Bernard of Cluny is indeed a lyrical writer, swept from one theme to another by the intense force of ascetic meditation and by the majestic power of his own verse, in which there lingers yet a certain fierce intoxication of poetic wrath. His highly wrought pictures of heaven and hell were probable known to Dante; the roasting cold, the freezing fire, the devouring worm, the fiery floods, and again the glorious idyl of the Golden Age and the splendours of the Heavenly Kingdom are couched in a diction that rises at times to the height of Dante's genius. The enormity of sin, the charm of virtue, the torture of an evil conscience, the sweetness of a God-fearing life alternate with heaven and hell as the themes of his majestic dithyramb. Nor does he dwell in generalities; he returns again and again to the wickedness of woman (one of the fiercest arraignments of the sex), the evils of wine, money, learning, perjury, soothsaying, etc.; this master of an elegant, forceful, and abundant Latinity cannot find words strong enough to convey his prophetic rage at the moral apostasy of his generation, in almost none of whom does he find spiritual soundness. Youthful and simoniacal bishops, oppressive agents of ecclesiastical corporations, the officers of the Curia, papal legates, and the pope himself are treated with no less severity than in Dante or in the sculptures of medieval cathedrals.
It may be added that in medieval times "the more pious the chronicler the blacker his colours". The early half of the twelfth century saw the appearance of several new factors of secularism unknown to an earlier and more simply religious time: the increase of commerce and industry resultant from the Crusades, the growing independence of medieval cities, the secularization of Benedictine life, the development of pageantry and luxury in a hitherto rude feudal world, the reaction from the terrible conflict of State and Church in the latter half of the eleventh century. The song of the Cluniac is a great cry of pain wrung from a deeply religious and even mystical soul at the first dawning consciousness of a new order of human ideals and aspirations. The turbid and irregular flow of his denunciation is halted occasionally in a dramatic way by glimpses of a Divine order of things, either in the faraway past or in the near future. The poet-preacher is also a prophet; Antichrist, he says, is born in Spain; Elijah has come to life again in the Orient. The last days are at hand, and it behoves the true Christian to awake and be ready for the dissolution of an order now grown intolerable, in which religion itself is henceforth represented by cant and hypocrisy.
The metre of this poem is no less remarkable than its diction; it is a dactylic hexameter in three sections, devoid of caesura, with tailed rhymes and a feminine leonine rhyme between the two first sections; the verses are technically known as leonini cristati trilices dactylici, and are so difficult to construct in great numbers that the writer claims Divine inspiration (the impulse and inflow of the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding) as the chief agency in the execution of so long an effort of this kind. The poem begins:
It is, indeed, a solemn and stately verse, rich and sonorous, not meant, however, to be read at one sitting, at the risk of surfeiting the appetite. Bernard of Cluny is an erudite writer, and his poem leaves an excellent impression of the Latin culture of the Benedictine monasteries of France and England in the first half of the twelfth century. The modern interest of English-speaking circles in this semi-obscure poet centres in the lovely hymns of exceptional piety, warmth, and delicacy of sentiment dispersed through his lurid satire; one of them, "Jerusalem the Golden", has become particularly famous. The American composer Horatio Parker composed an oratorio that took its text from Bernard of Cluny's poem, Hora novissima, in 1893.