Although you be, as I am, one of those Who feel a Christian ought to write in prose, For poetry is magic: born in sin, you May read it to exorcise the gentile in you.
Die dichterische Darstellung war gleichsam nur eine noch weitere Steigerung der Form, ohne daß der Gehalt dadurch ein wesentlich anderer wurde.
("The poetic presentation was practically only a further elaboration of the form, without the content thus being changed in a significant way".)
These two quotations reflect two fundamental criticisms uttered from Late Antiquity onwards about the deficient nature of Christian poetry per se:3 first, it was accused of being sinful, that is, standing in the pagan tradition of poetry telling myths that are fictitious and therefore essentially telling lies; it was thus regarded as spoiling the character of the reader. Secondly, the often periphrastic nature of such poems which either paraphrased parts of the Bible and/or other Christian prose works caused them to be viewed as tedious pieces of writing lacking originality and being in some ways rather non-conformist in terms of classical ideas, culminating in the damning verdict by the notable scholar E.R. Curtius of Christian epic as a genre faux.4 This formed the starting point for gathering an international team of scholars from the disciplines of Classics, Theology, Cultural Studies, and History to ana
1 W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. by E. Mendelson, London 1991, XXXI.
2 E. Dummler, Sigebert's von Gembloux Passio Sanctorum Thebeorum, Abh. d. Kgl. Akad. d. Wiss. zu Berlin, Phil.-hist. Klasse 1, Berlin 1893, 9.
4 E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 642. However, there have always been voices that defended Christian poetry (see Westra in this volume) and who claimed a naturally close relationship between the language and expressions of the lyze the wide range of exegetical techniques employed in Latin poetry, in a conference hosted in the ideal surroundings at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in June 2004. A selection of the papers presented there and two new ones, by Vessey and Chiappiniello, form the content of this volume.
The collected contributions intend to argue against Dummler, Cur-tius and others that Christian poetry with its techniques of exegesis and poetic paraphrase did not only bring about a variation of the form but also influenced, partly substantially, the content of the hypotext. They will also take up the challenge posed by Auden that such poetry could, because of its 'magical' qualities, have a stronger protreptic effect than its equivalent prose version. Exegesis involves translating ancient texts (once established) into the desired modern 'receptor language'. It is essentially an analytical and derivative method; for instance, the assumed existence or recognition of a metaphor would lead to its resolution to reveal the hidden meaning beneath it. Poetry uses modes of language deemed adequate to communicate particular views and feelings. It is of a fundamentally synthesizing and original nature; e.g. the use of metaphor, as the very essence of poetry, conveys the quality of the experience behind it.
Especially in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages forms of poetry can be found that incorporate exegetical methods and interpretations as a substantial part of their poetical message, thus adding a potentially heterogeneous quality to it and establishing a specific nature for this genre. Especially in more recent times the condemning judgment of E.R. Curtius about Christian poetry as a generally misconceived genre has been refuted. But despite various thorough and ingenious publications on Christian poetry, partly on a more comprehensive level and partly offering detailed analysis of individual works, there remains still a lot to do in this relatively under-researched area. This is even more the case for the Middle Ages than for Late Antiquity and, to a lesser extent, applies to the pagan poetry of Late Antiquity as well. This volume intends to contribute to this still relatively neglected area of scholarly activity, launching serious research in a new field that invites the combination of traditionally rather separate disciplines (Christian exegesis, poetic theory and interpretation, classical philology).
Bible and of poetry, especially in the Renaissance, see J. Dyck, Athen und Jerusalem. Die Tradition der argumentativen Verknüpfung von Bibel und Poesie im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert (Munich 1977) 35-41.
