Salve festa dies

VI. Sunday of Easter

In many Anglican parishes, and probably in others, hardly an Easter can go by without singing a version of the hymn ‘Salve festa dies’ – either in the translation by Ellerton (‘ “Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say’) with music by Sullivan, or in the version made for the English Hymnal, translation by Maurice F. Bell (‘Hail thee, festival day’) and music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (The inherited chant melody, too difficult for most untrained and unrehearsed singers, alas remains little known today.)

The hymn is a cento from a 110-line poem by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus. Fortunatus, originally from Duplavis near Treviso in Venetia (Italy), received a classical education at Byzantine Ravenna, where he learned not only the pagan Latin poets but also earlier Christian writers such as Claudian and Coelius Sedulius. He became court poet to the Merovingians, as which he wrote many poems in praise (not to say flattery) of royal, noble, and ecclesiastical figures, before becoming Bishop of Poitiers later in life. Fortunatus also wrote the hymns ‘Vexilla regis prodeunt’ and ‘Pange lingua gloriosi certaminis’.

The poem now known as Carmina 3.9, beginning ‘Tempora florigero rutliant distincta sereno’, was written between 567 and 573, on the occasion of the baptism at Easter of a group of Saxons converted by Felix, Bishop of Nantes (with whose praise the poem ends). The poet (who calls himself ‘the humblest sparrow’) writes as though he is present at the occasion of the baptism – just at daybreak on Easter Day – at which precise moment the coming of spring, of the dawn, of the triumphant Christ, and of the new life bestowed in the sacrament coincide in liturgical time; Michael Roberts, in his study of Fortunatus, The Humblest Sparrow, suggests that Fortunatus is the first to combine the traditional poetic descriptions of spring, triumphal ceremony (in which creation itself plays the role of the cheering crowds), and the celebration of the Resurrection.

The verses traditionally used as a processional hymn for Easter (there are other versions, many of them having only the first line in common, for other occasions) are taken from various places in the poem, and not in the order in which they occur. Here is a crib – not very good, but more accurate than one translation that has found its way onto many web pages and even some books:

Salve festa dies toto uenerabilis aeuo
     Greetings, festal day, to be revered for all ages,
Qua deus infernum uicit et astra tenet
     on which God conquers hell and reaches the heavens.
Ecce renascentis testatur gratia mundi
     Behold, the beauty of the renascent earth testifies
Omnia cum domino dona redisse suo
     that all [God’s] gifts have returned with their Lord.
Namque triumphanti post tristia tartara christo
     For as Christ celebrates his triumph after the dismal underworld,
Undique fronde nemus gramina flore fauent
     everywhere the forest with leaves,
     and the grass with flowers, acclaim him.
Qui crucifixus erat deus ecce per omnia regnat
     God, who had been crucified – look, now he reigns over all,
Dantque creatori cuncta creata precem
     and all things created offer a prayer to the Creator.
Christe salus rerum bone conditor atque redemptor
     Christ, salvation of [all] things, good creator-redeemer,
Unica progenies ex deitate patris
     Only-begotten of the Deity of the Father,
Qui genus humanum cernens mersisse profundo
     Who, seeing that humankind had sunk in the deep,
Ut hominem eriperes es quoque factus homo
     in order to free man, also were made man,
Funeris exsequias pateris uitae auctor et orbis
      You endure a funeral procession, Creator of life and of the world,
Intras mortis iter dando salutis opem
     and enter the way of death to give the power of salvation.