This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Prudentius, Father of Christian Poetics”, running in the Winter Term 2023 (January to March), and convened by Dr. Anthony Cirilla.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
Over the Christmas season, many congregations will have sung the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which according to hymnary.org can be found in as many as 209 hymnals. Although translated in the 19th century, the hymn was originally written by Prudentius in the 4th, and stands as a classic, worshipful affirmation of the intersection of the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. The first stanza reads:
Of the Father's love begotten
‘ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see
evermore and evermore.
Employing the traditional category of “begotten,” Prudentius then turns to Christ’s divine nature as Alpha and Omega – “the birth forever blessed” of the “Savior of our race,” as he says in the next stanza, also “our God and King” who must be worshipped “evermore and evermore.” Beautiful though the hymn’s traditional selection and translation is, however, a core idea within Prudentius’ original are left out from the version we know. In the original text, a fuller vision of Prudentius’s cultural project as a Christian poet can be seen, one which in fact touches Prudentius’s 12 hymn sequence entitled Liber Cathemerinon, the Daily Round. Prudentius presents there a hymnody where the skills of the pagan poets are drawn upon for the praise of Christ, seeing in the Greco-Roman literary craft a resource for summoning the human imagination to godly worship. This project would be one heartily enjoined by medieval authors and beyond–as shall be seen, the likes of Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis bear witness to the hidden legacy of Prudentius’s desire to “nourish the spirit of Christ’s worshippers” by marrying the truth of Christian doctrine to the common revelation of the soul’s longing for poetry.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is entitled by Prudentius Hymnus omnis horae, the “Hymn for Every Hour,” and exhibits precisely this Augustinian tactic of treating pagan notions as Egyptian plunder suitable for glorifying God. He writes in the opening of the Hymnus omnis horae, “Give me my quill, page, that in loyal trochees I may sing a sweet, tuneful song of the glorious deeds of Christ. He alone shall be my Muse’s theme, Him alone my lyre shall praise.” But where the invocation of the Muse might suggest further allusions to pagan myths in service to Christian beliefs, instead Prudentius goes on to treat Christ as the epic hero in the harrowing of Hell: “The door is forced and yields before him; the bolts are turned away, down falls the pivot broken; that gate so ready to receive the inrush, so unyielding in face of those that would return, is unbarred and gives back the dead.” An earlier poem in the same sequence of the Daily Round, a hymn before meat, likewise uses pagan language to couch a Christian truth: “I indeed believe (and my faith is not vain) that bodies live as does the soul; for now I bethink me it was in bodily form that God returned from Phlegethon with easy step to heaven.” Phlegethon is of course one of the mythic rivers of the Greek underworld, and associated with the river Styx as two primordial powers relegated to the abyss for their excessive passions and so evoking pagan concerns about punishment in the afterlife. With this passage in the background, the later depiction of the harrowing of Hell becomes an image of Christ exerting sovereignty not only over the realm of the dead but over the myths the Muses once told of it–as in Homer and Virgil, where the underworld constitutes the core of their respective epics (The Odyssey and the Aeneid).
This point, a keynote which is sounded periodically throughout the twelve hymns of the Daily Round, receives a final affirmation in Hymnus Epiphanie, “A Hymn for Epiphany,” from which the still-sung hymn “Earth has many a noble city” was drawn. That God’s light reaches all lands is exhibited by the Magi: “See, from the far corner of the Persian land, whence the sun makes his entry, wise men, skilled interpreters, discern the royal ensign.” “Bethlehem,” says the poet, “greatest art thou of great cities, since to thee has it fallen to bring birth incarnate the heaven-sent leader of salvation.” Bethlehem’s status as greatest need not be cast, however, as a rejection of the greatness of other cities, but an opportunity for them to submit their greatness to the sovereignty of Christ: “Rejoice, all ye nations, Judaea, Rome and Greece, Egypt, Thracian, Persian, Scythian: one King is master of all.” Employing as he does poetic forms learned from classical pagan training, Prudentius exhibits the capacity of the Christian story to not only fit well in the epic imagination but to fulfill it.
