Antra deserti teneris: A Hymn to St. John the Baptist

One of the most famous among the chant hymns is the source of the do-re-mi solfege system, Paul the Deacon’s hymn to the Advent figure St. John the Baptist, Ut que­ant lax­is res­o­nare fib­ris.

The hymn, which is quite long and which has been translated many times into English, is customarily divided. Translations of the second section, Antra deserti teneris, include the following:

  • E’en in Thy Child­hood, ’Mid the De­sert Plac­es
  • From Noi­sy Crowds Your Ear­ly Years Re­cess
  • In Caves of the Lone Wild­er­ness Thy Youth
  • In Ten­der­est Years With­drawn from Haunts of Men
  • In the Lone De­sert, to the Caves and Co­verts
  • Thou in the Des­ert Caves Thy Ten­der Youth
  • Thou in the De­sert, Young in Years, Wert Hid­ing
  • Thou in Thy Child­hood to the De­sert Ca­verns
  • Thou, Young in Years, in De­sert Ca­verns Hid­est
  • Thy Child­hood’s Home the De­sert Was
  • When translating hymns, my preference, whenever possible, is first of all to render the text faithfully into slightly elevated, yet simple and accessible, English. English has a syntax of its own, and although part of a poet’s job is to playfully help syntax do new things, this should be done with respect for the language that is given to us. Also, I would prefer not to use words that are so removed from conversational use–“vouchsafe,” for example–that most people would not be able to rise to them. (I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word “deign,” however, in almost exactly the same way. It’s a judgment call that every translator has to make, and between “deign” and “vouchsafe” is a good example of where I personally draw the bright line.)

    Looking at the title lines above, it is easy to see, then, why I feel new translations might be helpful. This is my translation of the same text (in LM):

    • You sought the solitude of caves,/ The desert, from an early age.

    Subject-verb-object: that is ordinarily the way things are said in English. Note that the diction here is not work-a-day: both “sought” and “solitude” are slightly elevated words, and not without religious connotations.

    One last, but not least, note: I am not a Latinist. I have studied Latin, including medieval and manuscript Latin, but my skills are nowhere near good enough to tackle the most challenging hymns, like this one with its unusually rich vocabulary. I’m indebted to two Religious who have worked tirelessly to make these texts known in English, our current day’s worldwide language. Sr. Maria-Magdalen Grumm, OSB, translated the sense of the text for the use of novices in her community, and has graciously allowed me to use her translations as an invaluable help to my own. And I regularly refer to Exultemus, a beautiful book by Fr. Martin D. O’Keefe, S.J., which provides blank-verse translations of the hymns of the Breviary. Fr. O’Keefe also wrote Oremus, an early (1993) re-translation of the Mass orations.

    Antra deserti teneris

    You sought the solitude of caves,
    The desert, from an early age.
    You fled your kin, and disavowed
    The risks of life among the crowd.

    Rough clothing made of camel hair
    Was all your sacred limbs would wear.
    And water, and wild honey sweet,
    And locusts were your only meat.

    The prophets sang, in mystic sight,
    The coming of the future light,
    But you their last, could point to Him:
    The Lamb who takes away our sin.

    Of woman born, through all the earth,
    Was never known a holier birth.
    You washed with water Him who cleans
    The world from all its world of sins.

    The citizens of heaven sing
    Your praise, O One and Triune King.
    And we pray too, that we may live:
    Lord, those You have redeemed, forgive.