Sunday, 19 May 2013

'Now Holy Ghost, our true Comforter'

A medieval English translation of the hymn to the Holy Spirit Nunc sancte nobis spiritus, attributed to St Ambrose:

Now holy gost, owr verry counfortowre,
Oon to the fadyr and with sone also;
In tyll owr soule distyll the suet licowre
Of grace, þat wer euer we byde or goo,
Owr soules, lord, þi grace depart not froo,
lest we fall tyll erroure or disioynte
Wyth þi karisme profownde vs and enoynte.

Owr mouth of lavde mak confession;
Owr tvnge also mote speke to þi plesance;
Owr mynd be perfyt meditacione,
Owr wyttes echon with þer sufficance;
Owr strengthes all aftyr þer hole puissance;
Owr charite more flame and in fyre
Owr neghburs all þat bene of gud desyre.

Text from Frank Allen Patterson, ‘Hymnal from MS. Additional 34193 British Museum’, in Medieval Studies in Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis (New York, 1927), pp.443-488 (476).

This dates to the fifteenth century, and comes from the manuscript of hymn translations from which I've previously posted versions of 'Vox clara ecce intonat', 'Conditor alme siderum', 'Hostis Herodis impie', and others. These translations are very much in a recognisable style of fifteenth-century English poetry, with a tendency to the verbose, and delighting in ornate Latinate diction, sometimes made up on the spot for the purposes of translation - if you can properly call that 'translation'! Having said that, the second verse here, with all those parallel clauses beginning 'our', is entirely the translator's ingenuity; and sometimes he hits on a felicitous phrase, such as 'the sweet licour of grace' (licour = liquid, dew; compare the third line of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales). For something simpler, you might like to look at the Middle English translation of 'Veni creator spiritus' ('Com, Shuppere, Holy Gost') which I posted a little while ago.

A modern version (the second verse will make more sense if you read an implied 'may' before every clause):

Now Holy Ghost, our true Comforter,
One with the Father and with the Son also;
Into our souls distil the sweet licour
Of grace, that wherever we may bide or go,
Our souls, Lord, thy grace may depart not fro; [from]
Lest we fall to error or disjoint [distress, difficulty]
With thy grace fill us and anoint.

Our mouths with praise make confession,
Our tongues also speak to thy content;
Our minds be perfect meditation,
Our wits each [used] to their full extent,
Our strengths all with their whole power;
Our charity more flame out and enfire
Our neighbours all who are of good desire.

The Latin is:

Nunc, Sancte, nobis, Spiritus,
Unum Patri cum Filio,
Dignare promptus ingeri
Nostro refusus pectori.

Os, lingua, mens, sensus, vigor
Confessionem personent.
Flammescat igne caritas,
Accéndat ardor proximos.

And the translation I know best is John Henry Newman's:

Come, Holy Ghost, Who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.

In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.

'Full flood of holiness' is such a wonderful phrase. I like how, poetically speaking, Pentecost is a feast of mixed metaphors - it's really against all the laws of imagery to describe something as wind and fire and a flood of water, because they cancel each other out (like a holy game of 'Rock, Paper, Scissors')! Such are the dangers in speaking of the unspeakable!

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