Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Beautiful Trinity

The Trinity, with Mary ('Ælfwine's Prayerbook', BL Cotton Titus D XXVII, f.75v)

In the last week before Christmas, I'd like to turn once again to the Anglo-Saxon poem inspired by the 'O Antiphons', texts sung at Vespers in the closing days of Advent. You may have sung or heard a version of these texts without knowing it, because some of them are the basis of the popular hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel'; and more than a thousand years ago an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet used them as the basis for a dramatic, beautiful and allusive poem, which today is known as the Advent Lyrics or as Christ I.

This poem is the first text in the precious manuscript called the Exeter Book (currently to be seen sitting alongside three other major manuscripts of Old English poetry - together with many other items which testify to the richness of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture - in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). It's an intricate poem, which repays close and attentive reading - meditative reading - and over the past few years I've translated and discussed different sections of the poem, one by one. Here are links to those posts, in the order in which they appear in the poem (not the order in which I, illogically, wrote them!):

O rex gentium (lines 1-17)
O clavis David (18-49)
O Jerusalem (50-70)
O virgo virginum (71-103)
O oriens (104-129)
O Emmanuel (130-163)
O Joseph (164-213)
O rex pacifice (214-274)
O mundi domina (275-347)
O caelorum domine (348-377)

Most commonly today seven O Antiphons are used, which are all addressed directly to Christ, but in medieval practice there were other antiphons grouped with these which meditate on other figures in the story of the Incarnation. In the Anglo-Saxon poem several of the sections focus on Mary, including a wonderful sequence I looked at in detail last year, as well as a dialogue between Mary and Joseph. There are also two - the last in the whole sequence - which are more general reflections on Advent themes, and I'll look at those this week.

First, a poem addressed to the Trinity (lines 378-415 of Christ I). It's not entirely clear which antiphon may have inspired this section, but as you read the translation you may spot allusions to some other, much more familiar, liturgical texts.

Eala seo wlitige, weorðmynda full,
heah ond halig, heofoncund þrynes,
brade geblissad geond brytenwongas
þa mid ryhte sculon reordberende,
earme eorðware ealle mægene
hergan healice, nu us hælend god
wærfæst onwrah þæt we hine witan moton.
Forþon hy, dædhwæte, dome geswiðde,
þæt soðfæste seraphinnes cynn,
uppe mid englum a bremende,
unaþreotendum þrymmum singað
ful healice hludan stefne,
fægre feor ond neah. Habbaþ folgoþa
cyst mid cyninge. Him þæt Crist forgeaf,
þæt hy motan his ætwiste eagum brucan
simle singales, swegle gehyrste,
weorðian waldend wide ond side,
ond mid hyra fiþrum frean ælmihtges
onsyne weardiað, ecan dryhtnes,
ond ymb þeodenstol þringað georne
hwylc hyra nehst mæge ussum nergende
flihte lacan friðgeardum in.
Lofiað leoflicne ond in leohte him
þa word cweþað, ond wuldriað
æþelne ordfruman ealra gesceafta:
Halig eart þu, halig, heahengla brego,
soð sigores frea, simle þu bist halig,
dryhtna dryhten! A þin dom wunað
eorðlic mid ældum in ælce tid
wide geweorþad. Þu eart weoroda god,
forþon þu gefyldest foldan ond rodoras,
wigendra hleo, wuldres þines,
helm alwihta. Sie þe in heannessum
ece hælo, ond in eorþan lof,
beorht mid beornum. Þu gebletsad leofa,
þe in dryhtnes noman dugeþum cwome
heanum to hroþre. Þe in heahþum sie
a butan ende ece herenis.

O beautiful, plenteous in honours,
high and holy, heavenly Trinity
blessed far abroad across the spacious plains,
who by right speech-bearers,
wretched earth-dwellers, should supremely praise
with all their power, now God, true to his pledge,
has revealed a Saviour to us, that we may know him.
And so the ones swift in action, endowed with glory,
that truth-fast race of seraphim
and the angels above, ever praising,
sing with untiring strength
on high with resounding voices,
most beautifully far and near. They have
a special office with the King: to them Christ granted
that they might enjoy his presence with their eyes,
forever without end, radiantly adorned,
worship the Ruler afar and wide,
and with their wings guard the face
of the Lord almighty, eternal God,
and eagerly throng around the prince's throne,
whichever of them can swoop in flight
nearest to our Saviour in those courts of peace.
They adore the Beloved One, and within the light
speak these words to him, and worship
the noble originator of all created things:
'Holy are you, holy, Prince of the high angels,
true Lord of Victories, forever are you holy,
Lord of Lords! Your glory will remain eternally
on earth among mortals in every age,
honoured far and wide. You are the God of hosts,
for you have filled earth and heaven
with your glory, Shelter of warriors,
Helm of all creatures. Eternal salvation
be to you on high, and on earth praise,
bright among men. Dearly blessed are you,
who come in the name of the Lord to the multitudes,
to be a comfort to the lowly. To you be eternal praise
in the heights, forever without end.'

