Of all the many and varied branches of Christian art, there is none which offers to the researches of criticism a field so extensive as does the hymnography of the Roman Breviary. No other source of liturgical study, if we except the antiphonarium, has received such attention from studious men. But never, in any age, did this study receive such careful treatment and give rise to such patient and laborious research as in our own. (Pimont, Les hymnes du Breviare Romain, Introduction.)

In this note, an attempt will be made to define a hymn, to tell of the introduction of hymns into the Roman Breviary, and to note briefly the character of these hymns.

St. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 122, defined a hymn as a song with praise of God, cantus est cum laude Dei. It may, however, be more strictly defined as a spiritual song, a religious lyric (v. Cath, Ency., art. "Hymn").

In the early Christian assemblies great use was made of the psalms and canticles in their congregational singing. St. Paul wrote: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord" (Ephes. v. 18) "...teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God" (Col. iii. 16). The Jesuit, Father Arevalo, in his Hymodia Hispanica, cites many witnesses, such as Clement of Alexandria, the Apostolic Constitutions, Pliny the younger, to prove that hymns were used in the first and second centuries. But a much-debated question is, whether those hymns were really made part of the Office, as hymns stand there to-day. Some scholars deny that they were; others assert that they were certainly part of the Church's Office. All agree that they were certainly in use formally and substantially in the Office in the third and fourth centuries in the Eastern and in the Western Church. The Council of Antioch (269-270) wrote to the Pope that Paul of Samosate had suppressed some canticles recently composed in honour of Jesus Christ. St. Dionysius of Alexandria composed some hymns, to win over an erring bishop. In the fourth century the Council of Laodicea spoke of the introduction of some hymns, which were not approved; and St. Basil tells us that hymns were in universal use in the Eastern Church.

In the Western Church, St. Hilary of Potiers (370) composed a hymn book for his church. Its existence is known from the words of St. Jerome. St. Augustine states that St. Ambrose (340-397), shut up with his people in the church in Milan by the persecutors, occupied his flock by their singing of hymns which he himself had composed, and some of which are in our Breviaries. The Church of Milan certainly had hymns in its Office and in its Office books then, for St. Paulinus in his life of St. Augustine wrote: "Hoc in tempore, primum antiphonae, hymni ac vigilae in Ecclesia Mediolanensi celebrari coeperunt; cujus celebritatis devotio usque in hodiernam diem, non solum, in Ecclesia Mediolanensi verum per omnes pene Occidentis provincias manet."

But the question arises, when did Rome introduce hymns into her liturgy? The learned Jesuit, Father Arevalo, held that the Roman Office had hymns as an integral part from the time of St. Ambrose, and he called the opinion of those who held that they were of later introduction an inveterate error, errorem inveteratum (Hymnodia Hispanica XVIII., n. 95). The introduction of antiphonal chanting was introduced into Rome at the time of St. Ambrose and liturgical hymn singing, too, was introduced about the same time. This we know from the Milanese priest Paulinus, St. Augustine, Pope Celestine I., and Faustus, Bishop of Riez. But formal, official and systematic hymnody was not introduced in Rome until centuries after the death of St. Ambrose. Mabillon (Suppl. ad IV. lib de div. off. Amalarii, t. 11) and Tomasi (In annot, ad Resp. et antip. Rom. Ecc.) place the date of the introduction of hymns into the Roman liturgy, in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. But scholars now agree that hymns were formally recognised in the liturgy of Rome in the latter half of the ninth century. "To judge of what Amalare of Metz says, there was no sign of it at the beginning of the ninth century, but from the middle of the same century onwards hymns must have been introduced into the Office used by the Churches of the Frankish empire, and shortly afterwards in Rome" (Baudot, op. cit., pp. 67-68). Wilfrid Strabo agrees with Amalare. Rabanus Maurus testifies that hymns were in general usage in the second part of the ninth century. (Migne, Pat. Lat. clx. 159, cxiv. 956). This is the opinion of Gueranger, Pimont, Blume and Baumer.

Dom Gueranger explains why Rome, the mother and mistress of all the churches, did not adopt the practice of hymn chanting in her liturgy for centuries; why she did not precede or quickly follow the Eastern and many parts of the Western Church in this matter of liturgical hymns. "The Church," he says, "did not wish to alter by religious songs the simplicity, or the meaning, of her great liturgical prayer. Nor did she wish to adopt quickly any innovation in her liturgy or discipline" (Inst. Liturg. I. 1, pp. 170-171).

No part of the Church's liturgy has met with such persistent, abusive, and often ignorant criticism as her hymns have received.

