JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


The fourth century of the Christian era, with which we now find ourselves face to face, is in the pagan world a period of criticism. Paganism is making its last struggle; but it is a struggle in death. Still Christianity does not breathe freely enough to possess a poetry of its own. The laureate of Rome in a Christian court is Claudian, who knows Christianity, and still lives a pagan.{1} And though he is saturated with paganism, its poets and myths -- though, like a true Roman, Rome is his idol, and he therefore has occasionally faint glimpses of genuine poetic inspiration -- he is still but a panegyrist.

In contrast with the servile spirit of Claudian stands forth Prudentius (348-424). He loves Rome with a Roman's passionate love. Rome is the golden city -- which he would see free from every blot and stain. He would have her rise above her former greatness by becoming thoroughly Christian "May all the members of her empire unite in the same creed. The world has bowed; may its sovereign city bow."{2} After having fulfilled positions of honor and trust in the Empire, he retires from public life and devotes himself to the writing of poems, the sweetness and freshness of which still please. He is possessed of the truly Christian spirit. His later life is one of simplicity; his thoughts are all for religion; his pen is consecrated to her praise and her defence. He sings the triumphs of her martyrs.{3} He defends her mysteries and her doctrines with eloquence. Paganism is making a dying struggle, and a movement is set on foot to restore in Rome the altar dedicated to Victory. Prudentius opposes it in ringing verses from which fly sparks of the zeal and devotedness that glow within his heart. Therein also does he exhort Honorius to abolish the bloody games which were then being held, as a disgrace to Rome.{4} His whole life is a hymn of praise and prayer to God. The hours of the day and the feasts of the year inspire him with fresh songs. A hymn consecrates each action. When rising at early dawn he sings; when retiring to bed he sings; when about to eat, he sings; when he has finished his meal, he sings.{5} He is the poet of the Christian day and the Christian year. His sweet accents have been added to the chorus of praise and prayer which the Church sends up daily.{6}

{1} As the following epigram shows. Jacobus, a Christian and a military prefect, disapproves of his poetry, and he makes mocking allusions to saints of the New Testament and the Old:

Per cincres Pauli, per cani limina Petri,
  Ne laceres versus, dux Jacobe, meos:
Sic tua pro clypeo sustentet pectora Thomas,
  Et comes ad bellum Bartholomoeus eat:
Sic ope sanctorum, non barbarus irruat Alpes:
  Sic tibi det vires sancta Susanna suas . . . .
Sic nunquam hostili maculetur sanguine dextra.
  Ne laceres versus, dux Jacobe, meos.
-- EPIG. 27.

{2} Peristephanon, 439-440.

{3} See his beautiful hymn in honor of St. Agnes. Peristephanon, xiv.

{4} Contra Symmach. ii. 1114, et seq.

{5} Cathemerinon Hymn. i.-xii.

{6} Seven hymns in the Roman Breviary are from the pen of Prudentius.

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