John and Ambrose's synaloepha (?): a question


Civis Illustris
After hearing this piece at the end of hundreds of functions a question occured to me

Is the famous "in waves" motif of the Proemium of John's Gospel a disguised iambic dimeter?

Premise: my knowledge of metric schemes is very poor.

That said, looking at the hymn "Amore Christi nobilis" (Ambrose, V century), John 1 is used like this:

In principium erat Verbum

et Verbum erat apud Deum

et Deus erat Verbum, hoc erat

in principio apud Deum.

Is this use of Sinalefe "legal" and is my reading correct (file audio enclosed)? Are these hypermetric verses or are they considered regular iambic acatalectic dimeters, just like all Ambrose's hymns or whatever?

Thanks for the patience to those who will answer me, hope my question isn't too silly.


My knowledge of church functions is also very poor, but I'll nevertheless say:
Is this use of Sinalefe "legal"
Yes, but to strike out a vowel entirely such as you're doing is rather 'elision'. Synalepha is to realize two vowels as a complex (diphthong/triphthong), making them count as one syllable.
is my reading correct
It sounds good, but what I consider "illegal" is accenting the same word differently to fit the meter (e.g. your first verbúm vs. your second vérbum). This may well be what ecclesiastics did, but in the classical model, none of these words would be accented on the final syllable as far as I'm aware.
are they considered regular iambic acatalectic dimeters
My basic knowledge of the nomenclature would label these iambic tetrameters (four metra, all of them iambs), if they were in fact to be read as you read them.


Civis Illustris
Yes, but to strike out a vowel entirely such as you're doing is rather 'elision'. Synalepha is to realize two vowels as a complex (diphthong/triphthong), making them count as one syllable.
Yes, elision is a better term! Thank you for the answer

I have no idea how Ambrose used to read this hymns. In some books we can see the elisions, because the musical notes are missing on those syllables, then in medieval times they added the notes on the elided syllables too, until humanists re-deleted the notes. I think originally Ambrose applied elision. Nowadays we don't even try to follow any metrical rule, we just sing :D

Anbrutal Russicus

Active Member
So there's just one elision (Calente olivo) and one hiatus (Gloria Unigenito) in the entire hymn, so at first I thought that whole part to be spurious. But the hymn seems to be ascribed to Ambrose himself and the difficulty of inserting a biblical quotation is obvious, so it shouldn't be surprising that the rules have been bent. And there can be no doubt that these were sung to the same melody.

D. Norberg in his unreplaced 1958 study (in a 2004 translation, p. 27 fn. 28) mentions this line as an example of hiatus, so in principjo | erat verbum. But the next two lines clearly demand elision of -um, so the first and last must also examplify elision of -o. So I think your scansion is correct, although I too don't think that the hymns were supposed by anybody to be read as you read it there, they were supposed to be sung and the stress clashes were probably felt to be stylistic devices when not completely disregarded.

Add to this that the previous page mentions Ambrose exceptionally admitting 3 elisions in another biblical quotation; see fn. 24 for the Church having the same reservations about authenticity as I did and deleting that verse. Who knows, perhaps the everyday pronunciation for originally prose passages from the Scripture was felt to be appropriate while it wasn't elsewhere.
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Civis Illustris
Thank you for the answer. Although I'd say the exact contrary of what Norberg says regarding the elisions in Ambrosian hymns (i.e. hymns that are ascribed traditionally to Ambrose even if most of them aren't probably of Ambrose), because lately I've become an Ambrose-aholic (also thanks to a conference I've attended regarding Ambrosian Hymns).

I could quote a couple of them, in case some Ambrose-aholic comes here and wants to have fun:

Ut martyrum vestem attigit
et ora tersit nubila
lumen refulsit illico
figitque pulsa caecitas
Apostolorum Passio

Praecinctus, ut dictum est, senex
et elevatus ab altero
quo nollet ivit, sed volens
mortem subegit asperam
Apostolorum supparem

Apostolorum supparem
Laurentium archidiaconum
pari corona martyrum
Romana sacravit fides
Splendor paternae gloriae

Splendor paternae gloriae
de lucem lucem proferens
lux lucis et fons luminis
dies dierum illuminans (a verse you found in fery few codexes, usually you find diem dies illuminans, but the critical edition of Fontaine picks the "lectio difficilior")
Iam surgit hora tertia

Hinc iam beata tempora
Christi coepere gratia
fide replevit veritas
totum per orbem ecclesias
Intende qui regis Israel
Intende, qui regis Istrael
super Cherubim qui sedes
appare Ephraem coram excita
potentiam tuam et veni
(in the Roman Lithurgy, they thought it wasn't possible to force here the beginning of Psalm 71, so they deleted this strophe. The Milanese rite is still sung pure to this day)
Non ex virili semine
sed mystico spiramine
Verbum Dei factum est caro
fructusque ventris floruit
Amore Christi nobilis, the one I asked about at the beginning, because I were reading them and realized something was wrong. In fact this hymn was deleted from the Ambrosian Breviary in 1600 and republished only later for the Liturgia Horarum renovata
In principio erat Verbum
et Verbum et cetera et cetera
Illuminans Altissimus
Illuminans Altissimus
micantium astroum globos
pax vita lumen veritas
Iesu, fave precantibus
Vel hydris aquae
vini saporem infunderis
hausit minister conscius
quod ipse non impleverat
Victor Nabor felix pii

Scutum viro sua est fides
et mors triumphus, quem invidens
nobis tyrannus ad oppidum
Laudense misit martyres
Grates Tibi, Iesu, novas

His quis requirat testium
voces ubi factum est fides?
Sanatus impos mentium
opus fatetur martyrum

So if I apply elision these verses are perfect iambic dimeters. So I personally reached the conclusion Ambrose wouldn't have them sung with extra syllables, otherway he wouldn't sistematically use this metric device. In the 1800 Emilio Garbagnati and Luigi Primo Colombo published a new edition where the extra syllables haven't the music notes (the medieval codes have the extra notes, so they were certainly sung as you suggest back then). Source: a conference in the Ambrosian library, I can't remember the name of the professor I'm afraid! But I don't want to steal his credits.
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