The following is a chapter from my doctoral dissertation, Person and Nature in the Theological Poems of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1994); it corresponds to pp. 122-142 of that work. The dissertation can be purchased through University Microfilms International (UMI), 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105-1346 USA, tel. (800) 521-0600; its UMI Number is 9522753. More easily accessible are the translations of St. Gregory’s poems that formed a central part of the dissertation; these were later published in a separate volume by St. Vladimir’s Press: On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus. Translated and introduced by Peter Gilbert (Crestwood, New York, 2001). To my knowledge, that book is still in print.

1. The Beginnings of Greek Christian Poetry
2. The Secular Literary Background
3. A Note on Critical Texts
4. The poems here translated

1. The Beginnings of Greek Christian Poetry

Finally, let us briefly survey the literary background to Gregory’s poetry. Christian poetry did not begin with the poems of St. Gregory the Theologian. Poetry had been an essential part of Christian worship and life from the earliest days of the Church. Whether one thinks of the Magnificat, the Gloria in excelsis Deo, and the Nunc Dimittis, in the Gospel of St. Luke, or of the hymn which Jesus sang with his disciples at the end of the last supper[1], or of the Psalms which Jesus recited as he hung upon the Cross, Scripture testifies to the importance of poetry in Jesus’ own life.[2] The Psalter was Jesus’ prayer book, and the prayer book of the early Church. And the prose hymns of the New Testament still form an important part of Christian worship. St. Paul in his epistles frequently gives citations from primitive Christian hymns; these include passages of christological importance (?1 Tim 2:5; Phil 2:5-11; Eph 4:4-6). Paul also distinguishes between “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). While it is not entirely clear how these differ, St. Paul’s language does imply that early Christians had different kinds of song: not only biblical hymns, but their own compositions.[3]

The earliest reference to Christianity in pagan literature is a testimony to Christian hymnody. The Younger Pliny reports to Rome, from Bithynia, of Christians singing at dawn to Christ “as to a god.”[4] Further evidence of early Christian poetry is found in the Odes of Solomon, discovered in 1905. These were originally written in Greek, although they exist now only in Syriac and Coptic translations. They already show Christian worship as centered upon personal communion with the divine Christ. It is unclear, however, when they were written, or whether they derive from an orthodox or gnostic group.[5]

Most early Christian hymnody followed the practice of the hymns of the Septuagint translation of the Bible, in being written in rhythmic prose. In the second century, however, Gnostics began composing hymns in more formal meters, to popularize their teachings. We know of the existence of a book of 150 hymns in Syriac by the Gnostic Bardesanes (Bar-Daisan) of Edessa, the founder of Syrian church hymnody; these hymns inspired orthodox writers, such as Aphrahat the Persian sage, to compose hymns in refutation of them. St. Ephraim the Syrian is believed to have borrowed substantially from Bardesanes’ hymns in composing his own poetry. Again, the Gnostic Valentinus composed psalms (see Tertullian, Carne Christi 17.20), of which a fragment is preserved by Hippolytus (Haeres. VI.37).

A most significant remnant of early Christian poetry is the hymn, in anapestic distichs, to Christ, tamer of unbroken colts, at the end of Clement of Alexandria’s Protrepticus. But neither in the case of this poem, nor in that of the poem in honor of virginity in Methodius of Olympus’s Symposium, the Partheneion, written in a free iambic rhythm, is it clear what effect these earlier Christian poets had upon Gregory’s poetry. He probably had read both poems, since he was familiar with the works of both authors. A. Puech[6] notes that the meter of one of Gregory’s two accentual hymns somewhat resembles that of Methodius’s Partheneion, at least in respect of its lacking a regular accentual beat. Clement’s poem, too, is metrically somewhat irregular, at least in its opening lines; perhaps the example of these poems suggested to Gregory that he could write better Christian verse (cf. one of the reasons he gives for why he writes poetry: “to see to it that strangers [i.e., pagans] should have no advantage over us in literature,” p·2.1.39,48-49). Clement’s and Methodius’s poems could also have served as a model for Gregory in his choice of subject-matter: virginity, and Christian morality in general, is the theme of much of his verse.
Alongside the important doctrinal developments of the fourth century, changes were occurring in the forms of Christian worship and life. It was in the fourth century that the liturgy assumed that form which it still possesses in the Greek-speaking church. One aspect of liturgical change was an effort on the part of many people, in various places, to introduce new forms of music into church services. (For instance, Basil instituted antiphonal singing in Caesarea, in imitation of the practice in other churches in the East; while Gregory at Constantinople appears to have instituted all-night psalmody among the monks: see Basil, epist. 207; Gregory, or. 42.26; p·2.1.11,1503.) This was less an orchestrated movement than a natural consequence of the Church’s new status in civil society: the Church was now a very public institution, and had to find new ways of getting its message across to a newly-evangelized, still semi-pagan population. One of the innovators in this regard was the the heresiarch Arius. The extant fragments of his Thalia constitute one of the few remaining specimens of popular Greek Christian hymnography from the fourth century. These were poems set to well-known tunes, and were popular on the dockyards of Alexandria.[7] As in the case of the Gnostics, music played an important role in the dissemination of new religious ideas in the fourth century. The orthodox soon responded with their own music: e.g., the Thalia generated an Anti-Thalia. It was probably such orthodox hymns, written in Greek in response to Arian propaganda, that St. Hilary of Poitiers encountered on his exile in Asia Minor in the 350s, and that inspired him to compose similar hymns in Latin (such hymns having been formerly unknown in that language).[8]

There was some orthodox reaction against this proliferation of popular hymnody. The traditional hymn-book of the Church was still the Psalter; and, in some places, doubtless in view of the questionable theological content of much of the new music, an effort was made to ensure that only the traditional, biblical hymnody would be allowed in church services. The fourth century Synod of Laodicea can be given only an approximate date, occurring between the years 343 and 381 A.D. Its 59th canon prohibits the singing of non-scriptural hymns, psalmi idiotici, in church: “No psalms composed by any private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments” (NPNF ii.14, pp. 158f.).[9] The sense of the expression psalmi idiotici may not be simply identical with non-biblical hymns, since already such hymns as the Φῶς ἱλαρόν and the Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις Θεῷ, both probably dating from the third century, were in common use in the Church. In any event, this synod was only of local authority, and Christian hymn-writing, both liturgical and popular, continued to flourish widely in the fourth century.

