Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Rex Pacifice, O thou true and thou peaceful one

Christ in glory (BL Cotton Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v, 10th century, Winchester)

The antiphon for 20 December is 'O clavis David', and you can read the beautiful Old English poetic version of that antiphon here; it speaks of Christ as se þe locan healdeð, lif ontyneð, 'he who guards the locks, who opens life', who will 'become for us a source of strength in spirit, and enfold our feeble knowledge in splendour'. But, as I promised in my last post, here's one of the sections of the same poem inspired by a less commonly-used antiphon: this is based on 'O rex pacifice' (lines 214-274 of the Old English poem):

Eala þu soða ond þu sibsuma
ealra cyninga cyning, Crist ælmihtig,
hu þu ær wære eallum geworden
worulde þrymmum mid þinne wuldorfæder
cild acenned þurh his cræft ond meaht!
Nis ænig nu eorl under lyfte,
secg searoþoncol, to þæs swiðe gleaw
þe þæt asecgan mæge sundbuendum,
areccan mid ryhte, hu þe rodera weard
æt frymðe genom him to freobearne.
þæt wæs þara þinga þe her þeoda cynn
gefrugnen mid folcum æt fruman ærest
geworden under wolcnum, þæt witig god,
lifes ordfruma, leoht ond þystro
gedælde dryhtlice, ond him wæs domes geweald,
ond þa wisan abead weoroda ealdor:
"Nu sie geworden forþ a to widan feore
leoht, lixende gefea, lifgendra gehwam
þe in cneorissum cende weorðen."
Ond þa sona gelomp, þa hit swa sceolde,
leoma leohtade leoda mægþum,
torht mid tunglum, æfter þon tida bigong.
Sylfa sette þæt þu sunu wære
efeneardigende mid þinne engan frean
ærþon oht þisses æfre gewurde.
þu eart seo snyttro þe þas sidan gesceaft
mid þi waldende worhtes ealle.

Forþon nis ænig þæs horsc, ne þæs hygecræftig,
þe þin fromcyn mæge fira bearnum
sweotule geseþan. Cum, nu, sigores weard,
meotod moncynnes, ond þine miltse her
arfæst ywe! Us is eallum neod
þæt we þin medrencynn motan cunnan,
ryhtgeryno, nu we areccan ne mægon
þæt fædrencynn fier owihte.
þu þisne middangeard milde geblissa
þurh ðinne hercyme, hælende Crist,
ond þa gyldnan geatu, þe in geardagum
ful longe ær bilocen stodan,
heofona heahfrea, hat ontynan,
ond usic þonne gesece þurh þin sylfes gong
eaðmod to eorþan. Us is þinra arna þearf!
Hafað se awyrgda wulf tostenced,
deor dædscua, dryhten, þin eowde,
wide towrecene, þæt ðu, waldend, ær
blode gebohtes, þæt se bealofulla
hyneð heardlice, ond him on hæft nimeð
ofer usse nioda lust. Forþon we, nergend, þe
biddað geornlice breostgehygdum
þæt þu hrædlice helpe gefremme
wergum wreccan, þæt se wites bona
in helle grund hean gedreose,
ond þin hondgeweorc, hæleþa scyppend,
mote arisan ond on ryht cuman
to þam upcundan æþelan rice,
þonan us ær þurh synlust se swearta gæst
forteah ond fortylde, þæt we, tires wone,
a butan ende sculon ermþu dreogan,
butan þu usic þon ofostlicor, ece dryhten,
æt þam leodsceaþan, lifgende god,
helm alwihta, hreddan wille.

O thou true and thou peaceful one,
king of all kings, almighty Christ,
how you existed before all the world's glory
was made, with your heavenly Father,
conceived as a child through his skill and power!
There is now no man under the sky,
no person clever in thought, so very wise
that he can tell the sea-bound world's dwellers,
rightly relate how the guardian of the heavens
in the beginning took you as his noble son.
That was, of the things which the tribes of men
among peoples here have heard of, the very first
worked beneath the sky: that the wise God,
life's source, light and darkness
divinely parted, and with him was the power.
And the Lord of hosts commanded this:
"Now let there be, from henceforth until eternity,
light, luminous joy to all living things
which will be born in their generations."
And at once it was, when it had to be so:
light lightened the tribes of peoples,
brilliant among the stars, in the course of time.
He himself ordained that you, the Son,
were dwelling as an equal with your solitary Lord
before any of this had ever been done.
You are the wisdom who created
all this wide world with your Ruler.

