We have not treated the Latin Church after that fashion. There is not a hymn of real merit in the Latin which has not been translated, and in not a few cases oftener than once, with the result that the gems of Latin hymnody are the valued possession of the Christian Church in all English-speaking lands.
One does not proceed far without making some discoveries which may account, to a certain extent, for the neglect of Greek hymnody by those men who are best qualified to pursue the study of it. The writers are not poets in the true sense, and their language is not Greek as we have known it. None of the hymn writers in the service books, or out of them, is a poet of more than ordinary merit; although when John of Damascus forgets his adversaries, and dispenses with his rhythmical peculiarities, and gives forth the utterance of his deep devotional nature, he proves himself to be worthy of the title -- The greatest of Greek Christian Poets.
The Greek language lived long and died slowly, and the Christian hymn writers wrote in its decadence. It was then an instrument that had lost its fineness and keenness and polish, not the language of the men whose thoughts still charm the world, and who, by its deft use, gained for themselves and for their work immortality. It has little of the subtlety and suggestiveness of expression, the variety of cadence, and the intellectual possibility of the Greek of the classical writers. It was a language, moreover, crippled by the introduction of ecclesiastical and theological terms and phrases, which stubbornly refuse to lend themselves to classical rhythm. Such a language cannot be expected to have attraction for men to whom the classical poets are a delight.
But it may be objected that Latin hymnody was also produced when the language was in a state of decadence. That is doubtless a statement of fact. But here again we are brought face to face with the dominant influence and age-long sovereignty of the Roman Church in the West, and with the fact that we have derived very largely from her, and to a much less appreciable extent from the Eastern Church. The Roman Church, with all that she had to give, laid hold of the West, and the Eastern Church, lying beyond the mountains, was forgotten.
The hymns of the Greek Church are still in rhythmical prose -- strangely oriental in structure -- with the exception of those by John of Damascus, which are in iambics; and difficulties confront one on every page. What lines will reward the work of rendering? Prayer, Gospel, psalm, hymn, and exhortation follow each other, and are sometimes strangely interlaced. Where does one begin and another end? Then there is meaningless repetition which must be passed over, and expressions demanding modification. The symbolism is extravagant, and sometimes a single hymn is crowded with figures the most grotesque. Sifting and pruning are needed before a cento can be formed which would commend itself to modern taste.
But when all has been said, there remains much that is both beautiful and attractive. Some of the hymns and fragments are most chaste and tender in their simple expression of Gospel truths, which are so attractive to all true hearts, no matter by what creed dominated.
The remarkable simplicity characterising those hymns, constitutes, strangely it may seem, no small difficulty for the translator. The mere rendering of them into English prose is a comparatively easy task, and can be of no value to any one but the specialist; but to take the unmeasured lines and cut them to form stanzas, and in the process sacrifice nothing of their spirit to the exigencies of rhyme and rhythm, is a task by no means easy. But such drawbacks and difficulties are by no means insurmountable, and with the growing interest in hymnody which characterises our time, it will be strange if, in the years to come, the Greek service books are not made to yield their tribute to the praise of the Christian Church in the West.
The hymns of the service books have a variety of characteristics, and are distinguished by terms, the meaning of which in some cases being extremely vague, and in others to be derived from the subject of the hymn, or from its form, or perhaps from the time, place, or manner in which it is sung. As we have no corresponding words in our language for the greater number of these, it is necessary to retain the original terms.
The Canon is the most elaborate form into which the praise of the Church is cast. A canon consists nominally of nine odes, for the reason that there are nine scriptural canticles employed at Lauds, viz. -- (1) The Song of Moses after crossing the Red Sea; (2) The Song of Moses in Deut. xxxii.; The Songs of (3) Hannah; (4) Habakkuk; (5) Isaiah; (6) Jonah; (7) The Three Children, first part, and (8) second part; (9) Mary (the Magnificat), Simeon (Nunc dimittis). But the second ode is generally omitted from the canon on account of the denunciations of God against Israel which it contains, and the canons of the great fast are made up of those rejected odes. As reference is made in each ode to the canticle of the same number -- e.g., in the sixth ode to Jonah's prayer in the whale's belly, a considerable amount of ingenuity has been expended to secure that reference. The effect in many cases is somewhat grotesque, but it is remarkable with what skill it has, in so many cases, been accomplished. The result has been to multiply types to an extraordinary extent.
The Hirmos is the first stanza of the ode. It may, or may not, have a connection with the stanzas following, but its function is to give them their rhythmical model.
The Troparion. -- Troparia are the stanzas which follow the hirmos. There are usually three in a Greek ode, but the number may exceed that. The term is no doubt derived from the verb trepo, to turn. The troparia turn to the strophes of the hirmos as to a model.
Scattered over the canon is a variety of verses variously named. The Kathisma occurs after the third or sixth ode of the canon. The term is applied to the verse for the reason that it may be sung during a pause in the service, as the word (kathizo) from which the term is derived would indicate.
The Kontakion occurs after the sixth ode. The term may be traced to canticum, or more likely kontos short, but it is of very doubtful derivation.
The Hypacöe, another obscure term, occurs after the third ode.
The Icos follows the kontakion after the sixth ode.
Each ode is followed by a Theotokion (theotokos), God-bearing. This is a troparion dedicated to the Virgin Mother. In some cases a stanza depicting her at the Cross follows, called Staurotheotokion.
Stichera are a series of verses, in some cases taken from the Psalter.
Idiomelon. -- Unlike the troparion, which follows the model set by the hirmos, the idiomelon has no model. Stichera Idiomela are a collection of irregular verses.
Kontakion Automelon, is a hymn modelled on any of the set forms.
Exaposteilarion is a verse sung between certain psalms. It may have taken the place of a more ancient form of verse in which God is prayed to send forth His light (Lucerns), or the term may indicate the rule that the exaposteilarion is sung by one of the clergy who is sent (exaposteilon), from his place among the choir, down to the middle of the church, for that purpose.
Apolutikion, is the prayer preceding the close of the office.
One prime characteristic of Greek hymnody should be referred to. Unlike our English hymn which is intensely subjective -- in many cases unhealthily so, the Greek hymn is in most cases objective. God, in the glory of His majesty, and clothed with His attributes, is held up to the worship and adoration of His people. Christ in His person and work is set before the mind in a most realistic manner. His birth and its accompaniments; His life; the words He spoke and the works He did; His passion in all the agony of its detail; the denial of Peter; the remorse of Judas; the Crucifixion; the darkness, the terror, the opened graves; the penitent thief, the loud cry, the death; -- all are depicted in plain unmistakeable language. So we have in the hymns of the Greek Church a pictorial representation of the history of Redemption which, by engaging the mind, appeals ultimately to the heart and its emotions. Our self-regarding praise is perhaps inevitable, as being the product of the meditative spirit which has its birth and lives in the land of the twilight; but the advantages of the objectiveness of Greek hymnody are so patent, that its cultivation might be fostered by our hymn writers, with advantage to the devotional feeling of our people, and to the worship of the Church.