create a good translation) they are technically capable of a sustained fidelity to them.

Let’s take an example of how translation choices can work out various ways, in the first verse of Prudentius’ morning hymn Nox et tenebrae. I’ll show the original Latin, plus very fine translations from J.M. Neale and R.M. Pope, and an unattributed one a mid-twentieth century translation by Placidus Kempf of St. Meinrad’s abbey, as found in the Hymnal, number 176.

Recently (last Wednesday morning) Paul Rose on Sing the Hours sang a translation of Nox et tenebrae which is apparently adapted by Rebecca Hincke Fr. Weber from J.M. Neale. (See the YouTube video, with apologies in advance for the appalling ads.) Let’s look at that one too, as far as it differs from Neale. This is entry 175 in the Hymnal.

To show how an unrhymed translation can work, I add my own translation at the end.

(Update: At first I guessed wrongly where the modern translations came from, misled perhaps by ascription of copyright of the Weber/Neale variant to the singer Rebecca Hincke on various Divine Office web pages. Eventually I found my way to the Acknowledgements page tucked in the back of the Hymnal where correction was to be found. The connection of the Hymnal text 175 with Neale is my own observation.)

First, here is a Latin stanza with a word-for-word glossary.

Nox   et  tenebrae   et nubila,
night and darknesses and clouds

confusa  mundi       et  turbida,
confused the-world's and storms/troubles

lux   intrat, albescit     polus:
light enters, gleams-white the-pole

Christus venit;      discedite.
Christ   approaches; all-you-depart!

Here we have two lines of murky, muddy night, gloom, cloud, confusion and so forth, like a drum-roll before the fanfare of a symphony. Then (bang!) light comes in and hits the top of the sky. But there’s more: Christ is here! (The natural and the spiritual work together in this poem, but are not confused, as in some translations.) The last word, discedite, addresses all the clouds and murk of the first two lines, commanding them to go away. Briefly, the stanza runs as, “gloom (lots of gloom), light and Christ, gloom begone!”

The Latin grammar is hard at work here, because the second-person-plural-imperative “Begone, all of you!” can only match up with the plural clouds at the beginning, not the singular light or the lone pole or the Lord. This sort of A-B-A pattern (a simple chiasm or crossover) is a little harder to do in English, which relies more on word order to stick things together. We see this in the translations:

Hence, night and clouds that night-time brings,
Confused and dark and troubled things;
The dawn is here, the sky grown white,
Christ is at hand; depart from sight. [Neale]

When breaks the day, and dawn grows bright,
Christ nearer seems, the Light of Light:
From us, like shades that nighttime brings,
Drive forth, O Lord, all darksome things. [Weber/Neale]

Ye clouds and darkness, hosts of night
That breed confusion and affright,
Begone! o'erhead the dawn shines clear,
The light breaks in and Christ is here. [Pope]

Let night and darkness, clouds, and all
Sad turmoil now depart,
For light appears; the sky grows bright;
Christ comes into our hearts. [Kempf]

Night and blind glooms and misty clouds,
The world's confused and troubled air:
Light enters in, gleams white the pole,
And Christ is come:  Begone the dark! [Rose]

(Metrically, one of these is not like the others: The Weber one is instead of like the rest. That is, it has shorter second and fourth lines.)

One might keep score thus: Assuming the Latin command “Begone” (disceite) is most perfectly placed at the climax of the stanza, where does the translated command appear in each translation? Well, Neale puts it at both the beginning (“hence”) and end (“depart”); this I regard as a clever move, since it preserves the punchy ending. ~Hincke’s editor~ Fr. Weber, mixing it around, ends up converting the ending command into a prayer to the Lord, a change of tone I would not appreciate, were I Prudentius. Both Pope and Weber place the command “Begone” (or “depart”) immediately after the two lines of roiling clouds, giving up on the crossover structure as a concession to English; this makes Christ’s appearance close the stanza. My own effort uses a different compromise, similar to Neale’s: The “Begone” is at the end, and is joined by “the dark”, a repetition which briefly links the command back to the clouds of the first two lines.

What about the effect of rhymes? Well, Neale’s “things/brings” ably support the descriptions of the clouds, but they also take up space, and that requires Neale to drop the reference to the the world (“mundi”) in the second line. Moreover, Neale must use monosyllables (which English is rich in) to replace the rolling thunder of tenebrae et nubila with a similar train of English words. Even so he doesn’t have room to replicate the original pattern of “A and B and C”. (It’s as if you translated “lions and tigers and bears” by dropping the bears completely. To his credit he recreates the pattern on the second line; better late than never.) Neale is luckier with “white/sight”, since albescit lieterally means “whitens”, but again the phrase “from sight” is not in the Latin.

Pope does a good job preserving the rumble of the “night and dark and clouds”, but in order to make his rhymes come out he moves “night” to the end of the line, instead of the more dramatic leading position in the Latin. To support “night” he adds some “hosts” which don’t appear in the Latin at all, but do help fill in the murmur for which Prudentius seems to be aiming. The rhyme “affight” is, like “hosts”, not in the Latin. There first two lines are more about turbulent confusion and obscurity than fear, so I would call “affright” a false note. He does better with his rhyme “clear/here”, since they serve to render real ideas in the Latin.

