Dies Irae, Masterpiece of Latin Poetry

by Msgr. Paul E. Campbell, M.A., Litt.D., Ed.D.

Description

Paul E. Campbell discusses why the Dies Irae is considered a masterpiece, each verse a volume of profound meditation. The Latin poem is used as the Sequence in Requiem Masses and was most likely written by Fr. Thomas of Celano, a close friend and fellow-friar of St. Francis of Assisi.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Pages

407 – 413

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, February 1949

The Dies Irae is that remarkable hymn used as the Sequence in Requiem Masses. Many are the words of praise that have been said of it. "This marvelous hymn is the acknowledged masterpiece of Latin poetry," writes Dr. Schaff, "and the most sublime of all uninspired hymns." It is a musical gem even without the music, the giant among hymns. A wealth of eulogy has been pronounced upon it by hymnologists of every shade of religious conviction. Daniel says of it: "Sacrae poeseos summum decus et Ecclesiae Latinae keimelion est pretiosissimum" (It is the chief glory of sacred poetry and the most precious treasure of the Latin Church). Orby Shipley seems to contend for a degree of inspiration, for, after enumerating some hymns "which are only not inspired, or which, more truly, are in their degree inspired," he goes on to say: "But beyond them all, and before them all, and above them all may, perhaps, be placed Dies Irae." Coles calls it the diamond among gems, a diamond solitary in its excellence. Dr. Neale speaks of its "unapproached glory."

Who was the author of the famous hymn? The now almost universally accepted tradition favors Thomas of Celano, the friend, fellow-friar, and biographer of St. Francis of Assisi. Many writers ascribe the authorship to Thomas of Celano, but in the writings of a certain Bartholomew of Pisa (1385) we first read that Fr. Thomas is reputed to be the author of the Sequence. Though later references to other authors are seemingly groundless, it is interesting to note that ten other names (rave been suggested by various writers as the probable author: (1) St. Gregory the Great (d. 604); (2) St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153); (3) St. Bonaventure (d. 1274); (4) Cardinal Matthew d'Acquasparta (d. 1302); (5) Innocent III (d. 1216); (6) Thurstan, Archbishop of York (d. 1140); (7) Cardinal Latino Orsini, or Frangipani, a Dominican (d. 1296); (8) Humbert, a general of the Dominicans (d. 1277) ; (9) Agostino Biella, an Augustinian (d. 1491); (10) Felix Haemmerlein, a priest of Zurich (d. 1457).1

Liturgical Text Is the Best-Known

We are best acquainted with this famous Latin poem in the form in which it is found in the Roman Missal. Used as the Sequence in Requiem Masses, it is a Latin poem of 57 lines in accentual (non-quantitative), rhymed, trochaic metre. It comprises 19 stanzas, of which the first 17 follow the type of the first stanza:

1. Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.

The remaining stanzas (18 and 19) discard the scheme of triple rhymes in favor of rhymed couplets, but, the last two verses of the poem use assonance instead of rhyme, and are moreover catalectic (one syllable shorter).

18. Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.

19. Huic ergo parce Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. Amen.

The last six lines did not, in all probability, originally belong to the Sequence. The text of the Sequence found among the papers of Haemmerlein has an entirely different wording of these last two stanzas. It is quite probable that the Sequence was first intended for private devotion, and that subsequently the six lines (the two last stanzas) were added to it in order to adapt it to liturgical use (Henry, loc. cit.).

Several Hundreds of English Translations

This sublime and elevating poem tempted many to try their hand at metrical translations and poetical imitations. There are more translations in English than in any other modern language. At the time Henry wrote (1913) the English renderings numbered 234. It is noteworthy that many classic writers of English gave their talents and their time to the translations of the Dies Irae, among them Crashaw (1646), Dryden (1696), Scott (1805), and Macaulay (1819). Father Caswall did a creditable piece of work on his translation of 1849; in America Dr. Abraham Coles, a physician of Newark, gave us 18 versions; W. W. Nevin nine, and Rev. Dr. Samuel W. Duffield six. Father Matthew Britt, O.S.B., who has himself translated the Dies Irae in "The Hymns of the Breviary and the Missal," is authority for the statement, made after reading every worthwhile translation into English that has appeared to the present time, that "no adequate translation has yet appeared." Dr. Coles, the author of 18 versions, agrees with this verdict. But it is rare indeed that a translator succeeds in preserving all the merits of a classical original. Any classic work, and particularly a classic poem, suffers some refraction in passing through the medium of another language.

