Saturday, February 24, 2007

O lux beata Trinitas

Last Sunday I was a bit surprised to find that the office hymn set for Evensong was O Lux beata Trinitas (O Trinity of Blessed Light). It appears in the New English Hymnal as the office hymn for the period from Epiphany to Lent. This struck me as odd, since I felt sure that we used to sing it in the summer, in Trinity season; but the book said so, so I didn't complain.

I was also troubled to see that four verses were given in The New English Hymnal, not the three that I knew from of old, and that the hymn was said to be "From the Latin, translated by J.M. Neale 1818-66 and EDITORS". It was unclear whether that meant that the Editors had done some more translating from the Latin, or that they had done some more writing.

Well, I'm sure you've guessed. They'd done some more writing...

And they say "From the Latin" perhaps because they hadn't the heart to say that the original, from which they had borrowed some words and ideas, had once been by St Ambrose, that it was originally written in the fourth century A.D. and that it had been loved and preserved, and sung by generations of devout believers, for sixteen pious centuries before they saw fit to mess it up.

But wait. First, before we take a look at that, we need to do some detective work to settle the question what season this hymn should be proper to. Is it really the office hymn for Sunday evenings from Epiphany to Lent as the NEH suggests? Is it really the office hymn for Saturdays from Trinity Sunday to Advent, as the English Hymnal suggests? Or is it neither?

This is what we learn from the website Thesaurus Precum Latinarum
"This hymn is ascribed to St. Ambrose (340-397) and is used for Sunday Vespers for the second and fourth weeks of the Psalter in the Liturgy of the Hours. The hymn appears in the Roman Breviary under the title of Iam sol recedit igneus, where it is the Vespers hymn for the ferial office on Saturdays and Trinity Sunday."

Now I'm not entirely sure I understand that. It seems to me that the ferial office on Saturdays means Saturdays that are not a feast day and not in any special season of the year. This could explain the English Hymnal which says Saturday evensong from Trinity to Advent: that is the green season, so to speak. But does it also apply to the green season from Epiphany to Lent? Not according to the English Hymnal which provides Deus Creator Omnium for the Saturday evenings from the Octave of Epiphany to Lent. Even if it does apply to the Epiphany to Lent period, it seems it would not, pace the NEH, be for Sunday evening (other than the evening of Trinity Sunday), but for Saturday.

I also don't understand the bit that says it is used for the second and fourth weeks of the psalter in the Liturgy of the Hours. Perhaps someone can explain that claim to me.

Now for the text. Here (sourced from Michael Martin's Thesaurus Precum Latinarum) is what St Ambrose wrote (if, as we understand, it was indeed he).

O LUX beata Trinitas,
et principalis Unitas,
iam sol recedit igneus,
infunde lumen cordibus.
Te mane laudum carmine,
te deprecemur vespere:
te nostra supplex gloria
per cuncta laudet saecula.
Deo Patri sit gloria,
eiusque soli Filio,
cum Spiritu Paraclito,
et nunc, et in perpetuum.

Here, about as precise as they come, is what J.M. Neale produced as a translation:

O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
The fiery sun now goes his way;
Shed thou within our hearts thy ray.

To thee our morning song of praise,
To thee our evening prayer we raise;
Thy glory suppliant we adore
For ever and for evermore.

All laud to God the Father be;
All praise, eternal Son to thee;
All glory as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete.

It is not only a verbatim translation, but of course it also fits the original metre so you can sing it to the correct plainsong tune. Hooray for JMN.

The EDITORS evidently thought some improvement was needed. "Princely" in line 2 has become "primal". I guess that this is supposed to render "principalis" (principal) in the sense of 'original' instead of Neale's 'princely' which tries to render the regal sense of 'principal'. Which is more appropriate? The idea is that as the sun goes down we need another light to shine in our hearts instead, namely the light of the Trinity that is also a unity. Is the thought that the light of the trinity is older than the light of the sun? That is presumably what the NEH Editors have taken to be the thought expressed by 'principalis'. Or is the thought that the light of God is superior, a more powerful guide? That is presumably what Neale thought. And it was for that reason that he used the word "might" which is not in the Latin but comes from the "princely" sense of principalis. The NEH Editors have kept the "might" but linked it with "primal" instead of "princely". I suppose that is intended to capture the ambiguity of "principalis", by retaining something of each sense. I'm not entirely convinced that the end result is comprehensible, however.

The second verse is unchanged.

The last verse has been rewritten to get rid of the 'Paraclete' word. Sad.

And between the second and the last verse, the EDITORS have added this piece of new doggerel:

O Trinity, O Unity,
Thou help of man's infirmity,
Protect us through the hours of night,
Who art our everlasting light.

I've been trying to discover whether the editors found this verse in some other latin hymn and decided to nick it. But I'm pretty sure it's entirely of their own making. For one thing it just says the same again as was said more neatly above, that the Trinity is our light, only that it then adds some waffle about protection which does not belong to the theme of the hymn (which is the thought that we want enlightenment). The EDITORS have gone off point, as though what we wanted was light to protect us from nasty things that creep up on us in the dark.

One thing that extra verse does add is a completely pointless bit of man speak ("man's infirmity"). Not clear what that is, but if you are going to compose new words in the twentieth century, you might at least try to make clear whether the word is translating homo or vir. In this case, of course, neither. So why "man"?