And so there is none so sharp-witted
nor so skillful in mind that he can
clearly explain to the children of men
your first beginning. Come now, Lord of victories,
Measurer of mankind, and here, steadfast in grace,
manifest your mercy! In us all there is a longing
that we may understand your mother's origins,
the true mystery, since we cannot rightly
any further follow your father's origins.
In mercy gladden this world
by your advent, Saviour Christ,
and the golden gates, which in days gone by
so long stood locked,
order to be opened, heaven's high Lord,
and seek us out by your own coming
humbly to earth. We need your mercy!
The accursed wolf, the beast who walks in darkness,
has destroyed your flock, Lord,
scattered abroad those you, Ruler, once
bought with blood, whom the hate-filled foe
cruelly persecutes and takes into captivity,
against our urgent longing. So we, Saviour,
pray eagerly in the thoughts of our hearts
that you swiftly bring help
to weary exiles, that the tormenting slayer
may be cast low into the depths of hell
and your handiwork, Creator of mankind,
may rise and come by right
to the noble kingdom above,
from which the dark spirit once seduced
and drew us by desire for sin, so that we,
bereft of glory, must for ever endure misery without end,
unless you, with greatest swiftness, everlasting Lord,
from the destroyer of men, living God,
Guardian of all creatures, choose to save us.

God creating the sun, moon and stars (BL Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 3, 11th century, Canterbury)

This follows on from one of the most memorable sections in this remarkable poem: a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, in which they discuss Mary's miraculous pregnancy and its consequences for them both. In that anguished exchange, Joseph describes his fears for Mary, while she worries that she will lose his love; then Mary describes her encounter with the angel, telling how she learned that she would become the mother of God's child. In that section, the opening 'O' is more like a cry of distress than anything else: Mary begins by saying 'Eala Joseph min, Jacobes bearn', 'O my Joseph, son of Jacob...' If you were one of an Anglo-Saxon audience reading or listening to this poem, you would just have seen the most human side of the story of the incarnation: a married couple worrying about how to cope with an unimaginable change in their lives and their relationship.

This moving and personal dialogue is followed by something very different. The story is written now on a cosmic scale; the section based on 'O rex pacifice' addresses Christ as king and ruler, a being born before all the worlds, whose nature is far beyond human understanding. Having just explored Christ's maternal origins (his medrencynn) in the preceding section, this poem now emphasises the impossibility of tracing his paternal origins (his fædrencynn) back through the vastness of time and space. It does what it can, by going back to the beginning of creation and the first command:

Nu sie geworden forþ a to widan feore
leoht, lixende gefea, lifgendra gehwam.

Now let there be, from henceforth until eternity,
light, luminous joy to all living things...

I love how the poet keeps you waiting for the word 'light' here, holding it over to the end of the phrase, and then producing a threefold alliteration on leoht, lixende, lifgendra; it sounds so beautiful spoken aloud. The beginning of light is the beginning of time, æfter þon tida bigong – and further back than that, no one can go. This poem takes pleasure in juxtaposing the limitations of human knowledge against the vastness of God's cræft ond meaht: several times we hear that no one is clever enough – searoþoncol, horsc, or hygecræftig enough – to fully understand this mystery. Here we are sea-dwellers (sundbuend), earth-bound under the sky; but the golden gates which bar the way to the heavens can be opened:

ond þin hondgeweorc, hæleþa scyppend,
mote arisan ond on ryht cuman
to þam upcundan æþelan rice.

and your handiwork, Creator of mankind,
may rise and come by right
to the noble kingdom on high.

God creating the world (BL Royal 1 E VII, f. 1v, 11th century, Canterbury)


John Woodman said...

Are there any reccordings available of the original versions of the antiphons?

William Brown said...

Fully orthodox. And the science and cosmology is also accurate. All spoken in language and poetry that is so beautiful.
Sort of belies the myth of progressivism. CSL called it "chronological snobbery".

Linda said...


A.Pags said...

Thank you for this. Is there any way one might read a translation of the dialogue between Joseph and Mary that you mention?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, click on the link where it says 'a dialogue between Mary and Joseph' for my translation of that text :)