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The Poet and the Virgin: Avitus of Vienne’s Ascetic Aesthetic

David Ungvary

Bard College

This paper outlines the development of an “ascetic poetics” within Avitus of Vienne’s (ca. 460-518) Latin hexameter poem, De consolatoria laude castitatis, written to encourage the poet’s sister, an avowed Christian nun, in her religious profession.

Avitus stands out among Latin poets of Late Antiquity for his self-conscious efforts to delineate a clear poetic theory and to carry it out in practice. In prose prologues to his verse treatise on virginity and an earlier bible epic (De spiritalis historiae gestis), he expresses concern about the ethical implications of classical aesthetic norms and poetic strategies, especially as they relate to his status as a Christian bishop. Consequently, he crafts for himself an austere poetic program founded on unusually stringent rules for composition, set in direct opposition to classical poetic theory (e.g. Horace’s Ars poetica). The poet not only renounces the privilege to write fictitiously (licentia mentiendi), but even forbids himself the use of non-literal “words or names”—i.e. antonomasia and metonymy—which might lead to his readers’ confusion or mythological contamination.

Scholarly treatments of these prologues and their respective poems have offered unsatisfying literary-critical interpretations and historical explanations of the dynamic integration of poetic theory and practice that Avitus attempts. One critic has argued that a contemporary prohibition against reading pagan literature among Christian bishops underlies Avitus’ strict compositional practice (Roberts: 1980). But the mere existence of a normative code does not prove compliance. In fact, the bishop never once makes reference to the statute in question; furthermore, his writings expose a deep familiarity with pagan texts that would seem to contravene such a rule. Another reader has condemned the poet’s scheme more simply as representative of an “anti-aesthetic rigor” (Fontaine: 1981).

In this paper, I offer a reconsideration of Avitus’ project by proposing the discourse of asceticism as a key to decoding the language of his metapoetic program. I first demonstrate that elements of the bishop’s rationale are sourced at the level of the word from contemporary ascetic theories about the relationship between writerly practice and Christian life. A generation earlier, Gallo-Roman monks on the isle of Lérins had articulated with startlingly similar language some of the same rules for literary behavior that Avitus aims to address. Second, following a practice approach to literature mapped out by historians of late ancient religion (esp. Krueger: 2004) I show how Avitus poetically enacts the very virtues of asceticism he recommends to his virginal sister (e.g. vigilance against error, renunciation of falsehoods, imitation of Christian vs. secular exemplars). By writing verse according to an unusually rigid set of rules for content and style to construct a chaste brand of Latin didactic poetry, Avitus transforms his compositional activity into an ascetic activity in itself, and so creatively conforms his poetic craft to his sister’s vocation. De consolatoria laude castitatis therefore results in a complete reimagining of the purpose and function of Latin didactic poetics (Volk: 2002).

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Late Antique Literary Developments

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