European Litanic Verse

A Different Space-Time

by Witold Sadowski (Author)
©2018 Edited Collection 492 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 00000


This fifth volume in the Litanic Verse series is centered upon the poetics of European litanic verse (genre structure, rhythm, rhetorical figures), as well as its philosophy and cosmology, with a particular focus on the space-time matrix within which the litanic world is depicted. The content of the book moves beyond an analysis of enumerations and parallelisms as it provides an insight into relevant cultural processes, including the history of religion and literary conventions from Antiquity to Early Modernity. This allows seemingly distant topics, such as comparative versification and European identity, to be related. Theoretical considerations are accompanied by examples mostly taken from Latin, English, French, German, Iberian, Italian, Scandinavian and Slavic poetry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Note on Texts and Translations
  • Introduction
  • Part I: The Origins of Litanic Verse
  • 1 Ancient Experiments with the Metrical Litany
  • 2 Litany and Mathematics
  • 3 The Origins of Litanic Verse in Song
  • 4 The Origins of Litanic Verse in Prose
  • 5 Litanic Verse as an Embryonic Form of Verse
  • Part II: The Genre of Litany
  • 6 Terminological Considerations
  • 7 The Litanic Genes
  • 7.1 The Ektenial Gene
  • 7.2 The Chairetismic Gene
  • 7.3 The Polyonymic Gene
  • 7.3.1 The Egyptian Henotheistic Hymn
  • 7.3.2 Benedictions in the Monotheistic Hymn
  • The Hymn of the Three Youths
  • Psalm 136
  • The Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian
  • A Return to the Bible
  • 7.3.3 On Balance
  • 7.4 Merging the Genes
  • 7.4.1 The Byzantine Salutations: The Polyonymic and Chairetismic Genes
  • 7.4.2 The Litany of the Saints: The Polyonymic and the Ektenial Genes
  • The List of Maxims
  • The List of Heroes
  • The Cataloging Charms and Lorica
  • 7.4.3 The Litany of Loreto: The Polyonymic + the Ektenial + the Chairetismic Genes
  • Part III: The Generic Worldview of the Litany
  • 8 The Structure of the Generic Worldview
  • 8.1 What is the Generic Worldview?
  • 8.2 The Concentric Space-Time
  • 8.2.1 The Paradox of the Circle
  • 8.2.2 Artistic Conceptualizations of the Concentric Space-Time
  • 8.3 The Semantics of the Litanic Components
  • 8.3.1 The Basic Two-Component Scheme
  • 8.3.2 Three- and Four-Component Schemes
  • 8.3.3 Tendencies to Introduce One-Component Schemes
  • 8.3.4 Conclusions and Consequences
  • The “Circle Sector Technique” and the “Cross-Section Technique”
  • Non-Litanic Enumerations
  • Theological Consequences
  • 8.4 The Communication System within the Litany
  • 8.4.1 The Superaddressee
  • 8.4.2 The Authorized Speaking Voice
  • 8.4.3 The Semantic Content of the Apostrophe
  • 8.4.4 Mediation
  • 8.5 The Issue of Time
  • 9 Antonomasia
  • 9.1 Antonomasia in the Rhetorical Tradition
  • 9.2 Antonomasia in the Context of Other Tropes and Linguistic Phenomena
  • 9.3 Wonderful Names
  • 9.4 Multinamedness
  • 9.5 Antonomasias in Practice
  • 9.6 Litanic Narration
  • Part IV: The Emergence and Development of the Poetic Litanies
  • 10 Divisions in the Church, Divisions in Poetry
  • 10.1 The Ektenial Gene in the Church and the Poetic Litanies
  • 10.2 The Chairetismic Gene in the Church and the Poetic Litanies
  • 10.3 The Poetic Litany in the Context of Private Piety
  • 11 The Parallel Existence of the Polyonymic Gene in Poetry
  • 12 Versification in the Church Litanies and Poetic Litanies
  • 13 The Art of Paraphrase, Commentary and Self-Commentary
  • 13.1 Poetic Paraphrases of the Church Litanies
  • 13.2 Poetic Commentaries on the Church Litanies
  • 13.2.1 The Medieval Period
  • 13.2.2 The Post-Reformation Period
  • 13.3 Self-Commentary as a Specific Technique of Litanic Verse
  • 14 The Litany’s Relation to Other Genres
  • 14.1 The Litany versus the Sonnet
  • 14.2 The Litany and the Remaining Medieval Genres
  • 14.3 The Litany versus Early Modern Genres
  • 15 Interpretations—Reinterpretations—Experiments
  • 15.1 Interpretations of the Generic Resources
  • 15.2 Reinterpretations of the Generic Resources
  • 15.3 Experimenting with the Generic Worldview
  • Conclusions
  • Selected General Bibliography
  • Index of Subjects
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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The book is the fifth volume in the Litanic Verse series. In the previous volumes, which covered the period from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, the history of litanic verse was described based on a division into particular European regions, the names of which are indicated in the titles of the books:

