The Altus of St. Columba

The Mediæval Abbey of Iona.
The Mediæval Abbey of Iona.

From the Celtic Magazine, Vol. VII, 1882 :

¶ Every Scottish Celt who takes an interest in the antiquities, history, & literature of his country knows that the Marquess of Bute is a profound and sympathetic student of all that pertains to the ancient life of the Highlands. Then the noble Marquess is anxious to do what he can to awaken in the mind of others the interest in the olden days with which his own is possessed. In proof of this we need only mention his Lordship’s munificence in bearing the cost of publishing, in a style unusually splendid, Dr Clerk’s Edition of Ossian. But the Marquess of Bute is not merely on indolent patron of literature, who merely spends money and woos applause in this easy fashion, he is himself a painstaking investigator in the field of Scottish history. We need not refer more particularly to the various proofs which the different publications of his lordship gives of his patient industry and literary power. We must limit our observations to the beautiful work before us—the Altus of Columba. The noble editor has done his part in a way which is deserving of all praise, for he really elucidates his author, so that the reader, if he is at all in earnest, can easily hold fellowship with him. At the same time, let us say that Columba, or his transcribers, have tied one or two poetic knots, which not even the skill of the noble editor has been able to untie.

¶ But some of our readers may be asking what is this Altus of Columba? We answer that it is a very striking and able religious poem, composed in Latin, by the famous Abbot of Iona—the Apostle and Spiritual father of the North Highlands. There is no mystery about the word Altus. It is the first word in the poem, and so, just as we say “Scots wha hae” as a title for the song in which it occurs, so Altus became the title for the whole poem of which it is the first word. The poem is peculiar in form. It consists of a series of short poems, arranged under each letter of the alphabet, each poem beginning with its own letter. Under A we have fourteen lines, under each of the other letters twelve lines. It may be mentioned that the old classic prosody is rejected for the easier remembered accent and rhyme.

¶ This remarkable poem is really a Confession of Faith. It might have been drawn up for the instruction of King Brude, the royal Invernessian won to Christ by the saintly poet and missionary, if we could suppose the Pictish King capable of understanding Latin. This poem shows us the true miracles by which Columba overcame Celtic heathenism—the true sign of the cross which rolled back on their hinges the closed gates of the Castle of King Brude. Here we see that Columba could think clearly, and express his thinking in words that drop like manna. Then the articles of his creed were very simple and concrete, far removed from reasoned propositions ever becoming more abstract as they are drawn further away from their concrete basis. Columba sang to his Celtic converts, first, of the ineffable glory of the Most High as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in precise but poetic terms. Then follows a description of His creative energy in relation to the Angelic world. The noble editor feels that the Angelology of Columba “was not of that fixed and precise character” which it afterwards became—was different, in short, from the portentous and fantastic fabric which it grew into under the plastic subtlety of the Schoolmen… The profoundest thought in his lines on this subject is that in which he ascribes a second fall to the “devil and his satellites,” as a further punishment for seducing man from his innocence. Next in order comes Columba’s conception of the material world in which we live. To him the world was a flat disc, with the ocean for its rim or boundary. The firmament was daily replenished by water spouts from this ocean to provide rain. The ascension of these jets of water explained to his mind the tides ! Let us give here a specimen of Columba’s poetry descriptive of rain :—

Ligatas aquas nubibus
frequenter cribrat Dominus,
ut ne erumpant protinus
simul ruptis obicibus;
quarum uberioribus
venis, velut uberibus,
pedetentim natautibus
telli per tractus istius,
gelidis ac ferventibus
diversis in temporibus,
usquam influunt flumina
nunquam delicientia.

¶ These terse and beautiful lines have full justice done to their merits in the translation which the noble editor gives to them, and which we subjoin as a fair sample of the translation of the Altus as a whole :—

The waters which are bound up in the clouds the Lord doth oftentimes make to to fall, as through a sieve, lest they should suddenly break through their bounds and burst out together ; and from the richer streams thereof, as from breasts, slowly Mowing through the expanses of this earth, cold and warm with the changing seasons, the rivers ever run, never failing.

¶ Whatever we may think of the science of these lines, we can have no doubt that they discover a mind keenly alive to the beauties and wonders of the world in which it was placed.

