Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

St Bede on the Ascension

This morning at the end of the Mass for the transferred Solemnity of the Ascension at the Oratory the recessional hymn was, as is usual on the feast there, Mgr Ronald Knox's translation of St Bede's hymn for the Ascension, and sung to the tune of Immortal, Invisible,God only wise. Like others of Knox's translations the text is sometimes awkward, and I realise that I am not alone in thinking that. That slightly unmusical style is perhaps surprising given Knox's felicity in producing the elegant pieces containedin Essays in Satire or Let Dons Delight :

New praises be given to Christ newly crowned,
who back to his heaven a new way hath found;
God’s blessedness sharing before us he goes,
what mansions preparing, what endless repose!

His glory still praising on thrice-holy ground
the apostles stood gazing, his mother around;
with hearts that beat faster, with eyes full of love,
they watched while their Master ascended above.

‘No star can disclose him’ the bright angels said;
‘Eternity knows him, your conquering head;
those high habitations he leaves not again,
till, judging all nations, on earth he shall reign.’

Thus spoke they and straightway, where legions defend
heaven’s glittering gateway, their Lord did attend,
and cry, looking thither, ‘Your portals let down
for him who rides hither in peace and renown.’

They asked, who keep sentry in that blessed town,
‘Who thus claimeth entry, a king of renown?’
‘The Lord of all valiance,’ that herald replied,
‘Who Satan’s battalions laid low in their pride.’

Grant, Lord, that out longing may follow thee there,
on earth who are thronging thy temples with prayer;
and unto thee gather, Redeemer, thine own,
where thou with thy Father dost sit on the throne.


 I found another translation online, which is by Benjamin Webb (1820-1885), and sung to "Lasst uns erfreuen": 
A hymn of glory let us sing:
New songs throughout the world shall ring:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Chirst, by a road before untrod,
Ascendeth to the throne of God.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The holy apostolic band

Upon the Mount of Olives stand;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
And with his followers they see
Jesus' resplendent majesty.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

To whom the angels, drawing nigh,

"Why stand and gaze upon the sky?
Alleluia! Alleluia!
This is the Saviour!" thus they say;
"This is his noble triumph-day."
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

"Again shall ye behold him so

As ye today have seen him go
Alleluia! Alleluia!
In glorious pomp ascending high,
Up to the portals of the sky."
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Oh, grant us thitherward to tend

And with unwearied hearts ascend
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Unto thy kingdom's throne, where thou,
As is our faith, art seated now.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Be thou our Joy and strong Defence

Who art our future Recompense:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
So shall the light that springs from thee
Be ours through all eternity.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

O risen Christ, ascended Lord,

All praise to thee let earth accord,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Who art, while endless ages run,
With Father and with Spirit One.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! 

Not having Bede's Omnia Opera to hand I do not know how long is the original text - both Knox and Webb appear to have made a selection of stanzas from a lengthy original.

Two thoughts arise. Firstly what might John Mason Neale have done with the text is he had translated it, given his immense skill as a translator, or what might Edward Caswell produced?

Secondly, and assuming that Kox was not taking undue liberties with the text - and his style might very well suggest that he was in this case being very literal in his translation - what were the sights that inspired St Bede with his images of fortifications and gateways? In addition to the Apocalypse did he have in mind the undoubtedly extensive remains in his lifetime of Roman town defences and buildings in his native Northumbria? Was he thinking of Hadrian's Wall or Eboracum (York) and peopling them with the Angelic host? What also might his imagery suggest, in a reflex way, about the outward state and display about Northumbrian kingship?

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