Prudentius’s Hymn Before Sleep for worries & desires

In times of great worry, many have difficulty sleeping. The modern English word worry comes via Middle English werien, via Old English wyrġan, via proto-Germanic wurgijaną. These worry source-words mean choke and strangle, like a dog seizing a small, frightened duck and biting down on it and shaking it fiercely until it dies. Just so does the experience of worry feel to many today. How could anyone manage to sleep in such circumstances?

The learned Roman Prudentius included a Hymn Before Sleep {Hymnus ante somnum} in his poem cycle Days Linked By Song {Cathemerinon}. Prudentius began his hymn with a simple Christian evening prayer:

Come, sovereign Father,
whom none has ever seen,
and Christ, the Father’s Word,
and kindly Spirit

of this Trinity:
O one strength and power,
God from God eternal,
God from both is sent.

The day’s work has ebbed,
and the quiet hour has returned,
now is the turn of gentle sleep,
relaxing weary limbs.

The mind tossed by storms
and wounded by worries
drinks in its very depths
the cup of forgetfulness.

The power of oblivion
steals through all the body,
and leaves those suffering
no sense of bitter pain.

{ Ades, pater supreme,
quem nemo vidit umquam,
patrisque sermo Christe,
et Spiritus benigne,

o trinitatis huius
vis ac potestas una,
deus ex deo perennis,
deus ex utroque missus.

fluxit labor diei,
redit et quietis hora,
blandus sopor vicissim
fessos relaxat artus.

mens aestuans procellis,
curisque sauciata,
totis bibit medullis
obliviale poclum.

serpit per omne corpus
Lethaea vis nec ullum
miseris doloris aegri
patitur manere sensum. } [1]

This evening prayer assumes that one is able to fall asleep — to drink the cup of forgetfulness and be overcome by the the power of oblivion. But what if one, overwhelmed with worries and desires, cannot sleep?

Even when wanting sleep, bodily life may refuse oblivion and make demands. An ancient Greek poem from roughly 2600 years ago represents one woman’s personal circumstances:

The Moon is down,
the Pleiades also. Midnight,
the hours flow on,
I lie, alone.

{ Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες, μέσαι δέ
νύκτες, πάρα δ’ ἔρχετ’ ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω. } [2]

Many men and women today personally understand these circumstances of sleeplessness and bodily loneliness. A poem from before the middle of the tenth century describes restlessness in bed and unsatisfying sleep:

For you my eyes are keeping watch, my soul at night requires you.
Subdued and laid low, my limbs lie alone with me in bed.
I have seen myself with you, a deceit in the imagination of sleep;
in dreams you appear, yet if only to me you would truly come.

{ Te vigilans oculis, animo te nocte requiro,
victa iacent solo cum mea membra toro.
vidi ego me tecum falsa sub imagine somni:
somnia tu vinces, si mihi vera venis. } [3]

In the first two verses, the poet speaks of his eyes, his limbs, and his soul. They are with him in bed, as if he were falling to pieces. The second two verses express frustration at experiencing life’s completeness only in dreams. Lucid dreaming isn’t a common experience of sleeping. Disappointment in thinking about one’s dreams is associated much more commonly with despair and sleeplessness.

Those who apprehend reality struggle to sleep with deceit. They feel compelled to seek their desires:

Nestled in bed, I was scarcely seizing night’s first
silence and giving my vanquished eyes to sleep.
Then savage Love grabbed me, pulling me up by my hair.
Love roused me, wounded, and ordered me to stay awake.
“You, my slave,” Love said, “you love a thousand young women.
How can you stiffly lie alone — goodness me, alone!”
I jump up with bare feet and bed-robe undone and enter
every way, but no way leads me out with what I need.
Now I rush, now to go grieves me, to return causes me
regret, and I’m ashamed to stand in the middle of the road.
Silent here are humans’ voices, the road’s rumbling,
the song of birds, the faithful pack of dogs.
I alone among all fear bed and sleep.
I follow your command, great god of desire.

{ Lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
“Tu famulus meus,” inquit, “ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?”
Exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter ingredior, nullum iter expedio.
Nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
Ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus fidaque turba canum;
solus ego ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum. } [4]

This isn’t a dreamy dream-poem. Although having loved a thousand women, this man is sleeping alone, wounded with lacerations. He feels himself yanked up by his hair. He has bare feet and his bed-robe is undone. From a Christian perspective, the traditional Greco-Roman love-gods Eros, Cupid, and Amor are deceits. But human voices, roads, birds, and dogs are real. So too is worry, desire, and sleeplessness.

Seeking to separate human spirit from fleshly life isn’t a propitious path to sleep. From a Christian perspective, Prudentius condemned Marcion for this heresy:

Marcion, shaped from utterly corrupted earth,
teaches dualists to disagree with the spirit,
offering up his gifts of tainted flesh
and worshiping everlasting power in separate shapes.
If he could heed warning and be still,
then quiet familial bonds could cultivate peace,
and acknowledge that the one God of the living lives.
But this man, an initiate of a transitory cult,
profanely divides the highest being,
separating good and bad, as if two gods could rule.

