By chance I got to know that Pope Damasus I (c. 305 – 11 December 384, pope 366-384) wrote quite a number of poems. Actually, I knew very little of this pope and his mere existence was completely erased from my memory, though I am sure I must have read something about him in an exam on the Early Church some 30 years ago. Recently I bought a booklet with texts from early Christianity and so my knowledge was enlightened.
To be sure, he is not rated as a great and gifted poet; actually the only reason why his poetry has been preserved is I think because he was pope. Still such poems are important too for having an idea of what kind of literature was written.
This poem is an epitaph for Damasus’ sister Irene. Apart from the information in this poem, we know nothing about her. Damasus had some pretty strong ideas how Christian girls had to live and probably she lived as an ascetic maiden at her parents’ home.
In the last 2 lines Irene is addressed by Damasus as if she has already gained a state of sainthood; `remember me when God comes’
The poem has been preserved in a 10th century manuscript and a part of the tombstone containing the first five lines.
Damasus, Poem X. (However in other anthologies it has a different number.)
Hoc tumulo sacrata deo nunc membra quiescunt:
hic soror est Damasi, nomen si quaeris, Irene.
voverat haec sese Christo cum vita maneret,
virginis ut meritum sanctus pudor ipse probaret.
bis denas hiemes necdum compleverat aetas,
egregios mores vitae praecesserat aetas,
propositum mentis pietas veneranda puellae
magnificos fructus dederat melioribus annis.
te germana soror nostri tunc testis amoris,
cum fugeret mundum, dederat mihi pignus honestum.
quam sibi cum raperet melior tunc regia caeli,
non timui mortem, caelum quod libera adiret,
sed dolui, fateor, consortia perdere vitae.
nunc veniente deo nostri reminiscere, virgo,
ut tua per dominum praestet mihi facula lumen.
cum vita maneret: as long as life stayed in her
ut virginis…proberat: so that the holy modesty self can approve the merit of the virgin
bis denas hiemes: twice ten winters
necdum: not yet
egregio…aetas: her age preceded the (already) excellent virtues of her life. i.e. she was at an early ways ahead in virtue.
propositum...puellae: piety for the girl something to be venerated as a resolution of the mind. pietas in this sentence is the subject of dederat in the next.
melioribus annis: One would expect that for Damasus the better years of his sister will be in heaven. The idea of her loss has put aside theological notions, but in line 12 heaven is indeed called melior regia caeli `the better fortress of heaven’.
Te…pignus honestum: has given you to me as an honest pledge
germana soror: (own sister) voc.
nostri tunc testis amoris: the then witness of our love. Commentators disagree whether this is the father or the mother
cum fugeret mundum: i.e. died
rapio rapui raptum : to take away
veniente deo: i.e. at the day of judgement
ut…lumen: so that your torch may through the Lord grant me light