Prudentius’s crown: Saint Agnes redeemed the male gaze on every Eve

St. Agnes’ Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was! [1]

My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.
Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
or a young stag in the mountains’ cleft. [2]

{ דודי לי ואני לו הרעה בשושנים׃
עד שיפוח היום ונסו הצללים סב דמה־לך דודי לצבי או לעפר האילים על־הרי בתר׃ ס }

Porphyro realizing St. Agnes's Eve ritual for Madeline

About the year 304, the son of Rome’s head administrator Symphronius fell in love with the young, beautiful Agnes:

Having seen her beauty,
held by his heart’s great love for her,
he chose her over all others as his own beloved one.
He believed himself to be fortunate and suitably honored
if he would succeed in having so beautiful a young woman
as his special sweet spouse for all the days of his life.

{ vidit speciosae,
Affectu nimio cordis suspensus in illa
Hanc sibi prae cunctis unam delegit amandam,
Se fortunatum credens et honoribus aptum,
Si tam praepulchra meruisset habere puellae
Dulcia per propriae tempus consortia vitae. } [3]

The son procured lavish gifts of gold and diverse gems from his father’s treasury, and he gathered many friends. Then he went to ask Agnes to marry him. With him before her with rich gifts in his hands and in front of all his friends, she categorically rejected him:

O death’s son, deserving perennial condemnations,
O crime’s tinder, you who despise the All-Mighty,
depart from me quickly, flee and go away.
Do not believe that you can pervert my pure
heart, to which has already come the sweet love of a far nobler
lover, whose beautiful sign of faith I bear
upon my brow as well as throughout my whole body.
He has signed me and bound me strictly to himself,
so that my mind should not presume to seek any other
lover, but rather learn to embrace him alone,
who is potent in all manliness and properly resplendent,
who is far above all divine and mortal ones.

{ O fili mortis merito dampnande perennis,
O fomes sceleris, contemptor et omnipotentis,
Discedens a me citius fugiendo recede,
Nec credas te posse meum pervertere purum
Cor, quod amatoris praevenit nobilioris
Dulcis amor, pulchrum cuius fidei fero signum
In facie summa necnon in corpore toto,
Quo me signavit strictimque sibi religavit,
Ne mea mens alium iam praesumpsisset amicum
Quaerere, sed solum complecti disceret illum,
Qui virtute potens omnique decore refulgens
Caelestes et mortales supereminet omnes. } [4]

Men have long endured a highly unequal gender burden of amorous rejection. While most men have experienced rejection in love many times, surely few have been called “death’s son” and been so harshly scorned. Men compete aggressively and sometimes even violently with each other for women’s love. But Agnes was in love with Jesus Christ himself. No mortal man can compete with Jesus Christ in loving a woman.

Symphronius’s son suffered greatly from Agnes’s brutal rejection of him. He groaned and grieved and languished in bitter sorrow. He went to bed and remained in bed, deathly ill. Physicians were unable to cure him. They eventually understood that he suffered from mortal lovesickness. The physicians told Symphronius of his son’s terrible disease.

Woke to the gender injustices that men endure, Symphronius became furious. He and his son followed the dominant, traditional Greco-Roman religion in contrast to Agnes’s Christianity. Symphronius thus ordered Agnes to become a Vestal Virgin if she wanted to remain a virgin. He didn’t merely issue this order as a Roman high judge. Symphronius also drew upon his seductive skills with women to make it effective. Agnes, however, fiercely refused to serve a non-Christian god:

so first subject to many artful temptations —
now being seduced by the mouth of the flattering judge,
now threats of the raging executioner —
she stood steadfast in her fierce strength,
and her body to harsh torture
freely offered, not refusing to die.

{ temptata multis nam prius artibus,
nunc ore blandi iudicis inlice,
nunc saevientis carnificis minis,
stabat feroci robore pertinax
corpusque duris excruciatibus
ultro offerebat non renuens mori. } [5]

Symphronius in response moved to match Agnes’s fierceness:

Then the fierce tyrant says, “If it’s easy for her
to bear the pain of crushing punishment,
and she spurns her life as worthless, still her chastity
as a vowed virgin is dear to her.
Hence into a common brothel I’ll thrust her,
surely so, if she doesn’t bow her head to the altar,
having asked pardon of Minerva,
a virgin-goddess whom she continues to despise.
All the young men will hurry there and
request her fresh flesh for their games.”

{ tum trux tyrannus: “si facile est,” ait,
“poenam subactis ferre doloribus
et vita vilis spernitur, at pudor
carus dicatae virginitatis est.
hanc in lupanar trudere publicum
certum est, ad aram ni caput applicat
ac de Minerva iam veniam rogat,
quam virgo pergit temnere virginem.
omnis iuventus inruet et novum
ludibriorum mancipium petet.” }

Not all young men are like that. Moreover, men deserve better than having sex with a prostitute. The truly Christian Agnes refused to have men pay her for sex. Symphronius in response ordered that Agnes stand exposed in a public square.

What is a man to do when he knows that a beautiful woman is naked in a public place? By her own free choice, Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry. Peeping Tom shouldn’t have been killed for taking a look. The situation with Agnes was different. Agnes had been directly compelled to stand naked in public. Almost everyone responded rightly:

As she stands, the sorrowful crowd flees,
their faces averted, not being so insolent
as to look upon her awe-inspiring genital area.
One strong man shamelessly turns
his head toward the young woman, not fearing
to gaze with his lustful eyes upon her holy form.

{ stantem refugit maesta frequentia,
aversa vultus, ne petulantius
quisquam verendum conspiceret locum.
Intendit unus forte procaciter
os in puellam nec trepidat sacram
spectare formam lumine lubrico. } [6]

Many literature professors today teach students that the male gaze is a criminal act tantamount to rape. Sadly, even nearly two millennia ago a strong, young man suffered mortally for his male gaze upon the naked Agnes:

Look! A swift flame like a thunderbolt,
throbbing and burning, strikes his eyes.
Blinded by the blazing light, blown
down, his body shudders in the square’s dust.
His companions carry him, almost killed, from the soil,
weeping with words for one soon to be dead.

{ en ales ignis fulminis in modum
vibratur ardens atque oculos ferit.
caecus corusco lumine corruit
atque in plateae pulvere palpitat.
tollunt sodales seminecem solo
verbisque deflent exequialibus. } [7]

Yet death wasn’t the end of this young man’s life. Agnes was a warm-hearted Christian woman with compassion for men. Agnes saved this young man from death’s darkness and seeing only the horrors of hell:

they have reported that she was asked to pour out
prayers to Christ, so that Christ would restore light
to the guilty one laid low in death. Then the young man’s
life-breath was renewed and his vision made complete.

{ sunt qui rogatam rettulerint preces
fudisse Christo, redderet ut reo
lucem iacenti: tunc iuveni halitum
vitae innovatum visibus integris. }

Oh, Saint Agnes, you are a beautiful woman. Blessed are all men through your compassion for men!

Saint Agnes in going to her death appreciated men’s vigorous masculine vitality and defied historical brutalization of men’s sexuality. As her executioner approached, she boldly proclaimed:

I rejoice that such a more able one comes,
an impetuous, fierce, wild, armed man,
rather than if one would come limp and soft,
a delicate young man dripping with perfume —
such would waste me with the death of my chastity.
This, this lover now coming, I confess, he pleases me.
I will meet his in-rushing course half-way;
I will not delay my burning desire.
His whole hard blade into my breast I will receive;
I will draw the force of his sword deep into my heart.

{ exulto talis quod potius venit,
vesanus, atrox, turbidus, armiger,
quam si veniret languidus ac tener
mollisque ephebus tinctus aromate,
qui me pudoris funere perderet.
hic, hic amator iam, fateor, placet:
ibo inruentis gressibus obviam,
nec demorabor vota calentia:
ferrum in papillas omne recepero
pectusque ad imum vim gladii traham. } [8]

The executioner, respecting Saint Agnes’s fine mind, cut off her head rather than stab into her breast. According to Prudentius’s Passio Agnetis, the spirit of this wonderful woman, accompanied by angels, immediately rose into Heaven. Moreover, the world now lies beneath her feet, and from Heaven, Saint Agnes laughs at the world’s follies.

Vessel of election, vessel of honor,
flower of uncorrupted fragrance,
beloved of angels’ choirs,
your figure of honored chastity
you display through the ages.

{ Vas electum, vas honoris,
incorrupti flos odoris,
angelorum grata choris,
honestatis et pudoris
formam praebes saeculo. } [9]

The eminent Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan and one of most influential church officials of the fourth century, shows the gynocentric tendency against which Saint Agnes witnessed. Ambrose recounted how, after the machinations of her mother has caused Thecla to be condemned to wild beasts, the beasts adored Thecla:

Thecla changed even beasts’ nature through their reverence for virginity. For indeed readied to go to the wild animals, Thecla, while turning away from men’s gaze, offered her very vitals to a fierce lion. She thus made those who brought forth impure eyes to bring back pure ones. The beast was seen lying on the ground, licking her feet, with mute testimony calling out that it could not violate the body of the holy virgin. Thus the beast adored his prey, and forgetful of his own nature, had put on a nature that men had lost. You could see that by some transfusion of nature, men had put on wildness and were commanding the beast to savagery. The beast was kissing the virgin’s feet and so teaching what men owed to her. … The lions taught religion when they adored the martyr. What they taught was chastity, when they did nothing but kiss the virgin’s soles with their eyes turned to the ground, as if from awed reverence, not any male, not even a beast, should see the virgin naked.

