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Dies Irae

The name by which the sequence in requiem Masses is commonly known

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Dies Irae.—the name by which the sequence in requiem Masses is commonly known. They are the opening words of the first verse: Dies irae, dies illa.

The rubrics of the Roman Missal prescribe the recitation of the sequence by the celebrant on the following occasions: (I) in the Mass of All Souls’ Day (In commemorations Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum); (2) in funeral Masses (In die obitus seu depositions defuncti); and (3) whensoever in requiem Masses, only one oratio, or collect, is to be said, namely in the anniversary Mass, and when Mass is solemnly celebrated on the third, the seventh, or the thirtieth (month’s mind) day after death or burial. Its recitation in other requiem Masses (In Missis quotidianis defunctorum) is optional with the celebrant. It should be noted here that the decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites (August 12, 1854) permitting the choir to omit such stanzas as do not contain a prayer is not included in the new edition of the “Decreta Authentica S. R. C.” (Rome, 1898-1900). From this fact may be inferred that the more ancient rule is now in force and that the whole sequence must either be sung by the choir or be “re-cited” in a high and clear voice with organ accompaniment (cf. American Ecclesiastical Review, August, 1907, p. 201).

As found in the Roman Missal, the Dies Irw is a Latin poem of fifty-seven lines in accentual (non-quantitative), rhymed, trochaic metre. It comprises nineteen stanzas, of which the first seventeen follow the type of the first stanza:

Dies irae, dies illa,

Solvet saecum in favilla:

Teste David cum Sibylla.

The remaining stanzas discard the scheme of triple rhymes in favor of rhymed couplets, while the last two lines use assonance instead of rhyme 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.

Thus the last two stanzas are printed in the typical (1900) edition of the Missal, and in the Ratisbon edition of the plain-chant setting. The Vatican edition (1907) of the plain-chant melody, however, apparently takes account of the fact that the last six lines did not, in all probability, originally belong to the sequence, and divides them into three couplets.

This Missal text of the sequence is found, with slight verbal variations, in a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Naples (cf. Haberl, Magister Choralis, Ratisbon, 1900, pp. 237-238). Father Eusebius Clop, O.F.M., in the “Revue du Chant Gregorien” (November-December, 1907, p. 49) argues a date between 1253-1255 for the MS.—a Franciscan Missal whose calendar does not contain the name of St. Clare, who was canonized in 1255, and whose name would have been inserted if the MS. were of later date. The same writer would assign (pp. 48, 49) a still earlier date (1250) to a copy of the Dies Irae inserted at the end of a so-called “Breviary of St. Clare” dating about 1228. Into his arguments it is not necessary to enter here; but it is important to notice that these dates are much anterior to the dates of the MSS. which, until recently, hymnologists had cognizance of when they attempted to fix the probable authorship of the sequence. Thus Mone found none anterior to the fifteenth century; Chevalier mentions only a Magdeburg Missal of 1480 and a MS. Franciscan Missal of 1477; the first edition of Julian’s “Dictionary of Hymnology” (1892) declared the “oldest form known to the present time” to be found in a Dominican Missal “written at the end of the fourteenth century and apparently for use at Pisa“; Warren, in his “Dies Irae” (London, 1902, p. 5), knows no earlier MS.

The second edition of Julian (1907) mentions the Naples MS. in its supplement (p. 1629), but not the “Breviary of St. Clare”. Father Clop describes also a third contemporary MS. (p. 49), Italian, like the others: “Toutes trois enfin appartenant egalement a, la liturgie des Freres Mineurs”. All this renders very probable the conjecture generally entertained by hymnologists, that the Dies Irae was composed by a Franciscan in the thirteenth century.