One substantial body of Greek Christian verse from the fourth century that we know of but no longer possess[10] is the biblical paraphrase of the Christian grammarian Apollinarius and of his more famous son of the same name, the later bishop of Laodicea in Syria (not to be confused with Laodicea in Asia Minor, from which came the aforementioned canon). During the time of Julian’s edict against Christians teaching the classics, these two are said to have made a heroic effort to translate the Bible into classical Greek literary forms, to provide Christians with a teaching tool. Socrates the ecclesiastical historian speaks of the father having written a “Christian grammar,” giving grammatical illustrations from Christian rather than from pagan authors (Socrates, Hist. eccl. 3.16). He also says that the father put the books of Moses and the historical books of the Old Testament into partly epic, partly dramatic verse, and that the son rewrote much of the New Testament in the form of Platonic dialogues. But these poems, he says, were now, a century later, almost wholly forgotten; their usefulness died when Julian did, soon after they were written, and his edict was revoked. Sozomen, who of the two historians seems the better informed upon Apollinarius and his sect, gives a somewhat different account of the poems, ascribing the poetry entirely to the son (Hist. eccl. 5.18). Apollinarius, he says,

“employed his great learning and ingenuity in the production of a heroic epic on the antiquities of the Hebrews to the reign of Saul, as a substitute for the poem of Homer.” (This sounds much like the father’s translation of the Books of Moses and the historical books of the Bible.) “He divided this work into twenty-four parts, to each of which he appended the name of one of the letters of the Greek alphabet, according to their number and order. He also wrote comedies in imitation of Menander, tragedies resembling those of Euripides, and odes on the mode of Pindar. In short, taking themes of the entire circle of knowledge from the Scriptures, he produced within a very brief space of time, a set of works which in manner, expression, character, and arrangement are well approved as similar to the Greek literature and which were equal in number and in force. Were it not for the extreme partiality with which the productions of antiquity are regarded, I doubt not but that the writings of Apollinarius would be held in as much estimation as those of the ancients.” (NPNF ii.2, p. 340.)

Sozomen also says, concerning the Apollinarian sect of Antioch, that,

“besides the customary sacred order, they sang some metrical songs (ἔμμετρά τινα μελύδρια) composed by Apollinarius; for, in addition to his other learning he was a poet, and skilled in a great variety of meters, and by their sweetness he induced many to cleave to him. Men sang his strains at convivial meetings and at their daily labor, and women sang them while negaged at the loom. But, whether his tender poems were adapted for holidays, festivals, or other occasions, they were all alike to the praise and glory of God.” (Sozomen, Hist. eccl., 6.25; NPNF ii.2, p. 362.)

These songs are undoubtedly the same ones St. Gregory refers to in his epist. 101 (PG 37.193A; NPNF ii.7, p. 443): “But if their long books, and their new Psalters (νέα ψαλτήρια), contrary to that of David, and the grace of their metres (ἡ τῶν μέτρων χάρις), are taken for a third Testament, we too will compose Psalms, and will write much in verse. For we also think we have the spirit of God, if indeed this is a gift (χάρις) of the Spirit, and not a human novelty (καὶ μὴ ἀνθρωπίνη καινοτομία).”

It is indeed a shame that we do not possess this poetry of Apollinarius’s; not only for its own inherent interest, but for the light it would shed on St. Gregory’s poems. In the text just quoted, Gregory indicates that Apollinarius’s poetry was an incentive to his own writing of poems. Apollinarius is undoubtedly implicated in what Gregory says at the beginning of his poem 2.1.39:

“Seeing many writing in this present life
words without measure (λόγους ἀμέτρους), smoothly rolling,
who pass most time in drudgeries
producing only a hollow logorrhea (κενὴ γλωσσαλγία),
and how they write so brazenly
things clogged full of idiocies,
as sand fills the sea or fruit-flies Egypt …”

Both Basil and Gregory complain of Apollinarius’s verbosity (see Basil, epist. 129.1; 263.4; and Gregory’s comment, already quoted, about Apollinarius’s “long books,” epist. 101). On the other hand, this poem is probably directed also against certain poetic writings of the Cynic Maximus; in response to Gregory’s depiction of him in the De vita sua he wrote a self-defence in verse. Gregory’s p·2.1.41 lambastes this work:

“What’s this…? You too, Maximus, presume to write?
You dare write, eh? O the shamelessness!
Really, in this you’ve gone further than the dogs.
Everything is permissible to all. O the current of time!
Like mushrooms, suddenly there spring up
sage generals, well-born bishops,
having done no work for their share of the good.
What is the result? Virtue withers,
it bears no more fruit, but unrebuked
insolence miserably takes hold of the field
what time it sows a few words.”

                                        (p·2.1.41,1-11; PG 37.1339-1340)
One other Greek Christian poet should be mentioned in connection with Gregory’s poems. The poetry of Synesius, written a few years after Gregory’s death, shows a similar devotion to classical form; like Gregory, Synesius writes poems in artistic, finely-wrought language, meant for individual readers and not for liturgical use. On the other hand, Synesius’s poetry does not seem to have been much influenced by Gregory’s verse: his vocabulary is generally different, more Doric, and he avoids the longer meters. Finally, it should be stressed that this florescence of Christian poetry in the fourth century was not an exclusively Greek phenomenon; parallel developments occur in Syriac and Latin literature. Mention has already been made of St. Ephraim and St. Hilary, writing earlier in the fourth century; in the decade of the 380s, Pope Damasus was writing epitaphs upon the Roman martyrs and churches, and St. Ambrose composed those hymns which Augustine heard at Milan as a young man, hymns which, with their regular stanzas and short iambic meters, were superbly fitted for popular use (unlike Gregory’s poems), and became the basis of subsequent Latin hymnody. Not long afterward, St. Paulinus of Nola would be writing verse, and Prudentius would produce Christian Latin poetry of great literary excellence. Even St. Augustine, it is usually forgotten, tried his hand at writing a didactic poem.[11] Like St. Gregory’s poetry, Christian Latin verse of the late fourth century shows the effect of a classicizing renaissance, which brought about a mingling of Christian and classical traditions and created a new, Christian literature that was to serve as a model for future generations; it was in the fourth century that the bases of mediaeval culture were laid, both in the East and in the West.

2. The Secular Literary Background.

B. Wyß, “Gregor von Nazianz,” R.A.C. XII (Stuttgart 1983), 839-859; R. Keydell, “Die literarhistorische Stellung der Gedichte Gregors on Nazianz”; A. Wifstrand, Von Kallimachus zu Nonnos: metrische-stilistiche Untersuchungen zur späteren griechischen Epik und zu verwandten Gattungen (Lund 1933); A. Rzach, “Zu den Nachklängen hesiodischer Poesie,” WienStud 21 (1899), 198-215; L. Sternbach, “De Gregorio Nazianzeno Homeri interprete”; id., “Wplywy aleksandryjskie i poaleksandryjskie u Grzegorza z N.” (Alexandrian and post-Alexandrian influences on G.N.); D. A. Sykes, “The Bible and Greek Classics in Gregory Nazianzen’s verse”; id., “The Poemata Arcana of St. Gregory Nazianzen”; P. Stoppel, Quaestiones de Gregorii Nazianzeni carminibus; thesis (Paris 1901); E. Dubedout, De Gregorii Nazianzeni carminibus (Paris 1902), pp. 83-92; M. Pellegrino, La Poesia di S. Gregorio Nazianzeno (Milan 1932), pp. 93-102; C. A. Trypanis, Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis (Chicago 1981).
On the question of the relation of Gregory’s poetry to secular Greek literature, much has been written. It is, indeed, an immense question, and of more than incidental relevance for the present enquiry. However, the following remarks make no pretense to supplying any new information upon this subject, but only resume briefly the conclusions of others.

Especially as Americans, living in the waning years of the 20th century, we might be predisposed to discount the importance of literary traditions; even meter has been largely jettisoned in modern verse. The essence of poetry, in much new thinking, is its newness; poetry is ποίησις, a making. A repetition of old phrases is not seen as a making, but as a rehashing — just as an ability to heat up leftovers does not establish one’s talents as a cook. Thus, questions about the different classical authors Gregory cites, of Homeric vs. Alexandrian elements in his vocabulary, of the proportion of spondees to dactyls in his hexameters, or of his technical competence as a metrist, etc., may strike the reader as largely irrelevant to the question of whether or not Gregory is genuinely a poet. Nevertheless, we should recognize that the conception we have of poetry, our tendency to ignore matters of form and our dislike for the echos of the past, shows perhaps a diametrically opposite conception of poetry to that which prevailed in Gregory’s day. To ask these questions about form is not merely to perform a literary autopsy: it may help us to see and hear what was recognizably poetic in the eyes and ears of Gregory and his contemporaries.

Gregory is a highly literate man. Indeed, a difficulty one faces in trying to assess the effect of Greek literature upon him is that he seems to have read virtually everything. One hears in his verse echos of Homer, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, Empedocles, Sappho, Pindar, the Greek tragedians (especially Euripides), Aristophanes, a large influence of Hellenistic poets (Theocritus, Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Aratus), and, of later poets, the two Oppians (of the Halieutica and the Cynegetica), the Sibylline Oracles, and the poets of the Greek Anthology, besides numerous other poets. Much of Gregory’s verse is didactic; that is to say, if one were to identify the specific literary tradition into which Gregory’s poems fit, it would be, for the most part, that tradition in which philosophical and moral subjects (even, in some cases, scientific, philological, or still more pedestrian subjects) are recounted in a verse form.[12] This was recognized by the Greeks as a distinct genre; it was exemplified first by Hesiod, and was continued after him by such philosopher-poets as Parmenides, Empedocles, and Anaximander, who set their ontological speculations in heroic verse; also, some early elegaic poetry, e.g. of Solon and Theognis, could qualify as didactic. With the development of prose as a medium for exact thought, there came a hiatus in this didactic tradition of a couple of centuries; but, in the Hellenistic era, the tradition revived, and works such as Aratus’s Phaenomena (a treatise of astronomy set in dactylic hexameters) enjoyed a great popularity. (One may note Aristotle’s disdain for this type of poetry; “Homer and Empedocles … have really nothing in common apart from their metre; so that, if the one is to be called a poet, the other should be termed rather a physicist than a poet,” Poetics 1447b18-20. A specimen of Aristotle’s own poetry is preserved, a paean to his dead friend Hermias (Poetae Melici Graeci, ed. D. L. Page, p. 444, no. 842); as it is on the subject of Virtue, Aristotle might be displeased to find it classified as a didactic poem.) Perhaps the greatest didactic poet of antiquity was Lucretius; and, although Gregory professed himself ignorant of the Latin language (epist. 173, PG 37.281B), there are echos of the De rerum natura in Gregory’s De vilitate exterioris hominis, probably due to dependence on a common Greek source (see notes to p·1.2.15,23-40). By the fourth century A.D., didactic poetry, having already treated of fishes and dogs (the Halieutica and Cynegetica of the two Oppians), had descended to a pretty trite level; one of the few major works of fourth-century secular didactic is the anonymous pseudo-Orphic Lithica, which describes the mystical properties of gems and crystals. Gregory evidently knew of this, too, since he says in one of his poems that he will not sing of “the glitterings of stones, or the course of the heavens” (p·2.1.34,74, col. 1312) — that is, he will sing of other things than do the Lithica and the Phaenomena.