It is likely that the author first wrote his poem as a stimulus to pious meditation on the Last Judgment. His purpose is to remind the sinner of the all-knowing and just Judge. Had the poem not been of such high quality, it would likely have remained buried in books of private devotion, but its excellence was quickly recognized and resulted in its adoption into the Liturgy as early as the second half of the fourteenth century. A rubric of the Roman Missal as revised by Pius V made its use universal in the sixteenth century; from that time to the present, it holds a prominent place among the official prayers of the Church for the dead. The first seven stanzas fill the soul with holy fear and consternation through their "graphic description of the end of the world and the judgment that is to follow." The remaining twelve stanzas portray "in a spirited and gripping fashion the emotions which a serious meditation of the Last Judgment will invariably awaken in a sinful and sorrowful soul." Stanzas 7 to 17 are a pathetic plea for pardon, first for the individual, and finally (stanzas 18-19) for all the faithful departed. In this Sequence, as in other liturgical prayers for the dead, the pleas for mercy seem to proceed from the soul of the deceased. Stanza 7 is traditional; the soul is stirred by the picture presented in the first six stanzas and seems to ask the question: "To whom shall I look for help?" The deeply earnest prayer of stanzas 8-17 is recited in the first person — the sinner is concerned with himself and his own salvation; with stanza 18 comes a change, a strange voice indicated by the change in metre, a voice that asks eternal rest rather for the faithful departed than for the petitioner.

Unexcelled for Devotional Meditation

The poem serves as a vade mecum of the spiritual life. It is no exaggeration to say that in this respect it is scarcely inferior to the "Imitation of Christ." Every verse of the Dies Irae is a volume of profoundest meditation. In his dogmatical and aesthetical interpretation of the Sequence for devotional reading and meditation, which he entitles Dies Irae, the distinguished Father Gihr has used the text as a skeleton on which to build a body of teaching drawn from Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, particularly from St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei. We owe the English translation of this work of Dr. Gihr to Monsignor Joseph Schmit, pastor of St. Clement Church, Lakewood, Ohio (Herder, 1927). The hymn itself rests upon a biblical foundation; its contents are taken mainly from the prophetical descriptions of the Old Testament, from the eschatological sermons of Christ, and from the teaching and the references of the Apostles concerning the consummation of the world. Gihr analyzes the precious document and gives us the apposite words of Holy Scripture, of Our Lord, and of the Apostles. As we read, we gain a deeper concept of the meaning of the hymn and of its application to the spiritual life of the individual Christian.

The very basis of the Sequence is the dread reality of the consummatio saeculi predicted by Jesus Christ (Matthew xxviii. 20). "This consummation," we read in the translation of Schmit, "consists in an elevation of the creature to a higher degree of existence, in the supernatural renewal and transfiguration of the whole universe." Vain is the theory that looks upon creation as an endless series of recurrent changes, an eternal process of development and progress. We know that the world, as we view it, will come to an end. Human reason alone can arrive at no knowledge of "the last things," the momentous events that will accompany the change in creation from time to eternity, from the present unstable order of nature to the lasting and unchangeable order of eternity. Of concern to the individual are the last things, the novissima, as commonly enumerated: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. The fact of death is a commonplace in human experience, but of what takes place beyond "the bourne from which no traveller returns," human reason can tell us nothing. Nor does divine revelation lift the veil that hides from our view the final stages of the world's history, but leaves us in a sort of twilight until faith yields to vision before the throne of God. St. Augustine speaks of the unsatisfactory character of our knowledge in this area: "The prophetic manner of speech loves to mix figures with words that are to be taken in the strictly literal sense, so that the real meaning is often, as it were, obscured" (De Civ. Dei, lib. XX, cap. 16). For the present we must be content with guesses and conjectures; we know not the manner of happening of the events predicted; human intelligence cannot fathom the mystery.

Pictures Judgment as Seen by Living Witness

"It is not for you to know the times or moments, which the Father hath put in his own power" (Acts, i. 7). Not knowing the day nor the hour, the Apostles believed it possible that the second coming of Christ might take place within their own lifetime. It is true that His second coming as Judge may occur at any time, and in this sense it is ever near at hand. The author of the Dies Irae pictures the Day of Judgment as near at hand, and speaks of it as a living witness. There is a peculiar aptness in this viewpoint, for the particular judgment of every man takes place immediately after his death. This truth enables us to make proper application of the biblical and liturgical texts that stress the general rather than the particular judgment, for judgment becomes a reality for the individual at his or her death. It is probable that the words of St. Chrysostom were part of the background of Thomas of Celano: "What would it profit us to know the time of the judgment day? Assuming that the end of the world were to come in ten, twenty, thirty, or a hundred years; would it benefit us to know it? Is not the end of his own life the last day for every man? Instead of laboring zealously for our own salvation, therefore, we are wasting time if we indulge in vain speculations concerning the end of the world. See to it that thy own life will end happily, and the end of the world will hold no terrors for thee, and it will matter little to thee whether it be near or far away. There is a close relationship between the death of the individual and the end of the world. What happens to the individual at death, will happen to the whole human race when the world will come to an end. It would not be amiss, therefore, to speak of the death of an individual as that individual's last day or end of the world" (Homilies on II Thess., i. 9-10).

