One of my favorite of the ancient hymns is the Latin hymn “Pange, Lingua, Gloriosi Praelium” by 6th/7th century poet and hymnodist Venatius Fortunatus. In the medieval Western tradition, this hymn was usually sung at Matins and Lauds between Passion Sunday and Maundy Thursday, inclusive. The 1940 Hymnal that we use at All Saints contains an abbreviation of the hymn, and indeed we’ve been singing it quite a bit in our live-streamed Offices this year.
One of the reasons I love this hymn so much is that it is a fine example of the deep theology and of the hymns that have endured the ages with their ability to foster deep devotion. The other main reason is the amazing tune that goes with it!
What follows is John Mason Neale’s translation as it appeared in his 1851 work The Hymnal Noted, and his 1852 commentary on the hymn. In Neale’s hymnal as in the traditional Roman Breviary, it’s divided into two parts with the final verse used as a doxology in each. In what follows I’ve combined them and arranged the commentary accordingly.
Note: though a similar title and tune is traditionally used, this is not the same hymn as Thomas Aquinas’ (much later) Eucharistic song “Pange Lingua.”
Pange, Lingua, Gloriosi Praelium/Lustra Sex
by V. Fortunatus, tr. by J. M. Neale
- Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle with completed victory rife:
And above the Cross’s trophy tell the triumph of the strive:
How the world’s Redeemer conquered by surrendering of His life.
- God, His Maker, sorely grieving that the first-made Adam fell,
When he ate the fruit of sorrow, whose reward was death and hell,
Noted then this wood, the ruin of the ancient wood to quell.
- For the work of our salvation needs would have his order so;
And the multiform deceiver’s art by art would overthrow;
And from thence would bring the medicine whence the insult of the foe.
- Wherefore when the sacred fullness of the appointed time was come,
This world’s Maker left His Father, Sent the Heavenly mansion from,
And proceeded, God Incarnate, of the Virgin’s Holy Womb.
- Thirty years among us dwelling, His appointed time fulfilled,
Born for this, He meets His Passion, for that this He freely willed:
On the Cross the Lamb is lifted, where His lifeblood shall be spilled.
- He endured the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed;
From that holy Body broken blood and water forth proceed:
Earth and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed.
- Faithful Cross! above all other, one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peers may be!
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee!
- Bend thy boughs, O Tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend!
And awhile the ancient rigour, that thy birth bestowed suspend:
And the King of Heavenly Beauty on thy bosom gently tend.
- Thou alone wert counted worthy this world’s ransom to uphold:
For the shipwrecked world preparing harbor like the Ark of old;
With the Sacred Blood anointed, from the smitten Lamb that rolled.
- To the Trinity be glory everlasting, as is meet;
Equal to the Father, equal to the Son, and Paraclete;
Trinal Unity, Whose praises all created things repeat. Amen.
The glorious battle with completed victory rife. That conflict which our Lord endured on the Cross, and which in the end was full of victory.
The cross’s trophy. As soldiers set up a trophy in the place where they have conquered, so the Cross is, as it were, the monument raised in the place where our Lord triumphed over death and hell.
This wood. namely the Cross.
The ancient wood, the tree of Knowledge of good and evil.
The multiform or manifold deceiver: The devil: who does indeed tempt us in all kinds of ways; for, as S. Paul says, we are not ignorant of his devices.
And from thence would bring the medicine whence the insult of the foe. That is, as the devil prevailed over Eve by means of a tree, in the garden of Eden, so he should himself be conquered by means of a tree, that is, the Cross.
This verse is taken from Gal. iv. 4. “When fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.”
The Cross is called faithful, because it fulfilled the many promises of God touching the salvation of mankind.
Thy peers may be. That is, can by thy equals
As the ark prepared a refuge for all those that were saved from the flood, so the only means of salvation for this ruined world is the Cross.