Gregory’s poetry represents perhaps a conscious return to an earlier didactic ideal. Like the early Greek philosophers, Gregory treats in his verse (especially in the Poemata Arcana) about the ἀρχή, the ultimate principle of all things. Unlike them, however, Gregory identifies this ultimate principle with the triune God of Christian revelation. Much of his debate with Arianism is, in fact, over the meaning of this ultimate ἀρχή, since what Arius denied was that Jesus could be included in this primal beginning if he himself has his beginning in the Father. In order to clarify this question, Gregory has recourse to another Presocratic idea, the idea of φύσις, “nature”: the early Presocratics indeed were called φυσικοί, “physicists,” because they speculated about the ultimate nature, the basic physical stuff, of all existing things (they are called this by Aristotle, Metaphysics IV.3, 1005a 31-36). Thus, many of their writings have come down to us with the title Περὶ Φύσεως, “On Nature,” whether or not this is the title they originally bore. So also, in Gregory’s Arcana, the word φύσις frequently reappears near the start of the different poems, and this recurrence appears to point to something about how the poems are conceived. The poems go through an ontological survey of God and creation: they speak about the different natures that exist, beginning with the divine nature, moving through a discussion of the nature of the two-fold creation (both spiritual and material), and ending with a discussion of human nature, its fall in Adam, and its restoration (and divinization) in Jesus Christ. This is, in any case, a new kind of didactic poetry: a didactic poetry that sings the mysteries of Christian theology.

Gregory’s poems show an eclectic vocabulary; a homeric vocabulary is the basis for his hexameter poems like the Arcana, but it is liberally interspersed with neologisms (especially for conveying theological ideas) and with Alexandrian and other late Greek poetic terms. Gregory’s iambic poems, such as the De vita sua, borrow heavily from the Greek tragedians, especially Euripides, but the language of this meter is generally closer to spoken Greek than that of the hexameter. The archaism of the hexameter was a practical necessity, as it was virtually impossible to make Greek fit the dactylic meter without resorting to a stylized language which allowed the poet to expand and contract syllables as needed. The dactylic hexameter was also, by common consent, the meter best fitted to grand themes, and thus was appropriate for the Arcana, which are conceived on a grand scale, treating of God, creation, and human salvation. The long historical poem De vita sua is in iambic trimeter, a meter probably better suited for relating historical facts. Poems in which a mood of satire or diatribe predominate tend also to be in this meter, as in the case of the poems In suos versus, p·2.1.39, Adversus Maximum, p·2.1.41, Comparatio vitarum, p·1.2.8, Adversus iram, p·1.2.25, Adversus opum amantes, p·1.2.28, De seipso et de episcopis, p·2.1.12, and the De Incarnatione adversus Apollinarium, p·1.1.10 (although not all of these are diatribes, and some diatribes are written in other meters, e.g., the poem Ad episcopos, p·2.1.13, is in hexameters, and the Adversus mulieres se nimis ornantes, p·1.2.29, is in elegaics). Gregory also fits his meter to his subject matter in the case of his elegaic poems, which are generally more personal and lamentative in character, such as the De humana natura, the De exterioris hominis vilitate, and the De animae suae calamitatibus carmen lugubre. Gregory shows every sign of having intended his poetry to exhibit the traditional forms of Greek verse; like the two Apollinarii, he may have wished to provide his poems as a Christian teaching tool. (Ioan Coman has noted that Gregory’s moral poems could serve as a textbook for a course on ethics at an Orthodox seminary.[13]) As to Gregory’s abilities as a metrist, most of those who have given detailed consideration to the subject[14] have concluded that he is technically competent, in fact somewhat impressive in the great variety of meters he displays, although he takes certain liberties (that is to say, he occasionally fudges the meter).[15] The old metric distinctions based on length of syllables were no longer, in his day, audible in spoken Greek, but were observed in imitation of the old models, and in default of any other system of poetics; it was for this reason especially that the system of quantitative metrics was bound to change, and the kind of poetry Gregory was writing, faithful to the ancient, classical traditions, was unable to serve as a vehicle for future development of popular Greek Christian verse. The new seeds of growth would come from Syria in the sixth century A.D., with the kontakia of Romanos. Nevertheless, it seems now fairly clear that the two accentual poems traditionally ascribed to Gregory, p·1.2.3 and p·1.1.32, whose authenticity was long doubted, are in fact his. In the case of the Exhortatio ad virgines, this was shown by J.-M. Mathieu[16]; and, as J. T. Cummings has noted, this experimentation with new forms shows Gregory’s inventiveness as a writer; he is no mere antiquarian, but a poet; although he is able to use the old verse-forms, he is not slavishly attached to them.[17]

3. A Note on Critical Texts.

D. M. Meehan, “Editions of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus,” Irish Theological Quarterly 18 (1951), 203-219; M. Sicherl, “Bericht über die Arbeit an den Gedichten Gregors von Nazianz seit Koblenz (1976),” in: II. Symposium Nazianzenum (Paderborn 1983), pp. 137-140; M. Sicherl, J. Mossay, and G. Lafontaine, “Travaux préparatoires à une édition critique de Grégoire de Nazianze,” RHE 74 (1979), 626-640; H. M. Werhahn, “Dubia und spuria unter den Gedichten Gregors von Nazianz,” StudPat 7 (1966), 337-347; idem, Übersichtstabellen zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung der Gedichte Gregors von Nazianz (Aix-la-Chapelle, 1967); reprinted in W. Höllger, Die handscriftlich Überlieferung der Gedichte Gregors von Nazianz; 1. Die Gedichtgruppen XX und XI (Paderborn 1985).
The texts that have been used as the basis of the present translations have been those reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca vol. 37 (1858). That is, the translations are based on the texts of the Benedictine edition, edited by D.-A.-B. Caillau and published in 1842. Unfortunately, a complete critical edition of St. Gregory’s poems does not at present exist. Earlier this century, work was begun on a complete edition of Gregory’s works by a group of Polish scholars connected with the Cracow Academy of Arts and Sciences, but it was interrupted by two world wars, and, although important studies were produced, they are very difficult to come by in Western libraries; by the mid-1930s a complete edition of the poetry, prepared by Professor Leo Sternbach, reportedly already existed in manuscript, but the author died in a Nazi concentration camp at Oranienburg in 1940, and the edition was lost.[18] After the war, a new attempt was begun at achieving a critical text. Important work at collating the various manuscripts of the poetry and establishing the history of the texts was begun by Heinz Martin Werhahn in 1955, who had earlier come out with a critical text of the poem Comparatio vitarum (Wiesbaden 1953): this eventually led to the publication of his Übersichtstabellen (see below), which laid the basis for future critical study. In the late 1960s, the project of achieving a critical text was passed down from Werhahn to an international group of scholars, headed by Martin Sicherl of the University of Münster. A number of editions have since been published. Different scholars have been assigned to work on the different families of poems (“Gedichtgruppen”) distinguished by Werhahn, numbering twenty in all. Also, in 1967, before this continental effort had gotten underway, D. M. Sykes did a critical edition of the Poemata Arcana for an Oxford D.Phil. To my understanding, Dr. Sykes intends eventually to publish this edition as a volume in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series. Also, J. T. Cummings produced a critical text of the De vita sua as a classics dissertation at Princeton in 1966, while, in 1974, Christoph Jungck published a critical text of the same poem, with German translation. An edition, with German translation, of p·1.2.29, Adversus mulieres se nimis ornantes, came out in 1972, done by Andreas Knecht.

