Tuesday 6 December 2011

Vox Clara Ecce Intonat: Newman's 'Hark! a gladsome voice is thrilling'

Time to start posting some Advent hymns, I think. One of the best-known Advent hymns (and one of my favourites) is Edward Caswall's translation of the sixth-century Latin hymn 'Vox clara ecce intonat', 'Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding' (or, more familiar to me though it gets far fewer google hits, 'Hark, a herald voice is calling'). I'm not going to post it, but you can read a translation and analysis of the Latin hymn here; as usual, I confine myself to things I know about, i.e. English, not Latin!

John Henry Newman wrote a translation of this hymn (or rather, of its post-1632 revised form) with the first line 'Hark, a joyful voice is thrilling', which you can also read at that link; it seems to be fairly well-known. Less well-known (at least, unknown to Google) is his version of the hymn in six-line stanzas, which according to this excellent website was published in 1908 in the third edition of the hymn-collection Songs of Syon, ed. George Ratcliffe Woodward.

Woodward is best known today as the author of the words to 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'. Newman's hymn is a little more dignified than that; some of the vocabulary is notably archaic, which may explain why it has fallen out of use (also I guess because six-line stanzas don't fit the familiar tune for this hymn). But I like it for the use of the word gladsome, one of the nicest words in the English language (it means 'causing or showing gladness, cheerfulness, joy'). Not a very precise translation of clara, perhaps, but an attractive one.

So here is Newman's 'Hark! a gladsome voice is thrilling', with some comments.

1. Hark! a gladsome voice is thrilling,
Earth’s dim pathways wildly shaking:
Lo! the ancient fane is filling
With the glow, for day is breaking;
Day is breaking, night-dreams vanish;
Christ is coming, gloom to banish.

[in case you, like me, had never heard fane before - it's an archaic word for 'temple'.]

2. Christ is coming! from thy prison,
Earth-bound spirit, spring with gladness!
Rising with the Star, new risen,
Health to shed on human sadness:
Lo! the Lamb descends from heaven:
Sinners, haste to be forgiven.

3. Yea! to grant a gracious guerdon,
Once again he comes in glory:
Mourners, freighted with your pardon,
His right hand he lifteth o’er ye:
Lord, when doom and death confound us,
Be thine arm of mercy round us.

[guerdon usually means 'reward' or 'recompense', but here it must be intended as 'pardon'. As for freighted, this metaphorical use of the word seems to have fallen out of use now; it means 'weighed down', as with cargo.]

4. To the Father, Son, and Spirit,
Glory, honour, power, be given:
Lord, to thine eternal merit
Praise be sung in earth and heaven:
Voice of Saints in concert blending,
Heard through ages never ending. Amen.

This strikes me as a more self-consciously poetic translation than the others, which are comparatively straightforward. The rhyme scheme is a demanding one and the lines are heavy (almost freighted) with alliteration, especially on that central word 'gladsome': we have glow, gloom, gladness, glory (twice), grant, gracious, and guerdon. That's a lot for four verses! And that's not all: there's fane is filling, doom and death, spirit spring, Christ is coming, Lo, the Lamb, and the double alliteration in health to shed on human sadness. This, together with the repetition of day is breaking in lines 4-5 and Christ is coming between verses 1 and 2 (and the repetition-with-variation in rising with the Star, new risen), creates, I think, a sense of urgency, as if the lines are pressing on and tumbling over themselves in expectation - just the right mood for Advent, and that insistent calling voice.

This hymn deserves to be better known - especially at a time when we are all still acquainting ourselves with the newly-Blessed John Henry Newman.

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