30 December 2009

'Sang in Ages Long Gone By'—A Brief Tribute to Prudentius

Though he is not a Saint, Helen Waddell tells us that the Latin ecclesiastical poet, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-c. 410), a Spaniard, is ‘called the Virgil and the Horace of the Christians’, [1] and L.R. Lind dubs him ‘the first great Christian Latin poet’, [2] and Frederick Artz says something rather similar. [3] Charles Williams observes that he ‘introduced the cult of the martyrs into his verse’, and quotes another author as crediting him with turning ‘the Ambrosian hymn into a Christian ode’. [4] To go back to Waddell:

After a lifetime of distinguished civil service under emperor Theodosius, he withdrew from court and at the age of 57 devoted himself exclusively to poetry on Christian themes. His ‘Psychomachia’ or ‘Battle of the Soul’, the first completely allegorical poem in European literature, exerted a powerful influence over the Middle Ages. Poems from the Cathemerinon—hymns suited to the liturgical Hours—are the glory of the Roman breviary. In his poems he sees Rome, once great under her emperors, greater still by reason of Peter and Paul and her countless martyrs, and longs for the day when Christ will be the undisputed sovereign of a still pagan world. [5]

Artz concludes, ‘A few of his poems rise to the level of great writing; in these his love of Rome and of classical culture and his intense Christian fervor blend harmoniously.’ [6] Gordon Giles’s valuable O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent & Christmas includes for 14 December Roby Furley Davis’s translation of a terrific hymn on the Nativity:

Of the Father’s heart begotten,
Ere the world from chaos rose,
He is Alpha: from that Fountain
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things
Yet to come the mystic Close,
Evermore and evermore.

O how blest that wondrous birthday,
When the Maid the curse retrieved,
Brought to birth mankind’s salvation,
By the Holy Ghost conceived;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
In her loving arms received,
Evermore and evermore.

This is he, whom seer and sibyl
Sang in ages long gone by;
This is he of old revealed
In the page of prophecy;
Lo! he comes the promised Savior;
Let the world his praises cry!
Evermore and evermore.

Let the storm and summer sunshine,
Gliding stream and sounding shore,
Sea and forest, frost and zephyr,
Day and night their Lord adore;
Let creation join to laud thee
Through the ages evermore,
Evermore and evermore.

Sing, ye heights of heaven, his praises;
Angels and Archangels, sing!
Wheresoe’er ye be, ye faithful,
Let your joyous anthems ring,
Every tongue his name confessing,
Countless voices answering
Evermore and evermore. [7]

In Waddell’s words, ‘Prudentius is no innovator: Ambrose was before him in rhythm, Hilary in rhyme. But his verse has more of the swiftness of the lyric, less the tread of the processional chant.’ [8]

[1] Helen Waddell, trans., More Latin Lyrics: From Virgil to Milton, ed. Dame Felicitas Corrigan (NY: Norton, 1977), p. 78.

[2] L.R. Lind, ed. Latin Poetry in Verse Translation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 326.

[3] Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, AD 200-1500: An Historical Survey, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 87.

[4] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 80.

[5] Waddell, p. 78. In Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, NY: Image, 1958), Christopher Dawson has noted one example of Waddell’s last observation here:

En omne sub regnum Remi
mortale concessit genus
idem loquuntur dissoni
ritus, idipsum sentient.
Hoc destinatum, quo magis
jus Christiani nominis,
quodcunque terrarium jacet,
uno inligaret vinculo.

Dawson’s prose translation reads: ‘Lo, the whole race of man has been bowed to the Kingdom of Remus, different rites say the same and think the same. So it is destined that the Christian law should bind all the earth in one bond’ (p. 28).

[6] Artz, p. 87.

[7] Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent & Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), pp. 53-4.

[8] Waddell, p. 78.


redshield3 said...

I like that translation more than the others I've heard/read. Nice! Thanks.

Patricia Cecilia said...

Corde natus is my favorite Christmastide hymn, in Latin or in this translation or the Anglican one in The Hymnal 1940. It can be sung as a flowing, unhurried chant or in 3/4 time as a waltz of the 'morning stars together proclaim the holy Birth'. Thank you for this commentary!

aaronandbrighid said...

You are both quite welcome!

Ms Cecilia> It's nice to see someone knowledgeable about this music (I am not, I'm afraid!) stopping by. However did you come across this blog?

Esteban Vázquez said...

My beloved Godson David, in whom I am well-pleased, once wrote a marvelous paper on Prudentius as the founder of Christian epic as a genre. I shall inquire of him whether he still has this article in electronic form, and whether I can pass it on to you.

aaronandbrighid said...

Esteban> That would be wonderful! And don't worry, I haven't forgotten the book I owe you...