Heinz Martin Werhahn’s Übersichtstabellen zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung der Gedichte Gregors von Nazianz (“Synoptic Tables for the Manuscript Tradition of the Poems of Gregory of Nazianzus”) (Aix-la-Chapelle, 1967) remains a most important work for the critical study of St. Gregory’s poems.[19] Of the poems here translated, the Poemata Arcana (i.e., poems 1.1.1-5 and 7-9) belong to Werhahn’s Gedichtgruppe VII, whose text is being edited by Prof. Claudio Moreschini of the University of Pisa (poem 1.1.11 also belongs to this group); poems 1.1.6 and 10 are both found in Gedichtgruppe VIII, which is being edited by Dr. Roberto Palla of the University of Münster; poem 1.2.8 falls within Groups XI and XX, a recension of which has already been completed (see Höllger, op. cit.); poems 1.2.12-16 and 2.1.45 all belong in Gedichtgruppe I, while, of these, poems 1.2.12, 13, and 15 and 2.1.45 are found also in Gedichtgruppe XVIII; Group I was edited by Dr. Norbert Gertz, who has already published the results of his work[20], while Group XVIII was worked on jointly by both Gertz and Palla. Dr. Bernd Lorenz of Münster has been working on a critical text and translation of poem 2.1.45. Poem 2.1.39 belongs to Group XIII, which is being worked on by Michael Oberhaus of Münster. The eventual result of all this work, I am told, will be a new edition of the poems, to be published in the series Corpus Christianorum.

4. The poems here translated.

As already mentioned, the primary purpose of this dissertation has been to make available a number of translations of St. Gregory’s poems. The question how far his poems are genuine poetry must remain, in a practical way, unanswerable so long as people are prevented from reading them. I have sought to remedy that situation, at least partially.

The largest group of poems translated is the Poemata Arcana. This is a series of eight hexameter poems, Poemata dogmtica 1 through 5 and 7 through 9, arranged topically in the order of a didaskalia schema (see above, p. 76). The name Poemata Arcana is an old one: the Byzantines referred to these poems as ἔπη ἀπόρρητα, which carries the general sense of “poems on the mysteries” or “on things which go beyond human speech.” In fact, the appellation ἀπόρρητα was used by the Byzantines to speak of Gregory’s dogmatic poems in a more general sense; but, since the edition of de Billy in the sixteenth century, it has become customary to reserve the term Arcana to these eight poems in particular.[21] The Arcana show, in some places, large borrowings from another of Gregory’s hexameter poems, the In laudem virginitatis (p·1.2.1); and it seems sensible to suppose that Gregory has written his Arcana as a poetic distillation of the teaching found in a number of his orations, presented in a topical order, combined with some of the material from the earlier poem.[22]

The second largest group of poems I have translated here are those having to do with human nature. The whole series from p·1.2.12 to 1.2.16 are of this sort; these, moreover, should be taken together with p·2.1.45, which, besides being very similar in subject-matter, shares the same manuscript tradition. Most of these poems are elegies. Their central theme is best expressed by the often-repeated three-fold question, “Who was I? Who am I? What shall I be?” (p·1.2.14,17; p·1.2.15,1; cf. p·1.2.16,1-4). They are poems in which St. Gregory raises the question of the meaning and value of human existence. At least some authors have seen these, p·1.2.14 in particular, to be among St. Gregory’s best poems.[23]

There are two christological poems translated here, poems 1.1.10 and 11. Poem 1.1.10, like the Arcana, puts into a verse form the doctrine expressed elsewhere in prose, in this case the prose of epist. 101. It is possible that there are adaptations from prose also in p·1.1.11, especially at the beginning of the poem where the anaphora on the word νήπιος recalls the anathematisms of epist. 101.

Poem 1.1.6, On Providence (2), an iambic poem, numbered ill-advisedly by Caillau among the Poemata Arcana because of the agreement of its subject-matter with p·1.1.5 (also On Providence), is, in the manuscript tradition, more closely associated with p·1.1.10. And, while, like p·1.1.5, it is about God’s providential care, it approaches this question less from the point of view of determinism and more from the point of view of theodicy. Why does God allow the good to suffer, and the evil to prosper? Gregory points out that what seems to us onerous may in fact be given to us by God out of fatherly love for us, in order to work our perfection. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Heb 12:6).

Something of a similar theme appears in p·1.2.8, the Comparatio vitarum. The poem treats of the question, Which is the best life? The argument is presented in the form of a dialogue between two lives, the Spiritual Life and the Worldly one. A Judge is called upon to decide between the two. The conversation between the two lives moves through various questions: marriage and family ties, food and entertainment, the respective advantages of wealth and poverty for one’s health and well-being. Throughout, the Spiritual Life seems to get the better of the argument. Even though the Spiritual Life appears, in the eyes of the world, to be worse off than the Worldly, its hardships are “a medicine of salvation” (v. 199). The Judge’s decision, at the end of the poem, is a somewhat surprising one. He gives, as expected, the prize to the Spiritual Life, but then qualifies his judgment: “The best thing of all is for both of you to behave yourselves peaceably” (vv. 249 f.). A lesser good nevertheless remains a good, and the Spiritual Life should not forget this.

