Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XIII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Selections from the Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim the Syrian and from the Demonstrations of Aphrahat the Persian Sage.: His Writings: Their Characteristics.
VIII.—His Writings: Their Characteristics.
Of the innumerable writings—controversial, expository, hortatory, devotional—which were for Ephraim the fulfilment of his dream in childhood, the fruit of the many years of literary activity that exercised his full heart and busy brain, enough remains to give an adequate idea of his powers and to amaze us by its variety and abundance. The exaggeration of Sozomen who reckons the number of lines written by him at “three hundred myriads” (three millions) is not to be taken as more than a rough guess at the probable total; but it is evidence of the impression made on the men of the generations to whom his works were transmitted by his fertility. That he himself was conscious of this gift appears in the fact that he records the dream and claims for his hymns and sermons that in them is to be found its interpretation. His faculty of speech, as Gregory informs us in a remarkable passage, though adequate to utter the thoughts of any other mind, was sometimes overborne by the rapid rush and abounding throng of the ideas with which his inspiration filled him, in such measure that he was forced to pray for the intermission of its flow, “Restrain, O Lord, the tide of Thy grace!” 301 Copiousness is the characteristic, and its excess is the chief fault, of Ephraim as an author. The Syriac language has great capacity for condensation; and the parallelism of balanced clauses which Syriac literature affects, conduces to brevity. But on the other hand, the Syrian mind has a tendency to amplify; amplification is the besetting sin of Syriac writers,—of Ephraim not least. And thus, while each sentence has the severe precision of an epigram, the manifold reiteration of epigrammatic clauses amounts to verbosity: one and the same thought or fact is presented in a long-drawn series of slightly varied aspects, with change of expression or at most of illustration, till the recurrence becomes tedious. This criticism is meant primarily for his hymns; but it applies also to too many of his metrical homilies (to be described presently). In all his writings, metrical or otherwise, this habit of amplification leads him, in handling the narrations of Scripture, to fill out their simple outline with elaborate detail that wrongs their beauty and dignity. Of such treatment, examples will be found in this volume, in some of the hymns (such as the XIVth and XVth On the Epiphany, and in the Discourse on the Woman who was a Sinner).
His extant works (some of which are known to us only in a Greek version), and those of his lost works of which the titles are recorded, divide themselves into three classes;—Commentaries on Scripture, Homilies (mimre), and Hymns (madrashe).
1. Commentaries.—His Commentaries belonged (if we may trust the Life) to his later years, after his migration to Edessa, when he was past middle life. There he is related to have begun his exposition (still extant) of Genesis, in the preface to which he refers to the homilies and hymns which he had previously produced (Opp. Syr. Tom. I., p. 1). He seems to have commented on almost all the canonical books of the Old Testament. His expositions of the Pentateuch, the chief historical books, 302 the Prophets (including Lamentations), and Job, survive, and have been printed (in the Roman edition of 1732–43, p. 147 supplemented by that of Professor Lamy, of Louvain, Tom. II., 1886); 303 but those which he is recorded to have written on the Psalms and Proverbs, the books which may be presumed to have most influenced the religious spirit and literary form of his works, have not been preserved. None of the above, however, have reached us in a complete form, but rather as a series of extracts, apparently abridged, from the Commentaries as originally issued by their author. In commenting on the New Testament, he treated of the Gospels, not in their separate form, but in the continuous narrative known as the “Diatessaron” compiled from them by Tatian in the second century. This work, long lost, has been lately recovered in an Armenian version. His Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul has likewise been preserved for us in Armenian. Both have been published by the Mechetarist Fathers of St. Lazaro; first in Armenian, afterwards in a Latin version. 304 In the present volume it has been judged best to include none of the Commentaries, inasmuch as the method and spirit of Ephraims treatment of Scripture are shown adequately, and in a more interesting form, in his Homilies and Hymns.
