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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Great Hymn of Abélard

By Samuel Willoughby Duffield (1843–1887)

[Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1843. Died at Bloomfield, N. J., 1887. Letter to The New-York Tribune. 1883.]

THAT hymn—“O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata”—has a romantic history. For its true text and its proper order of stanzas it is necessary to consult the immense compilation which passes under the name of J. P. Migne—volume 178 of the “Patrilogiæ Cursus Completus.” It is the “XXVIII. Ad Vesperas” of the ninety-three hymns written by the unfortunate Abélard for the Abbey of the Paraclete, to be sung there by the sweet voices of Héloïse and her nuns. For many years these hymns were utterly lost, except as they were to be detected floating around anonymously, and ascribed to an earlier or later date. We now know that they must have been written about the year 1150, and that this present splendid lyric was therefore not “of the thirteenth century” at all….

And now for the romance of the hymn itself. When the French occupied Belgium these ninety-three hymns were tucked safely away in the Royal Library at Brussels “in codice quincunciali”—probably a box about five inches high. Other manuscripts were with them and they were transported to Paris untouched and unopened, and so remained during the days of Napoleon Bonaparte. When his empire fell the box went back to Belgium. Upon it were the seals of the French Republic and the French Empire and the stamp of the Royal Library at Brussels. One day a rummaging German student named Oehler chanced to investigate the “codex” and found in it a “libellus”—which libellus, a little book, contained the lost hymns of Abélard. These are in three series and are arranged for all the religious hours and principal festivals of the church, and their authorship is undoubted. Oehler published eight of them at once, and, having described the rest, Mons. Cousins, hearing of it, bought a full transcript “at a fair price” from the discoverer.

But this was not all. A certain Emile Gachet, a Belgian, also happened to hit on the “codex,” and unearthed the companion to the “libellus” in an epistle of Abélard to Héloïse. In this he tells her that he sends these hymns of his own composition, and gives her the sketch, which she had requested, of the origin of Latin hymnology—dating it back to Hilary of Poictiers and Ambrose of Milan. This of course sets the authorship of the “O quanta qualia” beyond the shadow of a question. So that this hymn has the pathetic interest of having been composed by the most brilliant and unhappy man of his age, at a time when he had been persecuted to the edge of despair and had learned his hope of heaven from the horrors of earth. And whoever wills may read this touching story in Morison’s “Life and Times of St. Bernard.” I venture, then, to offer another translation of this fine hymn, following the true order of the stanzas and keeping as closely as possible to the original text and metre.