Coming of the Day that Knows No Ending

The most dreadful and terrifying event of the Last Day is the destruction of the universe by fire. The author of our hymn describes "that day" as a dreadful day of wrath. He takes the terminology from the Gospel of St. John and the Book of Job. The Apocalypse tells us that after the Judgment "time shall be no more," and St. Peter speaks of the day of eternity "that hath no night and no end." Then, indeed, will the days of the earth be ended.

It is on the Last Day that Christ will triumph over all His enemies; it will be a day of judgment and retribution, marking the vindication of Divine Providence, of God's justice and goodness. The manifesting of His infinite justice will fill men with fear and trembling. That day will be a day of tribulation and distress, but St. Augustine assures us that "the wrath of God, unlike the wrath of men, is not a passionate outburst of the disturbed irascible temper, but the calm apportionment of a just punishment." Yet, the prophets called the great day of the Lord, "a day of the Lord's indignation . . . a day of the fierce anger of God." The prophets drew a picture that brought out the striking characteristics of the particular judgments that God meted out in the course of centuries to individual lands and peoples. Thus, Isaias (xiii. 9-12) makes his picture of the terrible judgment of God upon Babylon identical with that of the universal judgment. The witness of the one judgment cannot doubt the reality of the other.

God is long-suffering; His mercy predominates over His justice during the days of our earthly life, a time of probation. "Dominus expectantissimus indicator," says the Pontificale Romanum. But in that day His justice only will rule. God sometimes punishes individuals as well as nations here below that sinners may not be "suffered to go on their ways for a long time," but these punishments lead to conversion, to spiritual progress, often to salvation; in that day, however the punishments of God are solely punitive, vindicative, and final. "The centuries of time," writes Msgr. Schmit, "are the waiting of a Father who is longing to see his children do penance and participate in His glory." Every day that dawns is a new grace, but the forbearance of God reaches only to the day of death. The neglect and the abuse of grace kindles God's anger. At last the measure of sins is full — the destructive judgment of God comes upon a Godless world. We who live in the world are not without warning; the Apostle tells us not to receive the grace of God in vain, lest we treasure up to ourselves wrath "against the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God."

When the Former Things Shall Be No More

"Cursed is the earth in thy work," said the Lord God to Adam after his fall. In the liturgical prayers of the Church we read: "Christus venturus est iudicare . . . saeculum per ignem." God will make use of fire to judge, punish, and renew all things at the consummation of the world. The destruction of the world by fire will be a stupendous catastrophe. "But the heavens and the earth (are) reserved unto fire against the day of judgment . . . the earth and the works which are in it, shall be burnt up" (II Peter, iii. 7, 10). Solvet saeclum in favilla, writes our author. The earth with its immediate atmosphere will be consumed by fire, but the world conflagration will be confined to the dwelling place of men and the scene of their history. The form of this world will pass away; this planet will be shaken to its very foundations. The works of nature and art will be destroyed, but the world will not be annihilated. From the wreckage of confused elements the Almighty will reconstruct "new heavens and a new earth according to His promises" (II Peter, iii. 13). From the glowing embers there will rise at God's command the new world foretold by the Prophet Isaias (lxv. 17), a new world in the state of supernatural transfiguration. "For behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be in remembrance" (II Peter, iii. 17).

The Old Testament prophets bear witness to the transformation and renewal of the created universe at the end of time. The witness here introduced, David, stands for the prophets in general. We have a distinct and specific treatment of the judgment, declares St. Augustine, in this passage of the Psalms: "In the beginning, O Lord, Thou didst found the earth; and the heavens are the works of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou remainest (unchanged and unchangeable); and all of them shall grow old like a garment; and as a vesture Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed. But Thou art always the selfsame (unchanged), and Thy years shall not fail" (Ps. ci. 26-28). The Prophet Isaias also speaks of the catastrophe in which the universe will literally wither away and disappear at the approach of the angry Judge (Is., xxxiv. 4, li. 6).

