Thoughts on Weekly Poem #3

This poem (found here) is by M. Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413). As noted when I posted the poem, this fellow has the same praenomen and nomen as a certain Roman emperor. I’m not certain as to how he got this name, but it is likely to have come from the second century when Caracalla gave every citizenship, so they all got his nomen, Aurelius. Thus, not only Prudentius, but also his contemporaries St. Ambrose, Symmachus (the last pagan), and St. Augustine has Aurelius for a nomen. This, I imagine, is why most people are known by their cognomina (the last bit) at this point in time.

Anyway, enough about Roman naming practices and the difficulties they pose in Late Antiquity.

Before I discuss the poem itself, a couple of words about this Prudentius fellow. Prudentius has been called “the last Roman poet.” This is interesting, because Boethius (480-c. 524), sometimes called “the last Roman”(Cassiodorus wins, since he d. 580) , wrote his Consolation of Philosophy in poetry. Nevertheless, Prudentius was a poet proper, whereas Boethius was a philosopher who wrote in poetry (aside: I enjoy making asides that scholarly writing won’t allow, such as the one regarding Boethius. And this one.) According to Conte’s Latin Literature: A History (a much more reliable source than everyone’s friend wikipedia):

Prudentius is, along with Paulinus of Nola, the most important figure in Christian poetry. Apart from the Praefatio and the Epilogus, Prudentius’s works can be put into three groups: hymns, didactic poetry (but with strong epic colouring), and a single poem of apologetic character. The two most famous collections are those containing the twenty-six hymns, namely, the Cathemerinon Liber and the Peristephanon. (664)

Since I have an interest in epic as well as an interest in Patristics, I first looked into Prudentius because he wrote Christian epic, attempting to produce Christian literature that could vie with the pagans for artistry — for Christ is to fill all parts of our lives, and redeem every aspect of human endeavour. His most famous epic is the Psychomachia, one of the didactic poems “with strong epic colouring”, “on the struggle between the virtues and vices in the human soul.” (Conte, 664) The poem at hand is poem 9 from the Cathemerinon, a hymn to be sung at all hours of the day. It is much longer than the standard hymn book version, and a complete English translation is available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

I chose this poem because I was posting during the Twelve Days of Christmas, one of the finest feasts around. To choose the weekly poem, I grabbed my little blue hymn book and leafed through the “Christmas” section and the “Carols” section, hunting for something appropriate. There are many great Christmas hymns out there, as well as various fine carols. Some of the carols are fine for singing, although I’m sometimes confused by their connexion to Christmas. And the hymns are often great as hymns, as things to be sung out loud and proud, belted out in the midst of the congregation. Often, these hymns and carols are wonderful poetry. Nevertheless, my chiefest interest in many of them is primarily the singability of them, sometimes some of their theological content. So when choosing, I bypassed “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Good King Wenceslas” and chose this piece for its poetry, not its singability — and for its theology, truth be told.

First, Prudentius’ theology as here revealed. Singing this hymn alongside the traditional Christmas carols that delight in the Babe of Bethlehem bring home the enormity of the Christmas event, of what went on at that Nativity, of the cosmic power found in the Incarnation. Jesus is not merely the Alpha and the Omega. He is begotten of the Father before all worlds (this renders Prudentius orthodox and Nicene)! We are reminded that the Christ brought forth from Mary’s womb is Alpha and Omega, “he the Source, the Ending he.”

Jesus, as God (for like begets like), is Creator. He created everything that was, is, and evermore shall be! Evermore and evermore! And as “king and God and sacrifice” (to quote a different Christmas carol), he redeems us, having been born of the Virgin. Does your heart not sing at the phrase, “the Babe, the world’s Redeemer”? Indeed, Redeemer of the world — the orbis, not simply the people upon it, the homines. Redemption goes to the heart of the earth, redeeming creation as well as humanity, a fact we often forget in modern Christianity. But Christ is Creator of the world (and us), therefore He redeems the world (with us). Alleluia! (Even though it’s Lent.)

Finally, the most important feature of this hymn is that it fulfils the proper function of theology: it is praise. And it is exhortation to praise. Christ is not merely these things — He is to be praised for being these things! Praise Him who was begotten of the Father’s love! Praise Him who was born of the Virgin! Praise Him by whose Word the world was formed! Praise Him who redeems the world! And thus, Prudentius has two stanzas of exhortation here, and one simply of praise:

Christ, to thee, with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving,
and unwearied praises be;
honor, glory and dominion,
and eternal victory,
evermore and evermore!

As for its poetry, first we have to remember that we are looking at a translation. Were we discussing the original Latin (a worthy exercise itself), we would begin here: You will note that the poem is written in a trochaic meter (Matthew is too tired to figure out exactly which). This is undoubtedly interesting, and we really should all care. But we don’t all have Latin skills, and I, for one, am not only tired but am a bit weak in the discipline of meter and what it all signifies. Thus, remembering we are looking at a translation, let us be pleased with the efforts of Prudentius as rendered by the Rev. J. M. Neale and Rev. Sir H. W. Baker.

I have to admit that I am drawn to its rhyme scheme. I like rhyme when not forced or contrived. It makes a poem easier to remember, for one thing. And it means that someone definitely put effort into this poem, to find words that fit the rhyme scheme and also communicate the appropriate idea. When sung in plainsong, furthermore, the rhyme scheme adds a strong sense of unity to the whole hymn. Try it (oremus has a midi file of the tune). A sense of unity is also wrought by the repetition of “evermore and evermore!” at the end of each stanza. I do not think this is merely blind, mindless repetition to fit the Latin tune, but, rather, a reminder of the eternal nature of the praises sent up to God the Son by us here below and the angelic chorus up above.

I shall leave it here. No doubt many other poetic points remain to be made, but I have none on the top of my head and it is time for bed. I hope that you have been edified in some way by these thoughts nonetheless.


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About Matthew

I am a PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I do work on Late Antique Christian Latin, with a special focus on Pope Leo I. I also collect stamps and Playmobil Vikings and am fond of ruins.
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