Text: Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (c. 540-c. 600)
Translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866)
Music: Sarum Plainsong
Tune name: PANGE LINGUA
The first line of the 6th-century Latin poem from which this hymn is taken is more literally translated: “Sing, tongue, the battle of glorious combat.” This soldierly imagery may offend the more tender followers of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. But this hymn insists that Christ’s death must be seen in triumphal terms. Earlier generations of Christians were more aware than we of the fact that our salvation involves the defeating of dangerous and powerful enemies.
One of the oldest works of English poetry is The Dream of the Rood, “rood” being a term for the cross. The work was written in the eighth or ninth century. In it, we read an account of Christ’s passion that is more martial than we typically encounter:
Then the young hero prepared himself,
that was Almighty God,
Strong and firm of mood,
he mounted the lofty cross
courageously in the sight of many,
when he willed to redeem mankind.
Similarly, in the ninth-century Old Saxon poem Heliand, Christ is depicted as a heroic warrior overcoming the forces of Satan. Richard Viladesau, in The Beauty of the Cross, explains that the image of the Savior in this poem stresses the power of Christ to defeat the powers of evil
He is called drohtin, the Saxon title for a warrior-chieftain. His disciples are his “thanes,” or warrior-companions. The passion section is particularly revealing. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus not only finally accepts the “chalice” of suffering that the Father wishes him to drink but makes a thane’s salute to the chieftain before drinking it: “I take this chalice in my hand and drink it to your honor, my Lord Chieftain, powerful Protector!”
“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle” is not quite as militaristic as that, but it is (as the second stanza declares) a “triumphal lay.”
The hymn’s author, Venantius Honorius Fortunatus, was a contemporary of St. Gregory the Great and the leading Latin poet of his day. Ordained as a priest, in 599 he was made bishop of Poitiers, near which was the Abbey of the Holy Cross. As The Hymnal 1940 Companion recounts, “Inspired by the legends which had grown up about our Saviour’s Cross since its reputed discovery by St. Helena and still more by a gift of a relic of the holy wood made to the abbey by the emperor, Justin II, Fortunatus wrote many poems in honor of the Cross.”
Knowledge of those legends deepens our appreciation for the imagery used by Fortunatus in this hymn. They are summarized in The Hymnal 1940 Companion as follows:
According to S. Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, as Adam lay dying he sent Seth back to the Garden to request a balsam of the guarding angel which might relieve his death agonies. Seth received three seeds from the Tree of Life, which he was instructed to place in Adam’s mouth at his burial. In course of time three trees grew, a cedar, a cypress, and a pine, which later merged into a single trunk — the noblest tree of all Lebanon. Solomon caused it to be cut down to use in building his palace, but it proved unworkable and was discarded and later buried where the pool of Bethesda was dug. The pool at once acquired miraculous properties. When the time of the Crucifixion drew nigh, it rose to the surface of the pool where it was found and appropriated by the executioners for Jesus’ cross.
This story of the Cross’s origins may explain the imagery in stanza 5, when Fortunatus speaks of the “ancient rigor that thy birth bestowed.” Does he have in view the birth of the wood of the Cross in the seeds from the Tree of Life? Perhaps.
Fortunatus’s poem originally included 11 stanzas, of which 6 are in our Hymnal. Four of the missing stanzas recount the course of God’s redemptive plan leading up to the Cross, including this description of the reality of the Incarnation:
Weeps the Infant in the manger
That in Bethlehem’s stable stands;
And His Limbs the Virgin Mother
Doth compose in swaddling bands,
Meetly thus in linen folding
Of her God the feet and hands.
The image of Mary folding the feet and hands of God is an emphatic affirmation of orthodox Christology. And, unlike the infant Jesus in “Away in a Manger,” this baby really cries: he is a fully human baby, with feet and hands destined to be impaled on the wood of the cross.
And along with the graphic details of this specific body on the Cross, Fortunatus stresses the universal and cosmic consequences of the miracle of redemption: “Earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood [of the blood of Jesus flowing down] from stain are freed.”
1. Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the ending of the fray;
now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay:
tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
As a victim won the day.
2. Thirty years he dwelt among us,
his appointed time fulfilled;
born for this, he met his passion,
this the Saviour freely willed:
On the cross the Lamb was lifted
Where his precious blood was spilled.
3. He endured the nails, the spitting,
vinegar, and spear, and reed;
from that holy body broken
blood and water forth proceed:
Earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean,
by that flood from stain are freed.
4. Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
5. Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heav’nly beauty
on thy bosom gentle tend.
6. To the Trinity be glory
everlasting, as is meet;
equal to the Father, equal
to the Son, and Paraclete:
God the Three in One, whose praises
all created things repeat. Amen.
PANGE LINGUA is a tune from the Sarum Rite, the form of the liturgy established by St. Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury for use in the diocese of Salisbury and beyond. It is the melody we frequently sing for the Communion hymn, “Now my tongue the mystery telling,” the text of which was written by St. Thomas Aquinas (and probably inspired by Fortunatus’s poem).
The St. Mark Passion by Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926) begins with a grand and appropriately triumphant setting of this hymn to this tune, which enters about a minute into the work:
Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano.