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World Poetry Project: With a Whimper
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- Full text of "Ausonius, with an English translation"
Deciumus Ausonius lived roughly between 310 and 395 CE. His contemporaries thought him a grand poet; modern critics and scholars find him far less than grand. The fallen state of Rome, perhaps, could no longer support grand poets like Virgil, and it is the minor imitators of a once great tradition that remained working in outposts of a tottering empire. The culture that sustained the great efforts and high achievements of Roman verse was in decline, and as the culture went so did the poets.
Ausonius was born in Burdigala (Bordeaux), Gaul (France). He was a poet and a rhetorician, tutor to Gratian, who appointed him consul when he became emperor. The works that garnered the praise of his contemporaries were Mosella, describing the river Moselle, and Ephemeris, an account of a day in his life. He was concerned as a poet with the intimate, the local, his own circle, and the technical side of poetics. He was for much of his life, a teacher, and it was as a teacher to men of note, including Paulinus, who became Bishop of Nola, and Valentinian I's son, Gratian. He was granted honors by Valentinian and by Gratian, retiring from public life when Gratian was assassinated by Magnus Maximus and the army of Britain and Valeninian II was driven out of Italy. His estate near Bordeaux became his home for the rest of his life, a haven in which he wrote poetry and from which he sent letters to former pupils.
There is nothing awful in Ausonius's style. It is easy and graceful. It is, however, not great, and the exaggerated praise of his contemporaries contributed to the negative judgment later scholars made of him, for when high praise is given to the undeserving the later response is often to tear down what was once made much of, and this tearing down often results in a lower estimation than the propped up former idol deserves. Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire points to the praise of Ausonius' work as evidence of the low state of his contemporaries: 'the poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age'.
Taste changes with the temper of the times, and with the desires of the people living them. The retreat, the desire for peace, quiet, and safety, must have been very attractive to Ausonius's contemporaries. The very ease and grace of an undemanding style, dealing with subjects and themes that were, like the style, neither difficult nor tense, made Ausonius a poet for his time. Today, poetry is not the main vehicle through which we express our desires, our insecurities, and our beliefs as a society; that job has been taken over by film, and, to some extent, music. If you think of either of these genres, you may be able to find parallels to Ausonius's position in the opinion of scholars--there is music that is not awful, but no longer speaks, and films that seem flimsy and unworthy of our attention, though they were thought wonderful achievements in their day.
The two poems by Ausonius included in World Poetry are "The Fields of Sorrow", translated by Helen Waddell, and "I used to Tell You", translated by Kenneth Rexroth. Both pieces are very brief, and both address decay.
In "The Fields of Sorrow", an unspecified in this extract "they" are in woods, wandering "in mournful light" through reeds and poppies. The mournful decay witnessed is expressed in the silence and stillness of what should move and speak: the lake has no wave, the stream has no voice. Flowers on the banks of the river grow old in a twilight, "Flowers that were once bewailed names of kings". Here we have a decay that is not personal, not a mortality of the individual man, the individual woman, but a decay that is eating away the empire/world itself--both kings and nature.
The decay of "I Used to Tell You" is the personal, individual decay of a mortal man and a mortal woman. This addresses the unavoidable effects of time on the mortal form, and, while recognizing the coming dissolution, also commits to remaining alive, as vital as possible, as one's time on earth wanes. A man speaks to a woman he admired when both were young: 'Frances, we grow old./The years fly away. Don't be so private/With those parts. A chaste maid is an old maid.' This is what he used to say, when both were young, and now the years have flown, and both are old. Now, when she is old, having let the years go by, she is sad and afraid, "penitent and crying" over her former cowardice and her present ugliness. He says,
"It's all right.
Closed in your arms, We'll share our smashed delights.
It's give and take now. It's what I wanted,
If not what I want."
Smashed delights are still delights, though damaged and diminished, and in these waning years, in the autumn of his life, smashed delights will do.
Kenneth Rexroth translates another poem of decay in this section of World Poetry, this written by Sulpicius Lupercus Servasius, ca. 400 CE, as "Rivers Level Granite Mountains". Decay here is a force tied to Nature, to the force of natural things before which even stone cannot forever stand. The mountain falls to the river. Carvings on a sundial disappear under the lesser force of rain. Plowshares are worn away in their use. And authority, shown as gold on the finger of the mighty ruler, is bright with its own coming dissolution. The Roman world was not joyous in the fourth century.