Wednesday, November 02, 2011

For All Souls Day: The "Hymnus ad Exequias Defuncti" of Prudentius

Last year I offered some Liturgical Notes for All Souls day where we looked at some of the history and features of the liturgy for the Dead within the Christian tradition.

This year I thought we might share Prudentius' "Hymn for the Burial of the Dead," as put into English verse by R. Martin Pope. (Another version, coming from the Fathers of the Church series, is available here, and you may also wish to read the poem in its original Latin version here.)

The catafalque prepared for the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, Ss. Trinita, Rome, 2011

* * *


(Translated by R. Martin Pope)

Fountain of life, supernal Fire,
Who didst unite in wondrous wise
The soul that lives, the clay that dies,
And mad'st them Man: eternal Sire,

Both elements Thy will obey,
Thine is the bond that joins the twain,
And, while united they remain,
Spirit and body own Thy sway.

Yet they must one day disunite,
Sunder in death this mortal frame;
Dust to the dust from whence it came,
The spirit to its heavenward flight.

For all created things must wane,
And age must break the bond at last;
The diverse web that Life held fast
Death's fingers shall unweave again.

Yet, gracious God, Thou dost devise
The death of Death for all Thine own;
The path of safety Thou hast shown
Whereby the doomèd limbs may rise:

So that, while fragile bonds of earth
Man's noblest essence still enfold,
That part may yet the sceptre hold
Which from pure aether hath its birth.

For if the earthy will hold sway,
By gross desires and aims possessed,
The soul, too, by the weight oppressed,
Follows the body's downward way.

But if she scorn the guilt that mars--
Still mindful of her fiery sphere--
She bears the flesh, her comrade here,
Back to her home beyond the stars.

The lifeless body we restore
To earth, must slumber free from pain
A little while, that it may gain
The spirit's fellowship once more.

The years will pass with rapid pace
Till through these limbs the life shall flow,
And the long-parted spirit go
To seek her olden dwelling-place.

Then shall the body, that hath lain
And turned to dust in slow decay,
On airy wings be borne away
And join its ancient soul again.

Therefore our tenderest care we spend
Upon the grave: and mourners go
With solemn dirge and footstep slow--
Love's last sad tribute to a friend.

With fair white linen we enfold
The dear dead limbs, and richest store
Of Eastern unguents duly pour
Upon the body still and cold.

Why hew the rocky tomb so deep,
Why raise the monument so fair,
Save that the form we cherish there
Is no dead thing, but laid to sleep?

This is the faithful ministry
Of Christian men, who hold it true
That all shall one day live anew
Who now in icy slumber lie.

And he whose pitying hand shall lay
Some friendless outcast 'neath the sod,
E'en to the almighty Son of God
Doth that benignant service pay.

For this same law doth bid us mourn
Man's common fate, when strangers die,
And pay the tribute of a sigh,
As when our kin to rest are borne.

Of holy Tobit ye have read,
(Grave father of a pious son),
Who, though the feast was set, would run
To do his duty by the dead.

Though waiting servants stood around,
From meat and drink he turned away
And girt himself in haste to lay
The bones with weeping in the ground.

Soon Heaven his righteous zeal repays
With rich reward; the eyes long blind
In bitter gall strange virtue find
And open to the sun's clear rays.

Thus hath our Heavenly Father shown
How sharp and bitter is the smart
When sudden on the purblind heart
The Daystar's healing light is thrown.

He taught us, too, that none may gaze
Upon the heavenly demesne
Ere that in darkness and in pain
His feet have trod the world's rough ways.

So unto death itself is given
Strange bliss, when mortal agony
Opens the way that leads on high
And pain is but the path to Heaven.

Thus to a far serener day
Our body from the grave returns;
Eternal life within it burns
That knows nor languor nor decay.

These faces now so pinched and pale,
That marks of lingering sickness show,
Then fairer than the rose shall glow
And bloom with youth that ne'er shall fail.

Ne'er shall crabbed age their beauty dim
With wrinkled brow and tresses grey,
Nor arid leanness eat away
The vigour of the rounded limb.

Racked with his own destroying pains
Shall fell Disease, who now attacks
Our aching frames, his force relax
Fast fettered in a thousand chains:

While from its far celestial throne
The immortal body, victor now,
Shall watch its old tormentor bow
And in eternal tortures groan.

Why do the clamorous mourners wail
In bootless sorrow murmuring?
And why doth grief unreasoning
God's righteous ordinance assail?

Hushed be your voices, ye that mourn;
Ye weeping mothers, dry the tear;
Let none lament for children dear,
For man through Death to Life is born.

So do dry seeds grow green again,
Now dead and buried in the earth,
And rising to a second birth
Clothe as of old the verdant plain.

Take now, O earth, the load we bear,
And cherish in thy gentle breast
This mortal frame we lay to rest,
The poor remains that were so fair.

For they were once the soul's abode,
That by God's breath created came;
And in them, like a living flame,
Christ's precious gift of wisdom glowed.

Guard thou the body we have laid
Within thy care, till He demand
The creature fashioned by His hand
And after His own image made.

The appointed time soon may we see
When God shall all our hopes fulfil,
And thou must render to His will
Unchanged the charge we give to thee.

For though consumed by mould and rust
Man's body slowly fades away,
And years of lingering decay
Leave but a handful of dry dust;

Though wandering winds, that idly fly,
Should his disparted ashes bear
Through all the wide expanse of air,
Man may not perish utterly.

Yet till Thou dost build up again
This mortal structure by Thy hand,
In what far world wilt Thou command
The soul to rest, now free from stain?

In Abraham's bosom it shall dwell
'Mid verdant bowers, as Lazarus lies
Whom Dives sees with longing eyes
From out the far-off fires of hell.

We trust the words our Saviour said
When, victor o'er grim Death, he cried
To him who suffered at His side
"In Mine own footsteps shalt thou tread."

See, open to the faithful soul,
The shining paths of Paradise;
Now may they to that garden rise
Which from mankind the Serpent stole.

Guide him, we pray, to that blest bourn,
Who served Thee truly here below;
May he the bliss of Eden know,
Who strayed in banishment forlorn.

But we will honour our dear dead
With violets and garlands strown,
And o'er the cold and graven stone
Shall fragrant odours still be shed.

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