Thursday, September 6, 2012


Martha A. Malamud (trans.), Prudentius. Origin of Sin: an English Translation of the Hamartigenia. Cornell studies in classical philology, 61. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 235. ISBN 9780801488726. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Dennis E. Trout, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site


Prudentius' Hamartigenia is a challenging poem: a preface in sixty-three lines of iambic senarii and a body of 966 hexameters that are learned, allusive, figural, and densely layered. It is also a composition that is drawing increased attention. In the same year that the book under review here appeared, a study of the poem by Andrew Dykes effectively argued that the indeterminacies and generic ambiguities of the Hamartigenia were intentional, meant to call into being a responsible reader whose literary skills were being honed for the even more difficult task of interpreting and emending a moral and natural landscape deformed by sin.1 As well as a new translation, Martha Malamud's The Origin of Sin adds to the mix a far ranging and deeply stimulating set of essays whose themes and interests interlock in many ways with those exposed by Dykes' excavation of the poem. With such surefooted guides to this hunting ground of the late antique (and Prudentian) imagination now on call, there is no longer any good reason to shy away from the Hamartigenia's thickets .

Malamud's Origin of Sin is roughly one quarter text and line-specific notes and three quarters meditation. The Latin text is not printed with the translation but underlying Malamud's crisp English is the "easily accessible" Latin of H. J. Thomson's Loeb, supplemented by Roberto Palla's 1981 edition of the poem and acknowledging Christian Gnilka's suspicions about the interpolations within the textual tradition.2 Malamud has translated the iambics of the Preface into prose and used loose iambic pentameters for Prudentius' hexameters. The result is a highly readable translation that runs fairly close to the Latin and will entice Latin-less readers far more readily than Thomson's dated prose. The footnotes in this section (the essay, alas, utilizes endnotes) permit expatiation on the difficulties of capturing in translation Prudentius' meaning as well as his style, neither of which is transparent. Tricky Latin expressions can be glossed; characters and sources identified; structural seams highlighted. Here then is a vade mecum that will do for English-reading students of the Latin text what Palla did (more expansively) for Italian readers of this fourth-century poem that couches its discussion of original sin and the fallen world as a refutation of the dualist theology of the second-century thinker Marcion.

Malamud's "Interpretive Essay" fills an introduction and eight chapters. To a notable degree, the work done therein is an extended engagement with the new directions taken in scholarly discussions of Late Latin verse in the years since the publication of Michael Robert's groundbreaking The Jeweled Style (1989). Chapter One, "Writing in Chains," establishes Malamud's interpretive pedigree and offers a sophisticated primer of Late Latin poetics (one that would serve admirably as assigned reading in a graduate seminar). Beyond Roberts, Malamud credits the inspiration of such theorists and practitioners as Patricia Cox Miller, Catherine Chin, Mary Carruthers, and John David Dawson. No wonder, then, that her exposition of the signature features of the Late Latin literary aesthetic buttresses consideration of its formal properties (such as parallelism and antithesis, alliteration, anaphora, catalog and variation) and its stylistic ploys (such as ekphrasis, visualization, destabilizing humor, and personification) with a recognition of the ways that Late Latin authors bent these properties toward the generation of meaning. From Cox Miller, for example, Malamud derives much of her emphasis upon the intensely figurative character of Prudentius' poetry, from Carruthers her focus upon the allusive chains of memory invoked by figural and typological writing. She shares with these and with Marc Mastrangelo a conviction that Prudentius, like many of his contemporaries, was acutely sensitive to perceived fissures between signs and meaning, between words and ideas, gaps that signaled the instability and impotence of post-lapsarian language. In a world understood as vitiated by sin, Malamud argues, the formal and stylistic features that distinguish the poetry of Prudentius, particularly typology and allegory, were never just ornament. They were the best hope the poet had of arriving at and expressing sublime truths that language was otherwise incapable of capturing. If Prudentius seems difficult to many modern readers this is why: late antique writers "thought figuratively" (p. 65).

The inevitable task of the following chapters, therefore, is "figuring out" the poet's figures, for in them lies the key to the Hamartigenia's meaning. Chapter Two, echoing Catherine Conybeare's recognition that the exegetical strategy of the Hamartigenia is to foreground (right) reading as the paramount interpretative act, focuses upon the Hamartigenia's iambic preface. There Prudentius presented an epitome of the story of Cain and Abel, encouraging, it is argued, both a typological reading of the Biblical story (wherein the murderous Cain functions as a figura for Marcion) and an allegorical one (wherein Cain is Flesh and the slain Abel is Spirit). With his Preface, then, by drawing attention to the process of figural reading, Prudentius offered readers a "template" (p. 82) for approaching the remainder of the work. This chapter also truly initiates what will become a sustained and productive dialogue with Milton, whose Paradise Lost periodically surfaces throughout Malamud's essay as a comparative foil, running alongside or cutting across the wake of the Hamartigenia.

