Dies Irae by Ambrose Bierce

A recent republication of the late Gen. John A. Dix’s disappointing translation of this famous medieval hymn, together with some researches into its history which I happened to be making at the time, induces me to undertake a translation myself. It may seem presumption in me to attempt that which so many eminent scholars of so many generations have attempted before me; but the conspicuous failure of others encourages me to hope that success, being still unachieved, is still achievable. The fault of previous translations, from Lord Macaulay’s to that of Gen. Dix, has been, I venture to think, a too strict literalness, whereby the delicate irony and subtle humor of the immortal poem–though doubtless these admirable qualities were well appreciated by the translators–have been utterly sacrificed in the result. In none of the English versions that I have examined is more than a trace of the mocking spirit of insincerity pervading the whole prayer,–the cool effrontery of the suppliant in enumerating his demerits, his serenely illogical demands of salvation in spite, or rather because, of them, his meek submission to the punishment of others, and the many similarly pleasing characteristics of this amusing work, being most imperfectly conveyed. By permitting myself a reasonable freedom of rendering–in many cases boldly supplying that “missing link” between the sublime and the ridiculous which the author, writing for the acute monkish apprehension of the 13th century, did not deem it necessary to insert–I have hoped at least partially to liberate the lurking devil of humor from his fetters, letting him caper, not, certainly, as he does in the Latin, but as he probably would have done had his creator written in English. In preserving the metre and double rhymes of the original, I have acted from the same reverent regard for the music with which, in the liturgy of the Church, the verses have become inseparably wedded that inspired Gen. Dix; seeking rather to surmount the obstacles to success by honest effort, than to avoid them by the adoption of an easier versification which would have deprived my version of all utility in religious service.

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I must bespeak the reader’s charitable consideration in respect of the first stanza, the insuperable difficulties of which seem to have been purposely contrived in order to warn off trespassers at the very boundary of the alluring domain. I have got over the inhibition–somehow–but David and the Sibyl must try to forgive me if they find themselves represented merely by the names of those conspicuous personal qualities to which they probably owed, respectively, their powers of prophecy, as Samson’s strength lay in his hair.


Dies irae! dies ilia!
Solvet saeclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus.
Cuncta stricte discussurus.

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionem,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et Natura,
Quum resurget creatura
Judicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.

Judex ergo quum sedebit,
Quicquid latet apparebit,
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus,
Quem patronem rogaturus,
Quum vix justus sit securus?

Rex tremendae majestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis;
Salva me, Fons pietatis

Recordare, Jesu pie
Quod sum causa tuae viae;
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quarens me sedisti lassus
Redimisti crucem passus,
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Juste Judex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco tanquam reus,
Culpa rubet vultus meus;
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae,
Sed tu bonus fac benigne
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta.
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

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Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis,
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis;
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrymosa dies illa
Qua resurgent et favilla,
Judicandus homo reus
Huic ergo parce, Deus!

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