Ut queant laxis - a diversion

July 2007

Ut queant laxis, Resonare fibris, Mira gestorum, Famuli tuorum, Solve polluti, Labii reatum Sancte Johannes

This was one of our Sunday afternoon treats at Michael Procter’s weekend. I had not progressed quite far enough with my OU course “Continuing Classical Latin” to volunteer a translation on the spot, but I discovered in Donald Grout’s History of Western Music the following, which seemed to me pretty accurate :-

So that all your servants may freely sing forth the wonders of your deeds, remove all stain of guilt from their unclean l, O saint John. The one obvious departure from the text is “freely” for “laxis…fibris” which, as far as my various dictionaries tell me, means, if “fibris” relates to a body part, “with loose entrails”. I have come across one other version which reads “with loosened voices” - scarcely what Michael would want from us, I suspect.

E. Cobham Brewer, the original compiler of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Brewer’s Readers’ Handbook, produced the following ingenious rendering (it fits where it touches, so to speak) which preserves the opening syllables:-

Uttered be thy wondrous story Reprehensive though I be Me make mindful of thy glory Famous son of Zacharee Solace to my spirit bring Labouring thy praise to sing

Ut queant laxis is the first verse of a hymn generally attributed to Paulo Diacono (aka Paul Warnefrido, ca 720-790), which runs to 13 verses. Other verses are sometimes sung; e.g., according to the Roman Breviary, Ut queant laxis is sung at Vespers, verse 5 (Antra deserti Teneris sub annis Civium turmas Fugiens, petisti Ne levi saltum Maculare vitam Famine posses) at Matins, and verse 9 (O nimis felix Meritique celsi Nesciens labem Nivei pudoris Prepotens martyr Heremique cultor Maxime vatum !) at Lauds.

Deacon Paul seems, from such works of his as survive, to have been acquainted with the works of Horace, since Ut queant laxis is in the Sapphic metre which Horace used extensively in his Odes, it being the next commonest after the Alcaic. The Sapphic metre (11.11.11.5, as the English Hymnal would designate it) is very rarely found in English verse, though Isaac Watts, the composer of, among others “When I survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, our help in ages past” wrote a poem in Sapphics on “The Day of Judgment”, the last verse of which is:-

”Oh may I sit here when he comes triumphant Dooming the nations, then ascend to glory While our hosannas all along the passage Shout the Redeemer”

which may help to explain why he hasn’t had many imitators.

Deacon Paul also turned his hand to secular matters; among his compositions is a short poem commemorating the death of a boy who was frozen in a glacier, a eulogy to one Peter of Pisa in which he compares him to Horace (as well as Homer and Virgil), and a laudatory poem of ca. 782 to “regem Karolum” who is, presumably, Charlemagne (742-814). Perhaps we should consider founding a Paulo Diacono Appreciation Society at whose meetings all 13 verses of Ut queant laxis are performed?

Sidney Ross

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