Finally, in p·2.1.39, In suos versus[24], we have a poem by Gregory explaining why, in his old age, he takes up his pen to write poetry. He gives four main reasons. First of all, he says, writing in verse serves as a check upon his tendency to overabundance of speech (vv.34-37): perhaps this statement should be taken to imply that Gregory saw poetry-writing as an intellectual challenge, a way of stating his theology in a different medium (one might even read between the lines here, and note that, as Gregory was no longer in a position to be delivering orations, it was partly his love of speech that prompted him to write poetry: a means of reaching an audience that he no longer could address in person). Secondly, Gregory says (vv. 37-46), he writes verse on behalf of young people, as a kind of medicine, guiding them to things that are most worthy; that is, presenting Christian doctrine in a form in which they would be more likely to take an interest in it. The third reason he gives is “to see to it that strangers have no advantage over us in literature” (vv. 48-49), “strangers” here meaning pagans (it may be that some pagans were alleging that Christians were particularly deficient when it came to the poetic Muse). The fourth and final reason is in some ways the most interesting: Gregory writes poems for his own sake, as a consolation in sickness and loneliness, a form of prayer, a song like that of the swan (vv. 54-57).

After this, Gregory further defends his writing of Christian verse by noting the importance of verse in Scripture. “Scripture, too, is full of verse, as wise ones of the Hebrew nation say” (vv. 82-83): by these “wise ones” he may be referring to Philo or Josephus, both of whom speak of the Hebrew Scriptures as containing verse in meters comparable to the Greek ones, i.e., hexameters, elegaics, etc. This background of Hebrew verse may be on Gregory’s mind when, at the beginning of the Arcana, he cites the opening line of the “Song of Moses” (Deut 32:1), calling on heaven and earth to hear. St. Basil interprets this line to mean that Moses and the prophets are speaking a word of judgment, that heaven and earth are called upon because both of them shall be present at the judgment, to testify of those things which have been done in their presence (see notes on p·1.1.1,21).

One of the more interesting aspects of Gregory’s views on poetry-writing seems to me the therapeutic angle: he sees poetry as a curative both for himself and for the reader (cf. p·1.2.14,3-4: “For how I do so love this drug for suffering, to speak in quiet, me with my own soul”). Gregory frequently states that poetry (and music) can exert a moral influence upon people. In the In suos versus, he notes the example of David playing the harp to Saul, freeing him from a bad spirit (p·2.1.39,88f.). Similar psychological observations are made by St. Basil in his Address to Young Men on how to read Greek Literature, and in his Homily upon the first Psalm. The latter discussion is so clearly related to the reasons Gregory gives in p·2.1.39 for his own writing of poetry that I do not think it amiss if I supply here an extended excerpt from that Homily.

St. Basil the Great, Homilia in primum Psalmum, 1-2 (PG 29.212-213):

“For since the Holy Spirit saw the human race sluggish towards virtue and that, from our addiction to pleasure, we took no interest in the right way of life, what did he do? He mixed in the joy of melody with his doctrines, so that by the gentleness and the easiness of the hearing we might take in unconsciously what is helpful from the words: just so, wise doctors, when administering bitter medicines to those who are ill, often spread honey on the rim of the cup. This is the cause for which these harmonious melodies of the Psalms have been made known to us: so that those who are children in years, or rather all who are immature in character, might, on the one hand, appear to make melody, while in reality having their souls instructed. For most people, being lazy, do not find it easy, when they have heard the Apostle or the Prophets proclaimed, to go away holding this in their memory; but the sayings of the Psalms they both sing while at home and carry about with them when they go to market; and it has been said of a man greatly prone to anger that, when someone would begin to sing a psalm to him, the ferocity of his soul would quickly disappear, lulled to sleep by the melody.

“A psalm is a bridle of souls, an arbiter of peace, repressing the clamor and agitation of the thoughts. For it assuages the offended part of the soul, and makes sober that which is unruly. A psalm is a guardian of friendship, a uniting of the separated, a transformation of those who are enemies. For who can still regard someone as an enemy when he has sung to God with him in unison? Thus, psalmody bestows even the greatest of all blessings, love, as if the point of singing together were to create a kind of bond of unity, and to meld people together into the harmony of a single choir. A psalm repels demons, it brings in the help of the angels; a weapon against the terrors of the night, a relief from the labors of the day; for children, a protection; for those in their prime, an ornament; for the old a solace; for women a most harmonious ornament. It has peopled the deserts; it has cleansed the manners of the marketplaces; it gives elementary lessons to beginners, furtherance to those making progress, a pillar for those who are perfected: the voice of the Church. This brightens the feasts, this works the sorrow that is according to God. For a psalm calls out a tear even from a stony heart; a psalm is the work of the angels, a heavenly citizenship, a spiritual sacrifice. O the wise insight of the Teacher, who has seen to it that we should at the same time sing and learn what is beneficial! From this it also comes about that our lessons are, in a way, particularly engraven in our souls. For what is learned by force is not naturally retained; but those things which we have taken in with joy and gladness have a most singular way of staying with our souls.”

The notion that poetry can serve as a help in curing the passions appears to be present also at the start of the second poem of the Arcana, where Gregory seems to say that it is by singing the Son, honoring his blood, that we come to mortals’ aid, together with the angels (p·1.1.2,1-4). That is, poetry is not merely a human activity: it is a participation in an angelic one (as Basil says above, “a psalm is the work of the angels”). The theme that music and poetry have important psychological effects (and educational potentialities) is an old one in Greek literature; the question is discussed at length in book III of Plato’s Republic, and by Aristotle, Politics, VIII.5, 1339a11-1340b19. Ultimately the theme goes back to the Pythagoreans, as St. Basil observes, Address to Young Men, IX.9:

“And it is related that Pythagoras too, chancing upon some drunken revellers, commanded the flute-player who led the revel to change his harmony and play to them the Doric mode; and that thus the company came back to its senses under the influence of the strain, so that, tearing off their garlands, they went home ashamed.”[25] 

Gregory’s view of the therapeutic effects of poetry appears to be based, in part, upon this old tradition, which he and Basil have appropriated to the uses of the Church.

