A Hymn for the Holy Innocents

One of the blessings of the proposed new English translation of the Hymnal for the Hours is an increase of hymns marking particular feasts.  The feast of the Holy Innocents has always held a special place in my own liturgical spirituality, perhaps because it so beautifully holds up for our meditation undeserved suffering, suffering that has certainly marked our war-torn world with the death of civilians tolerated as “collateral damage.”  This hymn (with the exception of the final doxology) is drawn from the twelfth and final poem in the Cathemerinon of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens and combines stanzas assigned to Lauds and Vespers in the Breviary of Pius V (1568).

Here are the stanzas assigned to Morning Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the present Liturgia Horarum, with my slavishly literal translation of the text, followed by the proposed English translation of the Hymnal for the Hours:

1. Audit tyrrnaus anxius
adesse regum principem,
qui nomen Israel regat
teneatque David regiam.

The troubled tyrant hears that the ruler of the kings is present, who rules the family of Israel and holds the palace of David.

2. Exclamat amens nuntio:
“Succesor instat, pellimur;
satelles, i, ferrum rape,
perfunde cunas sanguine!”

A madmaan, he exclaims with this message: “My successor is near, we are [to be] driven out: bodyguards, go, take up iron [weapons], flood the cradles with blood.”

3. Quo proficit tantum nefas?
Quid crimen Herodem iuvat?
Unus tot inter funera
Impune Christus tollitur.

What does such an impious act accomplish?  How does this crime assist Herod?  One among all those slain is taken away without harm – Christ.

4. Salvete, flores martyrum,
quos lucis ipso in limine
Christi insecutor sustulit
ceu turbo nascentes rosas.

Hail, flowers of the martyrs, whom at the very entrance into light, Christ’s pursuer cuts down, like roses being born in a whirlwind.

5. Vos prima Christi victima,
grex immolatorum tener,
aram sub ipsam simplices
palma et coronis Iuditis.

You, first sacrifices of Christ, tender flock of those sacrificed, innocents beneath that very altar with palm and crowns you play.

6. Iesu, tibi sit gloria,
qui natus es de Virgine,
cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen.

Jesus, to you be glory, you who were born of the Virgin, with the Father and the nourishing Spirit, unto the eternal ages.  Amen.

1. The troubled tyrant hears with dread
that Christ, the King of kinds, has come
to rule the house of Israel
and take his place on David’s throne.

2. With frantic rage he cries aloud:
“My rival comes to drive me out.
Now go, my guard, take up your swords
and make those cradles flow with blood.”

3. What profit comes from such a sin?
What gain for Herod from this crime?
In safety Christ is borne away,
alone among so many slain.

4. Hail, flowers of the martyrs, fresh and young,
Who at the very dawn of life
Were crushed by Christ’s relentless foe,
Like budding roses in a gale.

5. O tender lambs of sacrifice,
First victims from the flock of Christ,
Beneath that altar, innocent,
With palm and crown you freely play.

6. To you, Lord Jesus, glory be,
The Virgin Mother’s newborn Son,
With God the Father, ever blest,
And loving Spirit, ever one. Amen.

Exhibiting the 88.88 meter associated with “Ambrosian” hymns, these stanzas are a vivid meditation on the slaughter of the innocents.  Stanza two, in employing dramatic monologue, looks ahead to later medieval hymnody such as the famous “Quem queritis” for Easter with its dialogue between the singers and Mary of Magdala.  I am especially touched by the poetic imagery of the Holy Innocents compared to roses born in a whirlwind and the tender depiction of them playing with the symbols of their martyrdom – palms and crowns – beneath the altar of Christ.  This hymn is a powerful challenge to contemporary hymn text writers to find the same balance between addressing the intellect and the heart in enacting liturgical anamnesis.

8 comments

  1. I have not seen any of the translations of the office hymns. This one seems better than I feared (though I’m slightly ambivalent about the decision to forego rhyme). But the meter seems a bit off in the translation of the first line of stanza four. Is there perhaps a typo?

    1. But the meter seems a bit off in the translation of the first line of stanza four. Is there perhaps a typo?

      Omitting “the” seems to be the answer.

  2. I am all for the abandonment of rhyme. It can be a severe straitjacket for the translator and leads to translations that sometimes bear little resemblance to the Latin originals.

    Rhyme is a leftover from the popular songs which gave birth to the metrical psalms in the 16th century, which in turn entered the hymn tradition through pioneers such as Isaac Watts a century later.

    On the positive side, the Victorians produced some magnificent new hymns with both metre and rhyme, instance JH Newman’s ‘Praise to the Holiest’ which rhymes lines 2 and 4 of each verse, and ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ (Both from his poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’). Also, the work of Bishop Christopher Wordsworth (The nephew of the Poet) in hymns such as ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’ which represent an attempt to get people to learn the faith through singing it.

    However, translations from the Latin were not always so good, because of the need to rhyme. My favourite is an anonymous (cf the old English Hymnal no. 59) rendering of ‘pulsis aquae molestiis’ as ‘and drove each billowy heap away/ And bade the earth stand firm for ay.’

    I think the new translations should be welcomed, no doubt they can be improved upon too. Some of the hymns in ‘Hymns for Prayer and Praise’ (Canterbury Press 2011) are good interpretations (rather than translations) of the Latin. I would instance Keith McClellan’s versions of the ferial hymns for Vespers. They are not translations in the strict sense – and even manage with a rhyme that seems usually quite unforced.

    AG

    1. Jesuit Fr James Quinn (Hymns for All Seasons) did not always use rhyme by any means, particularly when translating scripture. He said the absence of rhyme, “when you are setting out to capture words of Scripture, makes for greater fidelity to the text — providing that there are compensating cadences”.

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