{ naturam etiam bestiarum virginitatis veneratione mutavit. Namque parata ad feras, cum aspectus quoque declinaret virorum, ac vitalia ipsa saevo offerret leoni, fecit ut qui impudicos detulerant oculos, pudicos referrent. Cernere erat lingentem pedes bestiam cubitare humi, muto testificantem sono quod sacrum virginis corpus violare non posset. Ergo adorabat praedam suam bestia et propriae oblita naturae, naturam induerat quam homines amiserant. Videres quadam naturae transfusione homines feritatem indutos, saevitiam imperare bestiae: bestiam exosculantem pedes virginis, docere quid homines deberent. … Docuerunt religionem dum adorant martyrem docuerunt etiam castitatem, dum virgini nihil aliud nisi plantas exosculantur, demersis in terram oculis, tamquam verecundantibus, ne mas aliquis vel bestia virginem nudam videret. } [10]

Ambrose thus figured men in their sexual desires as worse than wild lions. Ambrose urged upon men the gynocentric norm of kissing women’s feet. Kissing his wife’s feet didn’t work out well for General Belisarius in sixth-century Byzantium. Dehumanizing men hurts men, corrupts relations between women and men, and ultimately destroys society.

In concluding his account of Saint Agnes, the learned Roman author Prudentius recognized with keen foresight the importance of Saint Agnes for men today. Saint Agnes looked with favor on the man killed for his male gaze. Her propitiating face led to his resurrection. Just as Saint Paul’s Christian teaching transforms Jacob’s dog-like sexuality into a sacrament, Saint Agnes redeems men’s impure passions:

O happy virgin, O new glory,
noble dweller in Heaven’s height,
on our impure outpourings turn
your face with its twin crowns.
The father of all has given you alone the power
to render even a brothel itself guiltless.
I shall be cleansed by the brightness of your propitiating
face, if you satiate my organ of passion.
Nothing is unchaste that you, blessed one,
deem worthy to view or with your gracious foot touch.

{ O virgo felix, o nova gloria,
caelestis arcis nobilis incola,
intende nostris conluvionibus
vultum gemello cum diademate,
cui posse soli cunctiparens dedit
castum vel ipsum reddere fornicem.
Purgabor oris propitiabilis
fulgore, nostrum si iecur inpleas.
nil non pudicum est, quod pia visere
dignaris almo vel pede tangere. } [11]

Men don’t kiss Saint Agnes’s feet. Her feet graciously touch men’s earthy humanity. Men surely deserve better than a brothel, and so Saint Agnes makes the brothel guiltless.

In asking Saint Agnes to fill his organ of passion, literally his liver {iecur}, Prudentius recast the ancient Greek male-goat song of Prometheus. Prometheus was a male prisoner who continually cried out about the injustices that he was enduring. The vital importance of Prometheus’s generosity and creative capacity was ultimately recognized. The head male god in charge of the cosmos Zeus, acting of course under the will of his wife Hera, had Heracles set Prometheus free. The freed Prometheus received a crown woven from the branches of the agnes castus tree. In ancient Greek ritual, the agnes castus tree is associated both with supporting sexual continence and promoting sexual fruitfulness. Prudentius, which in Latin literally means foresight, associated himself with Prometheus, which in Greek literally means forethought. By having Saint Agnes fill his liver, Prudentius gains the blessing of Saint Agnes on men’s sexuality.[12]

John Keats’s famous poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” romantically emplots Saint Agnes’s redemptive compassion for the male gaze. This poem centers on Madeline. She is a young woman living in a cold, sterile, gynocentric fantasy world. All the wintry day long through to St. Agne’s Eve (January 21), Madeline’s heart brooded:

On love, and wing’d St. Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare. [13]

Through their vital knowledge of medieval Latin literature, the old dames told Madeline about a particular ritual:

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

Twas said her future lord would there appear
Offering as sacrifice — all in the dream —
Delicious food even to her lips brought near:
Viands and wine and fruit and sugar’d cream,
To touch her palate with the fine extreme
Of relish: then soft music heard; and then
More pleasure followed in a dizzy stream
Palpable almost: then to wake again
Warm in the virgin morn, no weeping Magdalen. [14]

Madeline, not yet fully taught to be emotionally dead, “sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.” With faith and hope, she resolved to follow the ritual of St. Agnes’s Eve, as the old women told.

