Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hymn to Ethelreda

Ethelreda [+ AD 660] was queen to Egfrid, King of the East Angles. The Venerable Bede records that “Although she lived with (Egfird) for twelve years, she preserved the glory of her virginity…the miraculous preservation of her body from corruption in the tomb is evidence that she had remained untainted by bodily intercourse.”

After a year in the convent of Abbess Ebba, at Coludesbyrig (Coldingham), she was made Abbess in the district of Ely. There she built a convent, where for seven years she was “the virgin mother of many virgins vowed to God and displayed the pattern of a heavenly life in word and deed.” Ethelreda wore only woolen garments, washed in cold water, ate one meal a day, and was constant in prayer. In the presence of her community she prophesied the plague that was to cause not only her own death, but the number of those at the convent who would also die. Sixteen years after Ethelreda’s burial the successor abbess decided to move her predecessor’s remains to the crypt church; when the coffin was opened, it was discovered to be “free from decay as if she had died and been buried that very day.”

Other wonders were attributed to Ethelereda, and Bede thought it fitting to insert into his History an elegiac hymn in praise of virginity in honor of this queen and bride of Christ.

Hymn to Ethelreda
All-guiding Trinity, guide my design.
Battles were Virgil’s theme; let peace be mine,
Chanting in lieu of Helen’s wantonness
Divine compassion, to redeem and bless,
Entering a virgin’s womb, God’s gate to earth.
Fair maid, who gav’st the whole world’s Parent birth,
God gave thee grace. And by that grace empowered
How many virgin blossoms since have flowered!
In fiery torment stood chaste Agatha
Joyful to death; so stood Eulalia.
Kindled with love, Thecla with virgin breast
Laughed at wild beasts; so was Euphemia blest.
More strong than steel, Agnes disdained its thrust;
Nor did Cecilia’s strength betray her trust.
Our age at length in triumphs such as these
Partakes through ETHELREDA’S victories.
Queenly by birth, an earthly crown she wore
Right nobly; but a heavenly pleased her more.
Scorning the marriage bed, a virgin wife
Twelve years she reigned, then sought a cloistered life.
Unspotted to her heavenly spouse she came,
Virgin in soul, her virgin robe and frame,
When sixteen winters they had lain entombed,
Xrist willed it, still fresh and unconsumed.
Yea, from their touch Eve’s Tempter flees dismayed,
Zealous for evil, vanquished by a maid.

Ah bride of Christ, bright fame on earth is thine.
More bright in Heaven thy bridal torches shine.
Exultant hymns proclaim in glad accord:
No power henceforth may part thee from thy Lord.

The gloss reads, “The following version reproduces the alphabetic acrostic with which Bede adorns his does not attempt to imitate his elaborate device of repetitive half-lines, which makes the hymn remarkable for ingenuity than for any claim to poetic excellence.”

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