Prudentius was a genius.
Richard Bentley certainly thought so: he called Prudentius “Christianorum Maro et Flaccus” (20). Prudentius took the most unpromising of topics — the doctrinal details of heresy and orthodoxy, exact modes of martyrdom, politico-religious standoff —and turned them into poetry: not some clattering pastiche of classical metre and Christian themes, not jejune and didactic moral checklists, but real poetry, with a richness of language and thought and imagery all its own.
The Middle Ages saw Prudentius’ genius, and his works circulated widely throughout the period: over 300 manuscripts are extant (as O’Daly points out, 29). In the early print era, too, texts and commentaries on Prudentius proliferated; only in the Enlightenment, it seems, did he start to fall foul of critical taste. Although we have decent twentieth-century editions of the complete opera (O’Daly emphatically prefers Bergman in CSEL  to Cunningham in CCSL ) and a plethora of translations; although a few gallant supporters of his work continue to press his claims on our attention (notably Roberts and Malamud in English, Fontaine, Charlet, and Lavarenne in French, Herzog in German); yet still he seems under-exposed and under-appreciated, and there is no comprehensive modern study of his work.
Gerard O’Daly has just moved us one step closer to that study, with his full, careful appreciation of Prudentius’ twelve-poem cycle, the Cathemerinon. Each poem is printed with a facing-page translation and followed by an interpretative essay. The poems are prefaced by a swift overview of Prudentius’ life, times, and works, with special focus on the work in hand; at the end, there is a couple of crisp and fascinating pages entitled “Afterlife” (another candidate for a full-length study), and a text and translation of the verse Praefatio by Prudentius himself which tells us pretty much all we know about his life.
The poems of the Cathemerinon are cast as a set of hymns—indeed, the metre of the dyads of poems that open and close the collection is that of Ambrose’s enduringly popular hymns, iambic dimeter catalectic. The first six poems beautify the quotidian rhythms of a Christian’s life, with the headings ad galli cantum, hymnus matutinus, ante cibum, and so on through the day; the latter six are more various, with two that mark the beginning and end of fasting, one for the burial of the dead, two for specific liturgical contexts (Christmas and Epiphany), and one all-purpose psalm of praise, hymnus omnis horae. Several of the poems are in lyric metres far more ambitious than the Ambrosian iambics—there is one in Asclepiads (Cath. 5), for example, and even one in Sapphics (Cath. 8)—and their unusual length (they tend to run to 40 or 50 stanzas, as opposed to the conventional Ambrosian eight) is beguiled by their extraordinary richness of language and density of imagery, and by verbal juxtapositions that, as Bentley saw, are particularly reminiscent of Horace.1 In their lyrical fullness, these poems beg to be set to music, and in the Middle Ages, they were; but as far as I know, the only modern adoption is Herbert Howells’ ethereal setting of a few stanzas from Cath. 10, circa exequias defuncti, as an anthem of mourning and repose for President John F. Kennedy.
This raises the question of how the poems of the Cathemerinon were originally supposed to be read. The similar dense artistry and inordinate length of the Peristephanon poems, Prudentius’ cycle celebrating various martyrs, offers the same problem, and Jacques Fontaine argued that these were intended for liturgical use.2 O’Daly does not address the issue directly, but we can infer from various asides that he thinks the Cathemerinon poems were written for private reading and, perhaps, devotional practice; it would be fascinating to read the Cathemerinon in the light of recent work on private worship in late antiquity3 and to speculate further on the context in which they were used.
For that matter, O’Daly does not tell us who his own ideal reader might be, though she seems to be a conventionally-trained classicist who knows very little about late antiquity but is looking to broaden her horizons. The presence of an English translation is no argument against this, for O’Daly insists that this is “an important part of the interpretation of the poems” (36). His interpretative essays, meanwhile, are essentially running commentaries, which occasionally pause over a particularly engaging passage or issue; we are left to ourselves to discern overarching themes.
