Bridget Balint

title.none: Otten and Pullman, eds., Poetry and Exegesis (Bridget Balint)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.026 08.09.26

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bridget Balint, Indiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Otten, Willemien and Karla Pollmann. Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae: Texts and Studies of Early Christian Life and Language, v. 87. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Pp. xi, 360. $165 978-90-04-1606909. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.26

Otten, Willemien and Karla Pollmann. Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae: Texts and Studies of Early Christian Life and Language, v. 87. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Pp. xi, 360. $165 978-90-04-1606909. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Bridget Balint
Indiana University

This volume assembles fifteen papers from a conference held at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in 2004, along with two additional contributions. Presented in three sections -- "Theory," "Individual Authors and Works," and "Overviews, Comparisons" -- the papers examine the ways in which Latin poetry up to the thirteenth century included, accommodated, and influenced biblical exegesis. As the editors state in their introduction, the volume is a contribution to the ongoing rehabilitation of Christian poetry. A perennial "ugly duckling" among Latin genres, neglected, perhaps deliberately, by Augustine and Jerome, non-liturgical Christian poetry still suffers from the dismissive evaluations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in spite of the work of such scholars as Reinhart Herzog and Michael Roberts, whose publications appear frequently in the footnotes of these papers. The editors of the volume hope to remedy this situation by focusing on the ways in which poetic art and exegetical science interact with one another, demonstrating not only that the science helped shape new directions for the art, but also that the "fundamentally synthesizing and original nature" (2) of poetry had its own substantial effect upon the way in which the biblical text was received.

As one would expect of a volume in the Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae series, Late Antique texts take center stage, especially those poems that have been labeled "Biblical Epics," although verse from the central Middle Ages receives some attention as well. Not all of the contributors address the intersection of poetry and exegesis directly, but the variety of perspectives they offer makes the collection a rich one, ranging from the close reading of single poems or episodes to a panorama of biblical poetry across a millennium. In its entirety the volume provides an intriguing view of this category of late Latin poetry, and it should encourage further work in the field.

The first three papers, comprising the "Theory" section, examine the poetics of Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, foundational figures for Christian literary esthetics. To begin with, Haijo Westra faces squarely one of the stumbling-blocks for early Christian poetry, the fact that Augustine ignores it. Westra attributes Augustine's lack of response to contemporary Christian poetry to the Platonic ambivalence toward esthetic pleasure that led him to doubt whether poetry could have salvific effects. Augustine may not have condemned Christian poetry outright, but his silence made the climate for non-liturgical Christian poetry more inhospitable than it would otherwise have been.

Mark Vessey continues the analysis of Late Antique ambivalence toward Christian poetry in the second essay. Vessey surveys the scholarship on Jerome's letters 52 and 58 to Paulinus of Nola, and concludes that Jerome was attempting to persuade Paulinus to move beyond poetry to the more worthy labor of prose exegesis, in what he calls "one of the most laborious acts in European literary history: the displacement of Roman poetry by biblical-exegetical prose" (48).

Burcht Pranger then examines the understanding of time and the divine as expressed by Ambrose, particularly in his well-known hymn Aeterne rerum conditor. He also argues that Augustine had a "poetic" understanding of time and eternity not so different from that of Ambrose, as shown by the way in which he interweaves "transhistorical" awareness, represented by biblical quotations or direct address to God, into his historical narrative in Confessions and the City of God. Pranger occasionally draws distinctions too fine for this reviewer to follow, as when he writes of the literary effect of focusing on time "from a poetic as well as from a poetical point of view" (61); nevertheless, the paper provides a nuanced interpretation of the way Augustine's ideas about time and eternity relate to those of Ambrose.

The largest section of the collection consists of ten papers on "Individual Authors and Texts," which examine, in roughly chronological order, exegetical impulses in Juvencus, Ambrose, Prudentius, the Gallo-Roman Carmen ad uxorem, Avitus, Dracontius, Corippus, the Ecloga Theoduli and Eupolemius, and Abelard's Planctus.

Roger Green finds exegetical principles at work even in a text that might at first seem to consist of simple paraphrase, the Evangeliorum libri of Juvencus. Yet the poet's omission of particular scriptural details seems to indicate that he was taking great care to avoid including any words that could be construed as supporting Arianism, a divisive doctrinal issue in Juvencus's own day.

Jan den Boeft's essay on Ambrose's lyric poetry provides insight into Ambrose's poetic practice, founded in large part upon the "delectare" of epideictic rhetoric, and developed through the poet's own "lyrical perception of the created world" (97). Although grouped apart from the other papers on Ambrose, this essay can be read profitably as a counterweight to Westra and a prelude to Pranger.

