Hymns of Prudentius - The Cathemerinon, or The Daily Round

  • David Slavitt
  • Jan 1, 1999
  • Series: Volume 2 - 1999

David Slavitt, trans., Hymns of Prudentius - The Cathemerinon, or The Daily Round. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), xxii + 61. Cloth $ 19.95. ISBN 0-8018-5412-1.

Everything known about the life of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens is contained in a 45 verse introduction to his collection of hymns that he published in 405 C.E. when he was 57 years old. Born into a reasonably prosperous Christian family in Spain in 348, Prudentius enjoyed a typical education based on the literature and rhetoric of the classical era. He had a brief career as an advocate and held increasingly responsible positions in the imperial civil service. Tiring of the emptiness of his life, he visited Rome c.401-403. It was while touring Rome, with its combination of monuments both classical and Christian, that Prudentius vowed to spend the remainder of his life writing hymns in praise of God for an audience that was more familiar with the literature of the classical past than with Scripture-based Christianity. Thus, much of the imagery and vocabulary in Prudentius' hymns have more in common with the writings of Virgil and Ovid than the New Testament. Written in conscious imitation of the pagan hymns of Horace, Prudentius' hymns are full of images drawn from the world of nature. Rather than trying to convert his thinly Christianized audience through Scriptural exegesis or christological explanation, Prudentius lets the beauty and interrelated complexity of the natural world draw the mind towards the Creator. In contrast to various systems of gnosticism and Neoplatonism prevalent in his day, Prudentius repeatedly stressed the fact that acceptance of Christianity did not necessitate a rejection of either the created world or the physical body. On the contrary, Prudentius employs a wide variety of images from nature to proclaim God's involvement in the physical world.

The Cathemerinon is a set of twelve hymns included within a much larger collection of hymns by Prudentius. The first six hymns are each written for use at a particular time during the course of the day, thus giving Christians an opportunity to sanctify all the hours of the day. Hymns 1 and 2 are for morning use, hymns 3 and 4 are sung before and after meals, hymns 5 and 6 are for evening and bedtime. Prudentius wrote these hymns at the beginning of the fifth century when monasticism, with its regimen of prescribed hours for daily prayer, song and spiritual reading, was beginning to make inroads into Latin-speaking urban culture in the western Roman Empire. Although there is no direct evidence that Prudentius himself had any monastic affiliation, his hymns were soon included in the liturgy of the early church. As hymns, Prudentius' religious poetry continues to be used for liturgical purposes down to the present day. Hymn IX, "Corde natus ex Parentis," is included in the Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, 1942 edition, hymn #98. Even a cursory search of any online hymnography database will yield numerous other examples of the use of Prudentius' poetry in worship services over the centuries.

In addition to the first six hymns for use at particular times throughout the day, the remaining six hymns of the Cathemerinon deal with specific events during the life of a Christian. Hymns 7 and 8 are sung before and after fasting. Hymn 9 is a litany of miracles performed by Christ and is one of the few instances in Prudentius' poetry where a knowledge of the Gospels is required in order for the poem to be intelligible. Hymn 10 is to be used at a Christian burial. In opposition to several heterodox groups popular at the time, Prudentius stresses the physical resurrection of the body. Hymn 11 was composed for use at Christmas. Unfortunately, Prudentius has framed his explanation of the physical birth of the Son of God in terms of an anti-Jewish polemic. Although the question of the physical birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a hotly debated topic during Prudentius' time, his polemical imagery and vocabulary in this particular poem render it unsuitable for use without appropriate explanations of the tragic adversus Judaeos tradition in Christian theology. Hymn 12 is for Epiphany and again uses images from the created world, the star at Bethlehem, to draw the reader/listener toward the Creator.

Slavitt is first and foremost a poet. His translations are rather free adaptations of Prudentius' poems. (The Latin text is not included with Slavitt's tanslation.) However, Slavitt's translations can lift the soul, something that my translations, for all their cognizance of Latin grammar, do not do.

"wearisome bodies that weren't
designed to soar as our minds can do in flights
not unlike angels' arabesques, when we take
the heavenly view of dreams, which is why our nights
can be far brighter than what we know, awake" (Hymn 6).

Reviewed by Victoria Erhart
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

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