Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Conditor alme siderum: Holy maker of sterres bright

A wonderful post at A Clerk of Oxford today:

Creation of the stars, BL Royal E IX, f. 3v

Among the Office Hymns for Advent is 'Conditor Alme Siderum', best known in translation as 'Creator of the stars of night'. Two years ago I posted a medieval English translation of this hymn written in the early fourteenth century by a Franciscan friar, William Herebert.  Herebert is an excellent translator and his version of the hymn is a good one; the opening phrase which renders God as 'holy wright' of the stars (starwright?) particularly sticks in the mind.  In this post I want to look at two more Middle English translations of this hymn, from the end of the fifteenth century, and so a little later than Herebert.

Here's the hymn sung in Latin:

And in English (rather fast!) by Ely Cathedral Choir:

Holy maker of sterres bright,
Of feithefull men eternall light,
Crist, that ayene mankynde hast bought,
Here oure prayers of buxum thought.

Having rewth, this worlde shulde be spilte
Thurgh the perell of dedly gilte,
Thou savedest fro grete doloure
To the gilty geving socoure.

This worlde drawing nyghe vnto nyght,
As spowse of bowre, thou came outright
Fro the clausure moost clenly dight
Of moder Mary, virgyne bright.

To whose grete myght, as it is right,
On knees boweth euery wight:
Alle heuenly and erthily thinge
Knowlege them meke to thy beknyng.

O holy lorde, we beseche the,
Of alle this worlde that iuge shall be,
Terme of oure lyfe defende vs froo
The darte of the fals fende, oure foo.

Lawde and honoure, ioye and vertue
To god and to his sonne Ihesue,
Also vnto the holigoost,
Bothe thre and one, of myghtis moost.

This from the carol collection of another Franciscan, the admirable James Ryman of Canterbury, who has left us a manuscript containing no fewer than 170 (!) English carols and songs on all kinds of religious topics.  The text of them all is online here.  This text is so simple it hardly needs glossing, but just in case, here's a literal version:

Holy maker of stars bright,
Of faithful men eternal light,
Christ, who again mankind hast bought, [bought again = redeemed]
Hear our prayers of humble thought.

Having pity that this world should be spilte [destroyed]
Through the peril of deadly guilt,
Thou savedest it from great dolour [sorrow]
To the guilty giving succour.

This world drawing nigh unto night,
As spouse from bower, thou came aright
From the enclosure most cleanly dight [made]
Of mother Mary, virgin bright.

To whose great might, as it is right,
On knees boweth every wight: [creature]
All heavenly and earthly thing
Acknowledge themselves meek at thy beckoning. [command]

O holy Lord, we beseech thee,
Of all this world who Judge shall be,
Throughout our life defend us fro [from]
The dart of the false fiend, our foe.

Laud and honour, joy and virtue
To God and to his Son Jesu,
Also unto the Holy Ghost,
Both three and one, of mights most. [greatest in power]

Most of the poems in Ryman's collection bear some relationship to a particular Latin text, but they vary quite a bit in how close that relationship is; often the English poem has only the loosest connection with the hymn that it quotes.  This, however, is a faithful translation - perhaps because it would be difficult to improve on the beauty of the original, with its stars and chambers and bridegrooms and the world's 'evening hour'.  I like the run of rhymes in verses 3-4, seven rhymes on 'ight' in just six lines (or eight, if you count 'nigh'); and 'drawing nigh unto night' finds an appropriately alliterative English echo of the Latin's 'vergente... vespere'.  In verse 3 this translation also preserves the hymn's quotation of Psalm 18 more precisely than the most common modern translation does: 'as spouse from bower' is the psalm and hymn's 'uti sponsus de thalamo'. 'In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course...'

Read much more here.

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