{ Marcion, arvi forma corruptissimi,
docet duitas discrepare a Spiritu,
contaminatae dona carnis offerens
et segregatim numen aeternum colens.
qui si quiescat nec monentem neglegat,
pacem quieta diligat germanitas,
unum atque vivum fassa vivorum Deum.
hic se caduco dedicans mysterio
summam profanus dividit substantiam,
malum bonumque ceu duorum separatis } [5]

With a telling figure, Tertullian more vehemently condemned Marcion:

Nothing about Pontus is so barbarous and mournful as that Marcion was born there. He is more repulsive than a Scythian, more wandering than the wagon-dwelling Sarmatian, more inhuman that the Massagete, more obnoxious than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more fragile than ice, more treacherous than the Danube river, more coarsely precipitous than the Caucasus mountains. What else? How about that the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is lacerated by Marcion’s blasphemies. More uncivilized than the wild beasts of that barbarous land Pontus is now Marcion. Is any beaver more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage?

{ nihil tam barbarum ac triste apud Pontum quam quod illic Marcion natus est, Scytha tetrior, Hamaxobio instabilior, Massageta inhumanior, Amazona audacior, nubilo obscurior, hieme frigidior, gelu fragilior, Istro fallacior, Caucaso abruptior. Quidni? penes quem verus Prometheus deus omnipotens blasphemiis lancinatur. Iam et bestiis illius barbariei importunior Marcion. Quis enim tam castrator carnis castor quam qui nuptias abstulit? } [6]

The male beaver was thought to gnaw off his own testicles to save himself from hunters who sought to kill him for his testicles. Marcion was a dualist reflecting castration culture. He divided the god of human spirit from the god of human flesh. Yet, from the perspective of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, there is no god but God, and God is one. Humans are made in the image of God. The living human is one in spirit and flesh. A human will be restless until both spirit and flesh rest.

Prudentius urged bodily action and performative utterance in order to overcome worry and desire that prevent restful sleep. He counseled:

Worshiper of God, remember
that you have gone under the sacred water
of the source that cleanses,
that you have been marked with oil.

See that when sleep calls
and you go to your pure bed,
the symbol of the cross seals
your brow and the place of your heart.

The cross drives off all sin,
darkness flies from the cross:
with this sign consecrated,
the mind knows no storms.

Away with you, far away,
monstrous errant dreams!
Away with the deceiver
and his unceasing cunning!

Sinuous serpent,
by a thousand twisting paths
and tortuous tricks,
you stir up hearts that rest —

Go, Christ is here,
here is Christ: melt away!
The sign that you know well
condemns your crowd.

The tiring body is allowed
to lie down for a little while,
and even in our sleep
our thoughts will be of Christ.

{ cultor dei, memento
te fontis et lavacri
rorem subisse sanctum,
te chrismate innotatum.

fac, cum vocante somno
castum petis cubile,
frontem locumque cordis
crucis figura signet.

crux pellit omne crimen,
fugiunt crucem tenebrae,
tali dicata signo
mens fluctuare nescit.

procul, o procul vagantum
portenta somniorum!
procul esto pervicaci
praestigiator astu!

o tortuose serpens,
qui mille per meandros
fraudesque flexuosas
agitas quieta corda,

discede, Christus hic est,
hic Christus est, liquesce!
signum quod ipse nosti
damnat tuam catervam.

Corpus licet fatiscens
iaceat recline paulum,
Christum tamen sub ipso
meditabimur sopore. } [7]

Prudentius’s A Hymn Before Sleep is a lullaby for Christian adults. They must cross themselves to sleep. They must say the words they need to hear. Thoughts of Christ are hopes for the body and the spirit.

Once upon a time, scholars hoped that literary theory would renew the face of the earth. Yet even a promising new field of literary theory, meninist literary criticism, offers sleep only to the small group of scholars that study it. That’s no cause for worry. We can do all that we must do. We have all that we need.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Prudentius, Book of the Daily Round {Liber Cathemerinon} 6, Hymn Before Sleep {Hymnus ante somnum}, incipit “Ades pater surpeme,” vv. 1-20, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly according to my poetic sense) from O’Daly (2012) pp. 172-3. For freely accessible online Latin text and English translation, Thomson (1949) and Pope (1895).

Prudentius wrote Hymnus ante somnum about 400 GC. Verses from it were subsequently used liturgically. A medieval liturgical hymn known as Ades pater supreme was made from Hymnus ante somnum:

It consists of lines 1-12, 125-8, 141-52, and a doxology: Gloria aeterno Patri, Et Christo, vero Regi, Paraclitoque sancto, et nunc et in perpetuum. {This} selection of lines was found as a hymn in a 10th-century hymnal from Laon, in northern France, now at Bern (S.B. 455). It is a hymn for Vespers or Compline, marking the end of the day

From The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.

