Saturday, 17 November 2012

Joy and triumph everlasting

I'm a bit late with this post, but today is something of a bonus feast-day for me, patron-saints-wise - two for the price of one.  St Hilda, the seventh-century abbess of Whitby, is the patron and namesake of my first Oxford college, and St Hugh of Lincoln is one of the patrons of my last; they share a feast today, by one of the coincidences of history.  They lived five hundred years apart, and I'm not sure whether they have much in common apart from their feast-day (and me).  They did both have an affinity with birds -St Hugh famously had a pet swan which used to follow him around and guard him while he slept; legend had it that St Hilda was so respected by the sea-birds of Whitby that they would dip their wings in her honour as they flew over the abbey.

Anyway, in honour of these two confessors, here's an 'all saints' kind of hymn.  The words are Robert Bridges' translation of a sequence by Adam of St Victor ('Supernae matris gaudia'), first published in 1899.  This is the tune, and you can see a scanned version of the text in the Yattendon Hymnal here - it's distinctly odd in appearance and spelling, so worth a look...

St Hugh, from Brasenose chapel

Joy and triumph everlasting
Hath the heavenly Church on high;
For that pure immortal gladness
All our feast days mourn and sigh:
Yet in death’s dark desert wild
Doth the Mother aid her child;
Guards celestial thence attend us,
Stand in combat to defend us.

Here the world’s perpetual warfare
Holds from heav’n the soul apart;
Legioned foes in shadowy terror
Vex the Sabbath of the heart.
O how happy that estate
Where delight doth not abate!
For that home the spirit yearneth,
Where none languisheth nor mourneth.

There the body hath no torment,
There the mind is free from care,
There is every voice rejoicing,
Every heart is loving there.
Angels in that city dwell;
Them their King delighteth well:
Still they joy and weary never,
More and more desiring ever.

There the seers and fathers holy,
There the prophets glorified,
All their doubts and darkness ended,
In the light of light abide.
There the saints, whose memories old
We in faithful hymns uphold,
Have forgot their bitter story
In the joy of Jesu’s glory.

There from lowliness exalted
Dwelleth Mary, queen of grace,
Ever with her presence pleading
'Gainst the sin of Adam's race.
To that glory of the blest,
By their prayers and faith confest,
Us, us too, when death hath freed us,
Christ of his good mercy lead us.

St Hilda, from All Saints, Evesham

This hymn was new to me today, and although it immediately appealed to me, it's somewhat odd.  Robert Bridges has an idiosyncratic poetic style at the best of times, and in some places this doesn't even manage to be competent versifying - the couplet 'the saints, whose memories old / We in faithful hymns uphold' is just weak ('memories old'?  Really, Robert?)  You might expect better of a Poet Laureate and friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins - it's no 'All my hope on God is founded', is all I'm saying.  But what I do like very much is the paradox in the first verse: 'For that pure immortal gladness / all our feast days mourn and sigh'.  The very act of rejoicing at annual festivals, fixed points in earthly time, causes us to mourn for a place where there will be no time, and no feast-days - 'no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity', as John Donne has it.  And in the second verse, similarly: 'for that home the spirit yearneth, / Where none languisheth nor mourneth' - we yearn for no more yearning, for 'no fears nor hopes but one equal possession'.


John Simlett said...

I quite like the idea of, "...the Sabbath of the heart."

The notion of squadrons of Whitby seagulls dipping wings, is appealing to this decrepit old aviator

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, 'the Sabbath of the heart' really struck me, too - it's a lovely phrase.