ElAnt v4n2 - TRANSLATIONS - Prudentius' Dead March: A Version of Cathemerinon 10

Volume 4, Number 2
April 1998



Robert J. Baker
Department of Classics & Ancient History
University of New England,
NSW 2351,
email: rbaker@metz.une.edu.au

(hymnus circa exequias defuncti)

A hymn on the burial of the dead

St. 1  O thou God, of our souls source all burning, 
	Who, by mingling together two natures, 
	One a living, the other a dying, 
	Humankind thou, O Father, hast fashioned,

St. 2	Thine they are, thine, O ruler, they both are;       5
	Just for thee is the bonding between them
	And to thee, while alive and cohering
	Both the spirit and flesh are the servants.

St. 3	But when these two are parted asunder,
	They dissolve a man, bring him destruction;            10
	Then the thirsty earth welcomes the body,
	And a breath of air takes the pure spirit;

St. 4	Because all of creation is destined
	In the end to grow weak and senescent,
	What is joined, to become separated,                   15
	And the contrasting weave to unravel.

St. 5	It is this death that thou, God all goodness,
	Art prepared to destroy for thy servants,
	And dost show an inviolate pathway
	Whereby bodies once lost be resurgent,                 20

St. 6	That, so long as the noble with feeble,
	As though locked in a prison, is shackled,
	That part may turn out to be stronger
	Which has drawn its first source from the heavens.

St. 7	If perchance the earth-bound inclination	   25
	Savours mire and for grossness is longing,
	Then the soul, by the heaviness conquered,
	Follows downwards the bodily members.

St. 8	But if fire, of its origin mindful,
	Should reject the enfeebling contagion,	           30
	It conveys with it flesh it has lived with
	And carries it heavenward likewise.

St. 9	For whereas a dead body lies resting,
	As we see it there, empty of spirit,
	There remains a short time till in heaven	       35
	A reunion with soul is forthcoming.

St. 10	Very soon will come time when already
	Fellow warmth to the bones is returning
	And, by living blood-flow animated,
	Will its old dwelling-place be adopted.	           40

St. 11	And the corpses which, long since unmoving,
	Had been lying in graves, putrefying,
	Will be borne to the high-flying breezes,
	With their own former souls as companions.

St. 12	Which is why on our graves so much tending	   45
	Is expended, and why on the lifeless
	Frame we the last compliments lavish,
	And with funeral procession adorn it,

St. 13	Why the white-shining radiance resplendent
	Of a spread linen shroud is our custom,	           50
	And why myrrh sprinkled on with its Saba-
	Based balm keeps the corpse from decaying.

St. 14	What the point of the rock-fashioned chambers,
	What the meaning of monuments handsome,
	But that something to them is entrusted	           55
	Not dead, but committed to sleeping?

St. 15	This care does the foresight of Christians'
	Sense of duty observe, as believing
	That everything soon will be living
	Which now a cold slumber oppresses.	               60

St. 16	He who corpses all scattered, unburied,
	Out of pity with earth covers over,
	Is performing a work full of kindness
	In his duty to Christ the almighty,

St. 17	Since the same law enjoins upon all men	       65
	To be groaning as under the one fate,
	And, as though for the loss of our kindred,
	To grieve for the death of a stranger.

St. 18	The father of saintly Tobias,
	He a holy and venerable hero,	                   70
	Though his meal was all properly ready,
	Gave preference to last rites' sad duty.

St. 19	While his servants stood ready to serve, he
	Left his cups and his dishes behind him,
	And, zealously girt for interment,	               75
	Laid the bones in the tomb, the while weeping.

St. 20	Soon there comes his reward down from heaven,
	And his payment is price quite enormous;
	For, his eyes, which have never known sunshine
	With a smearing of gall God enlightens.	           80

St. 21	Even then the world's Father has taught us
	How much, to those lacking in reason,
	Is the remedy biting and bitter
	When the soul is assailed by the new light.

