The seven great hymns of the mediaeval church/The Celestial Country



BERNARD DE MORLAS, monk of Cluni, is not to be confounded with the great Bernard his contemporary, Abbot of Clairvaux, and Saint in the Romish calendar. The place of his nativity is uncertain, and the years of his birth and of his death are alike unknown. He lived during the first half of the twelfth century; he was born, according to one authority, at Morlaix, in Bretagne; according to another, at Morlas, in the lower Pyrenees; whilst a third gives his birth-place to England, and classes him with her illustrious writers (De illustribus Angliæ Scriptoribus).[1] After seven centuries of comparative forgetfulness, the genius of two English scholars has revived a portion of his works; and hereafter his name will be best known in that country, which may possibly possess his birth-place.

There still survive of his writings five poems, the greatest of which is De Contemptu Mundi. It was written about 1145, and contains three thousand lines, divided into three books. In substance the poem is a satire, unforgiving and severe: in form it is in dacylic hexameter verse. According to Dr. Duffield, to whose judgment I defer, "each line consists of a first part composed of two dactyls, a second containing two more dactyls, and a third made up of a dactyl and a trochee. The last dactyls of the first and second parts rhyme together, and the lines are in couplets—the final trochees also rhyming. This remark upon the dactylic nature of the rhymes in the first two parts is not made by Neale or Coles or the compiler of the Seven Great Hymns. They all italicise the last two syllables, whereas it should be the last three, i. e., the foot itself.

Sobria muniat || improba puniat || utraque juste,

is in all respects a perfect line—each foot being a word, and the rhyme unimpeachable."[2]

This verse, so difficult that the English language is incapable of expressing it, is continued through the three thousand lines of the poem. In his preface the monk avows the belief that nothing but the special inspiration of the Spirit of God enabled him to employ it through so long a poem. After recounting its difficulties, and alluding to the faint attempts of the two great versifiers of his day, Hildebert de Lavardin and Wichard of Lyons, he exclaims: "I may then assert, not in ostentation, but with humble confidence, that if I had not received directly from on high the gift of inspiration and intelligence, I had not dared to attempt an enterprise so little accorded to the powers of the human mind."

"This work," says the author of the Histoire Littéraire de la France, "was drawn from the dust in 1483, and its publication was achieved on the tenth of December of the same year, at Paris, in magni domo campi Gaillardi. The Protestants, eager to gather every thing which appears unfavorable to the Church of Rome, have since multiplied the editions. Some Catholics have also given to it some praises; and surely it merits them, at least by the sentiments of piety which it exhales, and by the zeal with which the author attacks the abuses of his time."

"In holy Rome the only power is gold;
There all is bought—there every thing is sold.
Because she is the very way to right,
There truth is perished by unholy sleight.
Even as the wheel turns, Rome to evil turns,
Rome, that spreads fragrance as when incense burns.
Rome wrongs mankind, and teaches men the road
To flee far off from Righteousness' abode!
To seek for ruinous and disgraceful gain,
The pallium's self with simony to stain.
If aught you wish, be sure a goodly bribe
Will haste the sealing of the lingering scribe.
Rise! follow! let your penny go before,
Seek boldly then the threshold; fear no more
That any stumbling-blocks will bar the way,
The Pope's own favor you can get for pay—
Without that help, 'tis best to keep away."

The opening of this monkish satire on the corruptions of its barbarous age, glows with a description of the Heavenly Land more beautiful than ever before was wrought in verse. This a great scholar of our time has taken from the poem and brought within the reach and notice of the world (Trench). It also has been re-woven into simple English verse, and has received the appropriate name of The Celestial Country.

The translator of The Celestial Country is Dr. John Mason Neale, Warden of Sackville College, Sussex, England, the most successful translator of mediæval hymns, and one of the most varied and voluminous writers of the time. "Lays and Legends of the Church of England;" "A Church History for Children;" seven volumes of romances; a history of Greece; a history of Portugal; of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and of the Jansenist Church of Holland; a large number of tales and hymns for children, and a most learned and elaborate commentary on the Book of Psalms, are included in the long catalogue of his works.

This scholar of Cambridge, and this monk of Cluni, have given to the religious world the sweetest and dearest religious poem that our language contains. Dr. Neale says that he looks upon the lines of Bernard "as the most lovely, in the same way that the Dies Iræ is the most sublime, and the Stabat Mater the most pathetic of mediæval poems," but his own poem may claim more justly that word. The Celestial Country is better than De Contemptu Mundi. The beautiful simplicity of its artless, childlike lines portrays more naturally the fervid imagery of the monk. After seven hundred years of darkness, the holy fervor of Bernard re-kindles in it as warmly as when in the warmth of his devotion he believed himself specially inspired by the Most High. In another language, at another time, and among those who can but dimly trace his name in the crumbling record of his works, the Rhyme of the poor monk relives to gladden the hearts of other Christians, loved by such as possess its faith, and treasured by the gentlest and the best of earth.[3]