Porphyro, a figure of Prometheus, brought to Madeline the warmth of flesh-and-blood love. Porphyro in Greek means fire-bearer. He was a young man of fiery passion. Seeking for Madeline, he dared to enter her dark, dangerous, gynocentric castle. There he encountered Angela, an old woman and a long-time friend to both him and Madeline. Porphyro learned from Angela that Madeline was performing the ritual of St. Agnes’s Eve. A thought like a rose blooming came to Porphyro. He would hide in the closet in Madeline’s room, gaze upon her naked body, and then transform her dream into reality. Angela was horrified:

A cruel man and impious thou art:
Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
Alone with her good angels, far apart
From wicked men like thee. Go, go! — I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.

No dumb, fake angel, Angela came to understand. She agreed to help Porphyro make real the ritual of Saint Agnes’s Eve.[15]

After gazing upon Madeline naked, Porphyro watched her get into bed and go to sleep. Then he set about to make real her dream:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—
“And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes’ sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”

Madeline didn’t wake. Porphyro then got up and with a lute played for her the sad medieval song, “La belle dame sans mercy.” Madeline uttered a soft moan. Her blue eyes opened wide. Perhaps Saint Agnes’s witness of mercy toward the man who had gazed on her naked flashed in Madeline’s mind and stirred her heart and soul. Madeline spoke:

“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”

Porphyro wrapped his arms around her and pressed his heart against her heart. They spent the night together in bed.[16] Then they escaped from the dark, cold, gynocentric castle and fled away together into the storm.

Saint Mary of Egypt, pray for us!
Saint Thais, pray for us!
Saint Pelagia, pray for us!
Saint Mary the Harlot, pray for us!
Saint Mary Magdalen, pray for us!
Saint Eugenia, pray for us!
Saint Agnes, pray for us! [17]

nude Eve

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] John Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” 1.1 (cited by stanza.verse). Keats wrote this poem in 1819.

[2] Song of Songs 2:16-7, Hebrew text (Westminster Leningrad Codex) via Blue Letter Bible.

[3] Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, The Passion of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr {Passio Sanctae Agnetis virginis et martyris} vv. 45-50, Latin text from Wiegand (1936) p. 238, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Subsequent quotes from Passio Sanctae Agnetis are similarly sourced. Here’s a general account of Saint Agnes of Rome and her cult. Hrosvitha, like many women writers of the Middle Ages, had loving concern for men.

Writing in the tenth century, Hrosvitha for her Passio Sanctae Agnetis drew mainly upon an earlier epistle on the life of Saint Agnes. That epistle, written no later than the sixth century and known as Gesta Agnetis, was falsely attributed to Ambrose of Milan. The Latin text of Gesta Agnetis is available in Patrologia Latina 17 as Ambrosius Mediolanensis Incertus, Epistolae 1. For an English translation, Anonymous (1896) pp. 354-62 (translation by the South African Rev. Dr. Kolbe for the South African Catholic Magazine). For textual history and analysis of Gesta Agnetis, Poché (2015) pp. 208-19.

Literary scholarship on the life Agnes and other early Christian women martyrs shows a dispiriting trajectory of intellectual decay from the time of Hrosvitha and other brilliant, creative medieval thinkers to our day of academic gynocentric apparatchiks. Behold the deadening force of omnipresent scholarly orthodoxy:

how much female audacity could the late ancient church really tolerate? The answer seems clear enough: not much. The question of why is more intriguing but best approached, I believe, along routes both circuitous and digressive. This essay follows one such indirect path toward interpreting the particular “patriarchalism” of late ancient Christianity. …

I suggest that we take careful note of the masculine self-representation of fourth century Christian orthodoxy, recognizing further the distinctive assertiveness and ambiguity of the emerging Christian rhetoric of masculinity. The assertiveness of this masculinized speech illumines the competitive rhetorical economy within which it seeks to usurp the privileged maleness of the classical discourse. Its ambiguity constitutes both its vulnerability and its peculiar power — on the one hand introducing the uncertainty that demands constant reassertion, on the other hand allowing a “bending” of gender identity through which the strategies of both a feminized resistance and a masculinized hegemony can be mobilized simultaneously. …

Through the manipulation of the figure of the lion, the subjugating force of male sexual violence has not been defeated so much as sublimated. On one reading at least, the lion’s averted, feminized gaze continues paradoxically to restrain the virgin; the very gesture of honoring her — indeed, of freely mirroring her feminine subjugation — becomes itself the vehicle of her constraint.

Burrus (1995) pp. 25, 29, 33. That academia has not only tolerated but honored such work is ponderous, painfully testimony to our benighted age of ignorance and bigotry.

