Digging into Vox Clara

You know that the committee set up by the Holy See to ride shotgun on the English translation process is called Vox Clara. Did you know that Vox Clara is a hymn in the Liturgy of the Hours for the hour of Lauds during Advent? This hymn was perhaps written in the 6th c. There is super depth here. First, let’s have the hymn in Latin and with my strict literal translation:

Vox clara ecce intonat,
obscura quaeque increpat:
procul fugentur somnia;
ab aethere Christus promicat.

Hark! A clear voice is thundering,
and it loudly rebukes whatever is shady:
dreams are being put far to flight;
Christ is gleaming/springing forth from heaven.

Mens iam resurgat torpida
quae sorde exstat saucia;
sidus refulget iam novum,
ut tollat omne noxium.

Now the benumbed mind rises again
which stands over wounded baseness,
now heaven shines forth something new,
that it may do away with every injurious thing.

E sursum Agnus mittitur
laxare gratis debitum;
omnes pro indulgentia
vocem demus cum lacrimis,

The Lamb is sent from on high
freely to unloose what was owed;
let us all raise our voice with tears
for this remission,

Secundo ut cum fulserit
mundumque horror cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.

So that at the Second Coming when He will shine and dread will gird the world,
He will punish us not for sin,
but, merciful, will then protect us.

Summo Parenti gloria
Natoque sit victoria,
et Flamini laus debita
per saeculorum saecula. Amen.

To the Father Most High let there be glory,
Let there be victory for the Son,
due praise let there be to the Spirit,
world without end. Amen.

There are some deep things happening in this hymn which you might not be catching and which an English translation is sure to compromise. The fact is that the Latin vocabulary harks to concepts from ancient rhetoric. Let me give you some alternatives for the vocabulary in the first verse, so that the second takes on a new meaning:

Hark! A clear/intelligible/glorious (clara) voice is thundering,
and it loudly rebukes whatever is obscure/unintelligible/ignoble (obscura):
dreams/silly things (somnia) are being put to flight afar;
Christ is gleaming/springing forth (promicat) from heaven.

Now the benumbed mind rises again
which stands over wounded baseness,
now heaven shines forth something new,
that it may do away with every injurious thing.

The eternal Logos, who is the Word and Light from Light, makes "clear" all things. This refers to the workings of the rational mind. Even now we refer to people who are "in the dark". Dante, at the beginning of the Divine Comedy is in a "dark wood" because he has lost the path of reason, he is in the state of sin and this state both results from confusion and produces confusing, the inability to reason properly. His journey through the infernal region is an extended metaphor for the recovery of the life of reason and, therefore, the resolution of a sinful life. Virtue and reason and light and clarity contradistinguish vice and animal confusion and lack of understanding. This is the concept in the first verse of Vox Clara.

The second verse then has a deeper meaning. A person awakens from a deep sleep at the sound of a loud voice and because of the shining of light. He awakes somewhat groggy in the early morning. Remember, these were sung in darkness of the early morning in late antiquity and through the centuries to follow before electricity. They were sung in Advent, when the days were at their shortest and they were cold and numb and waiting for the days finally to lengthen again.

Light and reason and clarity and beauty are all associated with the VOICE, the VOX. The Latin word vox means not just "voice" but also "That which is uttered by the voice, i. e. a word, saying, speech, sentence, proverb, maxim." VOX = VERBUM and thus the glorious voice which makes everthing clear and understood, thundering from heaven, is the Risen Christ Coming at the world’s end to lay all things bare and resolve them.

The hymn Vox Clara is about the beginning of the day, the beginning of an examination of conscience, the beginning of repentance and conversion, all in light of the ending of the world.

Most of the time when people translate Vox clara they pick up rightly that the "Vox" refers to St. John the Baptist, "the voice shouting in the desert" to make straight the path of the Lord who is coming. This is a constant theme of Advent: make straight the path, prepare well for Christ. In fact, Christ, when He comes will undoubtedly come by the straight path whether you have taken time to straighten them or not. His Coming (to you) as Lord and Judge at the end can thus be smooth or, alternatively, pretty violent if HE is doing all the straightening… in the twinkling of an eye.

