Excerpt from: Sedulius, Carmen Paschale,
"The Easter Song" (c. 430 A.D.) Book IV, lines 234f
Last Updated: Feb 15, 2009
SEDULIUS, COELIUS or Caelius (a praenomen of doubtful authenticity), a Christian poet of the first half of the 5th century, is termed a presbyter by Isidore of Seville and in the Gelasian Decree.
(He must not be confused with Sedulius the Irish-Scot grammarian of the 9th century).
His fame rests mainly upon a long poem, Carmen Paschale, based on the four gospels. In style a bombastic imitator of Virgil, he shows, nevertheless, a certain freedom in the handling of the Biblical story, and the poem soon became a quarry for the minor poets.
A hymn by Sedulius in honour of Christ, consisting of twenty-three quatrains of iambic dimeters, has partly passed into the liturgy, the first seven quatrains forming the Christmas hymn A solis ortus cardine, and some later ones the Epiphany hymn, Hostis Herodes impie. A Veteris et novi Testamenti collatio in elegiac couplets has also come down, but we have Rio grounds for ascribing to him the Virgilian cento, De verbi incarnatione.
Sedulius's works were edited by F. Arevalo (Rome, 1794), reprinted in J. P. Migne's Patrol. Lat. vol. xix.; and finally by J. Huemer (Vienna, 1885). See J. Huemer, De Sedulii poetae vita et scriptis commentatio (Vienna, 1878); M. Manitius, Geschichte der christlich-lateinischen Poesie (Stuttgart, 1891); Teuffel-Schwabe, Hist. of Roman Lit. (Eng. trans.), 473; Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie, xviii. (Leipzig, 1906); Smith and Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography (1887).
- 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
All our information regarding his personal history comes from two sources. Isidore of Seville in his "De viris illustribus" assigns Sedulius the seventh place, before Possidius, while Avitus and Dracontius have respectively the twenty-third and twenty-fourth places.
On the other hand, some manuscripts of Sedulius contain a biographical notice which may have been written by Gennadius. This account represents Sedulius as a Layman, who lived at first in Italy and was devoted to the study of philosophy; consequently he probably wrote his works in Achaia during the reign of Theodosius II the Younger (reigned 408-450 A.D.) and of Valentinian III (reigned 425-455 A.D.).
The Carmen Paschale
The principal work of Sedulius is a poem in five books called Carmen Paschale. The first book contains a summary of the Old Testament; the four others a summary of the New Testament. A prose introduction dedicates the work to a priest named Macedonius. The author says that he had given himself at first to secular studies and to the "barren diversions" of secular poetry.
The poem is skilfully written and is more original than that of Juvencus. Sedulius takes for granted a knowledge of the story of the Gospels, and this enables him to treat his subject more freely. He gives his attention chiefly to the thoughts and sentiments which wouldnaturally arise from meditations on the sacred writings. He pays, however, less care to uniting the various parts and making of them a coherent recital.
He follows usually theGospel of St. Matthew. His ordinary method of exegesis consists of allegory and symbolism. Thus the four Evangelists correspond to the four seasons, the twelve Apostles to the twelve hours of the day and the twelve months, the four arms of the cross to the four cardinal points.
The style is a skilful imitation and shows evidences of an extensive reading of Terence, Tibullus, Ovid, Lucan, and above all of Virgil.
At times the rhetoric is unfortunately influenced by what he has read, as in the ten lines (V, 59-68) of invective against Judas.
The Opus Paschale
It is, however, in the prose paraphrase of the "Carmen", the Opus Paschale, that the most unfortunate impression is produced. In the poem the language of Sedulius is dignified and almost classic, in the prose version it becomes diffuse, pretentious, and incorrect.
The prose version, the Opus Paschale was written at the request of the priest Macedonius in order, as it appears, to fill up the gaps of the poem. Facts scarcely indicated in the "Carmen" are treated at length in the "Opus", and the expressions borrowed from the Bible give the work a more ecclesiastical character.
Sedulius also wrote two hymns. ...