[4] Hrosvitha, Passio Sanctae Agnetis vv. 61-72. Hrosvitha toned down Agnes’s disparagement of Symphronius’s son in her source Gesta Agnetis. In the latter, for proposing marriage to her, Agnes called Symphronius’s son “fomenter of sin, nurturer of wickedness, pabulum of death {fomes peccati, nutrimentum facinoris, pabulum mortis}.” Gesta Agnetis 1.3. Latin text and English translation from Poché (2015) p. 210.

[5] Prudentius, Book about the Crowns {Liber Peristephanon} 14, The Passion of Agnes {Passio Agnetis} vv. 15-20, Latin text from Thomson (1949) vol. 1, p. 338, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Subsequent quotes from Peristephanon, Passio Agnetis are similarly sourced. Clutching my Rosary offers an easily accessible Latin text and alternate translation of Prudentius’s Passio Agnetis. The subsequent quote above is from Passio Agnetis vv. 21-30 (Then the fierce tyrant says ….).

Prudentius (Aurelius Prudentius Clemens) was born in 348 GC in Spain. After serving as a government official under the Roman Emperor Theodosius, Prudentius retired in his 50s to devote himself to literature and prayer. Little else is known about Prudentius’s biography. On Prudentius’s life, Malamud (1989) pp. 274-5.

Prudentius regarded names as semantically significant. The name Symphronius is from Greek. It means literally “collected practical wisdom.” That name is appropriate in the context of Symphronius’s Roman office and actions. While Prudentius doesn’t specifically name Symphronius, his name may have already been well-known in the story of the Christian martyr Agnes.

The name Agnes comes from the Greek adjective ἁγνός, meaning “chaste.” The Latin word agna means “female lamb.” Pious representations of Saint Agnes often depict her holding a lamb. Prudentius, however, also associated Agnes with the she-wolf. In Peristephanon, Passio Agnetis v. 1, Prudentius declared, “The tomb of Agnes is in Romulus’s home {Agnes sepulcrum est Romulea in domo}.” Romulus, along with his twin Remus, were founders of Rome. Sons of Mars and a Vestal Virgin, Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf {lupa}. Agnes herself was condemned to a brothel, literally a house of the she-wolf {lupanar}. Under gynocentrism, women tend to be figured as innocent lambs, and men as ravenous wolves. Prudentius defied that anti-men gender stereotype. Cf. Malamud (1989) pp. 289, 292.

[6] Peristephanon, Passio Agnetis vv. 40-45.

Following the line of literary scholarship that promotes mass incarceration of men and supports rape-culture culture, Leme reports in describing Passio Agnetis “one, who dares to violate the virgin with his sight, as if raping her with the gaze.” Leme (2019) p. 439. Professor Lilia Melani teaches students at CUNY Brooklyn that Anges was “condemned to be executed after being raped all night in a brothel; however, a miraculous thunderstorm saved her from rape.” According to Burrus, the judge “invokes the threat of rape” and “martyrdom may be identified with rape.” Burrus (1995) pp. 35, 36. According to Malamud, the judge condemning Agnes to work in a brothel provided “substitution of rape for death.” Malamud (1989a) p. 159. Sexually impovished men who hire sex workers should not without reason be charged with raping those sex workers. Literary scholars, like most persons, remain largely ignorant about the reality of rape.

Regarding Agnes’s verendus locus, Malamud stated:

Even the mention of her exposed genitals is avoided by the neutral periphrasis verendum locum.{ft. 11}
{ft. 11} The virgin in Palladius’ parallel account uses a similar periphrasis — she {Agnes} tells her suitors that she has a sore in a kekrummenon topon, “hidden place” (Palladius Hist. Lau. 65.3).

Malamud (1989a) p. 163. Within ne petulantius / quisquam verendum conspiceret locum (Passio Agnetis vv. 41-2), for verendum locum Thomson has “her modesty” and Malamud “the fearful place.” Thomson (1949) p. 341, Malamud (1989a) p. 163, Malamud (1989b) p. 291.

Underscoring modern philology’s structural gender bias, verendus locus in Passio Agnetis has been translated poorly. In Palladius, the reference to the virgin’s “hidden place {κεκρυμμενον τοπον}” might accurately be called a “neutral periphrasis.” However, verendus locus in Passio Agnetis is far from a neutral paraphrasis. In ancient Greek and Latin literature, in contrast to representations of men’s genitals, the genitals of young women are overwhelmingly represented as being extremely beautiful, like a rose. As many men have throughout the ages, the strong young man in Passio Agnetis desired to gaze upon the genitals of a young, beautiful woman. The correct English translation of verendus should recognize the powerful attractiveness of young women’s genitals to men, and men’s awe and reverence for young women’s genitals. The relevant meaning of verendus is clearly attested:

Neptune removed their mortal essenses,
Clothed them in majesty and awe, and changed
Features and names alike, the boy to be
Palaemon, and his mother Leucothoe.

