Sunday, 23 February 2020

Te deum laudamus

Reading Dag Norberg’s An Introduction to the Study of Medieval Latin Versification, I came across his account of the ancient hymn Te deum laudamus. Having described both the metrical and accentual poetry of the Middle Ages, Norberg turns to things that are neither. Latin translations of the bible introduced the possibility of something that did not present regularity in either metrical or accentual terms – either in the distribution of heavy and light or accented and unaccented syllables – but that was still unmistakably poetry. This phenomenon was evident in the translations of the psalms, and in the New Testament it could be found in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), and the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). To these Norberg adds the Te deum (p. 156 of the English translation):

‘Following the models supplied by biblical poetry, poets also composed new poems… The best known among these, belonging to the first centuries of Christianity, is the Te Deum, which by the parallelism between its words and its ideas, gives us a representative image of this form of poetry.
            Te deum laudamus,
            te dominum confitemur,
te aeternum patrem omnis terra veneratur
tibi omnes angeli
tibi caeli et universae potestates
tibi  cherubim et seraphim incessabili voce proclamant
            Sanctus sanctus sanctus dominus deus Sabaoth’

For me, having spent much of my teens and twenties ‘in quires and places where they sing’ the Te deum has a special resonance, indeed all the greater since the Anglican church has generally retreated from having Mattins as a major service. In legend the Te deum was composed antiphonally by Ambrose and Augustine as the first baptised the second at Easter 387. A letter of Cyprian of Toulon, to be dated between 524 and 533 (MGH Epistolae 3.434-6 at 436) quotes lines from it as a hymn that the whole church throughout the world sings every day, in hymno quem omnis ecclesia toto orbe receptum canit, cottidie dicimus).

But is it in fact poetry? In its phrasing it conforms rather to the patterns of late Latin artistic prose. The defining characteristic of such prose is rhythm at the end of clauses. The rhythms are a development from the metrical clausulae famously used by Cicero (but actually much more widespread in Latin and previously Greek literature). The standard accentual clausulae of late antique prose are as follows (where ó is an accented and ~ and unaccented syllable):

I.               ó~~ó~ (cursus planus), e.g., vóce proclámant, déum laudámus
II.             ó~~ó~~ (cursus tardus), e.g., laúdat exércitus, fámulis súbveni
III.           ó~~~~ó~ (cursus velox), e.g. dóminum confitémur

These derive from the metrical clausulae. Thus vōcĕ prō/clāmānt, the cursus planus, corresponds to the cretic (long short long) and spondee (two longs): As long as there is a word break after the second or third syllable of the five, there will always by the regular rules of Latin accentuation be a stressed syllable at the start of each foot: hence the rise of the cursus. Similarly the cursus tardus arises from the double cretic clausula such as lāudăt ēx/ērcĭtūs) or from the cretic and tribrach (three shorts) such as laud-ābilīs / nŭmĕrŭs; both of these are favoured metrical clausulae in the early centuries AD. [Note, by the way, that it is indifferent whether the last syllable is long or short, hence the inconsistent use of metrical feet ending in a long and a short; the final syllable of exercitus and numerus in reality has the same quantity. Please just bear with the inconsistency]. Now the nature of the late antique accentual clausulae, as used in many authors, is that even if there may be a preference for the canonical metrical clausulae, other arrangements of syllables that give the same rhythmical effect are also admitted: some of these may be close to the metrical original. fămŭlīs sūbvĕnī, for example, is an anapaest (short short long) and a cretic; others are a bit further away: deum laudamus begins with a short and a long instead of the long and short of a cretic spondee clausula.

Two more clausulae need to be described to complete the picture. The third main accentual ending, the cursus velox, originally derives from a cretic and a ditrochee (long short long short), though even in more strictly metrical authors, the cretic in particular tends to be varied (so dominum / confitemur is anapaest and ditrochee). Finally, a metrical clausula which many others like is a variant on the cretic spondee, where the cretic is replaced by a first paeon (long short short short): the famous ēssĕ vĭdĕātŭr for which Cicero was notorious. Scholars of accentual prose rhythm have called this the cursus trispondaicus. In late antique prose it very often preserves the original metrical form: térra vene/rátur is both a metrical and accentual example of this ending.

Others too have pointed out that Te deum laudamus is in fact a prose hymn (Norberg himself later calls it 'poetry in prose', and see for example the notes of P. G. Walsh and C. Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns (Cambridge Mass., 2012), 401, or the learned blogpost by Fr Edward McNamara, a Professor at the Regina Apostolorum University, here); but I have not found any account that explains in detail how this prose hymn works. So I here offer a reading of the Te deum laudamus as clausulated prose.

