Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
The Great Hymn of Abélard
By Samuel Willoughby Duffield (18431887)
[Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1843. Died at Bloomfield, N. J., 1887. Letter to The New-York Tribune. 1883.]
THAT hymnO quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbatahas a romantic history. For its true text and its proper order of stanzas it is necessary to consult the immense compilation which passes under the name of J. P. Mignevolume 178 of the Patrilogiæ Cursus Completus. It is the XXVIII. Ad Vesperas of the ninety-three hymns written by the unfortunate Abélard for the Abbey of the Paraclete, to be sung there by the sweet voices of Héloïse and her nuns. For many years these hymns were utterly lost, except as they were to be detected floating around anonymously, and ascribed to an earlier or later date. We now know that they must have been written about the year 1150, and that this present splendid lyric was therefore not of the thirteenth century at all .
And now for the romance of the hymn itself. When the French occupied Belgium these ninety-three hymns were tucked safely away in the Royal Library at Brussels in codice quincuncialiprobably a box about five inches high. Other manuscripts were with them and they were transported to Paris untouched and unopened, and so remained during the days of Napoleon Bonaparte. When his empire fell the box went back to Belgium. Upon it were the seals of the French Republic and the French Empire and the stamp of the Royal Library at Brussels. One day a rummaging German student named Oehler chanced to investigate the codex and found in it a libelluswhich libellus, a little book, contained the lost hymns of Abélard. These are in three series and are arranged for all the religious hours and principal festivals of the church, and their authorship is undoubted. Oehler published eight of them at once, and, having described the rest, Mons. Cousins, hearing of it, bought a full transcript at a fair price from the discoverer.
But this was not all. A certain Emile Gachet, a Belgian, also happened to hit on the codex, and unearthed the companion to the libellus in an epistle of Abélard to Héloïse. In this he tells her that he sends these hymns of his own composition, and gives her the sketch, which she had requested, of the origin of Latin hymnologydating it back to Hilary of Poictiers and Ambrose of Milan. This of course sets the authorship of the O quanta qualia beyond the shadow of a question. So that this hymn has the pathetic interest of having been composed by the most brilliant and unhappy man of his age, at a time when he had been persecuted to the edge of despair and had learned his hope of heaven from the horrors of earth. And whoever wills may read this touching story in Morisons Life and Times of St. Bernard. I venture, then, to offer another translation of this fine hymn, following the true order of the stanzas and keeping as closely as possible to the original text and metre.