Dies Iræ: In Thirteen Original Versions


By ABRAHAM COLES, M.D. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1859. pp. xxxiv., 70.
IT is pleasant to see how many wiles Nature employs to draw off into side channels the enthusiasm which is always secreting itself and gathering in the human brain. She knows what a dangerous element it may become, if the individual rills of it run together, and, with united forces, take for a time a single direction. So she taps it at its sources, and leads it away to various ends, useful because they are harmless. Bibliomania, tulipomania, potichomania, squaring the circle, perpetual motion, a religious epic, the northwest passage,— anything will serve the purpose. Divide et impera is her motto. The hobby is the safeguard of society. Once mounted, every enthusiast ambles quietly off on some errand of his own, caring little what direction he takes, provided only it be the other. The Fifth-Monarchy men might have been troublesome, but for the Beast in Revelation;— each insisted on a Beast to himself. Protestantism might have become Democracy, had either Luther or Calvin been willing to ride behind. The five points of the Charter are blunted to a Lancashire weaver who is fattening a prize-gooseberry.
We sympathize heartily with such gentle enthusiasms as this of Dr. Coles. It is the interest of all Grub Street that men should be encouraged whose amiable weakness it is to fall in love with pieces of poetry. In this case, to be sure, the verses are Latin, and the author more nameless even than Junius; but who knows but some one’s turn shall come next whose verses were at least meant to be English, and whose name is — Legion ? If some translator, charged from the other pole of Dr. Coles’s enthusiasm, should favor us with thirteen Latin versions of some modern English poems, it would give them a chance of being more generally intelligible to the laity. Nay, even if such a baker’s-dozen of mediaeval-Latin renderings of Mrs. Browning’s last poem — and by this term we mean, of course, the rather shady Latin of middle-aged men—should be shuffled together, we are not sure that it would not be a help to the understanding of the Coptic original. But this, perhaps, is hoping too much.
In the case of Dr. Coles, how lucky the direction of the superfluous energy ! how wise the humane precaution of Nature! For there is no destructive agency like a doctor with a hygienic hobby. If your constitution be a salt or sugar one, he will melt you away with damp sheets and duckings ; if you are as exsanguine as a turnip, his scientific delight in getting blood out of you will be only heightened. For such erratic enthusiasms as this of Dr. Coles we want a milder term than monomania. Something like monowhimsia would do. It is seldom that an oddity takes so pleasant a turn. He has published a dainty little volume, with a well-written introduction, giving the history of the “ Dies Iræ,” and an account of the various versions of it ; this is followed by his own thirteen translations ; and an appendix tells us what is meant by a Sequence, has a page or two on the origin of rhyming Latin, and concludes with the music of the hymn itself. The book is illustrated by delicate photographs from the Last Judgments of Michel Angelo, Rubens, and Cornelius, and from the “ Christus Remunerator” of Ary Scheffer. It is exquisitely printed at the Riverside Press, which is doing such good service to everybody but the spectacle-makers.
We hold the translation of any first-rate poem, nay, even of any second-rate one which has any peculiar charm of rhythm or tone, to be an impossibility. The translation of rhyming Latin verses presents peculiar difficulties. The rhythm is always simple and strongly accented, it is true; but the ear-filling sonority, the variety of female rhymes, and the simple directness of expression cannot be echoed by our muffling consonants, our endings in ing and ed, and a-s, the-s, and of the-s. For example, the stanza,
“ Tuba, mi rum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra, regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum,”
is very inadequately represented by
“ Trumpet, scattering sounds of wonder
Rending sepulchres asunder,
Shall resistless summons thunder,”
in which, to speak of nothing else, there are thirteen s-s to five in the original. Even Crashaw, whose translation of Strada’s “ Music’s Duel ” is a masterpiece for litheness of phrase and sinuous suppleness of rhythm, quails before the "Dies Iræ,” and contents himself with a largely watered paraphrase. No one has ever yet succeeded more than tolerably with the opening stanza,—
“ Dies Iræ, dies illa,
Solvet sæclum in favillâ,
Teste David cum Sibyllâ.”
The difficulty is increased where the Latin word has some special force of theological or other meaning which has no single equivalent in English.
Doctor Coles has made, we think, the most successful attempt at an English translation of the hymn that we have ever seen, He has done all that could be done, where complete success was out of the question. Out of his first two versions, which seem to us the best, a very satisfactory rendering of the original can be made up by choosing the better stanzas from each. In his first trial he misses the pathetic force of the
“ Rex tremendæ majestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis! ”
where the petition is piercingly individualized by the accentual stress thrown on the me. He gives it thus : —
“ King Almighty and All-knowing,
Grace to sinners freely showing,
Save me, Fount of Good o'erflowing! ”
His second attempt is better : —
“ Awful King, who nothing cravest,
Since Thyself full ransom gavest,
Save thou me, who freely savest! ”
Here the emphatic me is preserved, but in neither version is the true meaning of salvandos even hinted at, and in both we miss the tenderness of the fons pietatis, with which the tremenda majestas is balanced and softened.
There are three or four of these Latin hymns that for simple force and pathos have never been matched in their kind, and never approached, except by a few of the more fortunate poems of Herbert, Vaughan, and Quarles. We know not why it is that what is called religious poetry is commonly so bad. The thing gives the lie to both the adjective and the noun of its title. Anything more flat and flavorless, whether in sentiment or language, is beyond the conception even of an editor with the nightmare. Men have been hanged for more venial murders than some have been praised for who have choked out the immortal soul of the Psalms of David. We have, however, the consolation of thinking that the Devil’s Psalter of convivial songs is quite as bad.
Dr. Coles has done so well that we hope he will try his hand on some of the other Latin hymns. He cannot expect to satisfy those who have been penetrated by the almost inexplicable charm of the originals; but by rendering them in their own metres, and with so large a transfusion of their spirit as characterizes his present attempt, he will be doing a real service to the lovers of that kind of religious poetry in which neither the religion nor the poetry is left out. As we said before, to translate rhyming Latin without losing its peculiar tang is well nigh impossible. Even Father Prout himself would be staggered by Walter Mapes’s “ Mihi est propositum ” or“Testamentum Goliæ”; but perhaps the spirit of the hymns is more easily caught, and Dr. Coles has shown that he knows the worth of faithfulness.