Litanic Verse I: Origines, Iberia, Slavia et Europa Media, eds. Witold Sadowski, Magdalena Kowalska, and Magdalena Maria Kubas (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016).

Litanic Verse II: Britannia, Germania et Scandinavia, eds. Witold Sadowski, Magdalena Kowalska, and Magdalena Maria Kubas (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016).

Magdalena Kowalska, Litanic Verse III: Francia (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018).

Magdalena Maria Kubas, Litanic Verse IV: Italia (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018)

While the previous four volumes are focused on specific regions of Europe, in this book the poetics of European litany is taken as a whole and addressed in comparative analyses.

All of the five volumes have been produced as part of the research project Litanic Verse in the Culture of European Regions, which was realized in the years 2013–2018, thanks to the support of the National Science Center of Poland. As the leader of the project I am greatly indebted to my excellent collaborators, whose research presented in the publications listed above as well as in papers listed on the project’s website (www.wiersz.uw.edu.pl) has provided essential information which is developed and commented upon in this book. Without the generous guidance of the team, upon whose help and expertise I have always been able to rely, it would not have been possible to reconstruct a coherent poetics of the litany from as many national literatures as have been included in my research. The contributions of particular members of the team are explicitly acknowledged on the relevant pages of the book.

This book has a single author’s name on its cover, an author who bears sole responsibility for any weaknesses it may have. Yet it would have been impossible to characterize the poetics of European litanic verse, or to reconstruct its genesis, or even to describe the development of the poetic litanies from Antiquity to the nineteenth century, had not these studies benefited from the achievements of generations of scholars. Therefore, I owe much to the many editors of old poetry for their painstaking work over the past two hundred years on ancient, medieval ← 9 | 10 → and early modern manuscripts. In the era of the Internet their efforts have unexpectedly been rewarded, for the body of texts that includes all the most important examples within the European culture is now accessible to all. Therefore, the anonymous creators of the Internet databases and libraries, too, deserve a vote of thanks.

Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to Dominika Ruszkiewicz and Ann Cardwell, whose outstanding work contributed greatly to improving the quality of the explication in this book.

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AH The Akathist Hymn and Little Compline Arrangement: The Greek Text with a Rendering in English (London: Williams & Norgate, 1919).

AHMA Analecta hymnica Medii Aevi, eds. Guido Maria Dreves and Clemens Blume (Leipzig: Reisland, 1886–1922).

ANF The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1885–1886).

ASLS Lapidge, Michael, Anglo-Saxon Litanies of the Saints (London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1991).

HAA Meersseman, Gilles Gérard, Der Hymnos Akathistos im Abendland (Freiburg: Universitätsverlag, 1958–1960).

LP Sadowski, Witold, Litania i poezja: Na materiale literatury polskiej od XI do XXI wieku [Litany and poetry: On the body of material of Polish literature from the eleventh to the twenty-first century] (Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2011).

LV 1 Litanic Verse I: Origines, Iberia, Slavia et Europa Media, eds. Witold Sadowski, Magdalena Kowalska, and Magdalena Maria Kubas (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016).

LV 2 Litanic Verse II: Britannia, Germania et Scandinavia, eds. Witold Sadowski, Magdalena Kowalska, and Magdalena Maria Kubas (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016).

LV 3 Kowalska, Magdalena, Litanic Verse III: Francia (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018).

