Ausonius vs the Romantics

Ausonius (Vol. 1)Ausonius by Ausonius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ausonius (d. AD 395) is not necessarily the best regarded of ancient poets — but his contemporaries really liked him. In his introduction to this edition/translation, H G Evelyn White at least gives Ausonius’ poetry that much. Not much more, mind you. But that much. Evelyn White writes:

‘As poetry, in any high or imaginative sense of the word, the great mass of his verse is negligible.’ (vii)

On the fact that Ausonius wrote a poem about the number three: ‘…so trivial a theme is no subject for poetry at all…’ (xvi) — and then Evelyn White praises Ausonius’ versification.

The Vergilian Cento is referred to as ‘literary outrage’ (xvii).

A final example from Evelyn White gives us an idea of why Ausonius and his style of poetry are so lowly regarded today, say that Ausonius was ‘insensible, broadly speaking, to sentiment and unappreciative of the human sympathy which should pervade true poetry’ (xxvii).

Now, I come not to praise Ausonius, nor to bury him. Nevertheless, Ausonius’ lack of respect in the modern age drives principally from the Romantic movement, and not that his subject matter can be quite dull or that a lot of his poems are simply neat tricks in verse that would probably amuse a native Latin-speaker more than they do any of us. This vision of poetry is not that it is a question of setting out in verse form one’s content but that it is the setting forth in verse one’s soul — that the subject of poetry is, in fact, the subject. This sort of criticism, for example, led one critic to refer to the scientific/philosophical passages in Dante as ‘pure prose’.

That is to say, Ausonius is not, by Romantic definitions, a ‘true poet’. He lacks true sentiment in what he does. For Ausonius, verse is a place to play, to delight in the titillation of the ear, to display his knowledge and erudition, to set forth pieces in various metres on various subjects. As to whether any real sentiment lies behind it — well, who cares?

The result is poetry that I think almost all modern readers would suffer through to a great degree. I admire Ausonius. I think some of his poetic experiments, such as the Technopaignion, where he ends each line of verse with a monosyllable, are amusing and would require enormous skill — even the Virgilian Cento, a patchwork of lines from Virgil, is the work of a person steeped in poetic metre. A lot of it, however, is unstimulating to the modern mind and ear. Perhaps if I were a Latin-speaker born, the rhythm and cadence of the verse would grab me more. Nonetheless, I do not say he is no true poet, and I do not think he is a bad poet. I think his is a style unsuited to our age and certainly unsuited to translation into English — you cannot translate hexameters and you cannot translate aural tricks.

I do recommend to today’s reader from the selections here in vol 1: ‘The Daily Round’ (it is what it says), various of the personal poems, the ‘Parentalia’ which recounts his deceased family members, the ‘Mosella’ which is regarded as his best (I say begin with this one, it is magnificent!), and ‘The Order of Famous Cities’. Various others are amusing, but I fear that reading an entire volume of Ausonius would be tedious for most. If you enjoy those I recommend, take a dip into some of the others…

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