Saturday, January 27, 2007

Disposer Supreme

A hymn by Jean Baptiste de Santeuil (1630-97):

Supreme quales arbiter
Tibi ministros eligis,
Tuas opes qui vilibus
Vasis amas committere.

Haec nempe plena lumine
Tu vasa frangi praecipis;
Lux inde magna rumpitur,
Ceu nube scissa fulgura.

Totum per orbem nuntii
Nubes velut citi volant:
Verbo graves, Verbo Deo
Tonant, soruscant, perpluunt.

Christum sonant: versae ruunt
Arces superbae daemonum;
Circum tubis clangentibus
Sic versa quondam moenia.

Fac, Christe, coelestes tubae
Somno graves nos excitent:
Accensa de te lumina
Pellant tenebras mentium.

Uni sit et trino Deo
Supremam laus, summum decus,
De nocte qui nos ad suae,
Lumen vocavit gloriae.

I've copied out the whole of the Latin here, partly because it doesn't seem to be included anywhere on existing web sites that I can discover. And also because the point I want to make about this hymn is that there is a sequence of thought to it.

The first verse, "Disposer supreme and judge of the earth" remarks on the fact that God chooses "frail earthen vessels" as his ministers. "Frail earthen vessels" (vilibus vasis) means unprepossessing pots. That is a reference to us (or rather, to the saints).

The second verse remarks on the fact that these pots soon break. In fact God breaks them, even the ones that are full of light. Tu vasa frangi praecipis: at thy decree they are broken. But out of them bursts a great light, a kind of lightning bolt. That is, on the death of the saints the light that was concealed in the unprepossessing pots bursts forth and fills our world with a new blast of light, like lightning breaking out of a cloud.

The third and fourth verses pick up on this idea and suggest that once it's been released from the unprepossessing pots, the light of the saints becomes God's messengers. These fly round the world thundering the sound of God's word. Christum sonant: they trumpet out Christ, and immediately the devil's citadels fall like the walls of Jericho which fell at the sound of the trumpet.

Verse five asks that Christ should ensure that these heavenly trumpets should wake us from our sleep. And verse six concludes with a doxology, which praises God for calling us out of night to his glory.

Now apart from the fact that the New English Hymnal has (for reasons that are not apparent) re-written the perfectly good translation by Isaac Williams to which we were accustomed, what you might not have noticed is that they have cut out verse 2. You might not have noticed because the sequence of thought has become so disjoined that you'd be forgiven for thinking that there was none, and that trying to work out how verse 3 followed from verse 1 was a wasted effort. Well indeed it would be a wasted effort, because alas without verse 2 it would be impossible to see the connection.

The point is this: verse 1 sees the saints from the outside, their vile pots. Verse 2 explains why God breaks the pots, to let the light out. Verse 3, with its image of lightning blasts and the thundering sound that they make, only makes sense if you know where the lightning blasts have come from and how they connect with the vile pots mentioned in verse 1. And then, once you know why the lightning is sounding like a trumpet, you can understand what the imagery of the fall of Jericho has got to do with it, and also why we ask to be wakened from our sleep by those trumpets.

But without verse 2? Bad case of lost coherence.


Gene O'Grady said...

I'm curious where you found the text, and what, if anything, you know about the author. Presuming that the net isn't the first place I'd have looked for it, just where might I look?

Catherine Rowett said...

I was pleased to find the text in The Penguin Book of Latin Verse edited by Frederick Brittain, a copy of which I recently inherited from my father. Publication date 1962, price 7/6 (i.e seven shillings and sixpence, or 37.5 pence in new money). I suppose there may be more recent reprintings.

It has an unorthodox table of contents (not just the selection of authors that it includes but also because it puts the biography of the author in the contents page). I only just discovered this!

Of Jean-Baptiste de Santeuil Brittain tells us this: a younger brother of Claude de Santeuil, was a Canon regular of Saint Vistor at Paris ('Santolius Victorianus'). His hymns, like his brother's, were incorporated into French Diocesan hymnaries in his own life-time. The English version of the one given here is well known.

Virginia said...

I've noticed that NEH feels it can't assume as much biblical knowledge and changes 'the Canaanite's wall' to 'proud Jericho's wall' (this is from memory). Mind you, the Latin leaves you to work out even more, with no proper name at all!

Anonymous said...

Had this at Evensong on sunday and good to get a fuller understanding of the text.
Excellent stuff