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Song to the Virgin
St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Translated from the Latin by Barbara Newman
Never was leaf so green,
for you branched from the spirited
blast of the quest
of the saints.
When it came time
for your boughs to blossom
(I salute you!)
your scent was like balsam
distilled in the sun.
And your flower made all spices
dry though they were:
they burst into verdure.
So the skies rained dew on the grass
and the whole earth exulted,
for her womb brought forth wheat,
for the birds of heaven
made their nests in it.
Keepers of the feast, rejoice!
The banquet’s ready. And you
sweet maid-child
are a fount of gladness.
But Eve?
She despised every joy.
Praise nonetheless,
praise to the highest.

Hello there.  Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
This week, we’re reading a poem by Hildegard of Bingen—nun, leader, visionary, poet, musician, doctor, preacher, saint, and doctor of the Church. Jackie O’Ryan will read Hildegard’s “Song to the Virgin” (O frondens virga) and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Jackie.
St. Hildegard of Bingen was born to a noble German family in 1098. From early childhood, she was extraordinary. She wrote: “When I was three years old, I saw such a light that my soul was shaken by it; yet because I was a child, I could say nothing about it.” As she grew up, she continued to have mystical visions, but she soon realized that no one around her saw what she saw, and began to keep her visions to herself.
As a young girl, Hildegard’s education was entrusted to a brilliant Benedictine abbess, Jutta of Spanheim. When she grew up, Hildegard wanted to enter religious life herself, When Jutta died, Hildegard succeeded her as abbess. When she was 42, Hildegard’s life changed. She had had visions from childhood; but this was different: “I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Tell these wonders and write them as they are taught.” And for the first time, Hildegard began to share her visions with others.
As always in such cases, Church authorities hesitated. Hildegard’s bishop submitted some of her writings to Pope Eugene III. He read them and wrote to Hildegard: “We marvel, my daughter, and we marvel beyond what one can believe, that God shows new miracles in our times, as when he pours his Spirit upon you.”
In the years that followed, Hildegard corresponded with Popes and Bishops and even challenged the Holy Roman Emperor. She traveled around Germany, and bishops welcomed her to preach in their cathedrals. She combined extraordinary artistic gifts with a scientific mind, and wrote innovative works of theology, poetry, drama, and medicine. She also directed the creation of truly remarkable illuminations of her visions.
The poem Jackie read is one of Hildegard’s best-known poems. The poem reflects Hildegard’s close observation of the natural world. Mary is compared to a leaf. “Never was leaf so green, / for you branched from the spirited / blast of the quest / of the saints.” The color green is very significant for Hildegard: in another work, she wrote that the soul is the “green of the body”—the very life within it. Green means life – and the first thing Hildegard says about Mary is that Mary is deeply alive, with a life that comes from the Holy Spirit.
Christ is the flower blooms from the living branch that is Mary. Hildegard lovingly speaks of the fragrance of this flower: “like balsam / distilled in the sun.” This flower gives fragrance to all flowers, and restores life to what was dry.
The way the poem leaps from image to image is typical of Hildegard’s poetry. We move from a “close up” on a flower to a broad view of the whole earth, soaking up the dew, and bringing forth life from its womb: wheat that gives life and shelter to the birds. The wheat calls to mind the Eucharist, an allusion that becomes explicit in the next lines of the poem: “Keepers of the feast, rejoice! / The banquet’s ready.” All of this, the poet reminds us, came through Mary: “you / sweet maid-child / are a fount of gladness.” Hildegard’s vision is less about being caught up into heaven, and more about recognizing God’s sanctifying presence here.
At the end of the poem, Hildegard contrasts Mary and Eve. “But Eve? / She despised every joy. / Praise nonetheless, / praise to the highest.” While this comparison is conventional, and dates back to the early Church Fathers, in this poem it highlights Hildegard’s unabashedly and unapologetically feminine viewpoint. Mary and Eve reflect opposite poles—not just yes and no, grace and sin, but joy and joylessness.
This poem is wonderfully captured in a window in the Cathedral sacristy. The work of Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen, the window was inspired by this poem, which is written in German in the border of the window. The imagery reflects the joyful fruitfulness of Mary, and the sweet fragrance of Christ.
Of course, there’s one more dimension to this poem, and that is Hildegard’s extraordinary music. We’ll conclude with the first stanza of the poem, in Hildegard’s own setting. St. Hildegard, pray for us!





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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