I indicate the clausulae with the signs I, II, III for cursus planus, tardus, and velox, 3 for cursus trispondaicus, x = an absence of regular cursus. Metrical clausulae are noted where they exist: C = cretic, S = spondee, T= tribrach, P1 = first paeon, D = ditrochee, Da = dactyl, Ap = anapaest. I have given the translation from the Book of Common Prayer, though not always the most accurate, out of respect for its own historical importance. You can find a translation by Walsh and Husch in One Hundred Christian Hymns, and one by Matthew Hoskin here.

Te deum laudamus,                                                                 I
te dominum confitemur                                                          III, ApD
te aeternum patrem omnis terra veneratur                              3, P1S
tibi omnes angeli, tibi caeli et universae potestates,              3
tibi cherubim et seraphim incessabili voce proclamant:        I, CS
Sanctus sanctus sanctus dominus deus Sabaoth,                    x
            pleni sunt caeli et terra maiestate gloriae tuae                        I

We praise thee, O God,
We acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting
To the all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry
Holy holy holy Lord God of Hosts
Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.

(The ending dominus deus Sabaoth is anomalous in two ways: first, it presents the Hebrew word Sabaoth (accented in Greek on the final syllable; I do not know how it was accented in fifth-century Latin, though it is on the first later in the Middle Ages); secondly it is a part of a quotation from the angels’ cry, originally in Isaiah 6.3, and a quotation should not be expected to preserve rhythm; the same might be said of the following line too).

Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus,                                          x
te prophetarum laudabilis numerus,                                       II, CT
te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.                               II, CC
Te per orbem terrarum sancta confitetur ecclesia:                 II, CC
Patrem inmensae maiestatis,                                                  3
venerandum tuum verum unicum filium,                               II, CC
sanctum quoque paraclitum spiritum.                                    II, CC

The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee,
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee,
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee,
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true, and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.

(Here all but the first clause show a regular clausula. Note that I assume paraclitus was scanned short long short long: even though it is from the Greek parákleitos, the antepenultimate accent normally led to the treatment of the penultimate syllable as short: see e.g. Prudentius Cath. 5.160, Perist. 10.430. Moreover, we can start to note a series of clauses ending in parallel rhythms and often scansions). 

Tu rex gloriae Christe;                                                            I, CS
tu patris sempiternus es filius.                                                II, CC
Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem                                x
non horruisti virginis uterum.                                                 II, DaT
Tu devicto mortis aculeo                                                        II, DaC
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum.                                    I, CS
Tu ad dexteram dei sedes in gloria patris.                              I, CS
Iudex crederis esse venturus                                                   I, CS

Thou art the King of glory, O Christ;
Thou art the everlasting son of the father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man,
Thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge.

Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni,                             II, ApC
quos pretioso sanguine redemisti                                          III
Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria numerari                    III

We therefore pray thee, help thy servants,
Whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting. 

(For the last clausula I have printed the standard liturgical text, but it would in fact be a regular cretic ditrochee if one accepts the reading munerari and deletes in, ‘make them to be rewarded with eternal glory alongside thy saints’, for which the manuscript evidence seems to be superior: see M. Frost, ‘Te Deum Laudamus: The Received Text’, JTS 43 (1942), 59-68. The fidelity of the hymn as a whole to metrical clausulae is not so strong as to compel this, but it is an additional argument in favour of gloria munerari).

There seems to be a consensus that the verses that follow are added later, mostly from the psalms, a fact that is dramatically illustrated by the sudden thinning out of clausulae:

Salvum fac populum tuum domine et benedic hereditati tuae;          x
et rege eos et extolle illos usque in aeternum.                                    3
Per singulos dies benedicimus te                                                        x
et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum et in saeculum saeculi.          II, CC
Dignare domine die isto sine peccato nos custodire.                          I
Miserere nostri domine miserere nostri                                              x
Fiat misericordia tua domine super nos                                              x
quemadmodum speravimus in te                                                        x
In te domine speravi; non confundar in aeternum.                             3

O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage;
Govern them and lift them up for ever.
Day be day we magnify thee;
And we worship thy name, ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord ,have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us,
As our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.

The difference in these last verses is stark: the regular use of final monosyllables, or of lines where there is only one intermediate syllable. They illustrate by contrast the technique of the previous lines: short phrases of a particular length, parallel or adjacent clauses often emphasised by the same rhythm and even sometimes metre.

The basic point I make here is not unknown to liturgical specialists. But it comes as a surprise to most of those whom I mention it to and Dag Norberg seems not to have heard about it; so it bears repeating and illustrating. More widely, this is symptomatic of the fact that prose rhythm in Latin -- perhaps because there is no direct equivalent in modern societies -- has tended to be seen as something rather obscure and mysterious. In fact, it was an absolutely central element of how educated and formal writing and performative speech worked in the Roman world. 

Here are a couple of my favourite Te deum settings. by Henry Purcell, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier: