The O Antiphons – a little indulgence.

Please forgive me. Having already posted on the ‘O’ Antiphons, I really could not resist (with my historians hat on) this scholarly summation.

From:  http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk

 

The O Antiphons in Middle English:

‘To þe we clepe with alle owre hert and brethe’

14th-century calendar for December, with ‘O Sapientia’ on the 16th (BL Egerton 3277, f. 6v)

In medieval England, 16th December was the first day of the O Antiphons. (In other parts of the church they began on 17th December, but they lasted eight days, rather than seven, in English tradition.) Every day between now and Christmas Eve, at Vespers, in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, the antiphon would be one of these ancient songs of longing and desire, which address Christ by a series of allusive titles drawn from scriptural tradition and appeal to him: Come. So memorable was the beginning of these antiphons that it was marked on 16th December in calendars like the one above, almost as if it were a saint’s day – not an honour often accorded to liturgical antiphons. Turn to the calendar for December in the Book of Common Prayer, and you’ll find it there too.

These Advent texts are now most familiar from J. M. Neale’s hymn ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, but he was not the first, by a long way, to turn the antiphons into vernacular poetry. They have inspired poets since the very earliest days of literature in English; last year I posted about the exquisite Old English versions of the antiphons, which date possibly from the ninth century, and I’ve also previously posted some fifteenth-century English carols based on ‘O Clavis David’ and ‘O Radix Jesse’. Today I want to look at two more Middle English interpretations of these antiphons. The first comprises only a four-line version of today’s text, ‘O Sapientia’:

Þu wysdom þat crepedest out of Godes mouþe
þat rechest frame est to west, fram norþ to souþ
þat alle þynges mades throw þy myth
come to tech vs þe wey of flyth.

Thou wisdom, who crept out of God’s mouth,
Who reaches from east to west, from north to south,
Who all things made through thy might
Come to teach us the way of flight.

For comparison, the antiphon is O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae (‘O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence’). Hear it sung here. The English verse survives in a fourteenth-century manuscript of sermons (Worcester, Worcester Cathedral Library F. 126), and is recorded in Siegfried Wenzel, ‘Unrecorded Middle-English Verses’, Anglia 92 (1974), 55-78 (72). (It’s the only one of the O Antiphons to be translated there, but the same manuscript also contains a short English version of the Advent collect which begins ‘Stir up, O Lord…’, rendered ‘Egg our hearts, Lord of might…’!).

It might seem odd to describe Wisdom ‘creeping’ out of the mouth of God (translating the Latin prodisti), but the word does appear a few times in Middle English literature in reference to Christ’s entry into the world; I’m reminded of the description of the Incarnation in ‘In a church where I did kneel‘:

All the world in woe was wound
Until he crept into our kin, –
A lovely girl he lit within,
The worthiest that ever was.

The word suggests quiet, steady movement, perhaps; read the Middle English Dictionary entry for crepen 4(b) and decide for yourself. I can only assume that in the last line ‘the way of flight’ means something like ‘the means of departing from this world’, though it doesn’t seem like an accurate translation of viam prudentiae. But isn’t ‘from east to west, from north to south’ a beautiful way of rendering a fine usque ad finem, ‘from one end to another’?

‘O Sapientia’ and Capricorn, 13th century (BL Lansdowne 420, f. 6v)

Apart from this little verse, there is a surviving English poetic translation of all eight of the antiphons. It’s preserved in BL Harley 45, added in a hand of the late fifteenth century to a slighter earlier manuscript of religious texts. At the time this version of the O Antiphons was added to the manuscript, it seems to have belonged to a woman named Margaret Brent, who was possibly a laywoman from Salisbury. The poem consists of a verse for each antiphon, with the Latin text followed by an English translation and expansion. I won’t claim it’s great poetry, but several of the verses are lovely; ‘O Oriens’ and ‘O virgo virginem’ are my favourites. And it’s a testament to the power and popularity of these antiphons, the richness of their imagery and the breadth of their appeal; if you were inclined to think of the antiphons as a solely monastic or clerical interest, the example of the devout laywoman Margaret Brent would suggest otherwise.

Here’s the text as it appears in Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century (Oxford, 1952), pp. 90-2, and a modernised version follows.

O Sapiencia que ex ore altissimi prodisti Attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter Suauiter disponensque omnia Veni ad docendum nos viam Prudencie.

O Sapiencia of þe ffader, surmountyng all thyng,
Procedyng from his mowthe his hestis to fulfill,
Alpha and Oo, both end & begynnyng,
ffrom end so to end dost atteyne and tylle,
Disposyng ich werk swetly at his wyll,
We the besiche, lord, with humble reuerence,
Come þu and teche vs þe ways of prudence.

O Adonay et dux domus Israel qui moysi in igne flamme rubi apparuisti & ei in syna legem dedisti veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O adonaye, chieff duke of Israell,
Which them conduced from thrall captiuite,
Apperyng to Moyses madist hym of counsell
In þe mount of syna, ther shewyng thy maieste,
Tokyst hym thy law in a bushe fire flamme,
We lowly be-sich the, lord omnypotent,
Come and redeme in thy powre most extente.

O Radix Iesse qui stas in signum populorum super quem continebunt reges os suum quem gentes deprecabuntur veni ad liberandum nos iam noli tardare.

O Radix Iesse, most Souerayne and excellent,
Stondyng in godly signe of euery nacion,
Tofore whome all kyngys þer mowthys shalle stent,
Beynge ryghte mywet and styll as any stone,
Shall knele in þi presence & mak deprecacione,
Them to delyuer & vs all in a throwe,
Sprakly, blyssyd lorde, be nott ther-in slowe.

O clauis david & septrum domus Israel, qui aperis & nemo claudit, claudis & nemo aperit, veni & educ uinctum de domo carceris sedentem in tenebris et in umbra mortis.

O clauis dauid, of whom Isaias tolde,
Hote septure & key, to eche look welle mett
Of Israelle – I meane of Iacobus howsholde –
Thowe opynyst lokes whiche no wyghte can shett,
And closist a-geyn þat cannott be vnshett;
Lowse vs, þi presoners, boundene in wrechidnesse,
Off synne shadowed with mortalle derknesse.

O oriens splendour, lucis eterne & sol iusticie, veni et illumina sedentes in tenebris & umbra mortis.

O oriens splendor of euer-lastynge lyghte,
Whos bemys transcende þe commyn clerenesse
Of sonne or mone, for we of very ryghte
The clepe þe bryght sonne of trowth, ryghtwysnesse
With iustice & mercy eche wrong to redresse,
To þe we clepe with alle owre hert & brethe,
To lyght vs þat sytt in þe derknesse of dethe.

O rex gencium & desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis vtraque unum, veni [et salva] hominem quem de limo formasti.

O rex gencium, whom alle people disire
To honour & love with herty affeccione,
The corner stone þat craftly brow3th nyre
The both testamentis, makyng þem one,
Oold & newe madest lawfully vnyon,
Saue, lord, mankynd, thy most noble creture,
Made of vile erthe to resemble þi fayre figure.

O Emmanuel rex & legifer noster, expectacio gencium & saluator earum, veni ad saluandum nos domine deus noster.

O emanuel, owre souerayne lord & kyng,
In whom we crystene mene trust in especiall,
Geue to thy suggetis grace, by good lykyng
Wele to perfourme þi preceptis legalle,
And saue vs, thy seruauntis, fro myscheff all.
Thus we pray, owre graciouse sauyowre,
Owr lord, owre good, owre louyng redemptore.

O uirgo uirginum, quomodo fiet quia nec primam simile, uisa es nec habere sequentem, filie ierlm quid me admiramini diuinum est misterium hoc quod operata est in me.

O uirgo uirginum, alle pereles in uertu,
Wymmen of ierlm, muse on þis mater,
How þu, a maydyn, art the moder of Ihu.
Natheles, if ony of them þis secretly enquire,
Swet lady, then shortly make to þem þis an-swere:
‘The hye myght of god þis mystery first be-gane.
3e dameseles of Ierlm, why wonder 3e so thane?’