{ Adnuit oranti Neptunus et abstulit illis,
quod mortale fuit, maiestatemque verendam
inposuit nomenque simul faciemque novavit
Leucothoeque deum cum matre Palaemona dixit. }

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.539-42, English translation by A.D. Melville. Similarly:

Yet by my husband’s bones, badly covered in a hurried tomb,
Bones always to be revered in my mind

{ Per tamen ossa viri subito male tecta sepulcro,
semper iudiciis ossa verenda meis }

Ovid, Heroides 3.103-4, English translation (which I have adapted slightly, not concerning the word verendus) by James M. Hunter. In his Vulgate translation of Genesis 9:22 and Deuteronomy 25:11, Jerome used verenda to refer to men’s genitals. Jerome’s Vulgate thus insightfully evokes reverence for God and God’s blessing of the Jews in relation to men’s genitals. Malamud, following an anti-meninist direction of recent classical studies, interprets verendus locus in Passio Agnetis completely opposite to objective, philological truth. Malamud (1989a) pp. 161-4.

[7] Peristephanon, Passio Agnetis vv. 46-51. Prudentius uses alliteration to emphasize the thunderbolt striking the young man. My English translation uses alliteration similarly. The subsequent quote is from vv. 57-60 (they have reported…).

[8] Peristephanon, Passio Agnetis vv. 69-78. Malamud observed:

her final speech is disturbing enough to have evoked the dismay of Prudentius’ French editor, Lavarenne, who calls it a speech ‘shamefully lacking in innocence.’ More than simply lacking in innocence, Agnes’ speech makes it only too clear that she envisions her death as an explicitly sexual act, and one which she welcomes.

Malamud (1989b) p. 291; similarly, Malamud (1989a) pp. 169-70. The beheading of Agnes Malamud interprets within obfuscatory gynocentric idealogy concerning the regulation of sexuality.

[9] Adam of Saint Victor, Sequence venerating Saint Agnes, vv. 67-71, Latin text via Clutching my Rosary, my English translation. The Latin text and an alternate English translation is also available on Traditional Catholic Prayers. Adam of Saint Victor was a monk at the Abbey of St. Victor on the outskirts of Paris in the twelfth century. Mary, the greatly revered mother of Jesus, reportedly honored Adam of Saint Victor for his poetic work celebrating her.

[10] Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, Concerning virgins, to Marcellina, his sister {De virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem suam} Bk. 2, para. 19-20 (chapter 3), Latin text from Patrologia Latinae 16.197-244, my English translation, benefiting from that of De Romestin, de Romestin & Duckworth (1896) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 10 (alt. presentation). Ambrose wrote De virginibus in 377 GC.

In De virginibus, Bk. 2, Ch. 4, Ambrose tells of a virgin of Antioch. She was condemned to a brothel because she refused to honor idols. A man soldier, however, entered the brothel to take her place and help her escape. He was then martyred. Like many men killed throughout history, his name has been forgotten, and his sacrifice for women scarcely remembered. For a similar story, Palladius of Galatia, Lausiac History {Historia Lausiaca} 65.

[11] Peristephanon, Passio Agnetis vv. 124-33.  Cf. the priestly benediction of Numbers 6:22-6.

[12] On Prometheus receiving a crown, Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 15.13.672E-F, 15.16.674D. On the agnus castus plant in relation to Prudentius’s Passio Agnetis, Malamud (1989a) pp. 172-5, Malamud (1989b) pp. 292-4.

Malamud helpfully directs attention to Prudentius’s relation to Prometheus, but interprets that relation loosely and abstractly:

ambivalent Agnes, whose trials complete the garland of the Peristephanon, becomes the equivalent of Prometheus’ willow crown: the symbol of Prudentius’ mastery of the creative force of poetic binding as well as of the chains of the flesh from which he longs to escape.

Malamud (1989a) pp. 176-7. Alternately:

ambivalent Agnes, whose trials complete the garland of the Peristephanon, becomes the equivalent of Prometheus’ willow crown: a token of the competing claims of artist and God for ultimate textual authority, and a sign that Prudentius has attempted, with great and perhaps unconscious audacity, to reinscribe his relationship with the Christian God within a paradigm that promises the ultimate vindication of the artist.

Malamud (1989b) p. 296. Passio Agnetis is centrally concerned with Christian commitment, virginity, men’s sexuality, and martyrdom. Prometheus, like men persecuted for the “crime” of seeking women’s love (“seducing women”), was a prisoner-martyr. Prudentius’s conclusion to Passio Agnetis directly relates to its central concerns and fundamental issues in men’s lives.