So, there is the hymn an interplay between the Vox and the Verbum, the Precursor and the Messiah. The one who announces is in fact a pre-echo of the one who is the Word.

One could dig at this hymn for a long time.

The text we have today has been restored to its older form after changes that were made to it by Pope Urban VIII (Barbarini) in 1632 for the Breviarium Romanum. In that period of excited Renaissance humanism and the rediscovery of ancient literature, Urban’s version was strongly classicizing, and the hymn did not benefit from the changes: Here it is:

En clara vox redarguit
obscura quaeque, personans:
procul fugentur somnia:
ab alto Iesus promicat.

Mens iam resurgat, torpida
non amplius iacens humi:
sidus refulget iam novum,
ut tollat omne noxium.

En Angus ad nos mittitur
laxare gratis debitum:
omnes simul cum lacrimis
precemur indulgentiam.

Ut, cum secundo fulserit,
metuque mundum cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.

Virtus, honor, laus, gloria
Deo Patri cum Filio,
Sancto simul Paraclito,
in saeculorum saecula.

As stilted as that is, however, we did get a very nice poetic rendering of that version from Venerable John Henry Newman:

HARK, a joyful voice is thrilling,
And each dim and winding way
Of the ancient Temple filling;
Dreams, depart! for it is day.

Christ is coming!—from thy bed,
Earth-bound soul, awake and spring,—
With the sun new-risen to shed
Health on human suffering.

Lo! to grant a pardon free,
Comes a willing Lamb from Heaven;
Sad and tearful, hasten we,
One and all, to be forgiven.

Once again He comes in light,
Girding earth with fear and woe;
Lord! be Thou our loving Might,
From our guilt and ghostly foe.

To the Father, and the Son,
And the Spirit, who in Heaven
Ever witness, Three and One,
Praise on earth be ever given.

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12 Responses to Digging into Vox Clara

  1. The text we have today has been restored to its older form after changes that were made to it by Pope Urban VIII (Barbarini) in 1632 for the Breviarium Romanum. In that period of excited Renaissance humanism and the rediscovery of ancient literature, Urban’s version was strongly classicizing, and the hymn did not benefit from the changes.

    Fascinating… thank you for sharing the hymn…
    Someday you should do a post on Pius XII’s revision of the Vulgate psalter into better Latin…

  2. Christopher says:

    And here’s the translation I grew up with:

    Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding,
    “Christ is nigh,” is seems to say;
    “Cast away the works of darkness,
    O ye children of the day.”

    Waken’d by the solemn warning,
    Let the earthbound soul arise;
    Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,
    Shines upon the morning skies.

    Lo! the Lamb, so long expected,
    Comes with pardon down from heav’n;
    Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
    One and all to be forgiv’n;

    So when next he comes with glory,
    And the world is wrapped in fear,
    May he with his mercy shield us,
    And with words of love draw near.

    Honor, glory, might, and blessing
    To the Father and the Son,
    With the everlasting Spirit
    While unending ages run. Amen.

    (Tr. Edward Caswall)

  3. Geometricus says:

    In the 4th line of the 1st stanza, the Liber Hymnarius has “aethre” for “aethere”. Anyone know why this is? All I know is that is it makes the meter work out right.

    Incidentally, this is a wonderful hymn sung in Latin with the Gregorian melody.

  4. Christopher, I went to comments to add the Caswall translation and lo! there you already had it.

    Caswall (1814-1878), according to “The [episcopal] hymnal companion”, was an anglican priest and the son of a priest. In 1847 he went over to the roman church and three years later entered the Oratory of St Philip Neri under Newman. He lived out the rest of his life there. The translation of Vox clara was published in 1849 in a book called Lyra Catholica. He also had majestic translations of Veni Sancte Spiritus and O Salutaris, among other things. One of my favorites is his Glory be to Jesus, a moving hymn to the Precious Blood, adapted from an Italian source.

  5. Christopher says:

    Joseph, thanks for the information on Fr. Caswall; I knew none of it before.
    The Brompton Oratory, no less! What a glorious place that is. I was there just
    this past summer. To walk in off the street and suddenly find yourself in
    a CATHOLIC! place with the high altar is a wonderful and moving experience.