LV 4 Kubas, Magdalena Maria, Litanic Verse IV: Italia (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018).

NPNF A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1886–1900), series II.

PG Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graeca, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris: Migne, 1856–1866).

PL Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris: Migne, 1841–1855).

In the case of multivolume series, the first number refers to the volume number, the second to the page number.

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Note on Texts and Translations

Unless stated otherwise, the translations of the poetic works are by Witold Sadowski. Poems in foreign languages are accompanied by their translations if the verse structure is commented upon together with its content. However, translations are omitted if the analysis focuses on historical tendencies and the poem only serves as an example.

Citations from the Septuagint are from the following edition: Septuaginta: Id est Vetus Testamentum graece iuxta LXX interpretes, ed. Alfred Rahlfs (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1965).

The quotations from the Greek New Testament are from Novum Testamentum Graece, eds. Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, Barbara and Kurt Aland (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979).

All translations of the Holy Scripture are from the King James Bible and are taken from the following edition: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testament (Oxford: Wright and Gill, 1769).

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This book is aimed at those who are familiar with the two kinds of texts quoted below, or at least one of them. The first group of texts consists of poetic works, as exemplified by the following passages:

We the children of thy grey-grown age, O Earth,

O our mother everlasting, we beseech thee,

By the sealed and secret ages of thy life;

By the darkness wherein grew thy sacred forces;

By the songs of stars thy sisters in their courses;

By thine own song hoarse and hollow and shrill with strife;

By thy voice distuned and marred of modulation;

By the discord of thy measure’s march with theirs;

By the beauties of thy bosom, and the cares;

By thy glory of growth, and splendour of thy station;1

SOMMEIL! — Râtelier du Pégase fringant!

SOMMEIL! — Petite pluie abattant l’ouragan!

SOMMEIL! — Dédale vague où vient le revenant!

SOMMEIL! — Long corridor où plangore le vent!2

Sleep!—A hay rack for the restive Pegasus! / Sleep!—A little rain that tames the hurricane! / Sleep!—A misty maze which is haunted by a phantom! / Sleep!—A long corridor in which the wind cries!]3

The second group is composed of texts used in the church:

Divine Mercy, in which we are all immersed, I trust in You.

Divine Mercy, sweet relief for anguished hearts, I trust in You.

Divine Mercy, only hope of despairing souls, I trust in You.

Divine Mercy, repose of hearts, peace amidst fear, I trust in You.

Divine Mercy, delight and ecstasy of holy souls, I trust in You.

Divine Mercy, inspiring hope against all hope, I trust in You.4 ← 15 | 16 →

While the second group of texts is conventionally known as the litanies, the first may be called litanic verses. Both are referred to by means of similar terminology, for they are both composed in a similar manner and using similar devices, devices known in poetic nomenclature as enumeration, parallelism, and anaphora. Some of the passages quoted above also contain a device which could be classified in three different ways: as a refrain, an epiphora, or a responsorial answer.

Such devices, however, are not the exclusive property of the church and poetic litanies. It is not necessary to be interested in twentieth-century politics, for instance, to be familiar with the historic speech delivered by Martin Luther King in August 1963, or at least with its famous litanic anaphora “I have a dream.” Likewise, it is not necessary to be a popular music enthusiast to recognize its predilection for obsessively recurring refrains, as in Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” or to remember the series of questions and responsorial answers, as in Enya’s “Only Time,” or to notice the frequently occurring musical practice of either opening many lines with the same phrase, as in Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” or closing them with the same name, as in ABBA’s “Fernando.”

All the verses, prayers, political speeches, and songs given as examples differ from one another in terms of their thematic concerns and the purposes they serve. What they all share, however, is the same structure, which currently seems to enjoy great popularity. In fact, in some European countries, as well as in both North and South America, the litany is among the most popular literary conventions. Indeed, over time, it has become a kind of universal lingua franca which is commonly understood in many countries around the globe. The litanic language ← 16 | 17 → is treated as the common property of representatives of various nations and religions, as well as those with different attitudes toward faith. What is more, our poets, preachers, politicians and pop stars do not seem to pay any attention to the fact that the litany is a very peculiar, if not bizarre, convention. In litanic texts, the same words are repeated ad nauseam, appearing in analogous positions within the sentence, either initial or final, almost as if they were deprived of their verbal force and reduced to transmitters of the rhythmic effect.

