BMCR 1997.04.13

1997.4.13, Slavitt, Hymns of Prudentius

, , Hymns of Prudentius : the cathemerinon, or, The daily round. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. 61 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 9780801854125. $19.95.

David Slavitt is a poet and practised translator from Latin, who, though Jewish, once sang carols in a Christian choir, and has a real feel for a writer such as Prudentius, who combines spiritual simplicity with literary sophistication. This is not a scholarly work; the Latin text is not included, and the text is hardly recognizable as a translation, for, as he says, “I have tried to do the voice …” (xii). And he succeeds.

We can be forgiven for wondering if the world really needs another translated version of the Cathemerinon; aren’t there several already? Indeed there are; and in order to illustrate the difference in impression that different versions can convey, I here offer five available alternative versions of one well-known passage (Hymn 5, the title and lines 1-12). The text is taken from the Loeb ( Prudentius: with an English translation by H. J. Thomson, Vol.I, London / Harvard, 1949); the first translation here is Thomson’s, the second is that of Martin Pope and R. F. Davis, in The Hymns of Prudentius (Edinburgh, 1905), the third is that of Sister M. Clement Eagan in The Poems of Prudentius (Washington D.C., 1962), the fourth is that in French prose by M. Lavarenne in Prudence, Tome I: Cathemerinon Liber (Paris, 1943), and the fifth is that of David Slavitt. Pope and Davis and Lavarenne print the Latin; Sister Eagan has explanatory notes.


Inventor rutili, dux bone, luminis,
qui certis vicibus tempora dividis,
merso sole chaos ingruit horridum,
lucem redde tuis, Christe, fidelibus.
quamvis innumero sidere regiam
lunarique polum lampade pinxeris
incussu silicis lumina nos tamen
monstras saxigeno semine quaerere,
ne nesciret homo spem sibi luminis
in Christi solido corpore conditam,
qui dici stabilem se voluit petram
nostris igniculis unde genus venit.


Creator of the glowing light, our kindly guide, who dost divide the times in a fixed order of seasons, now the sun has sunk and the gruesome darkness comes upon us; give light again, O Christ, to Thy faithful ones. Albeit Thou hast adorned the heavens, Thy royal court, with countless stars and with the moon’s lamp, yet Thou teachest us to seek light from a stoneborn spark by striking the flint, that man might know that his hope of light is founded on the firm body of Christ, who willed that He be called the steadfast rock, from whence our little fires draw their origin.


Blest Lord, Creator of the glowing light,
At Whose behest the hours successive move,
The sun has set: black darkness broods above:
Christ! light thy faithful through the coming night.

Thy courts are lit with stars unnumberèd,
And in the cloudless vault the pale moon rides;
Yet Thou dost bid us seek the fire that hides
Till swift we strike it from its flinty bed.

So man may learn that in Christ’s body came
The hidden hope of light to mortals given:
He is the Rock—’tis His own word—that riven
Sends forth to all our race the eternal flame.


O Christ, heavenly King, Author of shining light,
Thou that rulest our days, fixing the seasons due,
Dark night steals on the world, gone is the flowing sun;
Give Thy glorious light back to thy faithful flock.

Though Thou paintest the sky, throne of Thy regal might,
With innumerable stars circling the lunar lamp,
Thou dost teach us to seek light from the solid rock,
Spark that springs from the flint when it is struck by steel.

Lest man ever forget that his one hope of light
On the body of Christ has its foundation sure,
He desired to be called stone of the Corner firm,
Whence we kindle the flame lighting our little fires.


Auteur du jour brillant, aimable Maître, qui divises le temps par des alternances fixes, le soleil s’est couché, la nuit affreuse tombe, rends la lumière, ô Christ, à tes fidèles!
Bien que tu aies orné le ciel, ta demeure royale, d’étoiles innombrables et du flambeau lunaire, tu nous as montré, cependant, à chercher la lumière en frappant sur un silex, en la faissant jaillir d’une pierre,
afin que l’homme n’ignorât pas que son espoir de la lumière est fondé sur le corps inalterable du Christ, qui a voulu qu’on l’appelât la pierre inébranlable où viennent s’allumer nos flammes minuscules.


The night comes on; the day is done—
that alternation was begun

when first the Lord declared aloud
“Let there be light,” and from a cloud

fixed the times and seasons that He
repeats for us punctiliously,

who in our apprehension turn
to Christ to be our lantern: Burn,

kindling faith in us. Starlight
may ornament the skies at night,

and the moon, at times, make our path clear,
But You are our lamp with whom we fear

no evil. With You we have steel
and flint, and oil and wicks. We’d feel

our way in menacing darkness, grope
in apprehension, but for the hope

we have of You.

Indeed, it is not at all clear what the pause after line 12 of Prudentius actually corresponds to in Slavitt’s rendition. To find out what Prudentius said and meant, we turn to the Loeb (or Lavarenne); for versions that could be sung in church, to Sister Eagan or (if in old-fashioned mood) Pope and Davis; but for an understanding of what Prudentius was actually doing himself, we can now turn to Slavitt. Prudentius was not rendering a version of an existing text, as the four translators are; he is a poet meditating on a simple idea with religious ramifications and expressing it in a skilful though simple form; and so is Slavitt.