St. 22	He has taught, too, that nobody ever	       85
	Catches sight of the kingdom of heaven
	Before, in the darkness and hurting,
	He has suffered the world's sore afflictions.

St. 23	Death itself is thereby the more blessed,
	In that through the grim torments of dying	       90
	Lies a way up on high for the righteous,
	And they go to the stars by their sufferings.

St. 24	Thus do bodies that know the death process
	Come again when the seasons are better;
	Nor, on gaining new warmth after dying,	           95
	Does the frame any more know a weakening.

St. 25	Where now there is pallor and wasting
	And a grey colour spreads, on the same cheeks
	Then more lovely than any fair flower,
	Will blood give the skin beauty's tincture.	      100

St. 26	No longer will any old age then
	In jealousy pluck at the brow's grace,
	Nor will dryness, which wastes all the muscles,
	Leave them shrunken by draining their juices.

St. 27	And Disease, bringing bane to the members,	  105
	Who now leaves them ravaged and breathless,
	Will at that time his own torments, sweating,
	Pay as fine, while a thousand times bonded.

St. 28	From afar, upon him from high heaven
	The virtuous flesh, now immortal,	              110
	Will gaze, as he groans without ceasing
	At the pains he himself had been causing.

St. 29	Why does band of survivors in foolish
	Lamentations so boisterously join in?
	Why do laws which are so well established	      115
	Catch a scolding from grief-maddened sorrow?

St. 30	Fall thou silent now, wretched complaining,
	Your tears discontinue, ye mothers:
	Let no one lament for his dear ones;
	This death is renewal of living.	              120

St. 31	It is thus that the dry seeds shoot greenly,
	Once dead, and moreover once buried.
	It is they, from the deep furrow rising,
	That replace all the yesterdays' harvests.

St. 32	Receive now, O earth, for your keeping,	      125
	And take to your soft lap this fellow:
	They are limbs of a man I lay in you;
	My commission, remains which are noble.

St. 33	They were onetime the home of a spirit
	Created by mouth of its maker;	                  130
	There has dwelt all aglow in these objects
	Sheer wisdom, with Christ as the leader.

St. 34	Do thou cover the corpse laid within thee;
	Not forgetting it, he will go looking,
	He its maker and author, for his gift:	          135
	His own face's image and likeness.

St. 35	Let there come soon the season of justice,
	When God will fulfil all our hoping;
	You must open, O grave, and surrender
	The form, just as I give it to you.	              140

St. 36	Even though the decay of old age should
	Dissolve all the bones into ashes,
	And the dry little cinders should turn out
	But a measure of slightest of handfuls,

St. 37	Even though changing blasts and the breezes,  145
	As they fly through the void ever empty,
	Were to take with the dust all the muscles,
	Man will not be allowed to have perished.

St. 38	But until the decayable body
	Thou dost call back, O God, and refashion,	      150
	What region, pray tell, will you order
	That the soul which is pure take its rest in?

St. 39	In the holy old man's bosom staying,
	Shall it lie just as does Eleazar 
	Whom, hedged all about him with flowers,	      155
	Rich man as he burns sees from far off.

St. 40	So we follow thy sayings, Redeemer,
	With which over black death triumphant
	You counsel to follow your footsteps
	The robber, your cross's companion.	              160

St. 41	For the faithful, see, open to spacious
	Fields of paradise leads a bright roadway,
	And to enter that grove is permitted
	Which the serpent from man had sequestered.

St. 42	In that place, do I pray, excellent leader,	  165
	Give command that the spirit, your servant,
	Be confirmed in abode it was born in,
	Which it quitted to wander in exile.

St. 43	The bones covered here we shall cherish
	With violets and green leaves in plenty;	      170
	And inscription, on cold stones engraven,
	Shall we sprinkle with perfume sweet-smelling.

Robert J. Baker, rbaker@metz.une.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606

by Kaavya Giridhar