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Christian poet of the fifth century

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Sedulius, Christian poet of the fifth century. The name of Calius, which at times precedes that of Sedulius, finds but little confirmation in the manuscripts. All our information regarding his personal history comes from two sources. Isidore of Seville in his “De viris illustribus” assigns Sedulius the seventh place, before Possidius, while Avitus and Dracontius have respectively the twenty-third and twenty-fourth places. On the other hand, some manuscripts of Sedulius contain a biographical notice which may have been written by Gennadius. This account represents Sedulius as a layman, who lived at first in Italy and was devoted to the study of philosophy; consequently he probably wrote his works in Achaia during the reign of Theodosius the Younger (d. 450) and of Valentinian III (d. 455).

The principal work of Sedulius is a poem in five books called “Carmen paschale”. The first book contains a summary of the Old Testament; the four others a summary of the New Testament. A prose introduction dedicates the work to a priest named Macedonius. The author says that he had given himself at first to secular studies and to the “barren diversions” of secular poetry. The poem is skillfully written and is more original than that of Juvencus. Sedulius takes for granted a knowledge of the story of the Gospels, and this enables him to treat his subject more freely. He gives his attention chiefly to the thoughts and sentiments which would naturally arise from meditations on the sacred writings. He pays, however, less care to uniting the various parts and making of them a coherent recital. He follows usually the Gospel of St. Matthew. His ordinary method of exegesis consists of allegory and symbolism. Thus the four Evangelists correspond to the four seasons, the twelve Apostles to the twelve hours of the day and the twelve months, the four arms of the cross to the four cardinal points. The style is a skillful imitation and shows evidences of an extensive reading of Terence, Tibullus, Ovid, Lucan, and above all of Virgil. At times the rhetoric is unfortunately influenced by what he has read, as in the ten lines (V, 59-68) of invective against Judas. It is, however, in the prose paraphrase of the “Carmen”, the “Opus paschale”, that the most unfortunate impression is produced. In the poem the language of Sedulius is dignified and almost classic, in the prose version it becomes diffuse, pretentious, and incorrect. The prose version, the “Opus paschale” was written at the request of the priest Macedoniu6 in order, as it appears, to fill up the gaps of the poem. Facts scarcely indicated in the “Carmen” are treated at length in the “Opus”, and the expressions borrowed from the Bible give the work a more ecclesiastical character.

Sedulius also wrote two hymns. One is epanaleptic in form, that is, in the distich; the second half of the pentameter repeats the first half of the hexameter. Up to line 48 the author sets in opposition the types of the Old Testament and the realities of the New, a theme very favorable to epanalepsis. The poem is only of interest for the history of typology. In the sequence of these 110 lines other antitheses are utilized, notably those of the benefits of God and of the ingratitude of man. The other hymn is abecedarian. It is composed of twenty-three strophes, each of which commences with a letter of the alphabet. The strophe is made of four iambic dimeters (eight syllables). The structure of these lines is generally correct, excepting an occasional hiatus and the lengthening of syllables when in difficulties. The poem is a summary of the story of the Gospels, treated very freely, for in 92 lines 40 relate the childhood of Christ. The diction is at the same time simple and distinguished, the style easy and concise. These qualities led the Church to take parts of this hymn for its offices: “A solis ortus cardine” for Christmas, and “Hostis Herodes impie” under the form of “Crudelis Herodes Deum” for Epiphany. It has also taken two lines of the “Carmen” (II, 63-64) to serve as the Introit in the Masses of the Blessed Virgin, “Salve Sancta Parens”.

The best edition of Sedulius is that of J. Huemer in the “Corp. script. eccl. lat.” (Vienna, 1885). From a note which is found in several manuscripts we learn that the works of Sedulius were edited as early as the fifth century by Turcius Rufius Asterius (consul in 494), author of a superscription in the Medicean manuscript of Virgil.


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