Prudentius’s poetry is enormously ambitious. Not merely acting like a pagan poet casting his poetry out in a bottle onto the waves of the ocean, Prudentius imagined his words to be ultimately incarnated:

Prudentius, by effacing the distinctions between his own poem and first the inscription, then the painting, and ultimately the martyr’s body itself, gives the impression that what he describes is not bounded by any physical limitations.

Fielding (2014) p. 819. To Prudentius, poetic immortality meant bodily resurrection. Pelttari (2019). The bodily resurrection of Jesus, a fully masculine man, is a type for the bodily redemption that all men need today under gynocentrism. Prudentius had faith that, at least in the fullness of time, women and men who read his poems would realize it.

[13] Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” 5.8-9. Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from this poem. For accessible, critical perspectives on this poem, Chen (2019) pp. 216-58, Dorn (2017),  and Gilbreath (1986).

[14] In Keats’s final manuscript version of “The Eve of St Agnes,” the second stanza quoted above was between the published stanzas 6 and 7. Richard Woodhouse, a legal and literary advisor to Keats’s publisher John Taylor, objected to that stanza as well as to other aspects of the final manuscript version:

I do apprehend it will render the poem unfit for ladies, & indeed scarcely to be mentioned to them among the “things that are.”

Letter of Richard Woodhouse to John Taylor, September 12, 1819, from Rollins (1958) II.162-3, quoted by Stillinger (1963) pp. 208-9. That stanza was thus deleted from the published version of “The Eve of St Agnes.”

Sources for the St. Agnes’s Eve ritual describe a vision of one’s lover or husband. John Aubrey reported an account in a masque of the eminent English playwright Ben Jonson:

And on sweet Saint Agnes Night
Please you with the promis’d sight,
Some of Husbands, some of Lovers,
Which an empty Dream discovers.

From Aubrey (1696) Ch. XIII, Magick. Ben Jonson died in 1637, hence the ritual was known before then. Aubrey recounted that a woman testified to him that using a similar ritual, she saw her future husband. For later witnesses to the St. Agnes’s Eve ritual, Brand (1777) pp. 19-20.

None of the sources for the St. Agnes’s Eve ritual mention nakedness. Keats probably found that element in some account of the life of St. Agnes. For speculation that Keats read Sherling’s The Life of the Blessed St. Agnes: Virgin and Martyr in Prose and Verse, published in 1677, Chen (2019) pp. 232-4. Keats’s poetic insertion of ritual nakedness into “The Eve of St. Agnes” underscores the importance of St. Agnes’s saving intercession for the young man who gazed on her naked and was struck dead.

[15] Literary scholars have been more obtuse than Angela. In an enormously influential article, Stillinger described these stanzas as representing “peeping-Tomism.” Shrewdly perceiving and supporting gynocentrism, Stillinger confessed his gynocentric merit “in admittedly exaggerated fashion portraying him {Porphyro} as peeping Tom and villainous seducer.” Stillinger (1961) pp. 540, 546. Pathetic, boot-licking male anti-meninists have done enormous cultural damage.

John Keats himself suffered from internalized anti-meninism. In July, 1818, Keats confessed to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “When I am among Women I have evil thoughts.” In his copy of Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Keats wrote:

There is nothing disgraces me in my own eyes so much as being one of a race of eyes nose and mouth beings in a planet call’d the earth who . . . have always mingled goatish winnyish lustful love with the abstract adoration of the deity.

Quoted in Stillinger (1961) pp. 546-7.

[16] Keats’s final manuscript version more directly communicated the physical intimacy that Madeline and Porphyro enjoyed:

See, while she speaks his arms encroaching slow,
Have zoned her, heart to heart, — loud, loud the dark winds blow!

For on the midnight came a tempest fell;
More sooth, for that his quick rejoinder flows
Into her burning ear: and still the spell
Unbroken guards her in serene repose.
With her wild dream he mingled, as a rose
Marrieth its odour to a violet.
Still, still she dreams, louder the frost wind blows.

“The Eve of St. Agnes,” final manuscript version of the last two verses of stanza XXXV and first seven verses of stanza XXXVI, quoted by Stillinger (1963) p. 210.

While lacking due concern for the structural gender bias in criminalizing men, Weiner perceptively observed:

We may question, at least at this point in the poem, Porphyro’s act of robbing Madeline of something she might have lost under more conventional circumstances, but the fact remains that, as his name and its associated imagery of fire suggest, he represents the only genuine warmth in the poem, the only one capable of melting the iced stream of Madeline’s cold and stagnant paradise.