To get a wider view of the development and possibilities of the genre, the chosen period ranges from the very beginning of Late Antique poetry at the end of the third century up to the heyday of medieval literature around 1200. The genre of poetry is intentionally conceived in a wide sense as all forms of literature in verse-form. By comparing and contrasting the analytical approach involved in exegesis with the more synthetic approach of poetry, the focus of the contributions will be on the wide range of exegetical techniques as employed in Latin poetry; Greek is occasionally considered by way of comparison with such techniques in Latin poetry. These comprise the interpretative integration of pagan and Christian material, the poetic usage or adaptation of exegetical statements and principles taken from prose treatises or the direct versification of exegetical material as such. Moreover, an important question is whether and, if yes, how poetry added a distinctive level of exegetical sophistication to interpretative possibilities in general, making use of specific poetic possibilities, like the exploitation of allegorical imagery, the blurring of realities, the mix of the fantastic and antiquarian knowledge, the possibility of conflating various exegetical results in one dense poetic statement that is only really understandable if one knows its extensive learned background, etc. Besides the consideration of the intellectual, cultural and social contexts of this poetry that may help to understand specific forms of interpretation employed by it, another investigative criterion for the contributions is that of transformation—either the poetic transformation of earlier pagan and / or Christian material in a given poem, or, especially, the transformation of exegetical modes and mechanisms in poetry from late Antiquity to the Middle Ages.
The contributions consider a topic within the frame of this theme as outlined above; theoretical reflections or the analysis of other exegetical modes in poetry are taken into account (especially in Part II of the volume), though generally a demonstration in specific poetic texts is included. The impact of ecclesiastical writers like Augustine on later poetical aesthetics, both in theory and in practice, is an integrative part of the argumentation. A few essays reflect on the continuity and change of the poetic genre from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages in this context.
The first part of the volume gathers three articles with a predominantly theoretical focus, that is, how Christians in Late Antiquity responded to the newly rising literary genre of specifically Christian poetry. Westra, by focusing mainly on Augustine, highlights the ambiva lent attitude of Christians towards this genre, whose claim of being inspired, creative and pleasurable they found partly hard to reconcile with the tenets of their faith, whereas on the other hand the cognitive and edifying pleasure of poetic exegesis found acceptance. Vessey, in an attempt to complement Westra, highlights a more intellectual side of Christian poetry. Pranger, on the other hand, points out the semantic proximity between Ambrose's poetry and Augustine's prose which overcomes their differences as established along disciplinary lines. He traces the origin of their similarity to a kind of underlying liturgical awareness of the aporias of temporality and recollection.
The central and largest part of the volume deals with individual case studies which are roughly chronologically arranged. Green tackles the earliest biblical epicist, Iuvencus, whose seemingly plain paraphrase of the gospels reveals under close inspection clear exegetical principles informed by Nicene theology. For Iuvencus the text of the gospels is not as important as their dogmatically correct exegesis which he mainly achieves by a technique of omission. This is facilitated by the versification of the biblical text enabling the poet to pass over in silence disapproved heretical exegesis. Den Boeft in his analysis of works by Ambrose emphasizes a position which goes against that of Augustine and Jerome (see Part II): Ambrose regarded delectatio ('pleasure') as something cosmologically good, created by God. Therefore, by analogy, lyrical and epideictic delectatio was also permissible, even and especially for a Christian, as Ambrose's own successful and innovative output in this area amply demonstrates. Chiappiniello looks at the genre of the 'epithalamium', firmly established in the pagan tradition, and how it gets transformed and spiritualized in a Christian setting. Main features are the close preservation of formal aspects, and the revolution in content which spiritualizes the secular institution of marriage against an ideal of asceticism that is strictly speaking meant to undermine this institution altogether. Hoffmann explores another exegetical technique specifically facilitated by a poetic paraphrase of the biblical text, in his case parts of the Old Testament. By cunningly juxtaposing selected stories from the Old and New Testaments the connection between these two parts of the Bible is didactically made evident and the demands of exegesis inform and dictate the narrative plan. Arweiler uses Dracontius to demonstrate his highly personal exegesis which he makes clear throughout his poetry with his authorial voice. Tommasi Moreschini concentrates on the basically black-and-white ideology of
Corippus which is achieved by the poetic devices of style, imagery and similes. Herren puts the Ecloga Theoduli into its tradition of the bucolic eristic poem which is used here to prove the moral superiority of Christianity over pagan mythological thought. The choice of pagan and Christian parallels reveals implicitly the authorial stance. Smolak analyses various poetic techniques in the Eupolemius, demonstrating that pagan and Christian traditions are poetically on the same level, but not theologically. As in the case of the Ecloga Theoduli, the pagan tradition is still alive but used against its original ideological vein. Otten, finally, probes the stable quality of medieval Christian exegesis. Rather than denigrating it as premodern or freezing it in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, she sees it as the perfect background allowing creative minds like Peter Abelard's to go against the grain of traditional patterns of interpretation and perform their own actualization of biblical drama.
