This long lyric of short lines has pairs of stanzas linked in rhyme. It is a sequence honoring Gilbert of Sempringham (1083–1189, canonized 1202), founder of the Catholic Church’s only religious order to originate in England. The Gilbertine order included women and men observing strict separation while striving for distinct spiritual unity. Their liturgy features very many poems of this kind, chosen by Gilbert himself from the finest in Europe. He considered them canticae laetitiae, canticles of happiness.


With a Smile of the Heart

by an English poet circa 1200
translated by Margaret Coats

With a smile of the heart let us rejoice,
In concert raising up one voice
Of harmonious happiness,
For Gilbert, great confessor blest,
Has earned above the manifest
Crown of heavenly success.

Away with bruised and livid ire
As our health-giving ten-stringed lyre
Banishes harsh tunelessness!
His virtues, customs, and good life
Instruct us to be free of strife,
Inviting all to holiness.

Under no bushel does he hide
Truths of religion sanctified;
Rather, his radiance dignified
Supplies the light disciples need.

Running their race well fortified,
Seeking the prize but sorely tried,
They see him ahead, now glorified,
Ever a sower of holy seed.

Vessel of honor, fountain of honesty,
Culture’s conveyor, herald of charity!
His discipline is vice’s ruin.

Incense of fervor, pattern of probity,
Rich in due rigor, guardian of chastity,
His careful doctrine cheers the virgin.

O how his spirit never slumbers
But brings Thee, Christ, uncounted numbers
Of virgins and of men
Joined marvelously when
He makes their bond remote.

In the same home their lives they lead,
Eat, drink, and pray, sing psalms and read,
The weaker sex made strong
When righteous men lifelong
Chaste works to God devote.

If girls a father, boys a mother
Seek in looks and conversation,
By each intractable flirtation
They break Saint Gilbert’s laws.

Lustful, stiffnecked, wanton, abject,
They are weeds in cultivation,
Undermining his foundation
While Nature mourns the cause,

For here is something near
To the celestial sphere
Where beauty reigns supreme
In fellowship angelical.

With wonder one observes
How blazing fire preserves
Coarse flax, for both would seem
To lack restraint effectual.

He parts those he unites,
Advances those he smites,
And curbs those he invites,
All through his prudent primacy.

His regimen befits
The sinners he admits
To meet God’s requisites
Far from mundane despondency.

Like Jacob he returns
With offspring in expectancy
That Esau’s malice burns,
But lo, both yield sweet courtesy.

How useful is his legacy!
In following his policy,
His flock enjoys sufficiency.

No grief or fear concerns
Fresh innocent proficiency
While Gilbert’s rule one learns
And keeps it with consistency.

For leaving worldly lunacy
Imparts a joyful constancy
Foretelling perfect ecstasy.

Although by holy works
The brave Elijah irks
That Jezebel malign
Who calls his order swine,

Yet Christ Himself preserves
His prophet who deserves
To recognize divine
Esteem through many a sign.

Therefore, England’s excellence,
Good Saint Gilbert, hear!
Purity’s magnificence
Needs your teaching clear;
Dangers cannot harm the school
Well protected by your rule.

Discerning God as you have done
By decorum just,
Within your houses may each one,
Though unworthy, trust,
To serve Our Lord unstained like you
The everlasting ages through. Amen.



Latin original

Risu cordis exaltemus
omnis simul concrepemus
concordi leticia
Confessoris Gilleberti
cure iam celis inserti
cantemus magnalia

Absit procul livor ira
nostra decachorda lira
careat discordia
Eius virtus mores vita
nos instituentes ita
invitant ad talia

Nam eius religio
non latet sub modio
immo solis radio
plura prebet lumina

Coevis pro bravio
cunctis in hoc invio
prae cucurrit stadio
serens sancta semina

Vas honorem plenum honestatis
honor morum preco caritatis
vite disciplina viciis ruina

Thus odorum forma bonitatis
dives forum custos castitas
procurat doctrina ne sit virgo dina

O quam vorax fuit iste
infinitos tibi christe
virgines cum viris
iunxit modis miris
iunctura remota

In eadem domo degunt
edunt bibunt psallunt legunt
cum infirmo sexu
iuncti casto nexu
viri sine nota

Nate patri nati matri
vultu et colloquium
et omne consorcium
negant eius iura

Mammatrectus et abiectus
et in messe lolium
est qui censet vicium
cum luget natura

Dicam nec est secus
quoddam celi decus
fulget in hoc cetu
et vita angelica

Nec minus insigne
servatur in igne
stuppa sine metu
set virtute deica.

