Much hate has been loosed on the literary heritage of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (b. AD 348), a Spanish-Roman public servant who spent his later years writing verses in celebration of the rise of Christianity in the Empire. His use of allegory in the Psychomachia harkens back to the pagan Statius’s epic poem The Thebaid, but develops the genre for explicating Christian moral doctrine and the inner conflict caused by concupiscence in the soul. Modern literary critics prefer the subtlety of the novel to the so-called crassness of the allegory, but for many centuries Allegory was a popular poetic genre in Europe, as was its child-genre Romance (what we would today call adventure stories).
Prudentius, though, was not simply an allegorist. He was, as H.J. Thomson has written, “a pioneer in the creation of a Christian literature, and has the credit of originating new types of Christian poetry, the literary hymn, the moral allegory, and what has been called the Christian ballad” (from his introduction in the Loeb Classical Library). Many of his poems were adapted for use in the Roman Breviary and made their way into popular hymns. He merged classical sensibilities with Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxis, and defended doctrine against rising heretics with the respected verse forms of the day.
The importance of a Catholic using the best literary tools of the pagans against them in a time when the Church’s social position was growing but precarious should not be undervalued. Louis Snyder, SJ wrote of Prudentius’s importance in his commentary on the Psychomachia:
Grant that Prudentius is artificial in the handling of his theme, grant that false ornament is not foreign to his descriptions and that one grows weary over his prolix speeches and winces, perhaps, at his occasional play on words or likes not his alliteration, assonance, or patent imitation of Virgil; still one must admit that all these means of presenting a subject were familiar to, even expected by, the educated Christian reader of the fourth century. These Christians were interested to hear Prudentius sing their doctrine in a cultivated strain, using all the artifices of the schools. We who have a Dante, a Milton, a Spenser, and a host of lyricists who long since have wedded literary forms to the thought of Christianity, sometimes fail to see and grasp the situation of an age when imaginative Christian letters were unknown. We fail to recognize what it meant to those cultured Catholics to have one of their own, one with all the zeal and fervor of an apostle, imparting to the classical molds of literature the fresh outlook of Christianity. (12)
Indeed, the allegory in his Psychomachia is occasionally eye-rollingly simple. He pits feminine personifications of virtues and vices against one another on the battlefield—Faith against Pagan Worship, Humility against Pride, Chastity against Sodomy, and so forth—and has them fight in a carnal manner. However, his cleverness is in showing that this is not a mere physical conflict, and that the virtues cannot always win their battles by sheer brutality. For example, Patience defeats Wrath not by fighting but by donning impenetrable armor, and waiting for Wrath to murder herself after her attacks are all frustrated. This may not make for great drama, but it is good spiritual advice, and that is the main point. The poem ends with the vices all slain, and a Temple erected in the soul with a throne for Holy Wisdom to sit upon.
The use of Allegory diminished greatly with the Renaissance, perhaps surviving longer in painting than literature. The tools of the genre were gradually sublimated into an obscurely subtle use of symbolism in the modern novel. The postmodern novel casts a skeptical eye even on this hidden layer of meaning. C.S. Lewis, no particular fan of the Psychomachia itself, nonetheless offered a defense of the genre in his study The Allegory of Love:
We cannot speak, perhaps we can hardly think, of an ‘inner conflict’ without a metaphor; and every metaphor is an allegory in little. And as the conflict becomes more and more important, it is inevitable that these metaphors should expand and coalesce, and finally turn into the fully-fledged allegorical poem. It would be a misunderstanding to suggest that there is another and better way of representing that inner world, and that we have found it in the novel and the drama. The gaze turned inward with a moral purpose does not discover character. No man is a ‘character’ to himself, and least of all while he thinks of good and evil. Character is what he has to produce; within he finds only the raw material, the passions and emotions which contend for mastery. That unitary ‘soul’ or ‘personality’ which interests the novelist is for him merely the arena in which the combatants meet: it is to the combatants—those ‘accidents occurring in a substance’—that he must attend. (60-61)
I have suggested in an earlier post (“Are We Wrong About Catholic Literature?”) that it would be worthwhile to do some archeological work and try to reconstruct what, if any, older Catholic literary traditions there might be. Prudentius’s legacy remains at the forefront of our literary patrimony, whether we appreciate him today or not. In a sense, he was doing what the best Catholic novelists of the last few centuries have done: appropriating the artistic movements of the time for their own use. But there is still a wide gulf aesthetically between Allegory with its densely symbolic poetics, and what we today rather simplistically call Fiction.
At the very least, I would suggest that an appreciation of allegorical methods as worked out in older Catholic literature could be positively fruitful as we write our own stories, today. They need not be slavishly imitated—although I would love to see the results of such imitation from a sure hand—but I think they should not be booed off the stage merely because tastes have been altered. They may yet be altered again.