Merry 6th day of Christmas! I hope your home is not overrun by poultry sent by your true love. In lieu of six geese a’laying and a summation of other bird-gifts, I have some exploration of a hymn for you. Just what you always wanted, right? I know, I know, I shouldn’t have.
Yesterday at church, we sang “From East to West.” I’d call it a run-of-the-mill Christmas hymn and forget about it, but it struck my ear with a thing I call Éponine rhymes – so called because of a section of Les Miserables that always stuck in my brain:
Marius: Get out before the trouble starts!
Get out, ‘Ponine, you might get shot!
Éponine: I’ve got you worried now, I have.
That shows you like me quite a lot!
If you don’t know that “quite a lot” is coming, you sit there wondering why Éponine would fail so badly at rhyming with the fellow she adores. How else to prove you were made to finish his duet?
It’s not unrhymed; the rhyme just takes longer than expected to show up. Thus with “From East to West”: it’s an ABAB rhyme scheme, but was set to a tune more frequently employed for “From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come,” which has an AABB scheme. The ear expects a rhyme immediately, and is startled by the wait.
I contemplated sending a note to Thalia, saying Thought of you this morning whilst singing LSB 385. The power of rhyme, it is not strong with Mr. Ellerton. But John Ellerton, as it happens, was but translating the words of 5th century poet Coelius Sedulius.
Obviously I had to see what sort of rhyming Coelius Sedulius did or didn’t do. This is what I found: “A Solis Ortus Cardine,” or “From the point of the rising of the sun,” is an acrostic with twenty-three verses about Christ’s birth, his ministry, his miracles, his betrayal, his death, and his resurrection. Coelius Sedulius used every letter of the Roman alphabet to start the verses, which calls for some creativity: not only does he juggle different rhyme schemes (ABBA, ABCB, AABB, AABA, etc.), but he had to be extra inventive when he reached the letter X. So far as I can determine, “xeromurram” is a hapax legomenon referring to myrrh (myrrham, rendered as murram for postclassical vulgar Latinate Reasons) intended to anoint the body of Christ, whose name is alluded to via a spelled-out Chi Rho.
Since it’s not always practical to sing all 23 verses, the church used the first 7 (plus a doxology) as a Christmas hymn, and 4 of the later verses (plus a doxology) as an Epiphany hymn. Luther translated these two hymns into German (with an AABB scheme throughout), and later on Ellerton translated the Christmas hymn into “From East to West” as we sing it today.
Admittedly, these renditions do not necessarily reflect how we sing it today. I thought they were interesting, though, and wanted to share them:
Gregorian plainchant hymn adapted to English by St. Meinrad Benedictine Archabbey in Indiana
Alan Charlton’s Advent motet, sung by the Meridian Singers
Guillaume Dufay, or so it says, alternating polyphony and chant.
All glory for this blessed morn
To God the Father ever be;
All praise to You, O Virgin-born,
And Holy Ghost eternally.