2. Homilies.—The Homilies are very varied in character. Many are controversial,—directed against the Jews, against heathenism in the person of the Emperor Julian, against the heresies of Manes, of Marcion, of Bardesan, of the Anomœan followers of Arius. Others set forth articles of the Faith—the Creation, the Fall, Redemption by the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord, His Descent into Hades, His Resurrection, the Mission of the Holy Spirit, the Rest of Paradise, the Second Coming, the End of the World. Others are expository, treating of narratives from the Old and the New Testaments, such as the life of Joseph, the Repentance of Nineveh, or the story of “the woman who was a sinner” of St. Luke vii.—Others again are hortatory—calling to repentance, warning against sin, threatening future retribution, extolling virginity. Of the Homilies two—one doctrinal, of Our Lord; one expository, of the sinful woman, are given in this selection. It is to be noted that the Homilies are usually metrical in form, being written in regular stichoi (lines of uniform length). And some of them—for example, a series of nine for the “Rogation Days,” 305 and another of eight for the “Passion Week” (week before Easter), and the vigil of “New Sunday” (first after Easter)—were and still are regularly read as lessons, as part of the offices of the Church; 306 a singular mark of reverence—extended, it seems, to the sermons of no other divine.
3. Hymns.—But it is in his Hymns that Ephraim lives,—for the Syrian Churches, and indirectly for the Christian world, of the East if not of the West. 307 Throughout Syrian Christendom, divided as it has been for ages—in the Malkite, Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite communities, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris, and beyond, even to the Malabar remnant of the Syro-Indian Church, all of which retain Syriac as the language of their ritual,—the whole body of public worship is shaped by his hymnody and animated with his spirit. It is literally the fact that the Hymns of Ephraim go with every member of every one of these Churches from the first to the last of his Christian p. 148 life, from the font to the grave. The Epiphany Hymns (included in the present selection) are interwoven into the Baptismal Office; among the Funeral Hymns (which Dr. Burgess has made accessible to English readers) 308 are to be found dirges proper for the obsequies of each and all, lay and cleric, young and old, male and female. Nor is it to be doubted that it was from these Syriac offices that those of the Greek-speaking Churches derived this characteristic, common to both, by which both are differentiated from those of the West,—“hymns occupying in the Eastern Church” (as Dr. Neale observes) 309 “a space beyond all comparison greater than they do in the Latin,” so that “the body of the Eastern breviary is ecclesiastical poetry.” That the Syrian Church, and not the Greek, took the initiative in the development of ritual, appears from the facts that, though there is evidence of the use of Psalms and Canticles from Scripture throughout Christendom from the first, it is only with Ephraims contemporary, Gregory Nazianzen, that Greek sacred poetry can be said to have taken shape,—and that his verses failed to gain a place in public worship. He wrote in the metres of the heathen classics; and it was not until a later day, and from the hands of other writers, working on other lines, that the hymns appeared which won their way into the Greek ritual,—hymns written in rhythmic prose, in what seems to be conscious imitation of the Syriac model. 310
The imitation, however, is by no means complete; it is apparent in the general tone and manner, but does not extend to the form: just as the Greek version of Ephraims Hymns, though faithfully reproducing his thoughts and literary method, makes no attempt to retain his metrical system; but is a rendering into what in form is prose of an original which is in verse. That this should be so is unavoidable, for Syriac metres are incapable of adaptation to the Greek language. Syriac literature, in all else imitative, here and here only has found out for itself an independent course. Elsewhere it leans on one side to the Hebrew model to which it was drawn by affinity of language and by the influence of the Old Testament; on the other to the Greek, as found in the New Testament and in the writings of the great Divines of the Alexandrian and Antiochian patriarchates, who were the leaders of religious thought for Eastern Christendom. In hymnody alone it struck out a line of its own; it set an example for the Greek-speaking Churches to follow, so far as was possible for them under the conditions above indicated. The Syriac Hymnody is constructed on the Hebrew principle of parallelism, in which thought answers to thought in clauses of repetitive or antithetical balance: but, unlike the Hebrew, its clauses are further regulated by strict equivalence of syllabic measure. But though in this latter respect it seems to approach to the forms of Western verse, ancient or modern, yet the resemblance is but superficial: Syriac verse is not measured by feet—whether determined by syllable quantity, as in Greek and Latin, or by accent, as in English and other modern languages. Thus the metre of Syriac poetry is substantially the “thought-metre” (as it has been well called) of Hebrew, reduced to regularity of form by the rule that each of the lines into which the balanced clauses fall, shall consist of a fixed number of syllables. There is no systematic rhyme; but the nature of the language which by reason of its uniformity of etymological structure abounds in words of like terminations, often causes correspondp. 