  1. "Le surnom de Bernard varie en trois manières dans les manuscrits. Les uns l'expriment par Morlanensis qui Pitseus rapporte à une ville d'Angleterre sans la designer; les autres portent Morvalensis, que Fabricius explique de la vallée de Maurienne; il en est enfin où l'on trouve Morlacensis, qu'on peut appliquer ou à Morlaix en Basse-Bretagne, ou à la Morlas dans le comté de Bigorre. Mais il est certain, 1°, que la seconde denomination est la plus rare; 2°, que les anciennes chartes emploient indifferemment les deux autres pour marquer un citoyen de la derniere ville, ce qui nous fait pencher à la regarder comme la vraie patrie de Bernard."—Histoire Littéraire de la France. Dr. Neale says that Bernard was "born at Morlaix in Bretagne, but of English parents." Trench calls him "the contemporary and fellow-countryman of his more illustrious namesake of Clairvaux." Pitseus simply says, "Natione Angliis ordinis S. Benedicti, Monachus Cluniacensis."
  2. In his introduction to "The Celestial Country," Dr. Neale says:—"I have here deviated from my ordinary rule of adopting the measure of the original; because our language, if it could be tortured to any distant resemblance of its rhythm, would utterly fail to give any idea of the majestic sweetness of the Latin."—Mediæval Hymns and Sequences. London, 2d Edition.
  3. "As a contrast to the misery and pollution of earth," says Dr. Neale, "the poem [De Contemptu Mundi] opens with a description of the peace and glory of heaven, of such rare beauty as not easily to be matched by any mediæval composition on the same subject. Dean Trench, in his 'Sacred Latin Poetry,' gave a very beautiful cento of ninety-five lines from the work. From that cento I translated the larger part in the first edition of the present book, following the arrangement of Dean Trench, and not that of Bernard. The great popularity which my translation, however inferior to the original, attained, is evinced by the very numerous hymns compiled from it, which have found their way into modern collections; so that in some shape or other the Cluniac's verses have become, as it were, naturalized among us. This led me to think that a fuller extract from the Latin, and a further translation into English, might not be unacceptable to the lovers of sacred poetry." "It would be most unthankful did I not express my gratitude to God for the favor He has given some of the centos made from the poem, but especially Jerusalem the Golden. It has found a place in some twenty hymnals; and for the last two years it has hardly been possible to read any newspaper, which gives prominence to ecclesiastical news, without seeing its employment chronicled at some dedication or other festival. It is also a great favorite with dissenters, and has obtained admission to the Roman Catholic services. 'And I say this,' to quote Bernard's own preface, 'in no wise arrogantly, but with all humility, and therefore boldly.' "But more thankful still am I that the Cluniac's verses should have soothed the dying hours of many of God's servants, the most striking instance, of which I know, is related in the memoir published by Mr. Brownlow, under the title, A Little Child shall lead them; where he says that the child of whom he writes, when suffering agonies which the medical attendants declared to be almost unparalleled, would lie without a murmur or motion, while the whole four hundred lines were read.

    "I have no hesitation in saying that I look on these verses of Bernard as the most lovely, in the same way that the Dies Iræ is the most sublime, and the Stabat Mater the most pathetic of mediæval poems. They are even superior to that glorious hymn on the same subject, the De Gloriâ et Gaudiis Paradisi of St. Peter Damiani. For the sake of comparison, I quote some of the most striking stanzas of the latter, availing myself of the admirable translation of Mr. Wackerbarth (Med. Hymns, 2d Edition, London):


    There nor waxing moon, nor waning
    Sun nor stars in courses bright;
    For the Lamb to that glad city
    Shines an everlasting light:
    There the daylight beams for ever,
    All unknown are time and night.

    For the Saints, in beauty beaming,
    Shine in light and glory pure;
    Crowned in triumph's flushing honors,
    Joy in unison secure;
    And in safety tell their battles,
    And their foes' discomfiture.

    Freed from every stain of evil,
    All their carnal wars are done;
    For the flesh made spiritual
    And the foul agree in one;
    Peace unbroken spreads enjoyment,
    Sin and scandal are unknown.

    Here they live in endless being;
    Passingness hath passed away;
    Here they bloom, they thrive, they flourish,
    For decayed is all decay:
    Lasting energy hath swallowed
    Darkling death's malignant sway.

    Though each one's respective merit
    Hath its varying palm assigned,
    Love takes all as his possession,
    Where his power hath all combined;
    So that all that each possesses
    All partake in unconfined.

    Christ, Thy soldiers' palm of honor,
    Unto this Thy city free
    Lead me when my warfare's girdle
    I shall cast away from me—
    A partaker in Thy bounty
    With Thy blessed ones to be.

    Grant me vigor, while I labor
    In the ceaseless battle pressed,
    That Thou mayst, the conflict over,
    Grant me everlasting rest;
    And I may at length inherit
    Thee, my portion ever blest."

    "Archdeacon Trench says very well, after referring to the Ode of Casimir (the great Latin poet of Poland), Urit me Patriæ decor, that both 'turn upon the same theme, the heavenly home-sickness; but with all the classical beauty of the Ode, and it is great, who does not feel that the poor Cluniac monk's is the more real and deep utterance?'

    "The Ode, however, is well worthy of a translation, and here is an attempt :


    It kindles all my soul,
    My Country's loveliness! Those starry choirs
    That watch around the pole,
    And the moon's tender light, and heavenly fires
    Through golden halls that roll.
    O chorus of the night! O planets, sworn
    The music of the spheres
    To follow! Lovely watchers, that think scorn
    To rest till day appears!
    Me, for celestial homes of glory born,
    Why here, oh why so long,
    Do ye behold an exile from on high?
    Here, O ye shining throng,
    With lilies spread the mound where I shall lie:
    Here let me drop my chain,
    And dust to dust returning, cast away
    The trammels that remain;
    The rest of me shall spring to endless day!"