Bernard of Morlaix, or of Cluny, for he is equally well known by both titles, was an Englishman by extraction, both his parents being natives of this country. He was b., however, in France very early in the 12th cent, at Morlaix, Bretagne. Little or nothing is known of his life, beyond the fact that he entered the Abbey of Cluny, of which at that time Peter the Venerable, who filled the post from 1122 to 1156, was the head. There, so far as we know, he spent his whole after-life, and there he probably died, though the exact date of his death, as well as of his birth is unrecorded. The Abbey of Cluny was at that period at the zenith of its wealth and fame. Its buildings, especially its church (which was unequalled by any in France); the services therein, renowned for the elaborate order of their ritual; and its community, the most numerous of any like institution, gave it a position and an influence, such as no other monastery, perhaps, ever reached. Everything about it was splendid, almost luxurious. It was amid such surroundings that Bernard of Cluny spent his leisure hours in composing that wondrous satire against the vices and follies of his age, which has supplied—and it is the only satire that ever did so—some of the most widely known and admired hymns to the Church of today. His poem De Contemptu Mundi remains as an imperishable monument of an author of whom we know little besides except his name, and that a name overshadowed in his own day and in ours by his more illustrious contemporary and namesake, the saintly Abbot of Clairvaux.
The poem itself consists of about 3000 lines in a meter which is technically known as Leonini Cristati Trilices Dactylici, or more familiarly—to use Dr. Neale's description in his Mediaeval Hymns, p. 69—" it is a dactylic hexameter, divided into three parts, between which a caesura is inadmissible. The hexameter has a tailed rhyme, and feminine leonine rhyme between the two first clauses, thus :—
" Tune nova gloria, pectora sobria, clarificabit: Solvit enigmata, veraque sabbata, continuabit, Patria luminis, inscia turbinis, inscia litis, Cive replebitur, amplificabitur Israelitis."
The difficulty of writing at all, much more of writing a poem of such length in a metre of this description, will be as apparent to all readers of it, as it was to the writer himself, who attributes his successful accomplishment of his task entirely to the direct inspiration of the Spirit of God. "Non ego arroganter," he says in his preface, "sed omnino humiliter, et ob id audenter affirmaverim, quia nisi spiritus sapicntiae et intellectus mihi affuisset et afftuxisset, tarn difficili metro tarn longum opus con-texere non sustinuissem."
As to the character of the metre, on the other hand, opinions have widely differed, for while Dr. Neale, in his Mediaeval Hymns, speaks of its "majestic sweetness," and in his preface to the Rhythm of Bernard de Morlaix on the Celestial Country, says that it seems to him "one of the loveliest of mediaeval measures;" Archbishop Trench in his Sac. Lat. Poetry, 1873. p. 311, says "it must be confessed that" these dactylic hexameters "present as unattractive a garb for poetry to wear as can well be imagined;" and, a few lines further on, notes "the awkwardness and repulsiveness of the metre." The truth perhaps lies between these two very opposite criticisms. Without seeking to claim for the metre all that Dr. Neale is willing to attribute to it, it may be fairly said to be admirably adapted for the purpose to which it has been applied by Bernard, whose awe-stricken self-abasement as he contemplates in the spirit of the publican, “who would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven," the joys and the glory of the celestial country, or sorrowfully reviews the vices of his age, or solemnly denounces God's judgments on the reprobate, it eloquently pourtrays. So much is this the case, that the prevailing sentiment of the poem, that, viz., of an awful apprehension of the joys of heaven, the enormity of sin, and the terrors of hell, seems almost wholly lost in such translations as that of Dr. Neale. Beautiful as they are as hymns, "Brief life is here our portion," "Jerusalem the Golden," and their companion extracts from this great work, are far too jubilant to give any idea of the prevailing tone of the original. (See Hora Novissima.)
In the original poem of Bernard it should be noted that the same fault has been remarked by Archbishop Trench, Dean Stanley, and Dr. Neale, which may be given in the Archbishop's words as excusing at the same time both the want, which still exists, of a very close translation of any part, and of a complete and continuous rendering of the whole poem. "The poet," observes Archbishop Trench, "instead of advancing, eddies round and round his object, recurring again and again to that which he seemed thoroughly to have discussed and dismissed." Sac. Lat. Poetry, 1873, p. 311. On other grounds also, more especially the character of the vices which the author lashes, it is alike impossible to expect, and undesirable to obtain, a literal translation of the whole. We may well be content with what we already owe to it as additions to our stores of church-hymns.
-John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)
Bernard of Cluny, p. 137, i., is best described thus: his place of origin is quite uncertain. See the Catalogue of the Additional MSS. of the B. M. under No. 35091, where it is said that he was perhaps of Morlas in the Basses-Pyrenees, or of Morval in the Jura, but that there is nothing to connect him with Morlaix in Brittany. [Rev. James Mearns, M.A.]
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, New Supplement (1907)