Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Medieval English Hymn: 'Thou king of joy and bliss'

This is a medieval English metrical translation of a section from the 'Te Deum', 'Tu Rex gloriae, Christe'.  It was written in the early fourteenth century by William Herebert, Francisan friar and lecturer in Theology at Oxford; I've posted a number of his many translations of Latin hymns before.

I'm not sure if my posts on Herebert's hymns have successfully conveyed this fact to people who aren't familiar with Middle English, but as well as being a prolific translator Herebert was a highly skilled one: in most cases, he was translating Latin hymns whose structure does not lend itself naturally to English verse, but he makes effective use of rhyme, metrical regularity, and English vocabulary to express concepts which are not always easily condensed - and he does this while being accurate and faithful to the sense of the original.  Because of their poetic qualities, his translations have a way of getting into your head and being simply unforgettable, much more so (for me) than the Latin texts they're based on.  His 'What is he, this lordling?', for example, has a insistent, demanding, raw power that sends shivers down the spine.  "Ich it am, ich it am..."

Translation into verse is an extremely hard skill to master, and good hymn translators rarely get enough credit - people who've never tried it tend to think that anyone can do it!  But Herebert was not only one of the first people to turn Latin hymns into English poetry; he still ranks among the best.  Ask a hundred people who was the first English hymn-writer, and I bet a good proportion of them would say Isaac Watts, or maybe one of the Wesleys; poor Herebert is quite forgotten. But he spoke the English you speak (if you're reading this!) and he wrote so that people could understand the hymns of the Church, and commit them to memory, and pray with them. And he did it well.

I find it particularly interesting that in this case, even though he's translating a part of the 'Te Deum' - which, in Latin, is rhythmical prose, with varying line-lengths - he chooses to make it into regular, rhyming couplets.  This makes it attractively ordered and controlled, as well as memorable.  Personally I find the Latin 'Te Deum' just a tiny bit (am I allowed to say this?) boring from a poetic point of view, and English translations of it which go along with that are equally unmemorable.  Herebert has made poetry of it; his version charges along, triumphant and exulting, full of praise.

Some of his vocabulary is interesting, too, because he never simply borrows the Latin word he's translating - like most English translators of his period, he pays serious attention to the question of how to render a particular concept in his native language (if only some modern translators had half Herebert's understanding of that!).  I've talked about this before with regard to his subtle, intelligent translations of Conditor Alme Siderum and Veni Creator Spiritus.  Here I'm especially struck by the line in the third couplet, "Thou openedest heuene-ryche to ryth byleues thrunchg".  This is what is now often rendered into English as 'thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers'.  Herebert's wonderful addition - not quite a new idea, but a new shade of imagery and meaning on the existing idea - is thrunchg, which means 'crowd, host' - think of throng.  It's here partly to rhyme with stunchg, 'sting' (as in death), but more importantly, I think, to conjure up the idea of a crowd of the faithful, thronging eagerly into the opened gates of heaven.  Throng (very strongly in Middle English, and perhaps even today) denotes an unpredictable, moving, jostling crowd, not a well-behaved procession.  Herebert has given us not just the accurate but rather pale phrase 'all believers'; he's encouraged us to imagine a great crowd of them, living and breathing people, thrusting forward into heaven as they sing their hymns of praise.  It's especially appropriate because the 'Te Deum' is all about collective praise - 'the company of the apostles', 'the fellowship of the prophets', 'the army of the martyrs', and so on.  Herebert has responded to that and enhanced it; he's done what only a good translator can.

And so, here's Herebert.  Or rather, here's the Latin first, just for comparison:

Tu Rex gloriae, Christe.
Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius.
Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,
non horruisti Virginis uterum.
Tu, devicto mortis aculeo,
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum.
Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes, in gloria Patris.
Iudex crederis esse venturus.
Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni:
quos pretioso sanguine redemisti.

Thou kyng of wele and blisse, Louerd Iesu Crist,
Thou Vaderes Sone of heuene, þat neuer ende bist:
Thou, uor to sauue monkunne that thou haddest whrout,
A meke maydes wombe thou ne shonedest nouht.
Thou that ouercome the bitter dethes stunchg,
Thou openedest heuene-ryche to ryth byleues thrunchg.
Thou sist in Godes ryth hond in thy Vaderes blisse;
Thou shalt comen to demen ous, we leueth al-to wysse.
Thee, thenne, we byddeth, help ous, wham thou hauest ywrouth,
Whom wyth thy doerewourthe blod on rode hauest ybouth.

[And there's an alternative last couplet:
Thee, thenne, we bysecheth: help ous, thyn oune hyne,
Whom wyth thy derewourthe blod hast bouth vrom helle pyne. Amen.]

Here's a literal version of what Herebert has:

Thou king of joy and bliss, Lord Jesu Christ,
Thou Father's Son of heaven, who never-ending art:
Thou, to save mankind whom thou hadst wrought,
A meek maid's womb hast shunned not.
Thou who overcame the bitter sting of death,
Thou didst open heaven's realm to the throng of faithful believers.
Thou sittest at God's right hand in thy Father's bliss;
Thou shalt come to judge us; we believe this to be true.
Thee, then, we pray to help us, whom thou hast wrought,
Whom with thy precious blood on rood thou hast bought.

Thee, then, we beseech: help us, thine own servants,
Whom with thy precious blood thou hast saved from the torments of hell.]

Isn't Herebert's phrase 'a meek maid's womb' a thousand times lovelier than 'Virginis uterum' (ugh)?  Isn't his 'dearworthy' ('priceless, valuable, beloved') more real, somehow, than 'pretioso'?  Just me?  Fine...