‘O Sapientia’, noted in a 13th century calendar (BL Royal 1 D X f. 14v)

And in modernised form:

O Sapiencia que ex ore altissimi prodisti Attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter Suauiter disponensque omnia Veni ad docendum nos viam Prudencie.

O Sapientia of the Father, surmounting all thing,
Proceeding from his mouth his behests to fulfill,
Alpha and O, both end and beginning,
From end to end dost attain and till, [extend and reach]
Disposing each work sweetly at his will,
We thee beseech, Lord, with humble reverence,
Come thou and teach us the ways of prudence.

O Adonay et dux domus Israel qui moysi in igne flamme rubi apparuisti & ei in syna legem dedisti veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, chief duke of Israel,
Who them didst lead from thrall captivity,
Appearing to Moses, madest him of counsel [made him wise]
In the Mount of Sinai, there showing thy majesty,
Revealed to him thy law in a bush of fiery flame,
We lowly beseech thee, Lord omnipotent,
Come and redeem with thy power’s greatest extent.

O Radix Iesse qui stas in signum populorum super quem continebunt reges os suum quem gentes deprecabuntur veni ad liberandum nos iam noli tardare.

O Radix Jesse, most sovereign and excellent,
Standing as a holy sign to every nation,
Before whom all kings their mouths shall stent, [close]
Being right mute and still as any stone,
Shall kneel in thy presence and make deprecacione, [pray]
Them to deliver and us all in a throwe, [very soon]
Swiftly, blessed Lord, be not therein slow.

O clauis david & septrum domus Israel, qui aperis & nemo claudit, claudis & nemo aperit, veni & educ uinctum de domo carceris sedentem in tenebris et in umbra mortis.

O Clavis David, of whom Isaiah told,
Called sceptre and key, to every lock well fit
Of Israel – I mean of Jacob’s household –
Thou openest locks which no creature can shut,
And closest again what cannot be unshut;
Loose us, thy prisoners, bound in wretchedness
Of sin, shadowed with mortal darkness.

O oriens splendor, lucis eterne & sol iusticie, veni et illumina sedentes in tenebris & umbra mortis.

O Oriens, splendour of everlasting light,
Whose beams transcend the common clearness
Of sun or moon, for we of very right
Thee call the bright sun of truth, righteousness,
With justice and mercy each wrong to redress,
To thee we call with all our heart and breath,
To light us who sit in the darkness of death.

O rex gencium & desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis vtraque unum, veni [et salva] hominem quem de limo formasti.

O Rex Gentium, whom all people desire
To honour and love with hearty affection,
The corner-stone that skilfully brought nigher [i.e. nearer]
The two testaments, making them one,
Old and new madest lawfully union,
Save, Lord, mankind, thy most noble creature,
Made of vile earth to resemble thy fair figure.

O Emmanuel rex & legifer noster, expectacio gencium & saluator earum, veni ad saluandum nos domine deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our sovereign lord and king,
In whom we Christian men trust above all,
Give to thy subjects grace, with good lykyng [desire, delight]
Well to perform thy precepts legal,
And save us, thy servants, from mischief all.
Thus we pray, our gracious Saviour,
Our Lord, our God, our loving Redeemer.

O uirgo uirginum, quomodo fiet quia nec primam simile, uisa es nec habere sequentem, filie ierlm quid me admiramini diuinum est misterium hoc quod operata est in me.

O Virgo Virginum, all peerless in virtue,
Women of Jerusalem muse on this matter:
How thou, a maiden, art the mother of Jesu.
Nonetheless, if any of them this secretly enquire,
Sweet lady, then shortly make to them this answer:
‘The high might of God this mystery first began.
Ye damsels of Jerusalem, why wonder ye so then?’

The first of the O Antiphons, in a 14th-century Breviary (BL Stowe 12, f. 13v)

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The O Antiphons – a little indulgence.

  1. Robert says:

    Thank you. The Faith Of Our Fathers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s