The Trinity, surrounded by angels with multi-coloured wings
(from the Grimbald Gospels, made in Canterbury in the 11th century, BL Add. 34890, f. 114v)

This is a poem peopled by many beings: the Trinity, multitudes of angels, and all of us creatures here on earth. It opens with the Trinity - the Old English word for that is simply þrynes, 'threeness' - and a triplet of alliterating adjectives, a little trinity of words: heah, halig, heofoncund 'high, holy, heavenly'. The first seven lines reflect on this threeness and its relationship to us, the eorðware, 'earth-dwellers'. There's another beautiful triplet in the sixth line, which packs together all in one half-line us hælend god, 'us, Saviour, God' (i.e. '[to] us a Saviour God [has revealed]'). The syntax underlines the idea that the Saviour (hælend means 'healer, saviour' but is also the usual name for 'Jesus' in Old English) unites us and God - a meaningful bit of grammar it's difficult to reproduce in translation.

As often in Old English religious verse, human beings - you and me - are here called 'speech-bearers', reordberende. This is a word which might perhaps be familiar from The Dream of the Rood, and it's a kenning which defines human beings by their ability to speak; but Anglo-Saxon poets were interested too in all the other creatures who might also have, or be imagined to have, voices of their own. In The Dream of the Rood it's when human 'speech-bearers' are asleep that a solitary wakeful listener is able to hear the voice of Christ's cross, a tree speaking to him out of the silence and the darkness. And in this poem, the loudest voices are those of the angels - not us earth-dwelling reordberende. They are 'ever praising', singing unaþreotendum þrymmum 'with untiring strength', beautifully and with voices which resound through the universe.

Christ and angels (BL Harley 603, f. 69v)

The angels here are a busy flock of flying creatures, 'eagerly' pressing close to the throne of God:

hwylc hyra nehst mæge ussum nergende
flihte lacan friðgeardum in.

whichever of them can swoop in flight
nearest to our Saviour in those courts of peace.

This is a lovely moment: lacan is a verb which means (as one dictionary defines it) 'to swing, wave about, move as a ship does on the waves, as a bird does in its flight, as flames do'. It's a free and unfettered movement, full of life and energy. The angels are like a flock of birds in flight, a murmuration swooping with one intent and calling with one voice: halig, halig, halig. This is an unearthly sight, but in those heavenly courts the king they serve is not a stranger: he's called ussum nergende, 'our Saviour', and he belongs to the earthbound as well as to the angels.

Within the light of heaven, they sing the words which human voices can join - and do join every time the Mass is celebrated, cum angelis et archangelis. Here the poem is drawing on a number of Biblical and liturgical texts which allude to the angels, but especially on the Sanctus and Benedictus:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The Old English poet is directly using this liturgical source (which he presumably knew in Latin) and yet in the middle of the passage translating the Sanctus, there are also two epithets which seem to belong to another world - non angeli, sed angli! God is called wigendra hleo, 'shelter of warriors', a phrase used in Anglo-Saxon poetry of kings and heroes; exactly the same phrase is used in Beowulf of Hrothgar, of the hero Sigemund, and of Beowulf himself. The word hleo means 'shelter' or 'refuge' (it survives in the word 'lee', as in 'leeward' or the lee of a hill - the side sheltered from the wind). It's paired here with the phrase helm alwihta, 'helm of all creatures', another kingly epithet. This too is a form of protection - a helm is a covering, a literal covering like a helmet or a metaphorical one like the 'helm' of night above the earth. So God is imagined as the lord and guardian and beloved leader of a heavenly troop, those flocks of angels, and of an earthly one too - the multitudes of the lowly, to whom comfort is coming.

 Christ with angels (BL Harley 603, f. 71)

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