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Her station keeping

27 May 2016

William Scott reads a book on, and version of, the Stabat Mater

Stabat Mater: The mystery hymn
Desmond Fisher
Gracewing £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

THIS book concerns the Stabat Mater, the well-known hymn about Our Lady of Sorrows which is written as the words of a bystander viewing the crucifixion and noticing the Blessed Virgin’s sorrow.

The book seems uncertain what it is about. On one level, it is a detective story about the identity of the author, disproving all papal claims to authorship, and preferring a simple Franciscan. It may even be written, it is suggested, to encourage penitential flagellation. Fisher writes about translation and the claim that his own translation is superior to all others. There is also detailed history about the Black Death, which I found the most fascinating part of the book. If Christians had learned in the 14th century about hygiene from the Jews whom they persecuted, the Black Death might never have occurred.

I am very familiar with the hymn, which is often used during the devotion of the Stations of the Cross. The book cover claims that the new translation will challenge our preconceptions, but, while I found it simply good, no preconceptions were changed. Perhaps I am getting too old. Anyone passionate about liturgical translation from Latin to English will find this book most interesting.

The metre used in the hymn is the unusual trochaic tetrameter and does have a mournful feel. It is also difficult to replicate in English. Here is the kind of information in the book: “Stabat mater dolorosa/ juxta crucem lacrimosa/ dum pendebat Filius” can be literally translated: “The grieving Mother/ stood beside the cross weeping/ while her Son was hanging”. The Edward Caswell, which I have always known, reads,: “At the cross her station keeping, Stood the mournful Mother weeping, Close to Jesus at the last.” Fisher translates it: “Near the cross his anguish sharing/ stood the mother near despairing/ while her Son was hanging there.”

If you wish to read the other verses, you must read the book.


Prebendary Scott was until recently Sub Dean of the Chapels Royal.

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