Its authorship has been most generally ascribed to Thomas of Celano, the friend, fellow-friar, and biographer of St. Francis. Reasons for this particularity of ascription are given by Keyser (Beitrage zur Geschichte and Erklarung der alten Kirchenhymnen, Paderborn and Munster, 1886, II 194-196 and 230-235); also by Duffield (Latin Hymn Writers and Their Hymns, New York, 1889, 245-247), an ardent champion of the ascription to Thomas; also in “The Dolphin” (November, 1904, 514-516), which corrects a fundamental error in one of Duffield’s main arguments. Ten other names have been suggested by various writers as the probable author of the Dies Ire: (I) St. Gregory the Great (d. 604); (2) St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153); (3) St. Bonaventure (d. 1274); (4) Cardinal Matthew d’Acquasparta (d. 1302); (5) Innocent III (d. 1216); (6) Thurstan, Archbishop of York (d. 1140); (7) Cardinal Latino Orsini, or Frangipani, a Dominican (d. 1296); (8) Humbert, a general of the Dominicans (d. 1277); (9) Agostino Biella, an Augustinian (d. 1491); (10) Felix Haemmerlein, a priest of Zurich (d. 1457). The ascription to Haemmerlein was due to the discovery, after his death, of a variant text of the sequence among his papers. Its eighteenth and nineteenth stanzas are:

Lacrimosa dies ilia,

Cum resurget ex favilla

Tanquam ignis ex scintilla,

Judicandus homo reus:

Huic ergo parce, Deus;

Fsto semper adjutor meus.

To these are added five stanzas of the same form. This Haemmerlein text is given by Keyser (op. cit., 211), Warren (op. cit., 11), and by others. Still another text, known as the “Mantuan Marble” text (first printed in 1594), prefaces the Dies Irae with four similar stanzas, and replaces stanzas 17-19 with the single stanza:

Ut consors beatitatis

Vivam cum justificatis

In aevum wternitatis.

Daniel gives both texts in his “Thesaurus Hymnologicus” (II, 103-105), except the two concluding stanzas of the Haemmerlein text. Coles (Dies Irw in Thirteen Original Versions, New York, 1868) gives (xv-xxi) both texts together with versified English translation.

All of these additional stanzas rather detract from the vigorous beauty of the original hymn, whose oldest known form is, with slight verbal changes, that which is found in the Roman Missal. It appears most likely that this text originally ended with the seventeenth stanza, the first four of the concluding six lines having been found among a series of verses on the responsory “Libera me, Domine” in a MS. of the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century (cf. Mone, Lateinische Hymnen des Mittelalters, Freiburg im Br., 1863, I, 406). It is quite probable that the sequence was first intended for private devotion and that subsequently the six lines were added to it in order to adapt it to liturgical use. The composer found his Biblical text in Soph. (i. 15, 16): “Dies irae dies ilia … dies tubae et clangoris”; and it may be that he obtained a suggestion for his wonderful rhythm (cf. Trench, Sacred Latin Poetry, 3rd ed., London, 1874, p. 302, foot-note) from a tenth-century judgment hymn (given in two forms by Dreves, Analecta Hymnica, Leipzig, 1896, XXIII, pp. 53, 54) containing this rhythmized text of Sophonias:

Dies irae, dies ilia,

Dies nebulae et turbinis, Dies tubae et clangoris,

Dies nebulosa valde, Quando tenebrarum pondus Cadet super peccatores.

The sequence has been translated many times into various tongues, the largest recorded number (234) being English renderings. Among the names of those who have given complete or fragmentary translations are those of Crashaw (1646); Dryden (1696); Scott (1805); Macaulay (1819); Father Caswall (1849). Amongst American translators we find Dr. Abraham Coles, a physician of Newark, credited with eighteen versions; W. W. Nevin, with nine; and Rev. Dr. Samuel W. Duffield, with six. Space will not permit here an analysis of the Dies Irae or any quotation of the wealth of eulogy passed upon it by hymnologists of every shade of religious conviction, save fragments from the appreciations of Daniel: “Sacrae poeseos summum decus et Ecclesiae Latin ae keimelion est pretiosissimum” (It is the chief glory of sacred poetry and the most precious treasure of the Latin Church); of Orby Shipley, in the “Dublin Review” of January, 1883, who, after enumerating some hymns “which are only not inspired, or which, more truly, are in their degree inspired”, says: “But beyond them all, and before them all, and above them all may, perhaps, be placed Dies irm, by Thomas of Celano“; of Coles: “Among gems it is the diamond. It is solitary in its excellence”; of Dr. Schaff: “This marvellous hymn is the acknowledged masterpiece of Latin poetry, and the most sublime of all uninspired hymns”; of Dr. Neale:”… the Dies irae in its unapproached glory”.


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