Because he faithfully spread its devotional use, there is a legend that the poem was composed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (whose feast day we recently celebrated). St. Bernard was said to have first entered a parish in Germany on Christmas Eve chanting the words and genuflecting at the clemency, love, and sweetness of the Blessed Virgin.
The legend is doubtful, though, and it is widely accepted that the poem was composed by the monk Hermann of Reichenau. Even accepting his authorship, its origins are veiled in mystery, supposedly first overheard in a vision chanted by a choir of heavenly angels. One might almost believe the legend; the transcendent, haunting and yet peaceful melody combined with the sweetness of the poetry is enough to make anyone believe in its divine origins. When I first heard it, it felt as though I had been embraced in the very womb of the Church.
Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae;
vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.
Here is the version most of us are more familiar with:
In the 18th century, Marian devotion was under attack from Protestants and Jansenists. In response, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a book that is now considered a classic, The Glories of Mary. Each chapter is a commentary on a line of the poem. For instance, the first chapter is dedicated to “Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae” and begins,
As the glorious virgin Mary has been raised to the dignity of Mother of the King of Kings, it is not without reason that the Church honors her, and wishes her to be honored by all, with the glorious title Queen.
St. Alphonsus goes on to explicate the theology of Mary’s queenship with liberal quotes from Church Fathers, saints, anecdotes, and Scripture. A Queen is a symbol of mercy, a type of Esther, exalted the right hand of the King and thus capable of dispensing favors on supplicants. This Queen happens to not only be our sovereign but also our Mother. In bringing forth Our Lord, she also brings forth many unto salvation. Further, she stands watch at the death of her Son, heart pierced Simeon prophesied, and through her sorrows helps to birth the Church. St. Alphonsus is careful to note that Our Lord redeems mankind and chooses to do so alone, “I have trodden the winepress alone,” but Mary co-operates with him and adds her suffering his. This Our Lord acknowledges, glancing to the disciple he loves and saying “Behold thy Mother.” In this way she, as a type of the Church, becomes the Gate through which we enter heaven.
This beautiful poem is a treasure of the Church. It communicates the reality of our life together in a way that a theological treatise never will. By meditating upon it and chanting it each day, I have come to love Mary more and more, and as I draw closer to her I cannot help but feel that she is steadily encouraging me and leading me closer to her Son. For all of us, memorizing the Salve Regina along with its plainchant and making use of it often is a commendable practice. Through the singing of it, one practically ascends to heaven and joins directly with the praise of the heavenly hosts.