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It is something more than mere association, more than the fact that these metres, in all of most illustrious
half of the third century rather than in the fourth, where it used to be set. Very singular is it to find, more than a hundred years before the last notes of the classical muse had expired in Claudian, a poem of considerable length composed on the system of a total abandonment of quantity, and substitution of accent in its room—maintaining the apparent framework of the old classical hexameter, but filling it up on a principle entirely new. Nor can we suppose that a poem so long, and in its fashion so elaborate, is the first specimen of its kind, however it is the first which has come down to our days. It is of so little value as to be in few hands; three or four lines may therefore be quoted as a specimen. These are part of a remonstrance against the pomp of female dress, § 60:
Obruitis collum monilibus, gemmis, et auro,
Utterly prosaic if regarded as poetry, this work still bears the marks of a strong moral earnestness, is the utterance of one who had something to say to his brethren, and was longing to say it and no doubt here lay that which tempted the writer to forsake a system of versification which had become intolerably artificial in his time and for him; and to develop for himself, or finding developed to use, one in which he should in great part be released from its arbitrary obligations. In the following lines, forming part of a hymn first published by Niebuhr (Rhein. Museum, 1829, p. 7), lines plainly intended to consist of four dactyles each, dactyles, that is, in sound, which with a little favouring of one or two syllables, they may be made to appear, there is the same intention of satisfying the ear with accentuated and not prosodic feet. The lines relate to St Paul, and are themselves worthy to be quoted:
Factus œconomus in domo regiâ,
This hymn also, though considerably later than the poem of
and most memorable which had been composed in them, had been either servants of the heathen worship, or at least appropriated to heathen themes, which induced the Church little by little to forsake them: which even at this day causes them at once to translate us into, and to make us feel that we are moving in, the element of heathen life. The bond is not thus merely historic and external, but spiritual and inward. And yet, at the same time, the influence of these associations must not be overlooked, when we are estimating the causes which wrought together to alienate the poets and hymnologists of the Christian Church ever more and more from the classical, and especially from the lyrical, metres of antiquity, and which urged them to seek more appropriate forms of their own. In those the heathen gods had been celebrated and sung, the whole impure mythology had been arrayed and tricked Were they not profaned for ever by these unholy uses to which they had been first turned? How could the praises of the true and living God be fitly sung in the same? A like feeling to that which induced the abandonment of the heathen temples, and the seeking rather to develop the existing basilicas into Christian churches, or where new churches were built, to build them after the fashion of the civil, and not the religious, edifices already existing, must have been here also at work. The faithful would have often shrunk from the involuntary associations which these metres suggested, as we should shrink from hearing a psalm or spiritual
Commodianus, is certainly of a very early date. Niebuhr thinks he finds evidence in the MS. from which it is taken, that it cannot be later than the seventh century.
fitted to some tune which had been desecrated to lewd or otherwise profane abuse. And truly there is, and we find it even now, a clinging atmosphere of heathen life shed round many of these metres, which it is almost impossible to dissipate; so that, reading some sacred thoughts which have arrayed themselves in sapphics,* or alcaics, or hendecasyllables, we are more or less conscious of a certain contradiction between the form and the subject, as though they were awkwardly and unfitly matched, and one or other ought to have been different from what it is.
The wonderful and abiding success of the hymns of St Ambrose, and of those so-called Ambrosian which were formed upon the model of his, lay doubtless in great part in the wise instinct of choice, which led him to select a metre by far the least markedly metrical, and the most nearly rhythmical, of all the ancient metres out of which it was free to him to choose ;-I mean the iambic dimeter. The time was not yet come when it was possible altogether to substitute rhythm for metre: the old had still too much vitality to be cast aside, the new had not yet clearly shaped itself forth; but choosing thus, he escaped (as far as it was possible, using these forms at all, to escape,) the disturbing reminiscences and associations of heathen art.† While in a later day hardly anything so strongly
* Take, for instance, this from a sapphic ode in honour of the Baptist:
Oh nimis felix, meritique celsi,
Præpotens martyr, eremique cultor
† See Bähr, Die Christl, Dichter Roms, p. 7.
revealed the extent to which Roman Catholic Italy had fallen back under pagan influences, was penetrated through and through at the revival of learning with the spirit of heathen, and not of Christian, life, as the offence which was then everywhere taken by Italian churchmen, Leo the Tenth at their head, at the unmetrical hymns of the Church, and the determination manifested to reduce them by force, and at the cost of any wrong to their beauty and perfection, to metre ;— their very exemption from which was their glory, and that which made them to be Christian hymns in the highest sense.*
This movement, then, which began early to manifest itself, for an enfranchisement from the old classical forms, this impatience of their restraints, was essentially a Christian one. Still we cannot doubt that it was
*The history of the successive revisions which the nonmetrical hymns sustained, is given by Arevalus, an enthusiastic admirer of the process, in his Hymnodia Hispanica, Romæ, 1786, pp. 121–144, with this ominous heading: Romanorum Pontificum in reformandâ Hymnodiâ Diligentia. Daniel (Thesaurus Hymnologicus, Halis, 1841; Lipsiæ, 1844-6) has frequently given in parallel columns the hymn as it existed in earlier times, probably as it came from the author, and as it was recast in the Roman breviary. The comparison is very instructive, as shewing how well-nigh the whole grace and beauty, and even vigour, of the composition had disappeared in the process. With Scripture upon our side, it would not much trouble us, if Rome had for the present that æsthetical superiority, that keener sense of artistic beauty, which she claims: this would not trouble us, since, ultimately, where truth is, there highest beauty must be as well. But such facts as these, or as the hideous Italian Churches of the last three hundred years, need to be explained and accounted for, before she can make good her claim.
assisted and made easier by the fact that the metrical system, against which the Church protested, and from which it sought to be delivered, had been itself brought in from without. Itself of foreign growth, it could oppose no such stubborn resistance as it would have done, had it been native to the soil, had its roots been entwined strongly with the deepest foundations of the Latin tongue. But this they were not. It is abundantly known to all who take any interest in the early poetry of Rome, that it was composed on principles of versification altogether different from those which were introduced with the introduction of the Greek models in the sixth century of the City—that Latin hexameters, or 'long' verses, were in all probability first composed by Ennius*, while the chief lyric metres belong to a much later day, having been introduced, some of the simpler kinds, as the sapphic by Catullus, and the more elaborate not till the time, and only through the successful example, of Horace.† It is known too that while the hexameter took comparatively a firm root in the soil, and on the whole could not be said to be alien to the genius of the Latin tongue, the lyric metres remained exotics to the end, were never truly acclimated,-nothing worth reading or being preserved having been produced in them, except by those who first transplanted them from Greek to Italian ground. It was not that the Latin language should
* Cicero, De Legg. ii. 27.
+ Horace, Epistt. i. 19, 21-34.
Quintilian's judgment of his countrymen's achievements in lyric poetry is familiar to most (Instit. Orat. x. 1, 96): Lyricorum Horatius ferè solus legi dignus.