De Praesentia Domini

Dulcis Iesu memoria,
dans vera cordi gaudia,
sed super mel et omnia
eius dulcis præsentia.

Nil canitur suavius,
auditur nil iucundius,
nil cogitatur dulcius
quam Iesus Dei filius.

Iesu, spes pænitentibus,
quam pius es petentibus,
quam bonus te quærentibus:
sed quid invenientibus!

Iesus, dulcedo cordium,
fons veri, lumen mentium,
excedit omne gaudium
et omne desiderium.

Nec lingua potest dicere
nec littera exprimere;
expertus novit tenere
quid sit Iesum diligere.

I. Iesu: genitive.

II. suavius: pronounced as four syllables.

V. littera exprimere: not elided.
    tenere: the adverb, tenėre – ‘tenderly’.

These are the first five verses of a 12th century poem that can be found in the Oxford Book of Medieval Verse on page 347.  The words above are in the original version.

In the Catholic liturgy, verses I-III and V are used, with alterations, as a hymn of the Christmas season, traditionally sung at the First Vespers of the Holy Name of Jesus—a feast now celebrated on 3rd January.

The original work has 42 verses, and it becomes personal in tone, as if written by someone as an aide-memoire for himself: and the words are capable of echoing in the memory.

The author is unknown, but evidence points to an English Cistercian:

As the first and most reliable MSS are English* and as the use of the poem spread from England, it is reasonable to conclude that it was written in England. The anonymous English writer was probably a Cistercian. Whoever he was, he was well versed in the Scriptures and their liturgical uses and applications, and acquainted with the writings of St Bernard and with his use of the scriptures, especially of the Psalms and the sapiential books.  These reasons suggest a Cistercian. —Joseph Connelly, Hymns of the Roman Liturgy, Longmans, pp 59-60.

Sixth formers sometimes ask whether rhyme was used in Latin of the classical period. The answer is no: it was a later custom, mainly after AD 700, when, in northern Europe, poems were being composed for people whose first language was based on stress accent, and who could not read. Most importantly, they were written for people to commit to memory, and so rhyme was a powerful aid.

In comparison with the subtleties of quantitative verse in the classical era, they sound like crude jingles, almost childlike—when spoken. But when chanted in the Gregorian mode, which lovingly lingers over the words, sometimes assigning several notes to one syllable, they sound very different.

It was owing to Charlemagne that Gregorian chant became customary all over the Frankish empire, and beyond.


* One of the manuscripts is in the Bodleian Library.