Scott’s “Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon” “Matins” in the Northern Midnight

By R.S. Kilpatrick

In a previous issue of Canadian Poetry,1 Carolyn Roberts has shown with elegance and clarity certain of the relationships between D.C. Scott’s accomplishments as a musician and the composition of those of his poems in which music plays a significant role. Three such relationships emerge as “tribute to a composer, musician or artist”, employment of music as “a thematic motif”, and “adaptation of musical techniques and structures to poetic form”.2 Roberts regards “Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon” (1905) as “one of Scott’s earliest and most successful works in the [third] category,”3 supporting this view with a close analysis of the way Scott “complemented subject with finding poetic structural equivalents for the musical form of the hymn.”4 The formal element found to be most central is Scott’s adaptation of the Sapphic stanza of Horace and medieval hymns. As a sample of the latter she cites one of the most familiar of those attributed to St. Gregory the Great, best known today in Percy Dearmer’s translation as “Morning”:5

Father, we praise Thee, now the night is over;
Active and watchful, stand we all before Thee;

Singing, we offer prayer and meditation:
  Thus we adore Thee.

There could be an even deeper relationship between “Night Hymns” and Gregory’s Sapphic hymn, however; for Dearmer’s adaptation obscures the possibility that Scott might have been familiar with the original Latin. An examination of links between the two suggests shades of meaning and allusions, otherwise hidden, which underscore the importance of Robert’s musical analysis. Considering Scott’s musical accomplishments and religious background (Methodist), an interest on his part in Gregorian liturgical music would not be surprising.

     “Night Hymns” presents a vivid pattern of contrasts: lake and desert, stars and storm, lightning in the dark, silence, melody and thunder, Latin and Ojibwa, antiquity and the present. The advancing storm moves us from “dead water whispers” to rain “Ringing like cymbals” as the canoeists paddle “in the midnight”, awed by nature’s spectacle and power and stirred to join in “the ancient hymns of the churches.” Latin hymns echo and blend over the lake and islands with Ojibwa . . .”noble” with “uncouth”. Another sound, heard from the gliding canoe, is the drip and eddy of the paddles. Nature sings her own “infinite, tender/Plaint of a bygone age whose soul is eternal.” 6

     This is a sombrely lovely lyric, charged with sensory evocations of an encounter of past with present. Scott’s choice of form is precise, for the Sapphic stanza is itself an assertion of the echoes of antiquity heard within the poem, balancing the visual mystery in the dark lake setting.7 The importance to Scott of this choice of metre is implied by his specific allusions in the poem to Latin hymns. The paddlers sing “Adeste Fideles” and other hymns over the dark waters: “Sing we the ancient hymns of the churches.” “Adeste Fideles”, however, the only hymn cited directly, is (whether Scott realized it or not) not ancient;8 nor is it in sapphics, but irregular; and the Latin phrase itself does not quite fit the adonic at 1. 20, being one syllable too long ([x] – xx – –), matching 1. 32: “[To] nest in the silence.”9 Scott’s 1899 manuscript draft of this lyric10 confirms the importance of the metre, for there he offers as a draft title just the word “Sapphics”, and in a rejected version of 11. 29-32 the fourth line was a perfect adonic: “Somber with spruces.” This revision is interesting, for Scott may have intended it both to justify 1. 20 and also to provide a run of dactyls over 11. 31-32, expressing the extended dove-simile in the cadences.

     The Sapphic stanza is actually quite at home among ancient hymns. F.A. March’s Latin Hymns11 for example includes four in sapphics, one by Ambrose (x) and three by Gregory the Great (i, iv, v). The Anglican Book of Common Praise12 includes four “Ancient Office Hymns” in sapphics (Sarum plainsong); 813 “Nocte surgentes” (Gregory the Great: with English words freely translated by Robert Bridges, 1899), 839 “Ut queant laxis” (Paul the Deacon), 846 “Iste confessor”, and 346 “Christe cunctorum Dominator alme” (Anonymous). If St. Gregory’s well-known “Nocte Surgentes” was an inspiration for “Night Hymns”, Gregory’s historic role in support of monasteries, missions, and liturgical music, his deep love for the cloister and, most of all, his personal achievements in the Sapphic form could have suggested him to Scott. Here is the Latin:

           Ad Nocturnam
Nocte surgentes vigilemus omnes,
Semper in psalmis meditemur, atque
Voce concordi Domino canamus
           Dulciter humnos!

Ut, pio regi pariter canentes,
Cum suis sanctis mereamur aulam
Ingredi caeli, simul et perennem
           Ducere vitam.

Praestet hoc nobis Deitas beata
Patris ac Nati, pariterque Sancti
Spiritus, cuius resonat per omnem
           Gloria mundum!

This hymn has for centuries been part of the Office of Matins in the Latin Breviary, proper to the second and remaining Sundays after Pentecost through September 30.13 It follows the Invitatory (“Dominum, qui fecit nos, Venite, adoremus”) and the Psalm (94: “Venite, exsultemus”), the latter providing the Invitatio (“Venite, adoremus”). The Breviary translation (1963) runs:

Now that we have risen while it
is still night, let us all keep watch,
fixing our attention always on the
psalms and in pleasing unison
singing our hymns to the Lord.

So may it be that we who, as a
group and in union with His
Saints, sing to the loving King,
may be counted worthy to enter
heaven’s court, there to live for

May the blessed God, whose
glory resounds through all creation,
father, son and likewise the
Holy Spirit grant us this. Amen.

