Christ in Majesty, the Virgin and St Peter (BL Stowe 944, f. 6, c.1030)
We are now in the last days of Advent, the season of the O Antiphons. These ancient antiphons, sung at Vespers in the week before Christmas, still attract a remarkable amount of attention today - and twelve hundred years ago they attracted one Anglo-Saxon poet, who turned them into a series of short poems in English. For the next few days I want to post the Old English poetic versions of the O Antiphons, which are much more than translations of the Latin texts: they are exquisite poetic meditations on the rich imagery of the antiphons, responding to them in subtle and creative ways. In translating them to post here I've been astonished anew by their beauty and interest, and I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I do.
They survive in a manuscript known as the Exeter Book, an anthology of English poetry on all kinds of themes and in all kinds of forms: elegies, saints' lives, riddles, wisdom poetry, philosophical reflections, laments, and many poems which resist classification. The O Antiphons are the first poems in the collection, and they were probably composed some time earlier than the date of the tenth-century manuscript, perhaps around the year 800. They are anonymous, though once attributed by scholars to Cynewulf, and they long suffered from being lumped together with the poems which follow them in the manuscript (which also concern Christ, so you will sometimes find them being called 'Christ I' or 'Christ A'). However, they deserve to be treated, and appreciated, separately and on their own terms, as a collection of individual poems linked by their common source in the O Antiphons.
Last year I posted one of them (O Oriens/O Earendel) but this year I'll post my translations of the antiphons for the next five days. In the manuscript there are twelve in total, some of which correspond to the Greater Antiphons, but the form of the collection as a whole is unique. The first three antiphons (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse) do not appear, but this may be because the first few leaves of the manuscript are lost. The last four, however, are there: O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, and O Emmanuel, as well as an additional eighth antiphon used on December 23 in medieval English (and still in traditional Anglican) usage, O Virgo virginum. English practice therefore had the antiphons one day ahead. (The order in which they will appear here isn't that of the manuscript, as the antiphons are not in the order in which they are used liturgically; today's antiphon comprises lines 18-49 of the poem, which can be found complete here.)
So this is 'O Clavis David'. Here's the antiphon, for comparison:
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
(O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
who opens, and no one can shut,
shuts, and no one can open:
come, and lead the captives from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.)
Eala, þu reccend ond þu riht cyning,
se þe locan healdeð, lif ontyneð,
eadga... upwegas, oþrum forwyrneð
wlitigan wilsiþes, gif his weorc ne deag.
Huru we for þearfe þas word sprecað,
ond m... ...giað þone þe mon gescop
þæt he ne ...ete... ...ceose weorðan
cearfulra þing, þe we in carcerne
sittað sorgende, sunnan wenað,
hwonne us liffrea leoht ontyne,
weorðe ussum mode to mundboran,
ond þæt tydre gewitt tire bewinde,
gedo usic þæs wyrðe, þe he to wuldre forlet,
þa we heanlice hweorfan sceoldan
to þis enge lond, eðle bescyrede.
Forþon secgan mæg, se ðe soð spriceð,
þæt he ahredde, þa forhwyrfed wæs,
frumcyn fira. Wæs seo fæmne geong,
mægð manes leas, þe he him to meder geceas;
þæt wæs geworden butan weres frigum,
þæt þurh bearnes gebyrd bryd eacen wearð.
Nænig efenlic þam, ær ne siþþan,
in worlde gewearð wifes gearnung;
þæt degol wæs, dryhtnes geryne.
Eal giofu gæstlic grundsceat geondspreot;
þær wisna fela wearð inlihted
lare longsume þurh lifes fruman
þe ær under hoðman biholen lægon,
witgena woðsong, þa se waldend cwom,
se þe reorda gehwæs ryne gemiclað
ðara þe geneahhe noman scyppendes
þurh horscne had hergan willað.
O thou Ruler and righteous King,
who guards the locks, who opens life
and the blessed way on high, and to others denies
the bright longed-for path, if their deeds have not earned it;
truly, we speak these words in need,
and entreat that he who made mankind…
[this next line is damaged]
…of sorrowful things, for we in prison
sit sorrowing, hoping for the sun,
for when the Lord of life will open light to us,
become for us a source of strength in spirit,
and enfold our feeble knowledge in splendour,
and make us worthy, that he may admit us to glory,
who have had to come, wretchedly,
into this constraining world, cut off from our homeland.
Therefore may he who speaks the truth say
that he saved us, who had been led astray,
the race of men. It was a young girl,
a maiden free from sin, whom he chose as his mother;
that was accomplished without the love of a man,
that the girl gave birth to a baby, became pregnant.
Nothing equal to this, before or since,
has ever in the world been a woman’s reward;
that was a secret, the Lord’s mystery.
Spiritual grace spread across the ground of all the earth;
there many things were given light,
long-standing lore, through the Lord of life,
which before had lain hidden in shadow,
the resounding song of the prophets, when the Ruler came,
he who magnifies the secret of every speech
of those who earnestly desire to praise the name
of the Creator in eager manner.
This poem takes its main inspiration from the final line of the antiphon: 'those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death'. Its interest is in light and darkness, and in the language of secrecy and hidden things - especially geryne, 'mystery'. (Not to make the Advent Lyrics all about Tolkien - since tomorrow is 'O Earendel' - but I particularly noted the line þæt degol wæs, dryhtnes geryne, 'that was a secret, the Lord's mystery', because degol is the origin of the name Déagol, who was secretly murdered by Sméagol.) The Key of David is to unlock not only the road to heaven, but the secrets concealed on earth. He will give us strength in mode, 'mind, spirit', and tydre gewitt tire bewinde, 'enfold our frail wits in splendour', as if limited human understanding is to be entirely wrapped and wound within limitless divine wisdom. Another Old English poem (Exodus), counselling on the interpretation of the scriptures, uses comparable language in its metaphor of the keys of the spirit:
Gif onlucan wile lifes wealhstod,
beorht in breostum, banhuses weard,
ginfæsten god gæstes cægon,
run bið gerecenod, ræd forð gæð.
If the interpreter of life, the guardian of the body, bright in heart, wishes to unlock ample benefits with the keys of the spirit, the mystery is explained and wisdom comes forth.
Our poet seems to imagine the Key of David working in a similar way.
What is unlocked by the Key is 'light', and in describing mankind as sunnan wenað, 'hoping for the sun', this lyric makes use of the Son/sun wordplay I mentioned recently - probably the earliest surviving example of the device in English poetry. This poem is about the opening of hidden knowledge, and appropriately for a poem, this opening is connected specifically to poetry itself, the bringing to light the truth of the witgena woðsong, 'the prophets' resounding song'. As King David is both prophet and psalm-singer, this takes us back to the opening of the antiphon. The final lines promise that reorda gehwæs ryne, 'the secret of every utterance' will be magnified, and this utterance, the poem itself, is surely included. Thus we, in reading the poem, are encouraged to finish in union with poets and prophets, as 'those who earnestly desire to praise the name of the Creator'.
Rejoicing in the heavenly city (Stowe 944, f. 7)
The images in this post are from the New Minster Liber Vitae, perhaps my favourite Anglo-Saxon manuscript, which was made in Winchester in c.1030. The massive key in the pictures belongs to St Peter, but it seemed appropriate nevertheless.