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Dies Irae

Dies Iræ is a famous Latin hymn written by Thomas of Celaeno. It is often judged to be the best medieval Latin poem, differing from classical Latin by its accentual (non-quantitative) stress, and its rhymed lines. The meter is trochaic. The poem describes the day of judgment, the last trumpet summoning souls before the throne of God, where the good will be delivered and the evil will be cast into eternal flames.

The text:

Dies Iræ! dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla!

'Day of Wrath! Upon that day, the world will melt in the twinkling of an eye, as David prophesied and the Sibyl!'

Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando judex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus!

'What trembling is to come, when the Judge appears, to judge all strictly.'

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
per sepulcra regionum,
coget omnes ante thronum.

'The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound through the tombs of all nations, compels all before the Throne.'

Mors stupebit et natura,
cum resurget creatura,
judicanti responsura.

'Death and Nature shall be astounded, when creation rises again to respond to its judge.'

Liber scriptus proferetur,
in quo totum continetur,
unde mundus judicetur.

'The book shall be brought forth, in which all is written, whence the world will be judged.'

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet apparebit:
nil inultum remanebit.

'So when the Judge shall sit, all that has been hidden shall be brought to light, and no wrong shall remain unpunished.'

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
cum vix justus sit securus?

'What then can I in my weakness say? What patron shall I call upon, when even the righteous will be in jeopardy?'

Rex tremendæ majestatis,
qui salvandos salvas gratis,
salva me fons pietatis.

'King of awesome majesty, who saves the chosen for free, save me, O fountain of grace[1]'.

Recordare, Jesu pie,
quod sum causa tuæ viæ:
ne me perdas illa die.

'Remember, sweet Jesus, that I am the cause of your journey; let me not be lost in that day.'

Quærens me, sedisti lassus:
redemisti Crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.

'Seeking me, you sat exhausted; you redeemed me by suffering on the Cross; such work should not be in vain.'

Juste judex ultionis,
donum fac remissionis
ante diem rationis.

'Just judge of vengeance, grant me the gift of forgiveness before the day of reckoning'.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
culpa rubet vultus meus:
supplicanti parce, Deus.

'I sigh, like a guilty person; my sin reddens my face; spare your supplicant, O God'.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.

'You who forgave Mary (Magdalene), and heard the plea of the thief (Dismas), have also given me some hope.'

Preces meæ non sunt dignæ:
sed tu bonus fac benigne,
ne perenni cremer igne.

'My prayers are unworthy; but you, the Good, show me favour, lest I be burnt up in eternal fire.'

Inter oves locum præsta,
et ab hædis me sequestra,
statuens in parte dextra.

'Prepare me a place among the sheep, and keep me from the goats, standing at your right hand.'

Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis:
voca me cum benedictis.

'When you have confounded the accursed ones, and cast them into harsh flames, call me among the blessed ones.'

Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.

'I pray humbly on my knees, my contrite heart like ashes, take care of me at the end.'

The poem appears complete as it stands at this point. Some scholars question whether the remainder is an addition made in order to suit the great poem for liturgical use, for the last stanzas discard the consistent scheme of triple rhymes in favor of rhymed couplets, while the last two lines abandom rhyme for assonance and are, moreover, catalectic:

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla

judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.

'That day will be full of tears, when from the grave, guilty mankind rises to be judged. Therefore, have mercy upon me, O God; sweet Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest. Amen'.

[1] fons pietatis is sometimes translated 'fount of piety.'

The inspiration of the hymn seems to have come from the Vulgate translation of Zephaniah I:15-16:

Dies iræ, dies illa, dies tribulationis et angustiæ, dies calamitatis et miseriæ, dies tenebrarum et caliginis, dies nebulæ et turbinis, dies tubæ et clangoris super civitates munitas et super angulos excelsos.

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high towers. (KJV)

Manuscript sources The oldest text of the sequence is found, with slight verbal variations, in a 13th century manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Naples. It is a Franciscan calendar missal that must date between 1253 - 1255 for it does not contain the name of Saint Clare, who was canonized in 1255, and whose name would have been inserted if the ms were of later date.

Musical settings: The hymn, set to a sombre Gregorian chant, was a part of the Roman Catholic Requiem service, the Mass for the dead. It also forms part of the liturgy of All Souls Day. The words have been set to music by many composers, usually as part of a requiem, of whom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, and Hector Berlioz's versions are the most frequently performed.

The traditional Gregorian chant melody associated with the dies irae has also been quoted in a number of classical pieces, among them Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and several pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov, including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

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