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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Bernard of Cluny (Twelfth Century)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cowper Prime (1825–1905)
 
LITTLE is known concerning the monk Bernard, sometimes called Bernard of Morlay and sometimes Bernard of Cluny. The former name is probably derived from the place of his origin, the latter from the fact that in the introduction to his poem ‘De Contemptu Mundi’ he describes himself as a brother of the monks of Cluny. He lived in the twelfth century, a period of much learning in the church; and that he was himself a man of broad scholarship and brilliant abilities, the Latin poem, his only surviving work, abundantly testifies.  1
  This poem, divided into three books, consists in all of about three thousand lines. It is introduced by a short address in prose to Father Peter, the abbot of the monastery, in which the author describes the peculiar operations of his mind in undertaking and accomplishing his marvelous poem. He believes and asserts, “not arrogantly, but in all humility and therefore boldly,” that he had divine aid. “Unless the spirit of wisdom and understanding had been with me and filled me, I had never been able to construct so long a work in such a difficult metre.”  2
  This metre is peculiar. In technical terms each line consists of three parts: the first part including two dactyls, the second part two dactyls, the third part one dactyl and one trochee. The final trochee, a long and a short syllable, rhymes with the following or preceding line. There is also a rhyme, in each line, of the second dactyl with the fourth. This will be made plain to the ordinary reader by quoting the first two lines of the poem, divided into feet:—
  Hora no | vissima | tempora | pessima | sunt, vigi | lemus;
Ecce mi | naciter | imminet | arbiter | ille su | premus.
  3
  The adoption of such a metre would seem to be a clog on flexibility and force of expression. But in this poem it is not so. The author rejoices in absolute freedom of diction. The rhythm and rhyme alike lend themselves to the uses, now of bitter satire and revilings, now of overpowering hope and exultant joy.  4
  The title scarcely gives an idea of the subject-matter of the poem. The old Benedictine, living for the time in his cell, had nevertheless known the world of his day, had lived in it and been of it. To him it seemed an evil world, full of crimes, of moils, of deceits, of abominations; the Church seemed corrupt, venal, shameless, and Rome the center and the soul of this accursed world. Pondering on these conditions, the monk turned his weary gaze toward the celestial country, the country of purity and peace, and to the King on his throne, the center and source of eternal beatitude. The contrast, on which he dwelt for a long time, filled him on the one hand with burning indignation, on the other with entrancing visions and longings.  5
  At last he broke out into magnificent poetry. It is not possible to translate him into any other language than the Latin in which he wrote, and preserve any of the grandeur and beauty which result from the union of ardent thought with almost miraculous music of language. Dr. Neale aptly speaks of the majestic sweetness which invests Bernard’s poem. The expression applies specially to those passages, abounding in all parts of the poem, in which he describes the glory and the peace of the better country. Many of these have been translated or closely imitated by Dr. Neale, with such excellent effect that several hymns which are very popular in churches of various denominations have been constructed from Dr. Neale’s translations. Other portions of the poem, especially those in which the vices and crimes of the Rome of that time are denounced and lashed with unsparing severity, have never been translated, and are not likely ever to be, because of the impossibility of preserving in English the peculiar force of the metre; and translation without this would be of small value. The fire of the descriptions of heaven is increased by the contrast in which they stand with descriptions of Rome in the twelfth century. Here, for example, is a passage addressed to Rome:—
  “Fas mihi dicere, fas mihi scribere ‘Roma fuisti,’
Obruta mœnibus, obruta moribus, occubuisti.
Urbs ruis inclita, tam modo subdita, quam prius alta;
Quo prius altior, tam modo pressior, et labefacta.
Fas mihi scribere, fas mihi dicere ‘Roma, peristi.’
Sunt tua mœnia vociferantia ‘Roma ruisti.’”
And here is one addressed to the City of God:—
  “O sine luxibus, O sine luctibus, O sine lite,
Splendida curia, florida patria, patria vitæ.
Urbs Syon inclita, patria condita littore tuto,
Te peto, te colo, te flagro, te volo, canto, saluto.”
  6
  While no translation exists of this remarkable work, nor indeed can be made to reproduce the power and melody of the original, yet a very good idea of its spirit may be had from the work of Dr. J. Mason Neale, who made from selected portions this English poem, which is very much more than what he modestly called it, “a close imitation.” Dr. Neale has made no attempt to reproduce the metre of the original.  7
 
 
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