¶ The poet goes on to describe the “nether-world in the innermost parts of the earth,” where there is heard the terrible wail of Gehenna; and the place under the earth where dwell souls, who, though not in heaven, bend the knee to the Lord in prayer… Next in order comes an account of the world of the good—the Paradise which the Lord planted with the tree of life as its centre. The Paradise of Adam and Eve is part of heaven, and according to the poet still exists somewhere in this world. Clearly Columba wished to raise the earth as near heaven as possible, and to bring down heaven as far as may be to meet it, so that both should exist, not separate, but in happy fellowship. The poem concludes with a solemn account of what shall happen in the last days. Dugald Buchanan in his Day of Judgment has given fuller expression to the ideas that were in the mind of Columba. The Saint is here vivid and rapid as the lightning, and we need not be surprised that such power was followed by the spiritual transformation of a kingdom. The reader, however, is vexed and irritated by the intrusion of an obscure and mythological symbolism, which grates upon him like sand in bread; an explanation of which, notwithstanding the brave efforts of the noble editor, seems impossible. Was Columba for a moment led aside from his simplicity in deference to the maxim, still not without its malign influence among us Celts, Omne ignotum pro magnifico?

¶ We cordially sympathise with the desire of the Marquess to draw men’s attention to this poem for its own sake, and not for its historical interest merely. Though it will scarcely bear comparison with the Dies Irae, it is nevertheless a very marvellous and impressive poem. Columba … is the heritage of all who believe that Jesus came in the flesh. He is for mankind… We read of the Highland minister who lay all night on the grave of Rutherford that he might catch his fire. We have a nobler grave nearer home, the spirit of whose inhabitant would help us to transform misery into joy, ignorance to knowledge, to cause light to arise in the darkness—the true signs and wonders of the great in all ages. Then in the closing words of the Altus, we shall not only have fellowship with Columba and his fellows, but—

. . . Sic cum Ipso erimus
in diversis ordinibus
dignitatum pro meritis
praemiorum perpetuis,
permansuri in gloria
a saeculis in gloria.

¶ We would most earnestly draw the attention of our studious readers to this ancient poem. It is beautifully printed, and altogether worthy of the publishers, and its noble editor.

* * *

The Altus of Saint Columba
A prose paraphrase by John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute

* * *

The Most High, the Father of all, the Ancient of days, and Unbegotten, without origin, without beginning, and without limit, was, is, and will be for ever and ever ; with Whom is co-eternal in everlasting glory of Godhead the Only-Begotten Son, Who also is the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We set not forth three gods, but say that God is One, still holding ever the faith in Three most glorious Persons.

He created the Angels in original goodness ; the Orders, and Archangels of every Principality and Throne, Might and Power ; that the goodness and Majesty of the Trinity might not be inactive in any gift of bounty, but might have heavenly creatures wherein to show graces as great as any utterance can express.

From the highest place in the kingdom of heaven, from the glorious brightness of the Angelic state, from the loveliness of his form, fell by pride the morning-star whom God had made, and in the same woeful fall of the author of vain-glory and obstinate envy went to ruin the Apostate Angels, while the others abode still in their princely dignities.

The great unclean dragon, dread and old, who also was that slippery serpent which was more subtle than any wild beast or living thing of the earth, drew with him into the pit of infernal abodes and divers prisons the third part of the stars, who had forsaken the True Light and were cast down headlong from Paradise.

The Most High having foreseen the structure and harmony of every part of the world before any of it yet existed, created heaven and earth. He made the sea and the waters, the herb also yielding seed, and the tree forming thickets, the sun, the moon, and the stars, the fire and all things needful for us, the birds, the fishes and the cattle, beasts and all living things, and at the last He made the first man to rule over them all, according to His Own fore-ordinance.

As soon as were made the constellations, the lights of the firmament, the Angels, with praiseworthy song, due and unalterable, with one consent praised for His marvellous handywork, the Lord of the vast mass, the Framer of the heavenly worlds, and in love and free-will, under no compulsion of nature, gave thanks in exquisite harmony to the Lord.

When our two first parents had been assailed and beguiled, the devil and his crew fell a second time. These ate they who by the dreadfulness of their faces and the noise of their wings would scare frail fear-stricken men, unable to gaze with fleshly eyes upon such beings. These are they who are bound in bundles in the bonds of their prison-house.

The Lord took the evil one out of the midst and cast him down. The stormy flock of his rebel followers crowdeth the air, yet still unseen, lest men should be so polluted by their evil pattern and foul acts as to defile themselves before the eyes of all, unhidden by screen or wall.