Why is it the case then, that in so many national literatures such flaws are accepted? That question is difficult to answer without further specialist and multidisciplinary knowledge. Among the possible reasons, the peculiarity of the recurrent form may be included, which—on the one hand—corresponds to man’s natural psychological needs, and on the other conceals behind its words a deeper, even mysterious, sense. We can also consider the esteem for and attachment to the litanic poetics inculcated by our cultural tradition. It cannot be denied that all the different texts mentioned above not only share an external resemblance, but also a common source. This source forms the basis of our thinking and feeling, a basis which is inscribed into our identity and is so personal that we refuse to admit it to others. Yet in an attempt to understand this particular way of thinking and feeling, we need to transcend everyday reality in order to place ourselves in the world from which this source derives. The reason for this is that the litanic convention is embedded in a different space-time, a space-time which is so remote from that which is acknowledged by modern science that contemporary readers find it difficult to explain why such a monotonous form maintains its popularity.

This unusual space-time should be understood in two different ways.

First of all, litanies were established in a remote place and time, the Near East and the depths of Antiquity, respectively. Hence, in order to understand their structure, it is necessary that readers should become familiar with the culture of this particular place and time. Even though the texts quoted above date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primary focus of this book will be on the preceding centuries, for the litanic convention as it is known today can only be understood in the context of earlier cultural reality.

Second, the litany itself contains its own explanation of the spatial and temporal structure of the world. As is well known, the category of space-time can be approached from different perspectives, and our knowledge of its nature evolves with each breakthrough in science, with physics and astronomy being the main sources. Therefore, a decidedly different concept of space-time emerges from the thoughts of Einstein than from the theories of Copernicus and Newton, a ← 17 | 18 → still different picture resulted from Euclid. Another well-known philosophical problem is based on Immanuel Kant’s question as to whether space and time are possessed of objective existence in a formal reality, or whether they merely represent the means of ordering the external reality produced by the human mind in the process of cognition. The assumption behind the litanic convention is that the space-time exists objectively, yet it is decidedly different from the way space-time was perceived by any of the four scientists mentioned above, that is, Euclid, Copernicus, Newton or Einstein. This is because the litanic space-time is not so much three-dimensional, as concentric in nature. It is governed by paradoxes which can be described by an analogy with the geometry of a circle, the most important being the paradoxical status of God, whose indivisible oneness is the source of the infinity of the world. It is also important that the perception of the concentric space-time is mirrored in the rhetorical devices characteristic of the litany, which were listed above, such as enumeration, parallelism, anaphoras and refrains. Therefore, it can be said in short that the paradoxical structure of the litanic space-time leads to the peculiar poetics of the litany.

These two ways of understanding the litanic space-time determine the argumentation in this book. The first two parts return to the place and time in which the litanic genre came into existence. The next two parts, in turn, examine the works which acknowledge the litanic perspective regarding the spatial and temporal structure of the world.

The litany may be approached using various methods, yet none grasps the phenomenon in its entirety. Instead, each exposes some of its aspects with greater clarity and precision than the other methods, while at the same time failing to discern others. Our task as researchers is not to pretend that our method is perfect for the comprehensive examination of a certain phenomenon, but rather to demonstrate how it leads to certain conclusions.

Also, for the purposes of this book, a particular method was singled out.

To start with, in order to understand the peculiar form of the litany, it should be approached in a similar manner to the analysis of any other work of literature. It is for this reason that the church litanies are primarily described in terms of their artistic features, with most attention being devoted to poetic examples. Apart from ancient prototypes of the litany, we also attempt to focus on works of literature which are representative of all the European regions and all the main linguistic branches. We thus take into consideration different Romance, Germanic and Slavonic languages, even though litanic verse gained its greatest popularity in the French, English, and Italian literatures, from which most of our examples have been taken. Since the book is written from the perspective of ← 18 | 19 → literary studies, other concerns—which are addressed in fields such as music research, the history of the liturgy, the sociology of religious life, etc.—will be treated in a purely contextual manner, which is what is expected of literary studies.6 ← 19 | 20 →

Secondly, our book is focused exclusively on the poetics of the litany. We move back in time and place to when and where the litanic genre came into being, but only for the purpose of extracting the litanic poetics from its history. Considerable attention will be devoted to the origin of particular litanic elements, and this process will go as far back in time as ancient Egypt. However, a comprehensive history of the litany will not be presented, for we will only concentrate on the historical issues that may account for the formal assumptions behind the genre.