Who Was the Corroborating Sibyl?

We are startled to have the Sibyl brought in as a supporting witness: Teste David cum Sibylla.2 The Sibyl is a virginal prophetess, who is the medium and mouthpiece of the religious or inspired traditions of paganism. The Erythrean Sibyl and the Samian Sibyl are credited with prophecies concerning the Last Judgment and the end of the world. The reference to the pagan prophetess is likely prompted by the practice of Christian art, which since the thirteenth century has placed the Sibyls at the side of, or rather opposite to, the prophets. We know today that the twelve books of Sibylline prophecy that have come down to us are not genuine, but among Christians of earlier centuries there was a widespread belief in their authenticity. St. Jerome has a passage that implies some credence on his part. Lactantius even quotes the pronouncements of the Sibyls as divinely inspired. The great St. Thomas declares: "Etiam Sibyllae multa vera praedixerunt de Christo" (Summa, II-II, Q. clxxii, art. 6). St. Augustine quotes a Sibylline utterance on the destruction of the world, but he seems to have his tongue in his cheek and says that the Sibylline prophecies in general can be looked upon as the inventions of certain Christians: "Istae prophetiae possunt putari a christianis esse confictae" (De Civ. Dei, lib. XVIII, cap. 47). Perhaps Thomas of Celano believed that certain individuals outside of the Chosen People received revelations concerning certain mysteries, and gave the Sibyl a distinction she did not deserve by adducing her as a witness.

Our commentator on Dies Irae now draws the moral. We must act in accord with our belief on the brevity of life and the nearness of eternity. "Laetitia saeculi vanitas," writes St. Augustine. And he asks: "Structor mundi dicit tibi ruiturum mundum, et non credis?" The inspired writers warn man again and again that he who is but dust may not set his heart upon the things of earth that are but dust. Telling indeed is the dictum of the sacred writer in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "I've seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold all is vanity and vexation of spirit."

Sts. Thomas and Augustine on the Last Day

Dr. Gihr concludes his essay on the first stanza with an evaluation of the opinions of St. Thomas and St. Augustine regarding the chronological order of the series of eschatological occurrences that will mark Judgment Day. St. Thomas and St. Augustine differ in their opinions, and our commentator combines both opinions in an effort to get nearer to the full truth. "According to certain indications in Holy Scripture (Pss. xcvi. 3, xvii. 9, xcix. 35; Is., lxvi. 15 sq.)," we read in Schmit's translation of Gihr, "the destructive flames will probably precede the arrival of the Great Judge. The fire is to continue to burn during the judgment, and immediately after the verdict will envelop and destroy the whole world." The actual destruction of the world by fire, therefore, will follow the verdict of the Judge. After the Lord has judged "the living and the dead," He will "judge the world by fire (saeculum per ignem)." The final renewal and supernatural transfiguration of the created universe is to be the last act of the great drama, for we can scarcely conceive a new heaven and a new earth, radiant with the beauty and glory of God's justice and sanctity, arising from the ruins of our earth, until every vestige of moral filth and corruption has been cleansed away and the reprobate sinners with their malice and impiety have been hurled into hell. Then only will He who sitteth upon the throne say: 'Behold I make all things new' (Apoc., xxi. 5)."

We have indicated the rich background of the author of Dies Irae and the wealth of meaning in his verse. We most be content here to comment on the first stanza. Gihr-Schmit continue their commentary through the entire nineteen stanzas. Their volume is rich indeed in Catholic dogma and moral teaching.

The wonderful rhythm of Thomas of Celano's hymn likely derives from a tenth-century judgment hymn containing a rhythmized text of Sophonias, of which the first stanza reads:

Dies irae, dies illa,
Dies nebulae et turbinis,
Dies tubae et clangoris.

The merit of the rhythm is without question, for it attracted the attention of many notable modern musicians, among them Colonna, Bassani, Mozart (probably), Cherubini, Berlioz, Verdi, Bruneau, and Gounod. But of the authorship or origin of the old ecclesiastical melody we have no record.

Endnotes

  1. H. T. Henry, in The Catholic Encyclopedia IV, p. 788.
  2. Modern Catholic exegetes, however, see here a reference, not to the pagan (Roman) sibyls, but to the apocryphal work entitled "The Jewish Sibyls," the greater part of which was composed by Christians. The fourth book of this work describes the destruction of the earth by fire unless the inhabitants of Asia and Europe become reconciled with God (see Steinmueller, "A Companion to Sacred Scripture," I, pp. 112-113).

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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