Separat quos unit
impugnat quos munit
promovet quos punit
vir mira prudencia

Tale decet eum
regimen qui reum
pertrahit ad deum
mundi per hec invia

Cum hiis turmis redit
de mesopotamia
redeunt cedit
esau malicia

O quam dat utilia
post eius vestigia
grex balans suspiria

Nullum luctus ledit
vel gravat mesticia
qui formam quam dedit
servat innocencia

Nam post hec fellacia
possidebit gaudia

Et tamen hunc odit
heliam et rodit
Iezabel maligna
virtutum privigna

Set christus ostendit
quis sit quem defendit
per tot mira signa
tanto viro digna

Ergo decus Anglie
Sancte Gilleberte
forma pudicicie
fac possimus per te
vitare pericula
tuti tui regula

Tecum deum cernere
semper in decore
tecum quoque vivere
carentes merare
absque nevi macula
per eterna secula Amen



Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.

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18 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thank you Margaret, for revealing the light of faith of an age of faith to an age in which “Truth–what is that?” is the prevailing stance. The Latin gives me the hunch that the poem was sung, perhaps to a pre-existant tune or simple, if flexible, formula.
    I hope you’ll try your hand at one or more of those liturgical / paraliturgical poems you mention in your introduction.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for taking time to read, Julian. We still use a couple of these sequences: Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost week and Stabat Mater at Stations of the Cross. In these, verses are all the same length, making them easier to set to music. The Gilbert sequence is the most elaborate I’ve ever seen, and it would need new melodies for each pair of stanzas, perhaps embellished by melismata. Singing was done by two choirs, which is why the stanzas come in pairs, and the singing of each portion is finished only when the linking rhyme is sounded back from one choir to the other. Perfect for a male choir and female choir, as in Gilbertine houses. The technique enhances musicality of a poem, but rhyming short lines and making sense over successive stanzas is the challenge for a writer.

  2. Roy Eugene Peterson

    As one who had to operate in Military Intelligence with Russian, German, and Vietnamese language skills, I am overwhelmed by your translation capabilities and rhyme skills. I am also amazed with your depth of literary knowledge finding such a beautiful “canticae laetitiae” from a thousand years ago. The title itself is a beautiful paean to Gilbert of Sempringham. The change in number of lines of the verses frees my mind to attempt such patterns in my own poetry. Thank you for a wonderful translation and your consummate skills.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Roy–I hope you do try writing poems with varied numbers of lines per stanza. You notice the pattern here with 6 lines in stanzas 1 and 2, which share one of the same rhyme sounds, then 4 lines in stanzas 3 and 4, sharing different rhyme sounds. The Saint Gilbert poem shows how extensively the sequence pattern can be varied–which I don’t recommend for a poet’s first sequence! Still, let me point out stanzas 13 through 18, which all have rhymes on the “ia” sound in Latin, translated in English by “cee.” The 4-line stanzas 13 and 14 have this shared rhyme only in the last line of each. Then comes the 4-line stanza 15, whose mate is stanza 17, both with the shared rhyme in lines 2 and 4. Intervening stanzas 16 and 18 (very unusual because they as a pair split another pair), have only 3 lines each, sharing the common rhyme in all 3 lines. This work is the supreme tour de force the English Gilbertine poet (who sang many splendid sequences chosen and assigned to various days of the year by Saint Gilbert) would have wanted to write for a beloved superior recently dead at the age of 106.

  3. Paul A. Freeman

    Gilbert and the Gilbertines. Once again you’ve transported us through time and educated us in an era long forgotten until you turned up on its doorstep, Margaret. Great stuff, as always.

    Thanks for the read.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Paul, for your constant attention and appreciation. Of all items in 55 volumes of German scholarship recording largely forgotten medieval poetry, this piece is one most worthy of notice by English speakers and poets. I hasten to say that I did not page through the Analecta Hymnica, but followed every clue to find this treasure of Merrie Olde Engelonde’s devotional glee.

  4. R M Moore

    Vessel of honor, fountain of honesty,
    Culture’s conveyor, herald of charity!
    His discipline is vice’s ruin.

    This I enjoyed. It is true that discipline can be vice’s ruin. Discipline might imply a sort of self-sacrifice… Some Catholics may have heard of a sacrificial concept while attending the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

    R. M. Moore

    • Margaret Coats

      That is true. It’s where we can make our own offerings in union with the perfect Sacrifice visible before us. Sacrifice for the Gilbertines, or any religious, is following the discipline of their rule, in this poem considered a joyful process. Thank you very much for reading and pointing out a favored portion of this canticle of happiness!

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Translating a medieval Latin sequence is no easy task. The heavy stresses, the clipped concision of the language, the very prominent rhyming — all this is difficult to capture in English. But Margaret manages to create a very creditable English version of this obscure and complex piece.

    The Gilbertines were an unusual order, it would seem — male and female members living and worshiping together, but carefully separated and forbidden to converse, or even look at each other. At least that’s what the text appears to say.

    • Margaret Coats

      Joe, thanks so much for commending the translation, of which you more than anyone here can understand the difficulty. Although sequences are difficult because of the kind of lyric they represent, this one is particularly so, because of the poet’s considerable skill and obvious effort to make this a masterpiece in honor of a beloved mentor.