The Introduction to the Breviary quotes Hippolytus (Apostolic Tradition, 32. 19-27) on the significance of Matins to the church:

About midnight, get out of your bed and
wash and pray. . . . For at that hour all
creation is at rest, praising God. Stars,
trees, and waters are as if standing still. The
whole host of angels keep their service together
with the souls of the just. They praise al-
mighty God in that hour; and that is why
the faithful on earth must pray at this same

Is it possible that the phrase “Adeste Fideles” (which does not belong to “Nocte Surgentes”) might have been suggested to Scott by the words of the proper psalm (94.6): “Venite, adoremus et procidamus; et ploremus ante Dominum qui fecit nos”? Compare the first stanza and refrain of the Latin carol:

Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem,
Natum videte Regem angelorum.
   Venite adoremus,
   Venite adoremus,
   Venite adoremus Dominum.

Scott’s idea of including a Latin adonic in line 20 was inspired, but his choice, perhaps, less so. (“Adeste Fideles” certainly appears in his own draft.) He probably preferred a familiar Latin quotation. While “Venite adoremus” would itself have been excellent in sense and allusion, it was obviously unsuitable as an adonic.

     Gregory’s purpose in “Nocte Surgentes” was to exhort the faithful to rise, still in the dark of night, to sing Matins. Scott’s “Sing we the hymns of the churches” in the “northern midnight . . . Chanted first in the old world nooks of the desert” (13-14), in “Tones15 that were fashioned when faith brooded in darkness,/Joined with the sonorous vowels in the noble Latin,” and in “long cadence” and “tender/Plaint of a bygone age whose soul is eternal” (33-34) seems an apt description of Gregorian hymns, chanted “voce concordi”. “Nocte Surgentes”, then, Gregory’s beautiful Matinshymn in Latin sapphics offered a warp for Scott’s lyric, into which is woven a complex sensory pattern in English of darkness, lake and island, stars and crackle of lightning, thunder and plainsong.

     Such an inspiration would have further implications as well for our reading of “Night Hymns”: “Here in the midnight . . . in the Northern midnight,/And on the lonely, loon-haunted Nipigon reaches”. Scott wrote “in the midnight”, not at midnight.16 The setting of Scott’s poem could be the pre-dawn blackness, an hour when Matins have been sung since “the faith brooded in darkness.” Rising “in the midnight”, they are already paddling as the loons call over the water and before the stars begin to fade, blending their hymns in Latin and Ojibwa over lake and island as the storm gathers and breaks, the rain “Ringing like cymbals.”


  1. Carolyn Roberts, “Words After Music: A Musical Reading of Scott’s ‘Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon’,” Canadian Poetry, No. 8 (1981), 56-63.[back]

  2. Roberts, p. 58.[back]

  3. Ibid.[back]

  4. Ibid.[back]

  5. Roberts, p. 59.[back]

  6. The text cited in this article is that of The Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1926), pp. 23-24. The poem appeared first in New World Lyrics and Ballads (Toronto: Morang, 1905) as “Night Hymns on Lake Nepigon”.[back]

  7. See Roberts, pp. 58-59 for her discussion of the Sapphic stanza. The strict Horatian sapphic stanza runs (quantitatively):
      – x – – – /xx – x – – (three times)
      – xx –– (once)
    See J.W. Halpron, M. Ostwald, T.G. Rosenmeyer, The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Inc., 1963), p. 105. Scott’s sapphics here are very freely dactylic, consisting of three five-stress (predominantly dactylic) lines plus one adonic (the adonics 20 and 32 have one extra syllable). The third and fourth lines of Scott’s stanzas produce the effect of dactylic hexameters (an intent quite foreign to classical sapphics). Ezra Pound, for example, demonstrates tight adherence to the classical norms (only one dactyl per line) in “Apparuit” (cited by R.A. Swanson in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: “Sapphic”):

    Half the graven shoulder, the throat aflash with
    strands of light inwoven about it, loveli-
    est of all things, frail alabaster, ah me!
      swift in departing.

  8. See Roberts, p. 63, n. 20, on the authorship of “Adeste Fideles”.[back]

  9. Roberts seems more tolerant of this anomaly (p. 59).[back]

  10. Duncan Campbell Scott Collection, University of Toronto Library, Manuscript Collection 13, Box 4, Notebook 1900-1910. This draft is dated, “13. 9. 99.” I am very grateful to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, for a photocopy of this draft. E.K. Brown in his “Memoir” to Selected Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (Toronto: Ryerson Press,1951), records that “Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon” and “Rapids at Night” were inspired during a journey of inspection in 1899 when D.C.S. was Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs.[back]

  11. F.A. March, Latin Hymns (New York, Cincinnati and Chicago: American Book Co., 1874).[back]

  12. The Book of Common Praise (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1938).[back]

  13. The edition here cited is The Hours of the Divine Office in English and Latin, Volume One: First Sunday of Ad vent through Fourth Week of Lent (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1963).[back]

  14. Ibid., p. 5.[back]

  15. For “Gregorian tones”, see the OED: “tone” 3, 36.[back]

  16. The OED offers two ranges of meaning for “midnight”: 1) “The middle of the night” and 2) (tranf. and fig.) “intense darkness or gloom”, e.g., (1885) “when the dawn of the gospel began to break upon this isle, after the dark midnight of papacy.” Matins may be sung at any time between Compline and Lauds, their strictest times being 9 p.m. (I), 12 midnight (II) and 3 a.m. (III).[back]

    (I am grateful for the valuable insights of my colleague, Professor N.H. MacKenzie, with respect to those liturgical conventions; and also to Professors D.M.R. Bentley and S.L. Dragland (and an anonymous reader for CP) for their firm criticisms of the rhetoric, content, and style of this paper.)