The cold imagery associated with Madeline’s dream world and its guardian moon brings into focus what was for Keats the primary fallacy of the Edenic myth: its unwillingness to accept the potentialities for growth in a world of process because such a world inevitably involves pain. In her paradisal world, Madeline becomes “Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain” (line 240), “Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain, / As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again” (lines 242-243). If she has no pain or rain in such a world, she also has no joy or sunshine; the blissful protection offered by this Eden is highly ironic since the only kind of bliss to be found in a world without joy is a stuporous insensitivity.

Wiener (1980) p. 123.

[17] A litany loosely modeled on the Litany of the Saints {Litaniae Sanctorum}. A Litany of the Saints was used in Christian liturgy in the sixth century under Pope Gregory the Great. In the Roman Catholic Church today, the Litany of the Saints is commonly sung during the Easter Vigil. According to the Order of Chants for the Mass {Ordo Cantus Missae} that Pope Paul VI issued in 1972:

saints and blesseds whose names appear in the Church’s Martyrology may be added “at the proper place (suis locis) in the Litany”; and it also allows for other petitions “suitable to the occasion” and in the form proper to the Litany to be added “at the proper place”.

From Fitzgerald (2008). The litany above has not yet been officially approved for liturgical use by any Christian church bureaucracy. All persons, however, are free to pray it, sing it, ponder it, meditate upon it, etc.

[images] (1) Porphyro realizing the ritual of St. Agnes’s Eve for Madeline. Central image from a triptych made by Arthur Hughes in 1856. Preserved as ref. # N04604 in the Tate (London, UK). (2) Eve. Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Made in 1528. Preserved as catalog # 00286591 in the Galleria Uffizi (Florence, Italy). Reflecting the biblical unity of male and female, Lucas Cranach painted a similar picture of Adam.

References:

Anonymous. 1896. “More about St. Agnes.” The Irish Monthly. 24 (277): 350-364.

Aubrey, John. 1696. Miscellanies upon the following subjects. London: Printed for Edward Castle.

Brand, John. 1777. Observations on popular antiquities: including the whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares, with addenda. Newcastle upon Tyne: printed by T. Saint, for J. Johnson, London.

Burrus, Virginia. 1995. “Reading Agnes: The Rhetoric of Gender in Ambrose and Prudentius.” Journal of Early Christian Studies. 3 (1): 25-46.

Chen, Kang-Po. 2019. Rethinking the Concept of Obscenity: the erotic subject and self-annihilation in the works of Blake, Shelley and Keats. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Edinburgh.

Dorn, V Ron. 2017. ‘Balancing Act: Power in Both the Male and Female Gazes in John Keats’ “On the Eve of St Agnes.”Owlcation. Online.

Fielding, Ian. 2014. “Elegiac Memorial and the Martyr as Medium in Prudentius’ Peristephanon.” Classical Quarterly. 64 (2): 808-820.

Fitzgerald, William. 2008. “The Litany of Saints in the Liturgy: About Adding Names of Saints and Blesseds.” Adoremus 14 (8). Available online.

Gilbreath, Marcia L. 1986. The Apocalyptic Marriage: eros and agape in Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes. M.A. Thesis (English, no. 6299). North Texas State University.

Leme, Fernando Gorab. 2019. “Prudentius’ Metamorphoses.” Pp. 417-443 in Paulo Martins, Alexandre Hadegawa, Joāo Angelo Olivia Neto, eds. Augustan Poetry: New Trends and Revaluations. Humanitas: São Paulo.

Malamud, Martha A. 1989a. A Poetics of Transformation: Prudentius and classical mythology. Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, 49. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Malamud, Martha. 1989b. “Making A Virtue of Perversity: The Poetry of Prudentius.” Ramus. 19 (1): 64-88.

Pelttari, Aaron. 2019. “The Reader and the Resurrection in Prudentius.” Journal of Roman Studies. 109: 205-239.

Poché, Eric. 2015. Agnes in Agony: Damasus, Ambrose, Prudentius, and the Construction of the Female Martyr Narrative. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of History, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Roberts, Michael John. 1993. Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs: the Liber Peristephanon of Prudentius. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. 1958. Letters of John Keats. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Stillinger, Jack. 1961. ‘The Hoodwinking of Madeline: Scepticism in “The Eve of St. Agnes.”’ Studies in Philology. 58 (3): 533-555.

Stillinger, Jack. 1963. ‘The Text of “The Eve of St. Agnes.”’ Studies in Bibliography. 16: 207-212.

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

Wiegand, Sister M. Gonsalva. 1936. The Non-Dramatic Works of Hrosvitha: text, translation, and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis. St. Louis University.

Wiener, David. 1980. ‘The Secularization of the Fortunate Fall in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.”’ Keats-Shelley Journal. 29: 120-130.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month [email protected] day *