[2] This poem is conventionally known as “Midnight poem.” It’s attributed, without strong evidence, to the archaic Greek poet Sappho. The Greek text above is that of fragment 168 B in Voigt (1971). The English translation is that of  A.S. Kline, with my slight modifications. Many English translations of this famous poem are readily accessible. Here’s detailed analysis of it.

[3] “Te vigilans oculis” (quoted above in full) comes from a now lost manuscript, Codex Isidori Bellovacensis, that belonged to the cathedral library of St. Sylvius at Beauvais, France. That manuscript was written in the late ninth or early tenth century. Waddell (1948) p. 286. The Latin text is edited in Baehrens (1879) vol. 4, p. 100 (n. 103), where it’s attributed to Petronius. Heseltine & Rouse (1930), however, doesn’t include this poem among Petronius’s poems. The English translation is mine, benefiting from those of Waddell (1948) p. 23 and composer William Hawley.

Hawley used “Te vigilans oculis” as text for a motet. For readily accessible performances of Hawley’s motet, see those by Volti, conducted by Robert Geary (Innova, 2010), and by Choral Arts, conducted by Robert Bode (Gothic, 2013).

[4] Petronius Arbiter, incipit “Lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis” (whole poem quoted above), Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1930) p. 424 (no. 26), my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Waddell (1948) p. 11, and aleator classicus. The Latin text is edited in Baehrens (1879) vol. 4, p. 98 (n. 99). Here are Latin reading notes for this poem.

Among those who manage to get to sleep, some experience delightful dreams. A poem from no later than the early-eighth century proclaimed to a dream-girl:

Beautiful of hair, young in years, and fair of face,
you sweetly gave me kisses in my sleep.
If now waking I cannot anywhere discern you,
sleep, I pray, hold my eyes together always.

{ Pulchra comis annisque decens et candida vultu
dulce quiescenti basia blanda dabas.
si te iam vigilans non unquam cernere possum,
somne, precor, iugitur lumina nostra tene. }

Latin text from Baehrens (1879) vol. 4, p. 118 (n. 131), via the Latin Library; English translation (modified slightly) from the Ancient Literature Dude, who provides an audio reading of this poem in medieval Latin. For other English translations, Waddell (1948) p. 21, and Rexroth (1967) p. 86.

This poem survives in two sources. One is the ninth-century manuscript cataloged as British Library Royal 15. B. XIX (fol. 99). That manuscript belonged at some point to the library of St. Rémy at Rheims. Waddell (1948) p. 286. In BL Royal 15. B., the poem includes the inscription, “To a young woman who was seen in a dream {ad puellam quam in somnis viderat},” and the poem is attributed to Virgil. In addition, Aldhelm (died 709), Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne, cited this poem in his Letter to Acircius {Epistola ad Acircium} / On metrical feet {De pedum regulis}. Aldhelm attributed this poem to Ovid. Orchard (1994) pp. 214-5.

[5] Prudentius, The Origin of Sin {Hamartigenia}, Preface {Praefatio} vv. 36-45, Latin text from Thomson (1949), English translation (modified slightly) from Malamud (2011) pp. 5-6.

[6] Tertullian, Against Marcion {Adversus Marcionem} 1.1.4-5, Latin text from Evans (1972), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. To protect himself from castration culture, the fourth-century hermit Ammonas of Tunah reportedly followed the mythic example of the male beaver and castrated himself. Tertullian’s disparagement of Marcion probably would be censored today under Facebook’s code of conduct. Tertullian fortunately lived in a more liberal and tolerant age.

[7] Prudentius, Liber Cathemerinon, Hymnus ante somnum, vv. 125-52, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from O’Daly (2012) pp. 178-9. The above quotations runs to the end of Hymnus ante somnum.

[image] Suzy Bogguss, video performance of the southern African-American traditional lullaby Hush-a-bye / All the pretty little horses. Audio from Bogguss’s album American Folk Songbook (Loyal Butchess Records, 2011). Peter Paul and Mary recorded Hush-a-bye on their album In the Wind (Warner Bros., 1963). Grant Campbell performed this lullaby as a soundtrack for the horror movie The Burrowers (2008).


Baehrens, Paul Heinrich Emil, ed. 1879-83. Poetae latini minores. 5 vols. Lipsiae: Teubner. Online: vols. 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5.

Evans, Ernest, ed. and trans. 1972. Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Heseltine, Michael and W.H.D. Rouse, eds. and trans. 1930. Petronius. Poems. Rev. Ed. Loeb Classical Library 15. London: Heinemann.

Malamud, Martha A. 2011. Prudentius. The Origin of Sin: an English Translation of the Hamartigenia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Catherine Conybeare)

Orchard, Andy. 1994. The Poetic Art of Aldhelm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pope, R. Matin, trans. 1895. The Hymns of Prudentius. London: J.M. Dent.

Rexroth, Kenneth. 1967. Poems from the Greek anthology. Translated, with an introd., by Kenneth Rexroth, with drawings by Geraldine Sakall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Voigt, Eva Maria, ed. 1971. Sappho et Alcaeus fragmenta. Amsterdam: Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep.

Waddell, Helen. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

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