Tuesday, 2 July 2013
A Morning Hymn: The Bird of Bliss
The gladsome bird, the day's messenger,
Singing with musical harmony,
Sayeth in his song the day begins to clear,
And biddeth us address ourselves and hie
Towards the life, the life that shall not die;
This is the voice right of the bird of bliss
Singing to us that the day coming is.
This biddeth this heavenly pursuivant:
That we should all from slumbering arise,
And that we should been wholly attendant
To please God devoutly with service;
Righteous and chaste and eke in sober wise, [also in a sober manner]
The light of grace is drawing to us near
Of our darkness the clouds away to clear.
The text as printed in Frank Allen Patterson, ‘Hymnal from MS. Additional 34193 British Museum’, in Medieval Studies in Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), pp.443-488:
The gladsom Byrd, þe deys mesanger,
Synggyng with musicall armonye,
Sayth in hys song þe dey gynnyth to clere,
And byddyth vs Adressone us and hye
Toward þe lyff, þe lyf þat schall not dye;
Thys is ye voyce ryght of þe byrd of blys
Syngynge tyll vs þat þe dey cummyng is.
Thys byddyth þis heyvynly pursyuant,
That we schuld all from slomoryng Aryse,
And þat we schuld bene holly attendaunt
To plesen godd deuotly with seruice;
Ryghtwos and chast and eke in sobre wyse,
The lyght of grace is drawyng tyll vs nere
Of owr derknes þe clowdes for to clere.
This is a translation of the first two verses of a morning hymn by Prudentius, 'Ales diei nuntius'. It comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript of English hymn translations of which I have previously posted an Advent hymn, another morning hymn, and a hymn to the Holy Ghost. The whole manuscript is full of delights, and this is no exception. There are three things about this hymn which I particularly love:
1) the word 'gladsome', possibly my favourite word in the English language
2) the word 'pursuivant', a royal messenger or herald, perhaps familiar to those of you who know Malory, or his loyal Victorian imitators like William Morris; it's the language of the court and of literary romance, and thus a splendid example of a translator adapting a Latin hymn to the imaginative world of his own culture.
3) the fact that it reminds me of the wonderful Middle English proverbial phrase 'as glad as a bird when the day dawns', which I wrote about here. I almost wonder if this phrase, or at least this idea, was in the translator's mind as he worked - his happy bird with its 'musical harmony' is more suggestive of a dawn chorus than Prudentius' crowing cock. It's such a vivid simile, a striking way to express exuberant joy. I've been more than usually aware of the dawn chorus this summer; a tree near my bedroom window is a veritable choir-stall, and birdsong has seemed to be everywhere, even in the city - not only in April do 'smale foweles maken melodye, that slepen al the nyght with open ye'. In past years I've hardly taken notice of it, but what a remarkable thing it is, if you take a moment to think about it: if you were reading a novel about a fantasy world in which little winged creatures flitted around in the trees, singing and chirping, each different and with their own distinctive song, you'd think it a delightful invention. And there they are, all the time, not caring if you listen to them or not. It's one of those things for which 'we need nothing but open eyes to be ravished like the cherubims' - or open ears, in this case.
Here's the loveliest manuscript illustration I've found recently, this bluetit from BL, Royal 3 D VI:
stork!), and I find them mesmerising. They seem to have been drawn from nature, which means that the little bird this artist saw - and heard - died seven hundred years ago; and yet here he is. Isn't he a gladsome bird indeed, a bird of bliss? I could look at this picture all day.
And here's some bird-like harmony to start the day:
Last week I was at a concert in Canterbury Cathedral which featured 'The Lark Ascending'. A young violinist was playing the solo, and as those last trilling notes died away into the darkness of the nave there was a silence of the kind where no one wants to breathe; then after a few heartbeats it was broken by the cathedral bell, high above us, tolling the hour.