149 ences of sound amounting to rhyme, or at least to assonance. The lines are very short; not exceeding twelve syllables, sometimes confined to four. Ephraim, though not the actual inventor, was the first master of this metrical system, the first to develop it into system and variety. 311 His favorite metres are the five-syllabled and the seven-syllabled. In his more elaborate poems, such as the Nisibene series, which are rather Odes than Hymns, the strophes or stanzas into which the lines are arranged are often long and of complicated structure, each strophe consisting of many lines (ranging from four up to fourteen or more) of various lengths according to a fixed scheme rigidly adhered to throughout the poem—sometimes throughout a group of cognate poems. In other poems, especially in Hymns intended for popular or ecclesiastical use, where simplicity of structure is suitable, the lines which compose each strophe, whatever their number, are of uniform length. So easily do the Syriac tongue, and the genius of Syriac literature, lend themselves to this scheme of short, syllabically equal clauses, that (as has been already stated) many even of the Homilies are metrical; arranged not indeed in strophes, but in continuous succession of brief stichoi, all of one and the same length—usually of seven syllables; a sort of blank verse, but a blank verse with no animating accents, no varying pauses. A Homily so constructed would fatigue the ear of a modern audience by its monotony: but inasmuch as some portions of Ephraims Homilies were used in certain ecclesiastical Offices, probably recited in a sort of chant, it may be that in such use we have the explanation of their quasi-versified structure.
In point of literary value as poems, a high place cannot be claimed for these Hymns. Some of them indeed have much of the devotional fervor, and not a little of the human pathos, of the Psalms of David: others show something of the antithetic point and epigrammatic terseness of the Proverbs of Solomon. Yet the devout aspirations and confessions of the poet are too often forced and artificial in their utterance; in his funeral dirges we seem here and there to detect the false note of the professional mourner in the effort to exhaust all possible topics of grief; in all his poems he tends to prolong the series of his parallelisms to a wearisome length and with an iteration that, though laboriously varied, is tedious,—an iteration that has no precedent in the poetry of the Old Testament, save in one or two of the latest Psalms, such as the CXXXVIth with its recurring burden “For His mercy endureth for ever,” or the CXIXth with its artificial arrangement (often emulated in Syriac Hymnody) by which each of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet in turn is made to head each one of eight consecutive verses in praise of the Law of the Lord. On the whole, it must be admitted that the greater qualities of poetry, such as abound everywhere in nearly every writer of the Hebrew Scriptures,—of truth in rendering the inmost feelings of mans heart in words of absolute simplicity, of aspiration that rises without effort to the highest things of God—to these Ephraims Hymns have no claim.
For these shortcomings in his poetry, two main causes may be assigned.
One is in the man himself,—or rather, in his mode of life. Naturally, he was prone to feel for and with his fellow-men; for the sorrows of the bereaved, the cares of the toiling poor whose lot (as he proved in the last and best episode of his history) moved him to sympathy and active succour. He can be simple accordingly when he deals with the homely facts of life. But the main tenor of his course was ascetic; he looked on this life and the life beyond—on man and to God—with a vision clouded by the gloom p. 150 of unnatural solitude and self-mortification. An assiduous student of Scripture, he had an ear for its threatenings rather than its promises and consolations; dread and dismay entered into his heart more deeply than hope; the “Stand in awe and sin not” of the Psalmist was more familiar to his spirit than the “Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous.” The perpetual proneness to tears on which his biographers dwell with admiration, and which he seems to have thought it right to foster, has its reflex in his writings, in the hysterical overflow of his fears, his lamentations and his self-reproach. He had lived as an anchorite till his nature became morbid, and its moral fibre was weakened. But to reach the highest levels in religious literature, whether in prose or in poetry, a man must be sane, his mind healthy and strong,—with a health and strength sustained and exercised by wholesome daily contact with the lives of other men.