The renaissance clerics, the Gallicans, the Jansenists, and the Protestants poured forth volumes of hostile and unmerited criticism on the matter and form of Rome's sacred songs. Becichemus, rector of the Academy of Pavia in the sixteenth century, in his introduction to the work of Ferreri, wrote of the hymns: "sunt omnes fere mendosi, inepti, barbarie refecti, nulla pedum ratione nullo syllabarum mensu compositi.... Ut ad risum eruditos concinent, et ad contemptum ecclesiastici ritus vel literatos sacerdotes inducant.... Literatos dixi: nam ceteri qui sunt sacri patrimonii helluones, sine scientia, sine sapientia, satis habent, ut dracones stare juxta arcam Domini." The remarks of the rector recall the saying of Lactantius, "literati non habent fidem." Ferreri, who had been commissioned by Pope Clement to revise and correct the Breviary hymns, wrote in his dedication epistle: "I have given all my care to this collection of new hymns, because learned priests and friends of good Latinity who are now obliged to praise God in a barbarous style, are exposed to laugh and to despise holy things." Santeuil (1630-1697) characterised the Breviary hymns as the product of ignorance, the disgrace of the Latin language, the disreputable relics of the early ages, the result of lunacy.

Violent attack leads to violent defence. Both are generally born of ignorance, a partizan spirit, and exaggeration. Pious Catholic defenders write that the Roman Breviary has hymns far superior to the classic lyrics of ancient Rome; that they have an inimitable style; that they are far superior to Horatian poetry; that there is nothing to compare with their style and beauty in pagan classics, Indeed, zeal has led some holy men to censure Pope Leo X., Clement VII., and. Urban VIII. for their attempts to correct these compositions, which they hold to have been perfect.

Truth seems to hold the place of the golden mean between the bitter critics and the over zealous defenders of our Breviary hymns. The following propositions, drawn from Father Barnard's Cours De Liturgie Romaine, may be taken as a fair and accurate statement of the views of scholars, views which may be safely held by all students of this portion of liturgy.

First Proposition:–Many of the hymns of the Roman Breviary have not the elegance of the Odes of Horace, of the hymns of Santeuil and of Coffin.

Proof:-(1) The holy Fathers had outlined in a rough sketch rather than perfected their hymns (Pope Urban VIII., Bull Quamvis, 17th June, 1644).

(2) Speaking of the new Hymnal of Ferreri, Pope Clement VIII. says that the new work could only add to the splendour of worship and help to the common interest, implying that the new hymns helped religion by their accuracy and grace of correct poetic forms.

(3) Pimont, the author of a classic work on the Breviary Hymns, in a number of comments, notes the crudities of the Breviary hymns, even in their revised forms. Thus, in the hymn for Prime, he notes apparent ruggedness. He passes similar comments on the hymns assigned to the little hours.

(4) Bacquez states that all the hymns do not join beauty of expression to the merit of the thought expressed, and that a certain number lack style and good prosody.

These opinions should not be extended to all, nor even to very many of the Breviary hymns. All serious critics agree about the beauty of such hymns as the Aeterne rerum Conditor, the Somno refectis artubus, Splendor Aeternae gloriae, Verbum supernum prodiens, and a good number of others.

The greater part of the Breviary Hymns are composed according to the rules of prosody, and their form is lyric, the popular form of Latin song, which preceded in Italy the prosodical system borrowed from the Greeks, and used by the classic pagan poets. The critics of the Renaissance period are very loud and very wrathful over the form of these hymns. Some of them accuse St. Ambrose, Prudentius and Gregory the Great of gross ignorance of the rules of Latin verse and, what to the critics was worse, ignorance of the ways of pagan classical models. But, was the rhymed, tonic accented lyric, which was to be sung by all sorts and conditions of men, in public, such an outrageous literary sin? Was it ignorance or prudence that guided the early hymn writers in their adoption of popular poetic form? It is not certain by any means that the early hymn writers wished to copy or adopt the classic forms of the Augustinian age. Nor is it clear that such men of genius as St. Ambrose, Prudentius, St. Gregory the Great, were ignorant of the rules and models of the best Latin poets. It seems that they did not wish to follow them. They wilfully and designedly adopted the popular lyric forms, so that they might give to their flocks in popular and easily remembered forms, prayers and formulas of faith.

Second Proposition:-The Breviary hymns have the principal elements of poetic beauty.

Briefly, these elements are sublimity of thought, beauty of sentiment, aptness of expression, unction of form. In these matters the Breviary hymns are not inferior to the classic poetry of paganism, nor to the much-belauded beauties of the Gallican Breviary hymns (vide Bacquez, Le Saint Office, notes vi. and viii. in finem).