From the three deeper fountains of ocean, the three quarters of the sea, the clouds driven by the winds as they come forth from their treasure-houses, bear up sea-mists through dark-blue water-spouts into the regions of the sky, to benefit anon the crops, the vineyards, and the budding herbage, and thus each fountain emptieth those shallows of the sea whereto it correspondeth.

When the fleeting and despotic present glory of kings, which endureth but a moment in the world, hath been abrogated by the will of God, behold, the giants are proved to groan in much suffering under the waters, to burn in fire and torments, choked by the angry whirlpools of Cocytus. Hollow rocks rest on them, and the waves dash them against the stones.

The waters which are bound up in the clouds the Lord doth oftentimes make to fall, as through a sieve, lest they should suddenly break through their bounds and bust out together ; and from the richer streams thereof, as from breasts, slowly flowing through the expanses of this earth, cold and warm with the changing seasons, the rivers ever run, never failing.

The Divine power of the Great God hangeth upon nothing the round earth and the appointed girth of the great deep, borne up by the strong hand of God Almighty upon pillars which uphold it like bars, headlands and cliffs immovably established upon stout foundations as it were upon bases.

No man seemeth to doubt but that there is a netherworld in the innermost parts of the earth. There, there are darkness, worms, and grievous beasts. There, there is fire of brimstone, glowing with devouring flames. There, there is roaring of men, weeping and gnashing of teeth. There, there is from of old the terrible wail of gehenna. There, there is the dreadful burning heat of thirst and hunger.

Under the earth, as we read, we know that there are dwellers, whose knee ofttimes bendeth prayerfully at [the name of] the Lord [Jesus], and among whom, albeit challenged, none was found able to unroll the book written [within and without,] sealed with seven seals, that book whereof the Same Lord alone loosed the seals, that book which He alone prevailed to open, and so fulfilled the decrees announced beforehand by the Prophets concerning His coming.

In the sublime opening of the [book of] Genesis we read that the Lord had planted a garden from the beginning, a garden from whose well-spring four rivers are flowing, a garden in whose flowery midst is set the tree of life, the leaves whereof fall not, and the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations, a garden whose pleasures are unspeakable and abounding.

Who hath gone up into Sinai, the appointed mountain of the Lord ? Who hath heard the thunders pealing beyond measure ? Who hath heard the voice of the trumpet sounding exceeding loud ? Who also hath seen the lightnings flash like a crown round the peak ? Who hath seen the meteors and the thunder-bolts, and the rocks striking together ? Who save Moses, the judge of the people of Israel ?

The day of the King of kings most righteous, the day of the Lord is near, a day of wrath and vengeance, a day of darkness and clouds, and a day of wondrous mighty thunderings, a day also of distress, lamentation and sorrow, a day wherein shall fail the love and desire of women, and the striving of men, and the lust of this world.

We shall all stand trembling before the judgment-seat of the Lord, and shall give an account of all that we have done, beholding our iniquities set before our eyes, and the books of conscience laid open before our faces. And then shall we break forth into right bitter weeping and sobbing, having no longer the wherewith to work.

When the wondrous trumpet of the first Archangel shall sound, every sepulchre, be it never so sealed, and every grave-yard shall suddenly open, the chill cold [of death which had stiffened the bodies] of the men of this world shall thaw, from every quarter the bones shall come together to their sockets, and the etherial spirits shall come to meet these same bones and enter in again, each into his own dwelling.

Orion leaveth the Pleiades, the brightest of constellations, and wandereth away from the turning-point, the hinge of heaven, through the bounds of the Ocean of the unknown Eastern circuit, and, anon, wheeling by certain roundabout ways he returneth where he was before, and riseth after two years, as an evening star in place of Hesperus — spiritual meanings being taken for material images used metaphorically.

When the Most High Lord Christ shall come down from the heavens, the glorious sign and banner of the Cross shall shine before Him. Then shall the two great lights be covered and the stars shall fall unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, and the surface of the world shall be as a fiery furnace. Then shall hosts hide themselves in the dens of the mountains.

By songs of praise ringing unceasingly, by thousands of Angels, shining in holy dances, and by the four living creatures all full of eyes, with the four-and-twenty happy elders who cast down their crowns under the feet of the Lamb of God, — the Trinity is praised in eternal repetitions of the hymn Thrice-Holy.

The raging fury of fire shall devour the adversaries, who will not to believe that Christ is come from God the Father : but we shall forthwith be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord, placed in everlasting ranks of exaltation and reward differing according to our deserts, and so to abide in glory, for ever and ever in glory.

Curator: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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