In her meticulous reading of Prudentius, Cathemerinon 5, Jacqueline Clarke links technology and poetry, suggesting that the glass oil lamp, a Late Antique innovation, provides the motivating vehicle for the address to the Creator as "Inventor rutili luminis." The visible components of the transparent lamp -- the flame, the glass, and the oil -- illuminate a nexus of images of fire/light and water/liquid, transformed by Christ from threatening forces into benign ones and indeed into the blessed themselves.

Roberto Chiappiniello explores the subversion of epithalamia by Late Antique poets urging couples to attitudes and actions entirely antithetical to the spirit of the genre, namely spiritual love and sexual abstinence. He focuses in particular upon Paulinus of Nola's carmen 25, and the Carmen ad uxorem inspired by it.

Manfred Hoffmann finds a striking exegetical innovation in Book 3 of Avitus's Spiritual History, where, as he demonstrates, Avitus interprets the story of the expulsion of the Adam from Paradise as an exhortation to repentance, by drawing an unusual parallel between Adam and Dives, the rich man who repents too late in Luke 16.

Alexander Arweiler then provides a multifaceted view of the ordering principles of Dracontius's De laudibus Dei. Arweiler examines several aspects of the poem's complexity including its dependence on the interpretations of the "speaking poet" rather than biblical chronology or any other external rubric. Frequent use of the first- person plural keeps the poet's persona at center stage professing solidarity with his audience as he confesses, exhorts, speculates, and relates narratives both biblical and historical. As Arweiler writes in reference to the variety of first-person interventions in the text, the poet's practice "correspond[s]to the intensity in the search for appropriate solutions to the time's struggles for valid modes of interpretation" (168).

Chiara Tommasi Moreschini presents the historical epic of Corippus as a polemical re-appropriation of classical epic, Vergilian and otherwise. Corippus establishes the hero of his epic Iohannis, the Byzantine commander John Troglite, as the antitype of Hercules and also of Theseus with a poetic strategy Tommasi Moreschini labels "displaced allusion" (192), since both of these heroes usually keep typological company with Christ.

Michael Herren provides a spectator's view as he keeps score during the debate of Alithia and Pseustis in the Ecloga Theoduli. Herren shows that Alithia, the eventual victor, does not in fact have the upper hand in every exchange, and he suggests that the depiction of "conflicting religious and ideological systems in open discussion" places the composition of the poem in the early eleventh century. Herren also appends a full translation of the text.

Kurt Smolak analyses the Eupolemius, an epic composed c. 1100, as an application of the allegorizing technique of Prudentius's Psychomachia to biblical narrative rather than to internal struggle. Smolak notes that although some Christian epics allegorized myth as well as Old Testament narratives, the Eupolemius "denied truth to ancient mythology" (234) by excluding it.

To close out the section, Willemien Otten takes a thoughtful look at the difficulties involved in untangling prescholastic exegesis from theology. A brief reading of three of Abelard's planctus follows.

Two of the papers in the final section, "Overviews, Comparisons," survey the immense literary topography that can conceivably bear the label "biblical poetry." Antoon Bastiaensen and Greti Dinkova-Bruun contribute encyclopedic overviews of biblical poetry in liturgical and non-liturgical contexts, respectively. Of the two "Comparisons," Hildegund Müller's paper takes the difficult approach of attempting to explain an absence, in this case, why it is so unusual to find any direct speech resembling a sermon in biblical and hagiographical epics; and Karla Pollmann adds a study of three of the metrical paraphrases of Eucherius's fifth-century prose Passion of the Martyrs of Acaunum, helpfully appending Latin texts of several of the poems she discusses.

The editors supply an index nominum (classical and medieval names), index rerum, and index locorum. A bibliography would have been a useful addition.

All of the essays are in English. While this may well increase the volume's readership, a number of the essays are marred by faults in English usage that range from the merely distracting (e.g., p. 82 "jambic," p. 130 "the spurn of power and wealth," p. 147 "use to," p. 247 "philological bend," plural forms "scenario's" on p. 260 and "sequentia's" on p. 271, p. 302 "to advice him") to the bewildering (p. 165 "...moral change in the presence," p. 299n25 "This is never said directly in a plump way"). To present a paper in a language not one's own is a laborious task and a laudable one; but without vetting by a native speaker, such papers may do a disservice to their authors, as happens too often in this otherwise worthwhile volume.