The composition of the hymns is in perfect harmony with the end for which they are intended, that is, liturgical prayer, chanted prayer. Their phrases do not display the vain and superfluous literary glitter of the much-lauded Gallican hymns, but their accents go out from the sanctuary and live in the hearts of the people. Their language is, like the thought and expression of the psalms, the word of a soul praying to God and adoring Him in fervour, in simplicity, and in faith. Of the piety and expression of the French hymns, Foinard, an ardent apostle of the French liturgical novelties, wrote: "Il ne parait pas que ce soit l'onction qui domine dans les nouveaux Breviaries; on y a la verite, travaille beaucoup pour l'esprit; mais il semole qu' on n'y a pas travaille autant pour le coeur." Letourneux, the fierce Jansenist, wrote to the Breviary-poet, Santeuil, his co-worker: "Vous faites fumer l'encens; mais c'est un feu estranger qui brule dans l'ensenoir. La vanite fait en vous ce que la charite devrait faire." And the Catholic De Maistre, so famed for his fair-minded criticisms, wrote of the new hymn-makers' works: "They make a certain noise in the ear, but they never breathe prayer, because their writers were all alone (i.e., unaided by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit) when they composed them." Of the Roman Breviary hymns he wrote: "They always pray and excite the soul to prayer." "Train your hearts to attention, and hear all their prayers. You will in them see the true religion, as clearly as you see the sunbeams."

Fourth Proposition:–The characteristic of the Roman Breviary hymns is to express with lively sentiments and with unction the noble ideas and beautiful sentiments of the supernatural order, in a simple manner, without prosodical pretension, yet having ever a true rhythm which sometimes vies with better compositions.

The characteristic mentioned in this proposition, which comes as a corollary from the three preceding propositions, is one which is clearly noted in our Breviary hymns. For by their very position in the Breviary, side by side with the Psalms, Scripture extracts and words of the Fathers, the Church shows her esteem and her use of these lyrics of prayer and praise. Again, the Church's mind is shown by her retention of her hymns in her liturgy, notwithstanding the many efforts made to substitute a new hymnal. Up to the sixteenth century these Breviary hymns were universally esteemed. They were admired by St. Augustine. They are quoted and praised by St. Thomas in his Summa. Deays the Carthusian {1402-1471} wrote a beautiful commentary on them. Amongst all priests, secular and regular, the hymns were venerated and loved. Although there were many men of genius in every age and in every part of the Christian Church, the hymns escaped until the renaissance under Leo X. (1475-1521).

The lovers of everything classic and pagan were pained and exasperated at the venerable simplicity, the lack of prosody, the vagueness and crudity of the wording of the liturgical hymns. In 1531, Wimpheling, a priest of the diocese of Spire, produced a work, Himni de tempore et de sanctis ... secundum legem carminis diligenter emendati. Leo X., yielding to his own taste and the wishes of the learned innovators who were ardent students of pagan antiquity, commissioned Ferreri to compose a new hymnal for liturgical use. His book was allowed for liturgical use, but was not prescribed. It omitted all the old hymns sanctioned by the Church for centuries, and sung with fervour by thousands down the ages. "There are found in the work of Ferreri," wrote Dom Gueranger, "all the images and all the allusions to pagan beliefs and usages which we find in Horace. Sometimes, it is only fair to say, his hymns are beautiful and simple ... but they follow generally and too servilely the pagan models ... but they are the work of strong and clear inspiration, which under the mask of classic diction shows itself in every part." (Inst. Liturg. t. I., p. 370.) During the reign of Pope Paul III. new hymnals were issued, but the Breviary hymns were not removed. St. Pius V. in his reform of the Breviary did not touch the Breviary hymns. Clement VIII. in his reform added new hymns but did not remove nor retouch the old ones. This work remained for Pope Urban VIII. (1623-1644).