    About the Gregorian tune to this hymn: If you look in the Antiphonale Monasticum
    you will see that it is the only hymn without the mode listed before it, because
    the editors were unsure which mode it is actually in, having characteristics
    of a couple of modes. It is probably Dorian, but it has a Phrygian ‘moment.’

  6. And here’s the poetic rendering version of Vox Clara found in the Anglican Breviary (from the Book of Common Prayer, I’d assume) for the Advent Lauds hymn:

    A thrilling voice by Jordan rings,
    Rebuking guilt and darksome things:
    Vain dreams of sin and visions fly;
    Christ in his might shines forth on high.

    Now let each torpid soul arise,
    That sunk in guilt and wounded lies:
    See! the new Star’s refulgent ray
    Shall chase disease and sin away.

    The Lamb descends from heaven above
    To pardon sin with freest love:
    For such indulgent mercy shewn
    With tearful joy our thanks we own:

    That when again he shines revealed,
    And trembling worlds to terror yield,
    He give not sin its just reward,
    But in his love protect and guard.

    All praise, eternal Son, to the
    whose Advent doth thy people free;
    Whom with the Father we adore,
    And Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

  7. Bailey Walker says:

    Any particular reason the version in the current English translation of the “Liturgy of the Hours” for Advent was overlooked? It’s the Caswall translation as adapted by Anthony G. Petti:

    Hear the herald voice resounding:
    “Christ is near,” it seems to say,
    Cast away the dreams of darkness,
    Welcome Christ, the light of day!”

    Wakended by this solemn warning,
    Let the earthbound soul arise;
    Christ her sun, all sloth dispelling,
    Shines upon the morning skies.

    See the Lamb so long expected,
    Comes with pardon down from heav’n;
    Hasten now, with tears of sorrow,
    One and all to be forgiv’n.

    So when next he comes with glory,
    Shrouding all the earth in fear,
    May he then as out defender
    On the clouds of heav’n appear.

    Honor, glory, virtue, merit,
    To the Father and the Son,
    With the co-eternal Spirit,
    While eternal ages run.

  8. And here is my rendering. Not literal.

    In desert wastes, the Baptist’s voice
    Like thunder pealing from the sky,
    Denounces sin, announces Fire,
    Unmasking darkness where it lies.

    Now let the fearful soul arise,
    Lest poisoned by the viper’s sting,
    The hour of grace should pass her by:
    The advent of the Lamb, the King.

    Into death’s cold and shadowed vale
    Descends the Lamb from heaven’s height.
    And those who wait in silent hope
    Are stirred from slumber at the sight.

    When in the sky his Cross appears,
    The triumph of the Lamb will shine.
    And all who wait in joyful hope
    Will rise to greet the glorious sign.

    To God the Father, ceaseless praise
    And to the Lamb who shares his throne,
    And to the Spirit in the Church,
    the Bride whom Christ yet calls his own. Amen.

  9. vexilla regis says:

    Thank you Father for a very beautiful post.In line one could we not have the”ecce” translated ? “Behold” is a marvellously arresting word, even Caswell’s “hark” might suffice (“hear” is not on). Since it seems we are about to get “behold” back in the Mass it would be a pity to miss another opportunity.I wish you a very Happy, and a no doubt Holy, Christmas from far distant Australia.

  10. Vexilla: You are quite right, of course. I have the distinct memory of translating it, too, and going through the possibilities. I wonder if it didn’t get left behind when I cut the text out of Notepad and pasted into the table. In any event, I have made the addition.

  11. Nice talk. Is anything really ever going to come out of Vox Clara? And when?

  12. Londiniensis says:

    Thank you Father for posting this. We sang the Caswell translation at Mass in the school chapel (although I remember it as starting “Hark a herald voice is sounding”) – this is forty years ago – and it was one of my favourite hymns, both rousing and profound. I don’t recall ever hearing it in church since, no doubt driven out by the “kumbayas”. Dare one hope that the long-awaited Motu Proprio may be the stone that starts an avalanche of liturgical renewal? Bring back the old hymns! “Vox Clara ecce intonat”, indeed.