In Malamud's estimation, the relatively clear-cut model of figural reading that Prudentius put forward in the Hamartigenia's preface is severely compromised in the poem's hexameters, where allusions, analogies, and exempla resist containment and domestication by a single reading. Classical and scriptural allusions jostle one another; ambiguity crowds in; misinterpretation looms. So Chapter Three takes on Prudentius' "allegory of the sun," whose gesture towards Plato's epistemologically confident allegory of the cave is undercut by recall of the Pauline metaphor of mirror (speculum) and enigma as a trope for the frailty and weakness of human understanding. Chapter Four, "Falling into Language," highlights Prudentius' understanding and representation of Satan. In a remarkably vivid ekphrasis, Prudentius—"the first writer of biblical epic to portray the devil as an anthropomorphic creature" (p. 98)—blends the Biblical Nimrod with Ovid's Medusa in order to introduce a Satan whose pre-lapsarian rebellion stands not only as the fountainhead of sin and man's fall but also as the source of language's split-tongued corruption. Characterized by coils and snares, devilishness is served by the recurrent metaphor of the highwayman who waylays the unwary traveler in the same manner that language's post-lapsarian imprecisions deceive and undo the reader. In a shadow world, words are untrustworthy.

Following the poem's running order, the remaining four chapters cleverly pursue similar lines of criticism. Malamud probes Prudentius' acute anxieties over the "made-up woman" and the gender-bending performances of effeminate males: enervating cultus and cosmetic adornments, like the vices personified and allegorized in the poem's "mini-Psychomachia (p. 129), too easily slip through the portals of the senses to deceive the soul—in much the same way that the ornamenta of rhetoric can cloak venomous speech in seductive garb. Neither nature nor the senses are capable of guiding the soul safely through a world gone wrong despite the good beginnings vouched for by Moses. Creative reproduction, too, has been distorted. Prudentius' metaphors and allegories of (de)generation stress the dissolution of the "unified paternity" that is the hallmark of the triune (though here more bi-une) "transcendent deity" (p. 130): David begets the rebellious Absalom and sin propagates like the viper who kills her mate only to be destroyed by offspring whose birth requires her own destruction. In the light cast by such confusion, the poet, too, must question his own creation, fretting over the ways it might be misconceived even as he indulges his text's hermeneutic instabilities (p. 137). A clear instance of Prudentius' willfulness in this regard, as Malamud skillfully reveals, is his erasure of Eve from the story of original sin and her replacement by a "figural chain" (p. 148) whose links are the tales of Lot and his wife (alloyed with Ovid's Niobe), of Ruth and Orpah, of two brothers at a crossroads, and a simile of hunted doves. Prudentius' strategy here once more underlines the difficulty of interpretation by signaling the unstable relationships between signs and referents and illuminating the corrupt state of reproduction. Finally the end (of it all): theodicy and eschatology, those vibrant twin engines of the late antique imaginary and source of some of early Christian literature's most vivid (and troubling) ekphrases. God's goodness is affirmed; free will asserted; judicial spectacle endorsed; the Vergilian underworld dramatically reconstituted for the torment of guilty souls while the Christian innocent shoot starward, though ever to remain in visual contact with the agonies of their less steadfast peers. And what of Prudentius himself? The poet leaves him in the dock, caught (like Ovid in exile) amid the coils of the only rope by which he might save himself: the figures of poetry. Caveat lector (p. 16), indeed.

What is the simple take home? For the Prudentius that Malamud has found in the Hamartigenia, sin, original and originating, has so deformed nature and language that the poet considers direct access to higher realities through either medium to be impossible. To communicate truth, the poet can rely upon neither dialectic nor reason, neither simple analogy nor straightforward narrative. Fallen humanity sees—and therefore can only speak and write—in a mirror darkly. Thus the reader's task is one of figuring out the poet's figures, which are themselves, of course, intrinsically and necessarily unreliable. If the Hamartigenia, like so much of Prudentius' oeuvre, has seemed difficult here is another reason why. It could hardly have been otherwise if Prudentius wanted the poem to have value as a serious rumination on man and sin and god. Consequently, however, readers run the risk of misinterpretation, a danger no less inherent in figural reading than sin is in the world: "interpretations can be produced and reproduced, and turn murderous against the mind that conceived them" (p. 136). Malamud's shrewd observation is both exhilarating and cautionary and The Origin of Sin is further proof that Late Latin poetry merits the serious attention it is now receiving.


1.   Anthony Dykes, Reading Sin in the World: The Hamartigenia of Prudentius and the Vocation of the Responsible Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
2.   Roberto Palla, Prudenzio: Hamartigenia. Introduzione, traduzione e comment. Pisa: Giardini, 1981. Christian Gnilka, Prudentiana I: Critica, 68-89. Munich and Leipzig: K. G. Saur, 2000.

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