Urban VIII., Maffeo Barberini, was a poet of no mean rank. Before his election to the papacy, he was a recognised lover of classical literature and an adept in following classic themes and classic forms. Our Breviaries contain some few of his compositions and they show correctness of form, poetic merit, and piety. They are the hymns, Martinae celebri, Tu natale solum (January 20); Nullis te genitor, Regali solio fortis (April 13). His great desire was the correction of the Breviary hymns. This work of correction was not beyond the personal power of the Pope himself, if we judge him by his hymns. His views are expressed in the Bull Divinam Psalmodiam, issued to promulgate the corrected hymns. It found a place in all copies of the Roman Breviary in the last century. To carry out the corrections outlined by the Pope, four Jesuits were appointed, and whether the result of the corrections is the Pope's or the Jesuits' is a highly and hotly disputed point. First of all, the task set to the Jesuits was a very difficult one, and one demanding much prudence as well as learning. It may seem to us that to begin the correction, mutilation and reconstruction of the works and words of men so great in church history and liturgy as Prudentius, Sedulius, St. Ambrose, St. Paulinus, was a work of rashness, a sort of sacrilege, attempting to remodel the glowing piety of their poems to the pattern of Horace's verse. But the Jesuits had got their commands and they were bound to obey. They were chosen on account of their classical scholarship, which was kept sharp by their daily teaching in college, and they were specially bound by a vow of loyal obedience to Papal orders. "It is only fair to give them the credit that out of respect for the wishes of Urban VIII, they treated these ancient compositions with extreme reserve and, while they made some impressions clearer, they maintained the primitive unction in a large number of passages" (Baudot, op. cit., p. 185).

They corrected more than nine hundred false quantities found scattered through the Breviary, 58 in the psalter per hebdomadam, 359 in the proper de Tempore, 283 in the proper of Saints, and 252 in the common of Saints. They changed the opening words of more than thirty hymns. Some hymns were untouched—e.g., the three hymns of the Blessed Sacrament, the Ave Maris Stella, which is rhythmic prose, not verse, and the hymn of the Angels, which was sufficiently perfect. The metre of three hymns, Tibi Christe splendor Patris, and the Urbs Jerusalem and Angularis fundamentum were changed.

The Jesuits have been censured very bitterly for their work of correction. Perhaps they merited some censure, but surely they did not merit the censures heaped on them by hostile critics like Thiers, Henri Valois, and the Franciscan, Cavalli. They answered their critics splendidly and triumphantly by the works of Father Arevalo, S.J. But the wordy war lasts to the present day. Students who wish to see the unrevised and the revised hymnal of Urban VIII. may consult Daniel's Thesaurus hymnologicus for examples. Other examples are given in Monsignor Battifol's work, and others in Dom Baudot's. If the reader read in the Breviary, the hymn Te lucis ante terminum, he may note a difference in that, the revised form, and this, the unrevised:–

Te lucis ante terminum, Rerum Creator poscimus, Ut solita clementia Sis praesul ad custodiam.

Praesta pater omnipotens Per Jesum Christum Dominum Qui tecum in perpetuum regnat Cum Sancto Spiritu

Again, see Lauds for Passion Sunday, Lustra sex, second verse, unrevised reads:–

Hic acetum fel arundo Sputa clavi lancea Mite corpus perforator Sanguis unda profluit Terra, pontus, astra, mundus Quo lavantur flumine.

Iste Confessor, unrevised reads:–

Iste confessor domini sacratus Festa plebs cujus celebrat per orbem Hodie laetus meruit secreta Scandere coeli.

Qui Pius, prudens humilis judicus, Sobrius, castus fuit et quietus Vita dum praesens vegetavit ejus Corporis artus.

The imitation of Breviary hymns has for centuries formed a notable part of sacred Latin poetry. A great amount of Latin poetry dealing with sacred themes finds no place in Missal or Breviary. Every nation has ancient Latin hymns, generally modelled on the then existing liturgical models; and these hymns are found in national hymnals and in works dealing with Christian antiquities, but they find no place in modern liturgy. Thus the Latin poetry of the ancient Irish Church is formed for private and not choral use. The oldest purely rhythmical Latin hymn is that of St. Sechnall (1448), "Audite omnes amantes Deum, sancta merita." But neither it, nor any other of the old Latin hymns by Irish writers, finds place in the Breviary. Collections of Latin hymns by Irish writers of early Christian Ireland are to be found in Todd's Book of Hymns of the Ancient Irish Church (Dublin, 1885-1891); the Irish Liber Hymnorum (London, 1898), the Antiphonary of Bangor (Warren's Edition, London, 1893).

One of the most difficult works for a scholar to attempt and to carry out to his satisfaction is the translation of prose or poetry into another language. The work of translating the Latin of the Roman Breviary into English was attempted and completed years ago. The work was great and creditable, but not renowned as a feat of translation. The hymns of the Breviary have been translated by several authors in every country of Christendom, and with different degrees of success. The study of the Breviary hymns is a highly interesting one, and when it is supported by the different efforts of different translators, it yields new delights, and new beauties are discovered in verses which are sometimes said too rapidly for earnest thought and attention. In the list of books given in the bibliography below, there are given the names of books of translated hymns. Any one of them is of great interest.


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