- Catholic Encyclopedia, Sedulius
The Writing of Carmen Paschale
The following is taken from the Introduction to The Easter Song by Sedulius transl. by George Sigerson (London 1922)- p 59-64
"St. Ambrose was still a living centre of influence when Sedulius reached Italy, and his works with those of Augustine and Jerome had rapidly built up a new literature. It was no longer so difficult for a classical scholar to become a Christian. It may, however, be assumed that the state of the Schools had varied little, and that, in Augustine's story we have what Sedulius might have said, with this difference, that he did not become a Manichaean.
He [Sedulius] taught philosophy in Italy, and appears to have given special attention to poetry. Macedonius [his Bishop] was his 'Ambrose'. Some suppose that Macedonius baptized him a Christian, but that is uncertain.
What is certain is that this revered friend, having apparently some position of eminence either as Bishop or as Abbot, invited Sedulius to Greece, and that Sedulius followed his counsel, established a School there -- no doubt, at Athens. It appears to have been especially renowned for the instruction given in the art of poetry: in this it differs from the rhetorical and philosophical Schools of Rome, and indicates the influence of Irish bards.
The new Eastern Empire was responsible for this revival. Three score years before, Julian the Apostate had attempted to re-build the walls of Jerusalem, and when we are told that Sedulius travelled in Asia it can scarcely be doubted that he made his way to that Holy City and the land of wondrous history around it.
He was the first pilgrim from Ireland, if not the first Jerusalem-farer from Western Europe. Life must have been more marvellous to him than one can readily conceive. Born amidst the seas, his youth spent with nature, and the aerial wonder-world of Gaelic myths he passes through stately portals into the sculptured literature of Rome and Greece - the loftiest effort of disciplined art - and then beyond this, and beyond all human things, into the sacred Orient land where, at every step, he finds memories of Divine Mysteries and hears the song of angels from the azure sky.
He pondered these matters in his heart. His ardent mind and enthusiastic nature impelled him to achieve something for his faith. Whatever his personal ambition had been, his position satisfied it. To a man of culture it must have seemed little to be set on a throne by the swords of sordid men, as culprits had been, but it was a high thing for him-a stranger from far-off Thule - to be called to teach the art and measures of poetry in the very fatherland of classic verse in the homestead of Homer!
Everything - his former fame, his present surroundings, the welcome he was sure to win-seemed to command him to continue in the ways of the great masters. But the new Christianity had touched and taken his heart; his impassioned spirit left him no rest until he had essayed to do for the True Faith what others had done for the false. The very success he had obtained would make him feel a dastard if he shrank now from devoting his acknowledged talents to divine things.
This purpose could only be entertained by a mind as original, independent, and adventurous as it was sincere. What other could conceive a revolt against the suzerainty of Homer, whose imperial sceptre has such control even now that every day tribute is brought to his feet by scholars and statesmen, proud to be his subjects? Thus came the Carmen Paschale - the "Easter Song" of the world-whose very name is a poem.
Sedulius was conscious that his work would be regarded as an audacious innovation. The fact that Juvencus (c. 340) had already produced a metrical Christian work (poem) was calculated rather to deter than to encourage, for it was little more than a versified narration of Scripture-history. It encumbered the ground, but did not occupy it. Students accustomed to the winged ways of pagan verse would not travel in its low levels.
To this subject, however, our poet does not directly refer, whilst introducing his own work to his dear old friend Macedonius. For, fortunately, we hear him still, as he excuses his boldness and explains its cause, in a grave and charming dedication. His prose style is somewhat involved, but its very elaboration adds a piquancy to the gentle humour and kindly badinage addressed to his friend. It is unnecessary and it were too long to insert a translation here where a summary may suffice to show the author's ideas:
Addressing Macedonius, our poet says, in substance,
"Before you judge, Venerable Father, and perhaps condemn me for this work, since I launch a tiro's skiff on an ocean feared by mariners, let me explain. Then if you find me not presuming but devoted, you may give it a harbour in your heart, safe from shipwreck.
Whilst engaged in secular studies I gave the energies of an eager intellect to an empty life and my literary skill to fruitless labour.