Despite O’Daly’s sequential approach, some general outlines can be observed. He insists on the quotidian application of all but the last two poems (“Prudentius is concerned above all to remain realistically connected to the everyday”, 73; this also underpins O’Daly’s opposition to paschal readings of Cath. 5). He dislikes grandiose interpretation, especially attempts to discern overarching design in Prudentius as a whole (“The idea of a super-poem is advanced with a dogmatism as relentless as it is unpersuasive by W. Ludwig…”, 17 n. 41). He is suspicious of a search for Grundgedanke, or of anything that might smooth out the complexity of literary and thematic allusion in the poems. At the same time, he seems wary of Prudentius’ technique of dealing with biblical narrative: Prudentius is highly selective, often relying on vivid sensory details, and will even distort the emphasis of a story to support his own effects. In one instance O’Daly observes, perhaps a little anxiously, that a story is “drastically truncated” (309). The sacred status of scripture still casts a long shadow; and yet often what Prudentius is doing is more akin to Pindar playing with the arcana of Greek myths.
One of O’Daly’s most forceful, albeit largely silent, arguments is about Prudentius’ debt to both classical and Christian literature, and the relationship that Prudentius establishes between the two.4 O’Daly gives a very full account of Prudentius’ debt to Virgil and Horace and to biblical intertexts; he barely mentions Lucretius, whose dense and creative use of language leaves a profound mark on Prudentius, even in these lyric poems (the debt is even more noticeable in the hexameter poems). Of Christian literature beyond the bible, Paulinus of Nola gets some play,5 but O’Daly’s principal focus is on Ambrose. This, indeed, signals another argument by stealth: that Prudentius was competing with, and eager to surpass, Ambrose’ achievement in his hymns. That must be why three of Ambrose’ best-known hymns (“Aeterne rerum conditor”, “Deus creator omnium”, and “Intende qui regis Israel”, better known as “Veni redemptor gentium”) are quoted and translated in full, each with its own mini-commentary, in the essays on Cath. 1, 5, and 11 respectively. Of “Deus creator omnium”, O’Daly remarks that Prudentius “explores broader and more complex themes and images” relating to light and darkness (156). At the end of his book, O’Daly tips his hand, writing of Cath. 12, “a subtle and ambitious poem, written in the Ambrosian metre, but a world away from Ambrose’s hymns” (365); the last words of the essay claim that “we are … left with a sense of the poet’s awareness of his own distinctive post-Ambrosian voice in these poems” (380).
This is important, loving, work. O’Daly’s affection for Prudentius suffuses the book. But this ground-breaking gathering of material and sources also points the way for more questions. For example, what are we to make of the stanzas of shattering anti-Jewish polemic into which the poem on Christmas devolves? (Prudentius’ genius, lent to a hateful exercise, makes the vitriol all the worse; there is a similar passage, alas, in his poem against heresies, Apotheosis.) What about the horrendously vivid description of the massacre of the innocents in the middle of the Epiphany poem (the murderer “animas … rimatur novas”)? These passages occur in the final two poems of the cycle; notwithstanding O’Daly’s reluctance to embrace an interpretative arc for the work as a whole, might it be that, starting from the delightful cock-crow that heralds the celebration of the quotidian, Prudentius is walking his readers out to the end of the doctrinal branch, confronting them at the end of the collection with some of the most difficult articles of Christian faith? Might the devotional effect be cumulative? What about the affective properties of the language? Are the typological passages education or illustration or enrichment or all three—or something that is ill-described by any of these? We are now at liberty to think about such things: Gerard O’Daly has nudged us that much further towards giving Prudentius his due.
1. Sidonius Apollinaris saw this too: he writes of the “parilitas dicendi” of Horace and Prudentius in Ep. II.9 (the other couple twinned here is Varro and Augustine).
2. In “Le culte des martyrs militaires et son expression poétique au IVe siècle: l’idéal évangélique de la non-violence dans le christianisme théodosien,” Études sur la poésie latine tardive d’Ausone à Prudence (Paris 1980), 331–61.
3. I am thinking especially of Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2008); in this vein, O’Daly’s essay on Cath. 10, circa exequias defuncti, briefly draws on Eric Rebillard’s work on care of the dead.
4. O’Daly writes, “There is no simple way of describing Prudentius’ relation to the classical writers that influence him. He is steeped in the language and style of the Latin poetic tradition, but at the same time he is a committed Christian writer. This presents no conflict for him” (23, my emphasis: I think O’Daly is absolutely right).
5. And possibly deserves more. O’Daly asks of the word christicola, “did Prudentius coin it?” (249). Probably not: Paulinus of Nola uses the word several times, and, for all the uncertain dating of Prudentius’ poems, Paulinus’ coinage is probably earlier. Another unusual word appears in Cath. 11: pusio is classical, but very rarely used—bar six uses in Prudentius, and seven in Arnobius. A connection worth exploring?