Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 55-59.
Hymns of Prudentius: The Cathemerinon; or, The Daily Round. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Johns Hopkins University Press. 80 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by Laurance Wieder
The fourth-century Latin poet and father of the Church, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, has always had an audience. Incorporated into the Catholic breviary, his hymns have enjoyed a respectful if sometimes uncomprehending audience for over fifteen centuries. He was widely read as a Christian poet well into the eighteenth century, and his work provided a model for many English poets engaged by religious themes. "Intrat pectora candidus pudica, / quae templi vice consecrata rident / postquam conbiberint Deum medullis," he wrote in his "Hymn After Meat." ("In His purity He enters chaste hearts, which are consecrated as His temple, smiling brightly when they have drunk deep of God," as H. J. Thomson renders it in his Loeb Library translation.) John Milton echoes these lines in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, when he requests inspiration from "chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all other Temples thí upright heart and pure."
Somewhere along the line, however, Prudentius seems to have disappeared from the view of poets writing in English. There hasnít been an important translation of his work in many years, and I took up this new, rhymed version of Prudentius by David Slavittócoeditor of The Complete Roman Drama in Translation and translator of Ovid, Virgil, Seneca, and the Psalmsówanting very much to like it. Hereís how Slavitt, who describes himself as "a skeptical Jewish aesthete of the late twentieth century," translates the same passage from the "Hymn After Meat":
Into the bosomís temple of
who keep his image
He enters, but departs
should there be any taint of
sin. . . .
Prudentius may have his limitations as a poet, but what is the point of rendering his work in this faint English doggerel? Besides The Daily Round, which Slavitt has translated, Prudentius wrote a number of other poems, including Psychomachia, an allegorical epic about spiritual warfare. Though no one would mistake Prudentius for Virgil or Dante, his poems have their admirers, even among contemporary scholars. He was among the first poets to combine classical forms and Christian faith. He has flashes of intense visual imagination, as in his Sixth Hymn, where the Last Judgment is dreamed as a carefully composed fresco.
More sustained than his vision of judgment is his statement of Christian faith and doctrine in verse. Prudentius is, first and last, a believer: "With voice at least let my soul honor God, if with good deeds she cannot," he declares in his own preface. "With hymns let her link the days together, and no night pass without singing of her Lord. Let her fight against heresies, expound the Catholic faith, trample on the rites of the heathen, strike down thy idols, O Rome, devote song to the martyrs, and praise the apostles."
David Slavitt, his new translator, however, is a man declining to believe. Reading the Hymns of Prudentius "purely as a connoisseur, which, of course, involves my looking at them as if," Slavitt declares in his introduction that he can "pretend to a faith that even to a skeptic is comforting and nourishing." Heís right, of course, that the willing suspension of disbelief is a necessary condition of literature. But suspension of disbelief is not the same as lack of conviction, which is the stuff of life to both the poetic and the religious imagination. Take away conviction and what remains is bare pretense.
As a translator of Latin hymns, Slavitt hopes "that purity of heart will somehow help" resolve the complex, paradoxical needs of "talent, intelligence, sophistication, and erudition," placed in the service of "honesty and innocence." His way is the way of poetry rather than of religion. It was not Prudentiusí way, but that doesnít necessarily mean Slavitt is wrong. It does mean, however, that he must stand on his own "purity of heart." The only fair question to ask of Slavittís version is, Just how faithful is the translator to his own as if?
For the religious poet, poems are the practical embodiment of a spiritual life. Criticism canít come to grips with good poetry by talking only about the craft of the poetry; the poems themselves draw the critic into discussions of life and the world. The first limitations a poem betrays are technical, the poetís failure to master his craft. But in the presence of technical mastery, the poemís limitations become personal, human, the poetís coming to the ends of his understanding of the living world. The quality and dimension of what he knows distinguishes the major poet from the minor one. Milton appears enormous by this light. William Shakespeare the person is unimaginable.
It was in exploring an oblique connection with John Milton that I first picked up Slavittís translation of Prudentiusí fourth hymn (which Slavitt calls "The Hymn After Meals"). His translation begins in a measure common to "When the Frost is on the Punkin" and "The Lobster Quadrille," as well as to numerous psalms and hymns by Christopher Smart:
Now that we have nourished
let us likewise feed our souls
and set these mouths that chew
to other, more important
It would have been shrewd to follow Smartís lead in englishing Prudentiusí Catholic hymnal. However zealous he may have been, Christopher Smart understood what poetry had to do to escape literary confinement. Smartís right rhymes and regular meters proclaim the rightness of his heart and the regularity of his selfless fervor. For his part, David Slavitt keeps the beat for only sixteen lines. When he arrives at "the bosomís temple," Slavittís God
enters, but departs forthwith
should there be any taint of
to offend him. He has made
for body and for spirit, too.
The moderation at the table
we practice will at once
the soulís robustness and
the flesh, its vessel. Thus,
kept Daniel in that den of lions
safe from their cruel jaws.
he had, but only faith: he
bow to the idols of Babylon.
The lions nuzzle him, purr like
lick his outstretched hand,
The poet betrays his own meter, for what? Meter only matters as an agency of meaning. When Falstaff says, "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow," the twelve syllables of the line each sound a chime. When Milton begins his epic Paradise Lost, "Of Manís First Disobedience, and the Fruit," he violates the iambic pentameteróthe sole rule of his blank verseówith the word "Disobedience" in the very first line. Such lines fuse the physical with the ethical and the aesthetic, and their measures and their meanings correspond.
Lack of religious commitment may not be a crime in a poet, but a poet has to believe in something for his poetry to gain assent, the willing suspension. Given the way he handles rhyme and meter, I donít think David Slavitt even believes in poetry. The urbane surface of his introductory prose canít hide the vacancy of his aesthetic pose. This agnosticism, where the poet systematically undermines his own forms, removes the cornerstone from every edifice he builds.
Take this sonnetís worth from the sixth hymn, the "Hymn Before Sleep":
The tasks of the day are
finished at last. To refresh
my tired limbs, I lay me down.
unfurrows, as my mind lets
and I commence to float on
I think of the Lordís mercy,
for repair of our wearying,
wearisome bodies that
designed to soar as our minds
can do in flights
not unlike angelsí arabesques,
when we take
the heavenly view of dreams,
which is why our nights
can be far brighter than what
we know, awake,
as if the dome of the skies had
and we, transfixed in the
could see the truth of our lives.
We are terrified
or else encouraged by what
weíve confronted there.
This is simply unpersuasive, and nowhere near as good as the nursery rhyme prayer "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep." Slavitt forces me to pay attention to him, rather than to Prudentius or to the Latin poetís matter. There is a pleasure in literary peek-a-boo, but devotional works just plain fail when the writer comes between the worshiper and the object of devotion. Thatís what makes the notion of "the Bible as Literature" trivializing. I even have a problem with "Literature as Literature": Reading King Lear, I donít think about Shakespeare; reading Paradise Lost, my eye is not on Milton, but the creation.
In "A Memorable Fancy," William Blake recorded a dinner conversation in which he asked the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, "Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?" The prophet replied, "All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything." Prudentius was at least capable of a firm persuasion. Unfortunately, his new translator is not.
Laurance Wieder is a poet and writer.