A Poetics of Transformation

A Poetics of Transformation: Prudentius and Classical Mythology

Martha A. Malamud
Volume: 49
Copyright Date: 1989
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 206
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  • Book Info
    A Poetics of Transformation
    Book Description:

    Martha A. Malamud here examines conflicting cultural, religious, and literary codes in the work of Prudentius (348-post 405), perhaps the most influential poet of Late Antiquity. Breaking new ground, Malamud illuminates Prudentius' use of paradigms from classical mythology and suggests that his poetry constitutes both an analysis and a critique of the Christianity of his day.

    A Poetics of Transformation begins with a discussion of the characteristic techniques and ideas of the poetry of Late Antiquity: abstract formalism, systematic allusion, and both etymological and anagrammatic wordplay. Malamud considers both the traditional techniques of classical poetry and the more radical experimentation evident in the work of Prudentius' contemporaries. Focusing on three poems in the Peristephanon, hymns to the Christian martyrs Hippolytus, Agnes, and Cyprian, Malamud treats some key aspects of Prudentius' work: his shaping of narratives according to what she characterizes as a semantic determinism; his treatment of conflicting historical accounts as if they were mythical variants; and the congruences of his narratives to patterns of classical mythology. She demonstrates that much of what in Prudentius' work appears to conform to Christian doctrine can, in fact, be traced to models in classical literature and mythology. Malamud finds, for example, that the Greek hero Hippolytus and the image of the labyrinth haunt Prudentius' account of St. Hippolytus, and that his hymn to St. Agnes is shaped by the myth of Romulus and Remus.

    Challenging generally accepted notions of the nature and function of Christian poetry, Malamud's book sheds light on the ways in which educated Romans of the fourth century perceived the intellectual and spiritual struggle between Christianity and classical culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6689-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Martha A. Malamud
  4. Note on Texts Used
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Words run amok in the work of Prudentius. He is beyond baroque. Readers of Latin unfamiliar with the literature of Late Antiquity who pick up the Peristephanon or the Psychomachia expecting to find the work of a Christian Horace or Vergil (labels frequently attached to Prudentius by despairing critics) are in for a rude awakening. For his poetry is far from classical in the conventional sense, and though it is certainly Christian in subject matter, it offers a vision of a Christian universe that is almost unrecognizable to modern readers. The imagery of his poetry is troubling. As we read,...

  7. 1 Backgrounds
    (pp. 13-26)

    Prudentius appears from time to time as a character in his poems, and he has left us an autobiographical preface, perhaps to an edition of his collected works.¹ But the preface is, in its way, curiously uninformative, more a Horatian meditation on the passage of time than a self-portrait. From it we learn some facts, which we can put together with details from the other poems to come up with a rough sketch of Prudentius’ life, but we get very little idea of the man himself.²

    Certain facts are known. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens was born in Spain, probably in the...

  8. 2 Word Games
    (pp. 27-46)

    The extent to which classical poets depended on puns and etymological wordplay has received some discussion recently, most notably by Jane Snyder in her book Puns and Poetry in Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” and by Frederick M. Ahl in his Metaformations.¹ Prudentius and most of his poetic contemporaries were particularly fond of wordplay and adept in various sorts of verbal manipulations. For the reader unfamiliar with this aspect of Latin verse, I begin this chapter with a brief discussion of this sort of wordplay in Lucretius and in Vergil.

    Lucretius is, in many ways, the easiest of the Latin poets...

  9. 3 Words at War
    (pp. 47-78)

    Prudentius’ younger contemporary Claudian appears superficially to have been everything Prudentius was not. They were from different parts of the empire—Prudentius from Spain, Claudian from Alexandria. Prudentius was a Latin speaker from a province with a proud literary heritage; Claudian was not a native Latin speaker and composed a number of poems in Greek. Prudentius wrote poetry on Christian subjects, Claudian on traditional pagan themes, such as his unfinished short epic, De raptu Proserpinae. Claudian’s poetry relies heavily on the traditional apparatus of mythology, while Prudentius (not surprisingly for a poet who writes on Christian themes) eliminated the pagan...

  10. 4 A Mythical Martyr
    (pp. 79-114)

    The Psychomachia is a world deliberately removed from history, its characters abstract and its geography vague. Prudentius stripped away all but the most essential underpinnings from the poem, and as a result the Psychomachia is in some ways the most easily comprehensible of all his poems, for it is the one in which he is most explicit about his manipulation of language. The world of the Peristephanon is very different and far more complex. In it Prudentius makes an audacious attempt to demonstrate the interpenetration of pagan mythology and Christian cult. The more closely his martyrs are examined, the less...

  11. 5 Dubious Distinctions
    (pp. 115-148)

    Peristephanon 13 recounts the martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage and his followers, known collectively as the Candida Massa. In it Prudentius explores the relationship between martyrdom, suicide, sterility, and love. He takes us through the maze he has built out of legends and literary allusions into the dark heart of Rome’s ancient enemy, Carthage, showing us a saint of great and somewhat sinister seductive charm.

    The Cyprian in Prudentius’ poem bears little resemblance to the historical bishop and martyr. Prudentius, whether deliberately or because the traditions were already confused, has conflated Cyprian of Carthage with a character from a popular...

  12. 6 Saint Agnes and the Chaste Tree
    (pp. 149-180)

    Peristephanon 13, the martyrdom of Cyprian, has as its mythical-historic background the foundation myth of Carthage: the suicide of Dido and the Phoenician custom of infant sacrifice. Peristephanon 14, in many ways a counterpoint to the Cyprian poem, has as its subtext the foundation myth of Rome: the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus to the Vestal Virgin, their exposure after birth, and their adoption by the friendly she-wolf who nurtured them. In this chapter we will explore the associations between Agnes, the virgin martyr, and certain aspects of the Romulus myth, but first we will examine the emphasis...

  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 181-188)
  14. Index of Passages Quoted
    (pp. 189-190)
  15. General Index
    (pp. 191-192)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-194)