The divine compassion overtook me: When the cloud had passed from the eyes of my heart, I found myself in a land of flowers, and my whole mind was dedicated to God's worship. Not indeed that I was fit for the work, but Christ's yoke is light, and silence were a fault if the service of a studious mind which I had offered to Vanity I should refuse to Truth. Some little fire was supposed to glow in me, yet the torpid heart was a flint, barely emitted a spark. Even that gift it were wrong not to share, like him who kept his talent hid.
So, with many and anxious fears I laid the foundations of this work, feeling that, whilst calling others to the harvest in the words of truth, their echoes would reach and remind me too, if needful.
Why I chose a metrical form is simply said: You know how rarely sacred things are moulded in verse, yet there are many who, in secular studies most delight in poetry and the pleasures of song. They follow Rhetoric negligently, caring nothing for it, but should they see something in the caress of honeyed verse they catch it up so eagerly that they grave it deep in memory by frequent iteration.
Such habits should not, I think, be discouraged, but used so that one may be drawn naturally and won to God by the bent of his mind.
These then are the reasons, eminent Father, and not over-empty, as you have said, for my work, to which, out of kindness, you may turn, of a leisure hour. The eagle does not always soar aloft above the clouds, but sometimes with closed pinions descends to earth. The veteran warrior sometimes puts aside his arms and enjoys a game."
So far Sedulius explains the origin of his great work: Then he comes to the dedication. ...'
- from The Easter Song by Sedulius
transl. by George Sigerson (London 1922)- p 59-64
Commentary on Book IV from Sigerson
Throughout the Fourth Book, the poet continues his narration of the miracles, partly told in the Third Book. The begins with a scene beside the Jordan and concludes with the entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem, amid the acclamations of the people. ...
"...The incident of the Samaritan woman who, drawing water from the well, gave Christ to drink, suggests that He is the true Fountain of the Waters of Life. The case of the Woman taken in Adultery is told in the simple language of the evangelist.
The sightless eyes of one who was born blind, his Redeemer anointed with the native clay and bade him wash in the pool of Siloam, and he beholds the day. ..."
- The Easter Song by Sedulius
transl. by George Sigerson (London 1922)- p 120-124
We offer here the untranslated Latin text of the relevant section. Latin poetry is beyond our own personal skills to translate effectively. Perhaps someone could volunteer to do this for us, and we would place an English translation alongside it.
BOOK IV (lines 235-270)
"... Dumque sui media residens testudine templi Ore tonans patrio directi ad pervia callis Errantem populum monitis convertit amicis, 235 Ecce trahebatur magna stipante caterva Ecce trahebatur magna stipante caterva Turpis adulterii mulier lapidanda reatu, Quam Pharisaea manus placido sub iudice sistens Cum damnare parat, plus liberat; omnibus illis Nam simul e turbis proprie sine crimine nullus 240 Accusator erat, saxum qui missile primus Sumeret obscenae feriens contagia moechae. Nec poterat quisquam fistucam vellere parvam Ex oculo alterius, proprio qui lumine grandem Sciret inesse trabem. profugus sic ille recessit 245 Impetus et clemens donat sententia culpam, Iam non peccandi sub condicione solutam. Nam vomitum quicumque suum canis ore relambit, Nec veterem studet hic veniam nec habere futuram, Huius damna tenens, huius conpendia perdens. 250 Inde means genitum cernit considere caecum, Qui male praegnantis dilapsus ventre parentis In lucem sine luce ruit. tunc sanguinis ille Conditor humani mundique orientis origo, Inperfecta diu proprii non passus haberi 255 Membra operis, natale lutum per claustra genarum Inliniens hominem veteri de semine supplet. Nec visum tamen ante capit, quam voce iubentis Accepta Domini Siloam venisset ad undam Et consanguinei tutus medicamine limi 260 Pura oculos fovisset aqua. mox ergo gemellas Vultibus effulgent acies tandemque merentur Ignotum spectare diem. Cognoscite cuncti, Mystica quid doceant animos miracula nostros: Caeca sumus proles miserae de fetibus Evae, 265 Portantes longo natas errore tenebras, Sed dignante Deo mortalem sumere formam Tegminis humani, facta est ex virgine nobis Terra salutaris, quae fontibus abluta sacris Clara renascentis reserat spiramina lucis. 270