Saturday, January 28, 2023

St Ambrose’s Hymn for St Agnes

In honor of the Second Feast of St Agnes, which is kept today in the Roman Rite, here is one of the very first Western hymns ever written in her honor, a work of St Ambrose (♰397). The Ambrosian Rite does not keep the Second Feast, but uses this hymn at both Vespers and Lauds of St Agnes on January 21st. It was never previously adopted at Rome itself, but in the post-Conciliar Liturgy of the Hours, it is assigned to Lauds.

Most of the translation given here is by Kathleen Pluth. Hers was done for the Liturgy of the Hours, which omits the half or whole of several of Ambrose’s original stanzas. These omitted parts are printed in italics, as is the accompanying prose translation, my own, very much inferior work. The recording has the whole of the original text.

Agnes, beatae virginis,
natalis est, quo spiritum
caelo refudit debitum,
pio sacrata sanguine
The blessed virgin Agnes flies
back to her home above the skies.
With love she gave her blood on earth
to gain a new celestial birth.
Matura martyrio fuit,
matura nondum nuptiis;
nutabat in viris fides,
cedebat et fessus senex.
Mature enough to give her life,
though still too young to be a wife,
the faith wavered in the men,
and the tired old man yielded.
Metu parentes territi
claustrum pudoris auxerant;
solvit fores custodia
fides teneri nescia.
Her parents struck with fear, had increased
guards of her virtue; the guardians open
the doors, knowing not how to keep to
their duty.

Prodire quis nuptum putet;
sic laeta vultu ducitur,
novas viro ferens opes,
dotata censu sanguinis.
what joy she shows when death appears
that one would think: her bridegroom nears!
bringing new riches to her Husband
endowed with the price of blood.
Aras nefandi numinis
adolere taedis cogitur,
respondet: Haud tales faces
sumpsere Christi virgines;
Her captors lead her to the fire
but she refuses their desire,
“For it is not such smold’ring brands
Christ’s virgins take into their hands.”
Hic ignis extinguit fidem,
haec flamma lumen eripit:
hic, hic ferite, ut profluo
cruore restinguam focos.
“This flaming fire of pagan rite
extinguishes all faith and light.
Then stab me here, so that the flood
may overcome this hearth in blood.”
Percussa quam pompam tulit!
Nam veste se totam tegens,
curam pudoris praestitit,
ne quis retectam cerneret.
Courageous underneath the blows,
her death a further witness shows,
she took care of her modesty
lest anyone see her uncovered.
In morte vivebat pudor,
vultumque texerat manu;

terram genu flexo petit,
lapsu verecundo cadens.
In death, her modesty lived,
and she covered her face with her hand,

for as she falls she bends her knee
and wraps her robes in modesty.
Gloria tibi, Domine,
gloria Unigenito,
una cum sancto Spiritu
in sempiterna sæcula. Amen.
O Virgin-born, all praises be
to You throughout eternity,
and unto everlasting days
to Father and the Spirit, praise. Amen.
The meter which St Ambrose uses here, the iambic dimeter, has eight syllables per line. The very first word of this hymn, “Agnes”, should be in the genitive (possessive) form “Agnetis”, but that would make for nine syllables. He therefore treats “Agnes” as if it were a Greek genitive ending in -es, from “Agne”, which means “holy, pure”, and is very frequently used in the Byzantine liturgy to refer to the Virgin Mary. The Ambrosian Breviary changed the line to the more Latin “Agnetis almae virginis.”
Kathleen Pluth has done over 150 versions of Latin hymns into English poetry, for the Adoremus Bulletin, Magnificat, and Word on Fire’s Liturgy of the Hours; this one was originally published in a collection of the lives of young Saints: Radiate: More Stories of Daring Teen Saints. (It was also published on one of our sister sites, the Chant Café.) She has a license in Sacred Theology, and was formerly director of sacred music in a large parish and separately in a classical school. Our thanks to her for sharing her work on NLM.

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