The final part of the volume is dedicated to investigations which attempt to bridge poetic forms and their development from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Bastiaensen offers an overview over the development of poetic forms used in liturgy and concludes that the combination of the poetry of the Bible and the pagan tradition engendered the Christian poetry of prayer, innovatively ranging across various traditional poetic forms. Müller highlights the conundrum that only the Middle Ages seem to know longer speeches for saints embedded in Christian epics. She suggests as a reason for this that in Late Antiquity the Christian epics as a whole had the function of an Ersatz sermon, so that a speech within those epics would have meant an unwelcome reduplication. In the Middle Ages the liturgical place of the poem became more established, so that speeches could now be integrated in an inoffensive manner. Pollmann follows the various poetic paraphrases of the prose Passio of the Theban legion from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. She concludes that at least in this case an astonishing stability and continuation of pagan forms can be observed. However regarding the function (or Sitz im Leben) of these poets, their pragmatic intention becomes increasingly visible: from elegant advert of a relic finding at the Cathedral of Tours via political advice to a leading aristocratic figure of Carolingian society to the grand declaration of a monastery as a must-see for any self-respecting medieval pilgrim. Dinkova-Bruun offers a magisterial overview of the development of the genre of biblical versifications from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages, including also unedited MSS material. As differentiating characteristics marking the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages she identifies the different choice of metre, the increase in the poems' lengths, the obligatory combination of paraphrases from the Old and the New Testament, universal themes, the expansion of the material with non-biblical and also contemporary material, grandeur and confidence in the poet's attitude. Generally the poetic mode allowed for improved mnemotechnic effects, facilitated the incorporation of diverse learned material, allowed for new ways of presenting biblical stories and finding new meanings in them.
As a conclusion, several specific points of interest may be extrapolated as common results pertaining to all contributions in this volume. There appears to exist a remarkable difference between the handling of Christian and pagan motifs in early Christian and medieval literature, with early Christian authors more concerned about making clear that Christian themes are equally worthy of poetic treatment as pagan topics, and medieval authors various centuries later becoming interested afresh in pagan motifs, coming at them with open eyes and minds, while bringing in creative ideas from a thoroughly Christian(ized) background. The question should be asked how this general point influences the evaluation of individual poems and the appreciation of the use of the poetic genre inside the world of Christian culture.
Then there appears to be considerable difference and tension between poetic aesthetics and Christian ethics. This brings up the question when poetry threatens to become idle allegory, and what kind of ornamentation Christian literature can tolerate at all before it loses its required didactic value? While it is clear that many poets long for the freedom of their trade, it is at the same time clear that they struggle at the same time with the (poetic) license that it seems to afford them, finding it difficult to fit this in with the straightjacket that doctrinal orthodoxy perhaps increasingly presents. Throughout all this it is clear that a crucial role is played by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in shaping the view of poetry as something inherently dangerous for Christians, and not quite up to the task of moral instruction which is central in his view of Christian culture, both of which points he formulates theoretically in his hermeneutical textbook of De doctrina christiana. Contrary to this position in which Augustine is seen as hampering the development of Christian poetry (as opposed to, for instance, Prudentius), however, it can also be argued that Augustine had an enormously liberating effect on ancient literature in the sense that he allowed Christian authors a new freedom to move outside the bounds of classical style, taste, and conventions. In doing so Augustine opened the door to the development of various new genres of medieval literature, allowing for various cross-influences as well.
Utrecht, W.O. St. Andrews, K.P. December 2006
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