Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Dies Iræ
By Abraham Coles (18131891)
[Born in Scotch Plains, N. J., 1813. Died at Monterey, Cal., 1891. Dies Iræ, in Thirteen Original Versions. 1859. Fifth Edition. 1868.Latin Hymns, with Original Translations. 1868.]
IT would be difficult to find, in the whole range of literature, a production to which a profounder interest attaches than to that magnificent canticle of the Middle Ages, the DIES IRÆ. Fastening on that which is indestructible in man, and giving fitter expression than can elsewhere be found, to experiences and emotions which can never cease to agitate him, it has lost after the lapse of six centuries none of its original freshness and transcendent power to affect the heart. It has commanded alike the admiration of men of piety and men of taste . Among gems it is the diamond. It is solitary in its excellence. Of Latin hymns, it is the best known and the acknowledged masterpiece. There are others which possess much sweetness and beauty, but this stands unrivalled. It has superior beauties, with none of their defects. For the most part they are more or less Romish, but this is Catholic, and not Romish at all. It is universal as humanity. It is the cry of the human. It bears indubitable marks of being a personal experience.
The author is supposed to have been a monk: an incredible supposition truly did we not know that a monk is also a man. One thing is certain, that the monk does not appear, and that it is the man only that speaks. He no longer dreams and drivels. He is effectually awake. The veil is lifted. He sees Christ coming to Judgment. All the tumult and the terror of the Last Day are present to him. The final pause and syncope of Nature; the shuddering of a horror-struck Universe; the down-rushing and wreck of all thingsall are present. But these material circumstances of horror and amazement, he feels are as nothing compared with the infinite terror of being found guilty before the Just Judge. This single consideration swallows up every other. The interests of an eternity are crowded into a moment.
One great secret of the power and enduring popularity of this Hymn is, undoubtedly, its genuineness. A vital sincerity breathes throughout. It is a cry de profundis; and the cry becomes sometimesso intense are the terror and solicitudealmost a shriek. It is in the highest degree pathetic. The Muse is Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears. Every line weeps. Underneath every word and syllable a living heart throbs and pulsates. The very rhythm, or that alternate elevation and depression of the voice, which prosodists call the arsis and the thesis, one might almost fancy were synchronous with the contraction and the dilatation of the heart. It is more than dramatic. The horror and the dread are real: are actual, not acted. A human heart is laid bare, quivering with life, and we see and hear its tumultuous throbbings. We sympathizenay, before we are aware, we have changed places. We, too, tremble and quail and cry aloud.
All true lyric poetry is subjective. The Dies Iræ is, as we have seen, remarkable for its intense subjectivity; and whoever duly appreciates this characteristic will have little difficulty in understanding its superior effectiveness over everything else that has been written on the same theme. The life of the writer has passed into it and informs it, so that it is itself alive. It has vital forces and emanations. Its life mingles with our life. It enters into our veins and circulates in our blood. A virtue goes out from it. It is electrically charged, and contact is instantly followed by a shock and shuddering.
Springing from its subjectivity, if not identical with it, we would further notice the intensifying effect of what may be called its personalism; in other words, its egoism. It is I and not We. Substitute the plural pronoun for the singular, and it would lose half its pungency. We have had occasion to observe the weakening effect of this in translation. The truth is, the feeling is of a kind too concentrated and too exacting to allow itself to be dissipated in the vagueness of any grouping generality. The heart knoweth its own bitterness. There is a grief that cannot be shared, neither can it be joined on to anothers. It is not social nor common. It is mine and not yours. It is exclusive, not because it is selfish, but because it has depths beyond the soundings of ordinary sympathy .
The Hymn is not only lyrical in its essence, but also in its form. It is instinct with music. It sings itself. The grandeur of its rhythm, and the assonance and chime of its fit and powerful words, are, even in the ears of those unacquainted with the Latin language, suggestive of the richest and mightiest harmonies. The verse is ternary; and the ternary number, having been esteemed anciently a symbol of perfection and held in great veneration, may possibly have had something to do with the choice of the strophe. Be this as it may, its metrical structure, as all agree, constitutes by no means the least of its extraordinary merits. Trench, in his Selections from Latin Poetry, speaks of the metre as being grandly devised, and fitted to bring out some of the noblest powers of the Latin language; and as being, moreover, unique, forming the only example of the kind that he remembers. He notices the solemn effect of the triple rhyme, comparable to blow following blow of the hammer on the anvil. Knapp, in his Liederschatz, likens the original to a blast from the trump of resurrection, and declares its power inimitable in any translation.