Sunday, 28 May 2017

'Highest of all kings'

'Aeterne rex altissime', with English gloss, in an Anglo-Saxon hymnal

For the Sunday after the Ascension, here's a fourteenth-century English version of the Ascension hymn 'Aeterne rex altissime', by the Franciscan friar William Herebert.

Kyng hexst of alle kynges, that havest non endynge,
Buggere of Cristenemen that beth of ryth levynge,
Thorou thee deth ys fordon and brouth to th'endinge,
And gyven ys ous the overe hond of graces findinge.
Thou styinge op to trone in thy Fadres ryhthond,
Havest, Jesu, fonge mythte that never shaft ne fond.
For hevene and erthe and helle, and al that thrinne ben,
To thee shullen bouwen hem and benden here knen.
Aungles that in hevene beth quaketh for wondringe,
That abouten dedlich mon seth so gret chaunginge,
For flesh sunneth and flesh beteth and flesh ys God regninge.
Thou, Crist, be oure blisse and oure glading,
That wythoute misse in hevene hast wonyng,
That al thys ylke myddelerd havest to yemyng,
And al thys wordles joye hast in forhowyng.
Therefore we byddeth thee oure gultes thou deface,
And oure hertes rer to thee thorouh thy grete grace.
That when thou shalt ferlich comen ous to deme,
Comen yne cloude bryth wyth blowinde beme,
From the pyne of helle, Jesu, thou ous yeme.
And yeld the lorene crounes, God we to thee reme.
Loverd that bove the sterre steye, to thee be wele and blisse,
Wyth the Fader and Holy Gost, ever boute misse. Amen.

That is:

King highest of all kings, who hast no ending,
Redeemer of Christians who are of right living,
Through thee death is destroyed and brought to its ending,
And given to us is the upper hand of grace's finding. [i.e. 'the triumph of grace'!]
Thou, rising up to the throne at thy Father's right hand,
Hast, Jesu, received power such as created things never had.
For heaven and earth and hell, and all that therein be,
To thee shall bow and bend the knee.
Angels in heaven quake for wondering,
Who in mortal man see such great changing:
For flesh sins and flesh atones and flesh is God reigning.
Thou, Christ, be our bliss and our gladdening,
Who without doubt in heaven hast dwelling,
Who all this middle-earth hast in keeping,
And all this world's joy hast in thy guarding.
Therefore we pray thee our sins to deface, [blot out, obliterate]
And our hearts raise up to thee through thy great grace.
So that when thou shalt come wondrously to judge us,
Come in clouds bright with trumpets blowing,
From the pains of hell, Jesu, thou wilt protect us,
And restore our lost crowns, God, we cry to thee.
Lord who rose above the stars, to thee be joy and bliss,
With the Father and Holy Ghost, ever without end. Amen.

The original Latin hymn is anonymous, first recorded in the ninth century, and its best-known modern English translation is probably J. M. Neale's 'Eternal Monarch, king most high'. William Herebert, as usual, stays closer to the Latin than modern translators tend to do, though it's interesting to compare his version of the memorable fourth verse to Neale's:

Yea, angels tremble when they see
how changed is our humanity;
that flesh hath purged what flesh had stained,
and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.

Aungles that in hevene beth quaketh for wondringe,
That abouten dedlich mon seth so gret chaunginge,
For flesh sunneth and flesh beteth and flesh ys God regninge.

Herebert has added to his source a lovely phrase in the second-to-last line: 'Loverd that bove the sterre steye...' I discussed the verb steye in my last post about Herebert, where I talked about it meaning 'ascend' but with connotations of active, powerful movement (like mounting horses and climbing trees), and I said it's a verb which connects Good Friday (when Christ 'steye' upon the cross) and the Ascension. And so it does here, alliteratively: Christ steye above the stars.

The end of the Latin hymn gives a vivid picture of Christ, who ascended into the heavens, returning at Doomsday in a sunset sky: 'when you come to shine forth from your reddening cloud of judgement...' Herebert renders this:

when thou shalt ferlich comen ous to deme,
Comen yne cloudebryth wyth blowinde beme...

'ferlich' is a difficult word to translate into Modern English; it suggests something marvellous and wonderful (in the literal sense of 'causing wonder'), but also terrible and strange. 'Blowing beme' literally refers to blasting trumpets but also evokes rushing winds and beams of light - a world-shaking image of an apocalyptic sky.

