Poems based on the HYMNS OF ST EPHREM THE SYRIAN
St Ephrem (commemorated on the 28th January) lived in the fourth century, mostly in Nisibis - now Nusybin, in Turkey. The year of his birth is unknown but he died in 373. He therefore lived through the period of the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the struggles to formulate and defend the doctrine of the Trinity, and the 'counter revolution' of Julian the Apostate, whose defeat and death at the hands of the Persians in 363 forced him to move from Nisibis, which fell to the Persians, to Edessa (modern Urfa). He was a contemporary of the Cappadocian fathers, SS Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Theologian and, whether he knew them personally or not (tradition says that he met St Basil), his work was complementary to theirs.
He wrote an enormous quantity of poems and hymns and many of his words have passed into the offices of the Orthodox Church, most famously the prayer which is said, with bows and prostrations, in all the offices of Lent. He also wrote commentaries and other prose works which are still widely read and appreciated. In the Church, however, he himself never rose - or perhaps wanted to rise - above the rank of deacon and choir master.
The poems that follow can in no way be regarded as translations of his work. They are, quite simply, poetic reworkings of the literal translations done by Kathleen McVey and published by the Paulist Press in their series 'Classics of Western Spirituality'. St Ephrem wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, and I only know him in English translation. These versions are therefore of no scholarly value and those who, without being able to read the original, want to have some idea of what precisely St Ephrem said must read McVey.
My main concern has been, using McVey's translation as a base, to write poems that are readable and edifying. I know that the material I am handling is of a greatness that goes far beyond me. It is the work of a deified saint, of one who knew union with God. I am very aware of the presumptious nature of what I have attempted to do.
Although in general I have tried to keep close to the prose meaning of McVey's translation, I have allowed myself to improvise where there are gaps in the original text, or passages I did not understand. Occasionally 'new' images and ideas have appeared as part of the flow of the poem and I have not resisted the temptation to use them. At some point it might be useful to put all that down in the form of notes. It would be very wonderful if someone who was able to read the original would take an interest in the project (which is ongoing) and offer to collaborate.
I do not, however, wish to clutter the actual text with footnote references, either for the purpose of showing my own deviations or for the equally worthwhile purpose of identifying biblical references, though the poems are full of them and often can hardly be understood without them. When and if, eventually, notes appear, they will take the form of attached essays, to be read separately. The poems should be read and, hopefully, enjoyed, first and foremost, as poems.
I had thought to add some remarks on my own notions of versification - essentially a free verse that is free to use the means of rhyme and metre where these suggest themselves. This introduction, however, is already too long and I have in mind a little treatise on the verse forms appropriate to a Symbolist school of poetry which may appear some time in another section of this site.