The legacy of Prudentius’s Liber Cathemerinon is not confined to hymnody alone. The poetic cycle begins with a Hymnus ad Galli Cantum, “A Hymn for the Cock-crow,” which employs a common device of Prudentius (one drawn of course from Scripture) of seeing in the basic elements of human experience sensory analogs for Christian truth: “The bird that heralds day forewarns that dawn is at hand; now Christ the awakener of our souls calls us to life.” As the rooster’s crowing brings us awake, so does “the voice of Christ from the height of heaven teaches and forewarns us that daylight is near, lest our soul be in bondage to slumber.” Here Prudentius turns, rather than to outright pagan myth, a folkloric belief: “They say that evil spirits which roam happily in the darkness of night are terrified when the cock crows, and scatter and flee in fear; for the hated approach of light, salvation, Godhead, bursts through the foul darkness and routs the ministers of night.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet exhibits the survival of this motif when the ghost of Hamlet’s father disappears at the rooster’s crowing: “It faded on the crowing of the cock. Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes/Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,/This bird of dawning singeth all night long;/And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad/…/So hallowed and so gracious is that time.” Here Shakespeare imagines the rooster’s crowing as more powerful at Christmas, about which Prudentius also wrote a hymn where he wrote, “The nations through all time, and even the dumb beasts, hold it sacred.” But just as Prudentius links the folklore surrounding the rooster’s crow scaring away ghosts to Peter’s denial of Christ, so does Shakespeare portray a Petrine Hamlet who drags his feet, to deadly result, in fulfilling his obligations to his deceased father.
Another interesting point of contact appears between Prudentius and C.S. Lewis, in the folkloric notion of the refrigerium. In his “Hymn for the Lighting of the Lamp,” Prudentius writes, “And the guilty spirits, too, in their crowds often have holiday from punishments in hell, on the night on which the holy God returned to the world of men from the waters of Acheron, not like the morning star when it rises from the Ocean and first tinges the darkness with its shining torch, but a greater than the sun, restoring new day to a world saddened by the cross of its Lord.” (Notice another example of Prudentius using a river from the Greek underworld, this time the one associated with lost souls, often called the River of Woe.) When George MacDonald appears in The Great Divorce he says, “Did ye never hear of the Refrigerium? A man with your advantages might have read of it in Prudentius, not to mention Jeremy Taylor,” and goes on to explain, “it means that the damned have holidays—excursions, ye understand.” While Prudentius may not approve of the literary license C.S. Lewis takes with the notion, nonetheless both depict it as a time where Christ’s light shines in even the darkest state of souls: “Thou art the true light of our eyes, the true light of our minds; by Thee we see as in a glass within, a glass without”, says Prudentius. The Driver of the bus who transports the ghosts to their refrigerium’s destination in The Great Divorce is described as “full of light and,” naturally should be interpreted as Christ, for Lewis’s MacDonald says, “Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell.” It is the anniversary of the Resurrection, according to Prudentius, which causes the relief of the refrigerium: “hell’s force abates, its punishments are mild, and the people of the dead, set free from the fires, rejoices in the relaxation of its imprisonment.” But for Prudentius the meaning here is not to focus us on the state of the damned but the attentive wonder this should inspire in us : “As for us, we pass the long night with pious gladness in festal congregations, in sleepless prayer.” So Lewis’s Divorce ends by realizing it had all been a dream: “Sleepers awake! It comes, it comes… I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.” In Prudentius and Lewis alike, the question of the refrigerium is really only a mythic way of recognizing that Easter Sunday’s emphasis on the resurrection gives us a reprieve and a relief from our own hellish tendency to forget where our attention ought to reside. Prudentius writes, “Let the spirit in its turn awake, and for the time that remains, while the night’s course is drawing to a close, stand and be active at its post.”
Prudentius asks, “What worthier service can the high-born soul, native of light and heaven, pay, than to chant the gifts she has received, singing of her Creator?” He calls us to submit our Muse to Christ, our pagan impulses to sanctification, our sleeping minds to hear the clarion call of the Word, and to treat the final state of our souls in death as a matter which ought always inform our lives. This discussion has only touched on the value of reading his Daily Round, a set of hymns which likewise only form a small portion of his corpus which deal with the nature of sin, Trinitarian theology, the history of martyrs, and much more. Prudentius is largely neglected and unread by comparison to contemporaries like Augustine, but much value resides in reading him not only for the light he can shed on those writers he influenced, but also for the capacity to build up our faith to be found in his writing. In January of 2023, my Davenant Hall class “Prudentius, Father of Christian Poetics” will explore in greater depth the insights his diverse writings can yield.
Dr. Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.