In order to inject the “Begone” into his third line, Pope cuts short an elegant double pattern in the Latin line. It should be “Light enters, the pole whitens”, but he merges it into “overhead the dawn shines clear”. Neale and Weber succeed in keeping the doublet. Note also that Weber does not trouble himself to rhyme that line either, which gives him more room to maneuver.

What about that “pole” (polus) in the Latin? Are we making a sudden trip at dawn to visit Santa? The Latin is not referring to the terrestrial North Pole (which was terra incognita), but rather to the celestial pole visible in the sky, where the star Polaris lives. Apparently Prudentius expected that his fourth-century listeners would have a more intimate knowledge of the sky than most city-bound moderns do today. (This same word polus also appears in Deus, qui caeli lumen es, as the upper point from which God spreads out the sky.) I have kept this word verbatim, knowing it will trip up modern readers, but not wishing to dilute its meaning. This “pole” is a particular spot high in the sky, not just the generic word for “sky”, as used by the other translators. Pope gets my respect here, because he uses the word “o’erhead” to encourage us to look at the top of the sky, not just the sky as a whole. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if the term polus could refer, poetically, to what we call the zenith (not a Latin word), just as well as the specific site of the North Star.

Here’s another reason to enjoy the specific word “pole” better than a general “sky”: Unlike the murky clouds of the middle air, the “pole” and the other inhabitants of the starry sky are unchangeable, orderly, rational, and beautiful; they are celestial and heavenly in the intellectual and spiritual senses, as well as the physical. Remember the music of the spheres? The ancients (even before the Greeks and Romans) valued astronomy because it is a window into a spectacular world outside of everyday experience. The old love of astronomy directly begat that hard science we value so much today; therefore it seems odd to me that astronomy is no longer a liberal art.

As a larger point, this poem is about the conflict of dark and light and gloom and color, in the early morning sky. Therefore, it is visual poetry. To understand Prudentius correctly, the poem must be read with an open eye–that is, with our mind’s eye open, discerning exactly what the poem describes for us.

Now let’s try the second stanza.

Caligo     terrae   scinditur
dark-vapor of-earth is-split-apart/cut-away

percussa            solis     spiculo,
struck-through [by] the-sun's dart/sting

rebusque      iam         color redit
and-to-things now [their] color returns/reappears

vultu              nitentis     sideris
to-the-visage/face of-the-shine of-the-starry

That is, since light (and Christ) have come, those roiling clouds don’t stand a chance, and are torn and perforated and blown up by a knife from the Sun. (Hoo-yah!) As a result, earthly objects regain their color. The brightening (but still starry) face of the sky looks down.

Here are the translations. (The Weber text used by Hincke leaves Neale unchanged on this one.)

Earth’s dusky veil is torn away,
Pierced by the sparkling beams of day;
Our life resumes its hues apace,
Soon as the day-star shows his face. [Neale]

Earth's gloom flees broken and dispersed,
By the sun's piercing shafts coerced:
The daystar's eyes rain influence bright
And colours glimmer back to sight. [Pope]

The darkness of the earth is rent,
Pierced by the sun's bright ray;
Bright color now returns to things
Viewed in the light of day. [Weber]

Vapors of earth are torn away
Struck through by sunlight's fiery spike,
And things their colors now regain,
Faced by the glittering starry sky. [Rose]

Here readers can easily make their own comparisons, but I’ll raise a few more questions:

Where’s the Sun in the first line of Neale? Instead we find the word “day” (such a rhymable word!) to match up with “torn away”. (At least “torn away” is 100% accurate.)

What has become of the Sun’s spiculo, which percussively (what a word!) disrupts the clouds? That word means “sharp point”, the small tip of an arrow or even an insect sting; it is cognate with our word “spike” and related to the name of the star Spica. I expected one of the Victorians to come up with a “darting ray” here, but it is simply a “sparkling beam”, “piercing shaft”, or “bright ray”. The metaphor of the Sun stabbing the clouds with something sharp relies, in English only on the action-word “pierces”. Why drop the weapon Prudentius gives the Sun? Could it be the needs of the rhyme nudged it out?

Granted that the clouds are being violently “dispersed”, but why, other than for a rhyme, must we hear about them being “coerced”?

Granted that “face” is a fine rendering of vultus (which specifically means a face that you face when it is gazing at you): Is there any reason (other than rhyme) to hurry up the colorization process, by making it proceed “apace”?

Is there any reason, other than finding a rhyme for “ray”, to use the very plain description “the light of day” to stand for exquisitely shivery phrase nitentis sideris, that band of watching star-sparkles?

One cannot blame rhyme for “the daystar’s eyes rain influence”, but why add a second mention of the Sun, some eyes, rain, and stellar influence? After all, the Latin has none of these, and one might prefer the shivery description of the starry yet impersonal face of the sky, to a stock Victorian description of faux astrology.

All of the observations above have to be taken with several grains of salt. I’m a poor Latin scholar, and very much a part-time poet. The questions above are not merely rhetorical, but indeed have many reasonable answers. Anyway, a well-made poem loses something when broken into its parts. I haven’t criticized my own work here only because I know I’m relatively blind to whatever flaws it must have. As I rummage through the work of my betters, my overall thought is not “let’s look how silly they are” but rather “how can human beings do such a volume of amazing work” and simply “I want to learn how that works!”

A last grain of salt: Having taken these poems apart, it’s better to put them back together and enjoy them as wholes. So I’ll end with Gandalf’s admonition:

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.