On the question of the value of St. Gregory’s poems as poetry: opinions vary. The Byzantines generally held his poems in high esteem, to judge by the large number of manuscripts they left, the many commentaries they wrote on them, and his numerous imitators.[26] Gregory’s poems also went through many editions from the Renaissance to the early 19th century; since then there has been a relative dearth, corresponding to something of a lowering of the poems in the esteem of many patrologists and other critics. This is curious, since it is at the same time, beginning in the mid-19th century, that some readers were beginning to recognize in Gregory’s poems a peculiarly modern voice. Perhaps it should be said that most moderns have little tolerance for didactic poetry.[27] I am not, however, a literary critic. Those who are more knowledgeable than myself upon the subject of what causes a thing to be a poem may, if they wish, bring forth reasons for judging Gregory’s poetry to be good or bad. My intention has simply been to present a translation of the poems, and to see what can be learned from them. If some people do not like Gregory’s poetry, they are entitled to their opinion. But I do not share it.

In general, what I find most distinctive about St. Gregory’s poems (as has, I trust, already been made sufficiently clear) is the view they present of the person. This is, I think, a kind of poetry that only Christianity could have produced, and it is probably not accidental that it produced it in the late fourth century, at a time when some of the most fundamental processes in the development of Christian doctrine were taking place. It is a form of poetry in which, perhaps for the first time, the person is not something incidental to the meaning of the poetry, but is the essential thing being communicated. It is poetry that arises out of the experience of communion: communion with God, in the first place, and, in God, with other people. Gregory writes his poems as a means towards such communion: “I write for those who have had a similar experience…” (p·2.1.1,239ff.). “They are my children, as many as have drawn from me a portion of my spirit” (p·2.1.32,50). It is from that standpoint, I think, that the poems need to be interpreted, and that is how I have tried to read them.

[1] See Matt 26:30, Mk 14:26; this was probably Psalms 113-118, the “Hallel” or “praise,” traditionally sung at certain major Jewish feasts.

[2] One could even regard Jesus himself as a poet; his Beatitudes certainly possess a hymnic structure; moreover, authors such as Dalman and Jeremias who have studied the Aramaic basis of Jesus’ sayings have observed his frequent use of poetic rhythms and such techniques as alliteration and rhyme. See J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, London 1971, pp. 20-29; M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, Oxford 1946, 31967, pp. 160-185; C. F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord, Oxford 1925.

[3] Note also St. Paul’s stress upon the interior aspect of song: “speaking to yourselves,” he says, “in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19). Christian song is to replace pagan revels. There is an eschatological aspect to singing: singing is what the angels do, and what the redeemed do in heaven. There is also an aspect of joy, and perhaps of therapy, to song; cf. James 5:13, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.”

[4] Pliny, Epistle X.96: “They (i.e., some apostates, from whom Pliny derived his information) maintained, however, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and sing by turns a hymn (carmen dicere) to Christ as to a god” (tr. in J. Stevenson, ed., A New Eusebius, London 1965, p.14, slightly modified.) This “by turns” (invicem) probably indicates antiphonal or reponsorial singing.

[5] On the Odes of Solomon, see Quasten, Patrology, vol. 1 (Westminster, Md., 1986), pp. 160-168.

[6] Histoire de la Littérature Grecque Chrétienne, t. iii (Paris 1930), p. 390.

[7] Philostorgius, Hist. eccl. 2.2, says that Arius “wrote songs for the sea and for the mill and for the road and then set them to suitable music.”

[8] Cf. A. Di Berardino, ed., Patrology, vol. 4 (Westminster, Md., 1991), p. 53.

[9] Ὅτι οὐ δεῖ ἰδιωτικοὺς ψαλμοὺς λέγεσθαι ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ οὐδὲ ἀκανόνιστα βιβλία, ἀλλὰ μόνα τὰ κανονικὰ τῆς παλαιᾶς καὶ καινῆς διαθήκης (Mansi, vol. II, col. 574; also in I. B. Pitra, Iuris ecclesiastici Graecorum Historia et Monumenta, tom. 1, Rome 1864, p. 503).

[10] The question whether the metric psalter ascribed to Apollinarius (Apolinarii Interpretatio in Psaltem, PG 33.1313-1538; also, A. Ludwich, ed., Leipzig, 1912) is actually his has been much debated; J. Golega, Der homerische Psalter, thinks it is inauthentic; others have disagreed with him. For a bibliography on this question, cf. Quasten, Patrology, vol. 3 (Westminster, Md., 1986), p. 381.

[11] Psalmus contra partem Donati, in PL 43.23-32; CSEL 51 (1908), 3-15.

[12] See esp. W. Ackermann, Die didaktische Poesie des Gregorius von Nazianz (Leipzig 1903).

[13] Ioan G. Coman, “Poezia Sfîntului Grigorie de Nazianz,” Studii Teologice 10 (1958), p. 80.

[14] Cf. H. L. Davids, De Gnomologieën van Sint Gregorius van Nazianze (Nijmegen 1940), pp. 142-158; E. Dubedout, De Gregorii Nazianzeni carminibus (Paris 1901), pp. 97-110; M. Pellegrino, La Poesia di S. Gregorio Nazianzeno (Milan 1932), pp. 74-84. See also D. A. Sykes, “The Poemata Arcana of St. Gregory Nazianzen: Some Literary Questions,” BZ 72 (1979), 6-15, esp. pp. 14-15.

[15] As is noted by Puech, op. cit., p. 387, and Sykes, loc. cit. Sykes, following Davids, notes that the proportion of dactyls to spondees in Gregory’s hexameters (about 5:1) agrees with a trend that can be seen, from Homer onwards, towards an increased reliance upon the dactyl. In Homer, the ratio is about 2½:1; Nonnos, writing in the 5th century A.D., shows a ratio of 5½:1. Sykes concludes that Gregory “is in a real sense a contributor to the tradition, one who knew the technical side of his craft well enough to be sensitive to literary movement” (ibid., p. 15).

[16] “Authenticité de l’«Exhortatio ad virgines» (Carmen I, ii, 3),” in: J. Mossay, ed., II. Symposium Nazianzenum (Paderborn 1983), pp. 145 ff. This against the view of R. Keydell, “Die Unechtheit der Gregor von Nazianz zugeschriebenen Exhortatio ad virgines,” BZ 43 (1950), 334-337. On Gregory’s metric verse, see also Pellegrino, op. cit., pp. 77 ff.; Dubedout, op. cit., pp. 108 ff. Pellegrino, p. 81, describes p·2.1.88 as being in iambic catalectic dimeters. He says (p. 80) that he is unable to come to any conclusion about the presence of an accentual rhythm in Gregory’s hexameters (this on the basis of an examination of the first 100 lines of p·1.2.1).

[17] Note the following comments of Cummings, in his Critical Edition of the Carmen de vita sua (dissertation, Princeton 1966), p. 60, n.: “Gregory’s prosody has a definite relation to stress in the form of ictus. The evidence is that although he knew quantity thoroughly he scanned primarily by eye when composing; when reading both his own verse and that of the classical authors he conveyed the rhythm principally by ictus.” “Linguistic trends of his own day are also to be noted in iotacism, and probably in stressed word accent in the last foot. (Both this and the preceding support the authenticity (sometimes questioned) of the two accentual poems transmitted as part of his corpus. Dr. Werhahn also informs me that they are found in the Syriac versions which are older than the Greek Mss.) His trimeter is strongly indebted to the epic tradition, but shows the influence of the choliambic poets as well. In all these respects he shows the same tendency to combine new with old, current with traditional already noted in his use of form and to be seen in his language and style also. This very ability to combine and vitalize marks him as a classicist and not a pedant.”

[18] Cf. J. Mossay, “Le professeur Léon Sternbach, byzantiniste et patriote,” RHE 65 (1970), 820-835.

[19] It is reprinted in Winfried Höllger, Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Gedichte Gregors von Nazianz: 1. Die Gedichtgruppen XX und XI (1985).

[20] See N. Gertz, Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Gedichte Gregors von Nazianz. 2. Die Gedichtgruppe I (Paderborn 1986).

[21] See D. A. Sykes, “The Poemata Arcana of St. Gregory Nazianzen,” JTS n.s., 21 (1970), p.32.

[22] D. A. Sykes, “The Poemata Arcana of St. Gregory Nazianzen,” JTS, n.s., 21 (1970), pp. 41f., disputes the view of R. Keydell (“Ein dogmatisches Lehrgedicht Gregors von Nazianz,” BZ 44 (1951), pp. 315 ff.) that the Arcana show a direct dependence upon the Theological Orations. On this point, I think Keydell is right. If by a “direct dependence” one means that Gregory has simply versified, word for word, the content of the orations, then, plainly, the poems are not directly dependent: Gregory has abbreviated the argument, in some cases rearranging the order of presentation, or adding new material (e.g., the trinitarian confession at the end of p·1.1.1). In many cases, however, the parallels are virtually word-for-word (see notes on p·1.1.1,9-10); and there is a general parallel between the arguments of Arcana 1, 2, and 3, on the one hand, and orr. 27, 29, and 31, on the other. In the case of p·1.1.2 and or. 29, this parallel seems to me to be especially close. In short, Gregory seems to have done, in the Arcana, much the same as he has done in p·1.1.10 in relation to epist. 101: that is, give a brief, poetic version of the theological arguments of his prose treatise. To acknowledge this does not seem to me to be any derogation of the worth of Gregory’s poems, or of his talents as a poet. Towards the end of this Introduction, I have appended a comparative chart, showing what seem to me to be the clearest parallels between different passages of the Arcana and other works, both Gregory’s and others’. (As Gregory says, in reference to his sources, “Some of them are my own, others from elsewhere,” p·2.1.39,64.)

[23] Cf. A. Puech, op. cit., p. 382: “Grégoire s’est élevé dans cette pièce [p·1.2.14] à une perfection qu’il n’a plus atteinte ailleurs.”

[24] In Greek the poem bears the title Εἰς τὰ ἔμμετρα, something almost untranslatable. Throughout the poem there runs a pun on the word μέτρα, with its two senses of “meter” and “measure.” Thus, when Gregory’s unnamed critic (Maximus? Apollinarius?) “reviles meter” (v. 69), Gregory answers that it’s no wonder, when he himself is “measureless” (or “meterless”), a poetaster if there ever was one.

[25] Translated by R. J. Deferrari, St. Basil: The Letters, vol. IV (Cambridge, Mass., 1934), p. 419.

[26] F. Dölger (Cambridge Medieval History, vol. IV.2 (1967), pp. 252f.) notes the popularity of the elegy or threnody in Byzantium, and the important place Gregory’s elegiac verse had in establishing this genre. Cf. esp. what he says on p.253: “There are also a good many of the so-called ‘contrition’ (katanyktic) alphabets which are verses on the theme ‘to my own soul,’ usually by anonymous ‘poets,’ who start each line with each letter of the alphabet in turn.” Note also Constantine Trypanis’s comments: “The second [i.e., p·2.1.45] is also responsible for much of the monkish wailing on the inevitability of sin we meet in later laments or addresses ‘to one’s own soul,’ for it served as the example par excellence of that ‘lyrical’ genre of Byzantine poetry.” Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis (Chicago 1981), p. 410.

[27] It was not so in the earlier days, certainly in America, where all our early poets wrote Christian didactic verse: one might, for instance, compare Anne Bradstreet’s The Flesh and the Spirit to some of Gregory’s verse. Again, in the notes to p·1.1.1,9-10, I present evidence suggesting that George Herbert had read the Arcana, or at least the first poem of it.

2 Responses to “On early Greek Christian poetry”

  1. Spiritual Says:

    I was wondering if anyone knew of an online site where I could use this book: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. It is a lexicon from Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich. I’m going to buy the book if I cannot find a version online. Thanks a lot!

  2. Érico Nogueira Says:

    Very good. I’ve just begun the study of St. Gregory’s poetry, and this article helped me a lot.

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