Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Latin Mysteries
By Henry Hart Milman (17911868)
From Latin Christianity
EVEN in the Hymnology of the Latin Church, her lyric poetry, it is remarkable, that with the exception of the Te Deum, those hymns which have struck as it were, and cloven to the universal heart of Christendom, are mostly of a late period. The stanzas which the Latin Church has handed down in her services from Prudentius, are but the flowers gathered from a wilderness of weeds. The Pange Lingua Gloriosi is attributed to Venantius Fortunatus, or Mamertus Claudianus, in the fifth century; the Stabat Mater and the Dies Iræ are, the first probably by Jacopone da Todi, and the last by Thomas di Celano, in the fourteenth. These two, the one by its tenderness, the other by its rude grandeur, stand unrivalled; in melody, perhaps the hymn of St. Bonaventura to the Cross, approaches nearest to their excellencies. As a whole, the hymnology of the Latin Church has a singularly solemn and majestic tone. Much of it, no doubt, like the lyric verse of the Greeks, was twin-born with the music; its cadence is musical rather than metrical. It suggests, as it were, the grave full tones of the chant, the sustained grandeur, the glorious burst, the tender fall, the mysterious dying away of the organ. It must be heard, not read. Decompose it into its elements, coldly examine its thoughts, its images, its words, its versification, and its magic is gone. Listen to it, or even read it with the imagination or the memory, full of the accompanying chant, it has an unfelt and indescribable sympathy with the religious emotions, even of those of whose daily service it does not constitute a part. Its profound religiousness has a charm to foreign ears, wherever there is no stern or passionate resistance to its power. In fact, all Hymnology vernacular as well as Latin, is poetry only to pre-disposed or habituated ears. Of all the lyric verse on the noblest, it might be supposed the most poetic subject, how few hymns take their place in the poetry of any language.
But out of the Hymnology, out of the Ritual, of which the hymns were a considerable part, arose that which was the initiatory, if rude, form of religious tragedy. The Christian Church made some bold advance to be the theatre as well as the temple of the people. But it had an intuitive perception of the danger; its success appalled its religious sensitiveness. The hymn which, like the Bacchic song of the Greeks, might seem developing into scenic action, and becoming a drama, shrank back into its simpler and more lonely grandeur. The Ritual was content to worship, to teach the facts of the Scripture history, only by the Biblical descriptions, and its significant symbolic ceremonial. Yet the Latin Mysteries, no doubt because they were Latin, maintained in general their grave and serious character. It was when, to increase its power and popularity, the Mystery spoke in the vulgar tongue, that it became vulgar; then buffoonery, at first perhaps from rude simplicity, afterwards from coarse and unrestrained fun, mingled with the sacred subjects. That which ought to have been the highest, noblest tragedy, became tragi-comedy, and was gradually driven out by indignant and insulted religion.
In its origin, no doubt the Mystery was purely and essentially religious. What more natural than to attempt, especially as the Latin became more unfamiliar to the common ear, the representation rather than the description of the striking or the awful scenes of the Gospel history, or those in the Lives of the Saints; to address the quick, awakened, and enthralled eye, rather than the dull and palled ear. There was already on the walls, in the chapels, in the cloisters, the painting representing the history, not in words, but in act; by gesture, not by speech. What a theatre! Such religious uses could not desecrate buildings so profoundly hallowed; the buildings would rather hallow the spectacle. That theatre was the Church, soaring to its majestic height, receding to its interminable length, broken by its stately divisions, with its countless chapels, and its long cloister, with its succession of concentric arches. What space for endless variety, if not for change of scene! How effective the light and shade, even by daylight; how much more so heightened by the command of an infinity of lamps, torches, tapers, now pouring their full effulgence on one majestic object, now showing rather than enlightening the deep gloom! How grand the music, either pervading the whole space with its rolling volumes of sound, or accompanying some solemn or tender monologue! If it may be said without offence, the company was already enrolled, to a certain degree practised, in the dramatic art; they were used to enforce their words by significant gesture, by movement, by dress. That which was considered the great leap in the Greek drama, the introduction of the second actor, was already done: different parts of the service were assigned to priest, or humbler deacon. The antiphonal chant was the choir breaking into two responsive parts, into dialogue. There were those who recited the principal parts; and, besides them the choir of men or boys, in the convent, of females and young girls; acolytes, mutes without number.