The second cause is to be found in the method, above described as his—developed though not actually invented by him, and made his own—which he chose as the vehicle of his thoughts and emotions. The “thought-metre” of the Hebrew poets was regulated (as we have seen) by balance of sense, not of sound—member answering to member, verse by verse, in equivalence or contrast of substance merely, not of verbal form: and in this metre, which has been happily likened to the alternating beat of a birds wings as it mounts aloft, they had shown it to be possible to attain the highest reach of sublime expression of the utmost that mans spirit can conceive of God and Heaven. The Syriac Hymnists had the unhappy idea of effecting a compromise between their two contrasted models, the Hebrew and the Greek; and to this end they compelled their verses into conformity by syllabic measure, of sound, as well as of sense. This artificial structure has an effectiveness of its own, and is suited to the popular ear; but it is incapable of the elevation which the earlier and simpler method attained without effort. As its Semitic parallelism of substance excluded Syriac poetry from the variety in topic and largeness in conception of the Greek, so this grecized regularity of form hampered its efforts to rise to the upper regions where the Hebrew is at home. The wings are free and ample by whose regulated stroke Hebrew poetry is borne, and they carry it to the supreme height: in Syriac poetry the flight is too commonly low and feeble, because its wings are clipped. In the former we are conscious of a uniformity as of the unconstrained waves of the sea, following in a succession of endless change—a uniformity that is majestic: in the latter we detect the uniformity of the water-wheel, that with artificial movement draws up and dispenses the waters of the well in vessels of fixed measure—a uniformity that is mechanical and monotonous.
This passage is mistranslated in the Latin version of the Encomium, by P. F. Linus of Verona (in his Divina S. Ephraem Opera, Dillingen, 1562), from whom it has been borrowed by Gerard Voss for his Latin version of Ephraim (Cologne, 1603), and by the editors of Gregorys Works.146:302
Not including Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. It is not known whether he commented on Ecclesiastes and Canticles, or on the deutero-canonical books (commonly called “Apocrypha”).147:303
Lamy has supplied the Commentaries on Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai, with part of Isaiah and Lamentation—which was wanting from the Roman edition.147:304
Both in the Armenian edition of Ephraim (Vol. II., Diatessaron; Vol. III., St. Paul), Venice, 1836: also in Latin,—the Diatessaron, in 1876; St. Paul 1893.147:305
Of these the most complete copy is in ms. B. 5.18, Trinity College, Dublin (formerly the property of Archbishop Ussher), which has been used by Professor Lamy in his edition of three homilies (Tom. III. of his Ephraim, 1889.).147:306
This remarkable distinction dates from the fourth century; it is noticed by St. Jerome (De Viris Ill., CXV.), writing within twenty years after Ephraims death.147:307
St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368) is reputed (see Isidore of Seville, De Off. Eccl.) the earliest writer of Latin Hymns, and some extant Hymns are ascribed to him. But St. Augustine tells us (Confess. IX. 7) that at Milan hymns were first used, “after the manner of the Eastern Church,” in the time when the Empress Justina was persecuting St. Ambrose (386).148:308
Metrical Hymns of Ephraim, 1853.148:309
Hymns of the Holy Eastern Church, pp. 34, 35, 49 (1870). Note the contrast between the wide acceptance of Ephraims Hymns, through the East, and the scanty survival of those of his contemporary, in the West.148:310
A few exceptional Greek hymns may be pointed out of earlier date (e.g., that mentioned by St. Basil, De Spiritu S., XXIX; but the statement above made is in the main accurate. Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople (449–458) seems to have been the first to devote himself to the composition of hymns of the type above described. See Neale (as above).149:311
Probably the earliest extant Syriac poem is the Hymn of the Soul (printed by Dr. Wright in Apocryphal Acts, p. 174; also by Mr. Bevan in Texts and Studies, V. 3). Its metre, though less regular, is substantially the seven-syllabled of Ephraim. Whether Bardesan (or Harmonius) wrote in metres like those of Ephraim has been questioned; but if it is true that Ephraims hymns were adapted by him to the tunes of Harmonius, it seems to follow that his metres were those of the hymns to which those tunes belonged.
Next: The Selections Included in the Present Collection.
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