As has already been mentioned, these assumptions will be examined using a wide range of poetic material, including—amongst others—examples that are representative of the approximately two thousand years of European poetry. Within this long time span, certain languages died, whereas others developed; the role of a universal lingua franca passed from Greek to Latin, and then from Latin to French, before other European languages—such as German, Spanish, and English—became dominant in different European regions. Over the course of time, Catholic priests turned from Latin to Italian, whereas the Eastern European elites turned from Polish to Russian; peoples were driven away from their home territories; empires fell, giving way to others. Against the background of all these transformations and diversifications, we intend to extract features of the litanic poetics that are common to all European literatures, and to argue that litanic verse may be perceived as a common European convention and an important factor uniting Europe in spite of its political and religious divisions. Therefore, our use of adjectives such as “British” or “Iberian” will apply to geographical areas rather than to particular countries. By the same token, terms such as “English,” “French,” or “Danish” will also be used with respect to linguistic, and not national, communities.

As previously stated, the book will be divided into four main parts.

The first part of the book describes the litany as a form of versification. It reconstructs the origins of certain rhythmic elements which are typical of the form, such as the segmentation into distinct, clear-cut modules, the focus on counting and enumerating, or the division into different voices. Litanic verse is based on the syntactic arrangement of text rather than on the phonetic features that form the basis of the differentiation between languages. Therefore, it can be easily adapted from one language to another, as well as between language families. It is for this reason that litanic verse is to be found in such distantly related languages as Syriac (the Afro-Asiatic family), Croatian (the Indo-European family) and Hungarian (the Uralic family). Ultimately, however, neither the ease with which the litanic verse spread nor its ensuing popularity promoted the litanic convention to the level of a major verse system that could be compared ← 20 | 21 → with such established European verse systems as accentual, syllabic or accentual-syllabic. The first part of the book will attempt to explain the reasons for this puzzling situation.

The second part takes as its starting point the differences when defining the litany that are observed in particular regions of Europe. Three distinct literary conventions will be highlighted, which in Orthodox Christianity are still treated as being separate, yet in Western Christianity comprise a common genre. Following the results of our earlier research,7 these conventions will be referred to as ektenial, chairetismic, and polyonymic. Their origin will be considered in detail, as well as their independent development in the period preceding their consolidation into a Western-European form, together with the process during which they gradually became closer. Conventions typical of the chairetismic and polyonymic traditions coincide in the Byzantine masterpiece, the Akathist Hymn; the polyonymic convention combines with the ektenial in the Litany of the Saints; and all three conventions are to be found in the Litany of Loreto, as well as in similar medieval litanies to Mary. By contrast, the Lutheran Die Deutsche Litanei and The Great Litany, which is Anglican, contain only the ektenial gene. Since all the three main litanic conventions were imported from the East, the second part of the book examines the phenomena which contributed to the adaptation of this rich litanic tradition in Western Europe.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Litany Comparative literature History of verse Literary genres Theory of verse Literature and religion European poetry Worldviews Space-time in literature Religious poetry Poetic prayer Poetry and liturgy Antonomasia Bible and literature Byzantine poetry Latin poetry Enumeration Parallelism Anaphora French poetry Italian poetry English poetry Iberian poetry Slavic poetry German poetry Scandinavian poetry Listenwissenschaft Chronotope Liturgy Cultural memory Rhetorical tropes
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 492 pp., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Witold Sadowski (Author)

Witold Sadowski heads the Section for the Poetics of Verse at the University of Warsaw. He specialises in the theory of verse and the history of literary genres. In his book Litany and Poetry (2011, in Polish) he applied the paradigm of poetic analysis to the liturgical form of the litany and introduced terminology for its description.


Title: European Litanic Verse