      We know the Gilbertine rite in great detail because that document has survived–but we don’t know particulars of the rule the order followed. Thus we know by title the numerous sequences they sang on various feast days of the year, and therefore we understand Gilbert’s knowledge and taste in poetry. He was the educated son and heir of a knight and local landowner, who started his order to give local girls greater opportunity for spiritual life. He was successful beyond his hopes, and tried to get the Cistercians to take over his project. At that time they refused to direct women. Gilbert thus fashioned an odd compromise in which men followed Cistercian practice and women Benedictine. However, there is no record of details of Gilbertine life, and the order (which never established houses outside England) became extinct when suppressed by Henry VIII. We just don’t know what kind of separation and harmony they were able to achieve, but they did have nearly 2000 members (mostly women) at the time of Gilbert’s death, with enough influence to bring about his formal canonization (something very rare at the time). The Gilbertines and their lives remain a mystery. The field in the background of the photo above conceals the layout of the medieval motherhouse, not yet of interest to archaeologists.

  6. James A. Tweedie

    Piety takes many forms, and is sadly seemingly out of favor and in short supply these days. We could use a few Gilbert’s in these trying times (although monasteries, convents, religious orders and spiritual retreat centers—although often hidden from the public eye— continue to serve the Lord, their members, and the world through disciplines that nurture and further the pursuit of piety. As your marvelous resurrection of this old Latin text illustrates, we are also in short supply of poets who will sing the praises of Godly women and men such as Gilbert. Reading and meditating on your verse left me feeling m—in a curious way—spiritually refreshed. Tyvm.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, James. I am very happy the poem was curiously refreshing. The curiosity may derive from it as a found item from another era, just as we sometimes derive refreshment by visiting one of those out-of-the-way retreat places in our own time. Piety and poetry have a long history of supporting one another; may the partnership continue to thrive, and perhaps refresh many more who could be happier because of it.

  7. Brian A. Yapko

    Margaret, I very much enjoyed this religious piece which offers an inspired translation of the original Latin and which also offers a wonderful introduction to an order with which I am unfamiliar. I was previously unaware of any orders originating in England so you have educated as well as entertained! The Old Testament references offer a fine progression towards the new – especially the potential but defused hostility between Jacob and Esau – an unexpected reference but one which foreshadows the forgiveness and reconciliation ultimately offered by Christ Himself.

    As for the order itself, I’m intrigued by the separation of men and women in the same locale and who must be admonished: “By each intractable flirtation/They break Saint Gilbert’s laws.” Does the Gilbertine rule require that men and women must never interact at all? What does that mean in terms of mass? Or is it more akin to the separation observed by orthodox Jews where interaction exists, but there is separation within the synagogue and in other public places?

    A tiny housekeeping question as to the original Latin: Shouldn’t the first word of the third to last stanza be “sed” rather than “set?”

    Wonderful work, Margaret, which I plan to read again.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Brian, I’m glad you enjoyed the canticle. You probably also noticed the “light under a bushed” reference to the Gospels, and the “ten-stringed lyre” of the Psalter. About the separation of men and women, there are many ways to conceal a portion of a church so that some congregants remain hidden but can be heard. In a history about the Gilbertines, one writer thinks there was an east-to-west wall such that both nuns and brothers could see the priest-canons in the sanctuary. The church at Sempringham has a special door which may have been for the use of men only, with other doors all for the use of women, who were more numerous. As I said to Joseph Salemi above, we have no practical information. With the Benedictine rule for women and the Cistercian rule (itself an adaptation of the Benedictine) for men, there were two rules in use, neither particularly adapted to Gilbertine life. I would guess men and women were together in church, but separated by a wall or screen or grille, for Mass and for the Divine Office, amounting to many hours each day if the singing were elaborate, as the existing Ritual suggests it was. As I told Julian above, the men’s and women’s voices probably made up two choirs customary for the singing of psalms, hymns, and sequences. This would have been the prime means of developing spiritual unity. There were probably two cloisters and associated rooms where members of the opposite sex and lay visitors were not allowed. That would be the “at home” area. And there may have been additional separation of work areas. Thus the separation was probably more strict than that practiced by Orthodox Jews, with the only meeting of Gilbertine men and women inside the church (and somewhat separated there) while both were engaged in formal worship.

      About the Latin question, “set” is in the manuscript as a non-standard spelling of “sed.” There are some others like it, especially Latin nouns ending -cia that would end -tia in our Latin dictionaries.

      Thank you again for your close attention!

  8. Yael

    I had never heard of Gilbert of Sempringham before, thank you for the delightfully poetic history lesson Margaret.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Yael, for taking time to read and comment. It’s delightful to hear from you!

  9. C.B. Anderson

    Detailed observations already abound in the Comments, so I’ll just add my own WOW!


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