Several weeks ago at breakfast, the friars had a discussion about a hymn that we had sung that morning at mass, an English translation of Jesu Dulcis Memoria by St. Bernard. One line from that translation struck some of the friars as quite odd: Beat from our brains the thicky night.
I must agree that in almost any context this line would strike any 21st century American Catholic as pretty strange. However, I am most inclined to defend it, because it is a faithful translation and one that states the sense of St. Bernard clearly. The point he makes needs to be well taken. We need the darkness wacked out of us, and we should not be afraid to take our lumps.
Here is a little context, two stanzas of the hymn, the line in question in the second:
Jesu, a springing well Thou art,
Daylight to head and treat to heart,
And matched with Thee there’s nothing glad
That men have wished for or have had.
Wish us Good morning when we wake
And light us, Lord, with Thy day-break.
Beat from our brains the thicky night
And fill the world up with delight.
In context the translation is not as severe or odd as the one line quoted in isolation above would suggest. In fact the hymn is about the sweetness of Jesus, especially as He is experienced in the Eucharist. This comes through in the stanza.
The translation was made by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), a personal favorite of mine, whom, I must admit, I am inclined to defend. Nevertheless, I think there is good reason to do so. You be the judge.
Hopkin’s was accused by his good friend the poet Robert Bridges of writing odd poetry, an assertion which Hopkin’s admitted, albeit with qualification:
No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped.’
By inscape Hopkin’s means the complex of individual characteristics of a thing as they are experienced spontaneously and reveal the inner being of the individual. For Hopkins every individual thing is absolutely unique and proclaims the presence of Christ. He is ever ready to latch on to a distinctive truth and mercilessly lay it bear.
However, relative to our “odd” line Hopkins really does not have much work to do . Here is the Latin of the whole verse:
Mane nobiscum, Domine,
et nos illustra lumine;
Pulsa mentis caligine,
Mundum reple dulcedine.
And a prose translation:
Stay with us Lord,
And enlighten us with light.
Beat from our minds the darkness,
Fill the world with sweetness.
So Hopkins does not stretch anything very far to get: Beat from our brains the thicky night. Granted, the modern association with “Beat your brains out,” and what appears to be a garish innovation with the use of “thicky” (one must be careful, Hopkins had a good knowledge of the linguistic history of England and Wales), might render the translation too odd for liturgical use, but in my view, its still better than the following:
Stay with us, Lord, and with Thy light
illume the soul’s abyss;
scatter the darkness of our night
and fill the world with bliss.
Though, not a bad translation as far as hymnology goes, it does somewhat emasculate St. Bernard’s point. Pulsa means “beat.” On the other hand, Hopkins latches onto the point and won’t let go. In fact, I find the irony delicious. All in one stanza, we want a “Good morning” from God, his light and delight, and a good beating to top it all off.
In terms of spirituality, there is nothing at all odd about it. We should, in fact, cheerfully expect light and sweetness to be channeled into our souls through a deliberate submission to asceticism. What is more, the area of their lives in which men need asceticism most of all is the mind, both in terms of faith and holy purity. Wisdom comes through obedience, and strength through chastity.
Most of us won’t get far without the yoke of humiliation and penance. Only the violent take heaven by storm. Accepting a little spiritual tough love will go a long way.
The inscape of the dawn, is not only the “delight” of the break of day, reminding us of the beginning the eternal day of heaven, but also it is the blinding and disconcerting rustling from sleep, a proverbial “kicking out of bed” that the good God gives in His providence to those whom He loves. This is the daily bread of a true soldier of Christ. Heaven’s bliss is to be taken by storm. Grit your teeth, soldier.