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Buchanan: Hymnus matutinus ad Christum

I had intended to post this before Christmas, but the theme is never out of season. What follows is a short hymn to Christ by George Buchanan.1 After having made an unpoetical translation, I discovered that there have been a handful of translations of it over the past couple of centuries. But I’ll warrant I’m not far wrong in supposing the hymn is not well known.

The hymn is written in iambic dimeters in four-line strophes, the form developed by Ambrose of Milan in his hymns, and thus is singable to such tunes as that used for the hymn “O Trinity, Most Blessed Light” (though the substitution of two short syllables [tene-] in place of the long quantity at the end of the first iambic metrum in line 8 will prove a little awkward, though not insurmountably so).

I affix my comments to the Latin text, but they should be easy enough to follow for the English translation as well.

Hymnus matutinus ad Christum

Proles parentis optimi,
Et par parenti maximo2,
De luce vera vera lux3,
Verusque de Deo Deus4:

En nox recessit, jam nitet
Aurora luce5 praevia,
Coelum solumque purpurans,
Et clausa tenebris detegens.

Sed fuscat ignorantiae
Caligo nostra pectora6,
Et nubilis erroribus
Mens pene cedit obruta.

Exsurge sol purissime7,
Diemque da mundo suum:
Nostramque noctem illuminans
Erroris umbram discute.

Dissolve frigus horridum8;
Arvumque nostri pectoris,
Calore lampadis tuae,
Humore purga noxio:

Ut irrigetur coelitus9

Roris beati nectare10,
Et centuplo cum foenore
Coeleste semen proferat11.

Morning Hymn to Christ

Offspring of the best Father,
and equal to the greatest Father,
from true Light true Light,
and true God from God:

Behold, the night has withdrawn, now shines
the dawn as light leads the way,
making crimson heaven and earth,
and uncovering what was enclosed in darkness.

But the mist of ignorance
darkens our hearts,
and the mind, buried by
gloomy errors, nearly disappears.

Arise, Sun most pure,
give to the world its own light,
and illuminating our night
shake off the shadow of error.

Melt the frightful cold,
and the field of our heart
cleanse of its harmful moisture
with the heat of your lamp,

so that it may be watered from heaven
with the nectar of blessed dew
and may, with hundredfold profit,
bring forth heavenly seed.

  1. Buchanan was a Scot, though a Scot who spent a good deal of time in France, and also in Portugal, where he was confined by the Inquisition. He was so well regarded in his day that he was elected moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland in the 1560s, though he was a layman–an occurrence which was not repeated until the early 2000s.
  2. Parallel lines, with alliteration of “p,” the repetition of parens in different cases, and a superlative adjective at the end of the line (also in different cases).
  3. Chiasmus with double polyptoton (luce/luxvera [ablative], vera [nominative].
  4. Obviously a reference to Nicene Christology.
  5. Buchanan picks up the lux from line three and transfers it to an image taken from nature, that of day and night. The coming of dawn automatically drives away the darkness of night.
  6. The nature-image is now brought into relation with the human sphere: though the dawning of nature’s sun enlightens heaven and earth the human heart remains weighed down by its own night, the fog of cloudy error. In nature, the driving away of night is consistent and taken as a given. But the human heart is more stubborn. Buchanan perhaps has Romans 1 in mind here.
  7. Thus the true light, the “most pure sun,” Jesus Christ, must give “day” to the “night” of our error. This invocation returns us to the lux of line three and connects it with the second stanza. Throughout, in keeping with the motif of “illumination,” sin is described in intellectualized terms (e.g., ignorantiae, mens, error, the primary figurative meaning of which is a wandering from the truth).
  8. Just as the heart has its own “night,” so it also has its own winter that must be melted by the Sun of Righteousness.
  9. The agricultural image introduced by arvum is continued here where, in a classicizing turn of phrase, God is asked to water our hearts with heavenly nectar. Coelitus [and coeleste, below] picks up nature’s coelum in line 7.
  10. In contrast to our fallen humor noxius.
  11. Cf. Matthew 13:8, 13:23, etc.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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