Like this, maybe

The imagery in this hymn is cosmic, majestic, mythic: angels quake, the heavens open, and a god who wore human flesh manifests a power beyond any that created things could ever attain ('mythte that never shaft ne fond'). It's impressive stuff. Ascension Day seems to be one of those feasts which the modern imagination struggles to deal with: preachers get embarrassed (I heard a few this week!), and feel the need to start their sermons with an apologetic disclaimer to demonstrate how modern and sophisticated they are: 'well, of course we know that heaven isn't 'up in the sky', and so of course we (unlike childish people in the olden days) know it's silly to talk about Jesus going up. It makes him sound like a rocket, haha!'

This seems to me pretty unimaginative (and, as always, unfair to people in the 'olden days', by which they usually mean the bad old Middle Ages). It's a bit sad, really, for a preacher to have so little poetry in their soul that when they think of the heavens they can only think 'rocket, haha!' As if the skies offer no other objects of mystery and wonder, no images and themes to feed the imagination. Are the starry heights and thunderous clouds of this hymn, for instance, really any less potent symbols of power and majesty for us than they were for William Herebert or the ninth-century author? Here last night, after a week of heat, the clouds amassed for a summer storm, and broke in a sudden torrent of drenching rain which was breathtaking in its force. Be as modern and sophisticated as you like; at such moments you're still subject to the power of the heavens. And as for the stars - well, if you stop feeling wonder at the stars I can't really imagine what would amaze you...

I wrote on Thursday about two more powerful 'skyey influences' which medieval writers connected with the Ascension: the sun which climbs high in the summer sky (the Ascension is 'the sun rising', as this twelfth-century image has it); and Christ as a bird, as imagined by an Anglo-Saxon poet. This isn't just a nice pretty image - it's one of majesty, liberty, and command. Gerard Manley Hopkins put it even better than Cynewulf, in his poem addressed 'to Christ our Lord':

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume...

'The achieve of, the mastery of the thing.' On Ascension Day, I happened to find myself reading about another legendary hero who 'took to flight': Weland, the great smith of Anglo-Saxon and Norse legend. The story of Weland seems to have been widely known in Anglo-Saxon England, and he is referenced in several Old English poems; he is a fierce, frightening figure, but one of great skill and power, the forger of legendary swords and armour. One of the most famous moments in his legend tells how he was captured and imprisoned on an island, forced to work for his captor, but escaped by making for himself a suit of wings and flying away to freedom. A number of stone carvings from northern England, probably dating from the ninth to tenth centuries, appear to show Weland in his feather-suit.


In some ways Weland, though a hero, is very far from being a Christ figure: he murders his captor's sons and fashions goblets from their skulls, and he rapes his captor's daughter before he flies away. His power of flight comes from his skill as a smith, his ingenuity in being able to engineer wings (he doesn't transform himself into a bird, as some of the Norse gods, for instance, do - he remains human, though with magical skill). And yet, on the Franks Casket, made in Anglo-Saxon England in the early eighth century, a scene from Weland's story is placed next to one of Christ being adored by the Magi:


There are birds in both scenes; on the left-hand side, birds are being strangled so that Weland can make his wings from their feathers. Does this juxtaposition suggest a contrast or a parallel between Weland and Christ, a focus on how they are alike, or how they are different? No one can answer that for sure, though it's often noted that in Old English Christ, like Weland, is sometimes called a 'smith' or a 'smith's son' (because he was a carpenter). The juxtaposition brings out the common mythic element in both stories - the man human and yet more than human, skilful and of fearsome power, a creature of the skies as well as of the earth. To a modern eye, seeing a very well-known Biblical story in the context of Weland's strange and disturbing tale makes the familiar suddenly unfamiliar, marvellous, in the sense of something too powerful and terrible to comprehend - what Herebert calls ferlich.

The idea that gods dwell in the heights, in the sky and on the mountains, is one of the most ancient religious impulses. It's hardly difficult to see a connection between that and Christ's Ascension, and going on about 'rockets, haha!' feels like a deliberate attempt not to see it. Those silly people of the olden days found poetry in the feast rather more easily than their clever modern descendants do: in Ascension Day folklore there was 'a strong connection between the day and all things pertaining to the sky, such as clouds, rain, and birds' (Roud). Rain which fell on Ascension Day was said to be blessed - 'neither eaves' drip nor tree-drip, but straight from the sky'. The day was connected with holy water in other ways, including the custom of well-dressing and visiting sacred springs. This expresses a sense that the heavens and the earth are interconnected at the most essential level - as of course they are, whether you think of that power as physical or spiritual or both. The kind of preacher who apologises for Ascension Day is likely to call that faith superstitious, but it's infinitely grander, really, than a worldview which finds no wonder in the heavens. We are earthbound, tied to this sublunary world and its many sorrows - but this is one day when the imagination can soar to the sky.

Anglo-Saxon carving of the Ascension (Wirksworth, Derbyshire)

No comments: