Project Canterbury

Theodora Phranza; or, the Fall of Constantinople

By John Mason Neale

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1913.
First published London: J. Masters, 1857.


The writer of this story dealing with the fate of Constantinople did not turn to it as an ordinary story-teller might, attracted by its world-moving events. He was a profound student of the Eastern world that centred there, and a tireless interpreter of its ideas and spiritual aspirations to the Western world. He threw himself with fervour into this task as part of that still larger one he had in view, which was only cut short by his death, before he had reached his fiftieth year. Already then his performance, his actual achievement, had been extraordinary; and although some part of it was work for the moment, not intended to count as literature in the long result, the kind and the bulk of it are amazing. He had translated the medieval Eastern Hymns, from Greek and Latin, as no one else had done; he had written the most inspired and imaginative account of the Psalms, and a History of the Eastern Church which won him the tribute of the patriarchs of that Church. He had gained the ear, too, of thousands to whom his books on the Liturgies, his Tetralogia Liturgica, his History of the Council of Florence and other writings and contributions on that side of scholarship were quite unknown. His "Rhythm of St. Bernard of Morlaix," which first appeared in 1859, had in three or four years travelled the world over. Before that date his Carols for Eastertide and Carols for Christmastide had already appeared; and still earlier, when he was quite a young man, his Songs and Ballads for the People and his Songs and Ballads for Manufacturers, had brought him into range with those pioneers of the Church Militant who took a new impulse in religion and in religious balladry from the crying need of the "Hungry Forties."

Some verses of the full version of the "Rhythm of St. Bernard" will serve to recall the curious power at Dr. Neale's command--

"The Beatific Vision
Shall glad the saints around:
The peace of all the faithful,
The calm of all the blest,
Inviolate, unvaried,
Divinest, sweetest, best,
Yes, peace! for war is needless,--
Yes, calm! for storm is past,--
And goal from finished labour, ,
And anchorage at last.
That Peace--but who may claim it?
The guileless in their way,
Who keep the ranks of battle,
Who mean the thing they say:
The peace that is for heaven,
And shall be for the earth;
The palace that re-echoes
With festal song and mirth;
The garden, breathing spices,
The paradise on high;
Grace beautified to glory,
Unceasing minstrelsy."

The translator said of the original: "I look on these verses of Bernard as the most lovely, in the same way that the Dies Irae is the most sublime, and the Stabat Mater the most pathetic, of mediaeval poems." Of his own version, it may be claimed that, save perhaps in Christopher Smart's Song of David--some of whose iterative phrases and resonant sequences of epithet are recalled by the above passage--no religious poem of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has maintained so glowing and so impulsive a lyric melody undiminished in its course.

Something of that intense mental life Dr. Neale put into all his work, verse or prose. It serves to give vitality to the following tale of the strange city, Key to the Faiths and Empires of the two worlds, which has once again been shaken by the approach of armies.

Fifty-six years ago, he spoke of a recent war and of the old prophecy that the Turk would not hold Constantinople more than four centuries. Now that another war has come, is still passing, and that more episodes have been added to its story, the wonder of the city's real destiny in the future is not at all lessened. The shade of Mahomet is still thrown up against her walls, and the struggle of the two faiths that has so often affected her is being given a new and more bitter racial effect in the Balkans. The later sequel to the story of Theodora Phranza, as its author conceived it, cannot even yet be written out to a finish.

E. R.

Project Canterbury