One of the foremost scholars during the Carolinian Renaissance was Alcuin of York (735 – 804), probably the greatest intellectual of his time. Apart from his theological works, he has also left a number of poems, of which this poem about a nightingale (luscinia) is particularly charming. One can imagine Alcuin sitting in his monastic cell enjoying the song a nightingale and suddenly that uplifting voice during a period of distress has gone. Was it written after the Vikings had ransacked Lindisfarne in 793?
Alcuin: De Luscinia (meter: elegiac couplet)
QUAE te dextra mihi rapuit, luscinia, ruscis,
illa meae fuerat invida laetitiae.
tu mea dulcisonis implesti pectora musis,
atque animum moestum carmine mellifluo.
qua propter veniant volucrum simul undique coetus
carmine te mecum plangere Pierio.
spreta colore tamen fueras non spreta canendo.
lata sub angusto gutture vox sonuit,
dulce melos iterans vario modulamine Musae,
atque creatorem semper in ore canens.
noctibus in furvis nusquam cessavit ab odis,
vox veneranda sacris, o decus atque decor,
quid mirum, cherubim, seraphim si voce tonantem
perpetua laudent, dum tua sic potuit?
quae dextra: which right (hand), or simply `which hand’
rapio rapui raptum (-ere): to take away, seize
ruscum: butcher'sbroom Ruscus aculeatus
invidus: envying, jealous making
implesti = implevisti
moestus = maestus: sad
qua propter: for which reason
volucer volucris (f.): bird
undique: from all sides
coetus –us (m.): gathering
plango planxi planctum: (-ere) to bewail
pierius: belonging to mount Pieria (in Macedonia), where the Muses live
sperno sprevi spretum (-ere): to despise, contemn (the ablatives are ablatives of description)
latus: wide, extending (with vox)
sub angusto gutture: under the disguise of a narrow throat
melos (n.): song (Greek loanword occurring only in nom. and dat. sg.)
itero (-are); to repeat
modulamen –inis: melody
os oris (n.): mouth
furvus: dark, gloomy
nusquam: on no occasion, never
sacer sacri/ae: holy, sacred (i.e. a voice to be revered by the saints)
decus (decoris) and decor (decoris) are the same: elegance, glory etc.
quid mirum: what wonder/ miracle
cherubim and seraphim are classes of archangels. The plural is Hebrew and these words are not declined.
tono (-are): resound
dum tua (vox) sic potuit: I.e. while your voice was able to praise with such a small throat
Translation by Helen Waddell
Written for his lost nightingale
WHOEVER stole you from that bush of broom,
I think he envied me my happiness,
O little nightingale, for many a time
You lightened my sad heart from its distress,
And flooded my whole soul with melody.
And I would have the other birds all come,
And sing along with me thy threnody.
So brown and dim that little body was.
But none could scorn thy singing. In that throat
That tiny throat, what depth of harmony,
And all night long ringing thy changing note.
What marvel if the cherubim in heaven
Continually do praise Him, when to thee,
O small and happy, such a grace was given?
From the Aberdeen Bestiary folio 52 verso (13th century)