Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Morning Hymn: 'Now the day's star in his heavenly sphere'

Now the deys sterre in hys hevynly spere,
ffresche as febus, a peryth in owr syght,
Whos bryghtnes gladeth all owre emyspere,
Chasyng a wey the darknes of þe nyght;
Prey we þe lord of mercy and of myght
That he vs kepe frome synne and all noysaunce
Thys dey, and haue us in hys gouernance.

And þat he wyll owr tunge rule & restrayne,
Gydyng hyt so þis dey by temporance,
That non offence we do wyth wurdes veyne,
Cawsyng debat ne Stryff or perturbance;
And of owr syght he have þe governance,
That worldly thyng wyche we be hold and see,
Ne styr us nott to caduk vanite.

Thyntralys of owr hert be clene and pure,
By meditacione contemplatyff,
Soo þat noo cowardie us disensure
A yenst þe flesch whan we debat and stryve
To valour heer, and downe heer pryd to drive;
We may her kepen vndir subiugate
In meyt and drynk yff we be moderate.

And erly makene we owr preyer
That whan þe dey shall nighene with hys lyght,
Causing the nyght wyth drawene and dispare,
Be abstinence we ben in clennes dyght,
That we may syng vnetyll owr lord a ryght
Ympnes and song and laude & glorie,
Wyche is þe dey lastyng eternally.

I awoke this morning to a fiery red dawn, an occurrence to be treasured in the midst of cloudy October, and it made me think of this poem. It's a translation of the sixth-century hymn 'Iam lucis orto sidere', used in the morning Office. I can never get enough of morning and evening hymns, which elevate and sanctify the cycle of the day and night, and encourage us to be mindful of the passing of time. The poetic language of dawn and sunrise is also worth paying attention to. I was recently teaching my students the Old English word dægred, 'dawn', literally 'day-reddening', which survived into Middle English and provided one English version of the name of the Office of Lauds: daired-sang, 'dawn song' (for 'song' as 'office', cf. 'Evensong', the medieval English name for Vespers).  The origin of our word 'dawn' is in the Old English verb dagian, 'to become day'; in a world of electric light, where we can make day happen at the flick of a switch, it can be startling to be reminded by etymology that 'dawning' is a process of becoming, a gradual growth of light.

Old English also has a word for the period just before dawn, uht, and so another name for one of the morning Offices was uhtsang, 'song before dawn' (it can refer either to Nocturns or Matins). In poetic compounds, this gives us the wonderful Old English word for a feeling of dread before the dawn, uhtcearu, 'morning care' - it seems to refer to the anxiety of lying awake in the early morning, waiting to get up, and worrying over what the day will bring.  In Beowulf, a dragon is an uhtfloga, a creature which flies before dawn; something to worry about, indeed.

As for day, the Middle English dictionary entry for compounds with dai makes evocative reading: 'day's eye' (the sun), 'day-gleam' (dawn), 'day-rim' (the rays of dawn), 'day-star', of course, and 'dayspring', a word which is so familiar from religious contexts that it's easy to forget its origin as a Middle English poetic compound.

Here's a modernised version of the Middle English poem, which comes from British Library, MS. Additional 34193:

Now the day's star in his heavenly sphere,
Fresh as Phoebus, appeareth in our sight,
Whose brightness gladdeth all our hemisphere,
Chasing away the darkness of the night;
Pray we the Lord of mercy and of might
That he us keep from sin and all noisaunce [trouble, distress]
This day, and have us in his governance.

And that he will our tongue rule and restrain,
Guiding it so this day by temperance,
That no offence we do with wordes vain,
Causing debate nor strife nor perturbance;
And of our sight he have the governance,
That worldly things which we behold and see
May stir us not to caduk vanity. [transitory, fleeting vanity]

The entrails of our heart be clean and pure,
By meditation contemplative,
So that no cowardice us disensure [unsettle, deprive of assurance]
Against the flesh when we debate and strive
For valour here, and down its pride to drive;
We may our flesh keep subjugate
In meat and drink if we be moderate.

And early maken we our prayer
That when the day shall draw nigh with his light,
Causing the night to withdraw and disappear,
By abstinence we be in cleanness dight, [we may be made pure by abstinence]
That we may sing unto our Lord aright
Hymns and songs and laud and glory,
Who is the day lasting eternally.

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