non sibi sed toti

Classics Teaching Resources

Life of Ausonius by Helen Waddell

A good deal of the poetry of Ausonius belongs to his old age in Bordeaux, a vintage as mellow as the claret that still keeps his name 'in pleasantness and blessing', as John of Salisbury said of two good scholars dead. He was over seventy when he wrote his Memoirs, with little but pleasantness to put on record, and barely enmity enough to serve as grindstone to an epigram. The death of of his young wife was his one sharp sorrow; she died when she was still "the little lass" that he had thought to find her even in her old age, Writing thirty-six years after it, the house is still empty about him: but her children lived, and they both had come to high offices of State. It is the things which Ausonius reveals unconsciously that win him liking, not those which he sets out to celebrate with a kind of innocent pomp: not the chair of rhetoric at twenty-five, nor the imperial tutorship in his fifties, nor the consulship at sixty-nine, but that he loved and taught rhetoric all his life, and kept his simplicity: that he was a scholar without jealousy: that the boy he taught so loved him that when he became emperor nothing was too good for his old tutor, till finally he has him sitting, bewildered and happy, in the ivory chair. Gratian was assassinated in 383, and even in this Ausonius was fortunate, for it meant release from offices the old grammarian was hardly fit for, and a return to his 'walled garden with its quiet paths' nidus senectutis, as he called it, .the nest of his old age.

There is a good deal of correspondence from the villa at Bordeaux, steeped in the vast leisure of the ancient world. To Theon, commending the flavour and lamenting the fewness of his oysters: to Theon, complaining of the badness of his poems over against the goodness of his apples; who would think they were chips of the same block? to Symmachus verses, after a night of wine and flutes - 'but do you read them also a little flown and dilutior ; for it is outrageous that a strictly abstemious reader should sit in judgement upon a poet a little drunk.' There is no quarrelling with life, no questioning that sometimes breaks through the equally mannered letters of Sidonius Apollinaris a century later, once in a cry far beyond anything he ever wrote in verse: 'O abject necessity of being born: O hard necessity of living: O sharp necessity of dying!' Yet we may call no man happy this side death: it was the last decade of Ausonias' life that broke his heart.

'And so, Paulinus, you cast off the yoke—'

to the reader of the letters in the casual ordering of the older editions, the opening sentence comes like thunder out of a blue sky. Gradually the story pieces itself together. Paulinus, governor of a province and consul before he was thirty, was the pupil of whom a Roman master dreamed: Ausonius is never weary of recalling that in the consulship the pupil had preceded his master. Now with political honours behind him, he had come to settle down on the Aquitaine estate, and follow the laurel of Apollo which no less surely awaited him. One notes that Rome is no longer the goal of poets, and the Midi with its tradition of Greek culture will be the nucleus of light for centuries. It was to Desiderius at Vienne that the Blessed Gregory wrote in wrath and grief, for that he sang the songs of Apollo, and the grammarians of Toulouse argue over the vocative of ego amid the clash of empires. There are four letters to Paulinus, casual and gay, thanks for a new savoury, a harassed bailiff, an exchange of verses, affectionate chiding of the younger man's reluctance to create. Then, suddenly, emptiness and silence. Paulinus had taken a sudden, journey into Spain, presumably on some business connected wttih his wife's estates, but no man certainly knew the reason. He gave no explanation, took leave of no one, not even so much as the salve of courteous enemies for which Ausonius pleaded, No message came from him. Lover and friend he had put far from him, and his acquaintance into darkness. There followed four years of impenetrable and cruel silence.

Four years is a long time at seventy, and Auspnius loved him. Letter follows letter, of affectionate raillery- a pox upon this Spain! - of passionate appeal that checked itself for lack of dignity and still broke out afresh, of bitter and wounding reproach. Yet it seems not wholly to have been Paulinus' fault, unless that he had deliberately gone into retreat so strait that no rumour from the old world could reach him. At the end of the four years three letters came to him by a single messenger, and he hastens to make what amends he could. At best, it is written from a great way off. 'As a dream when one awaketh, so shall thou despise their image.' Apollo, the Muses, the dusty laurels, what were these to the man

'Whom Joy hath overtaken as a flood,'

whom 'long eternity' has greeted with its 'individual kiss'? The small tuneful business of the old days is too dearly the dance of gnats above a stream in summer. Ausonius had not sparedhim; there is a trace of Rutilius Namatianus' bitterness against this this new Circe of a religion that made men's minds brutal, not their bodies; but Paulinus has no resentment. He has chosen. Henceforth his mind is a torch, flaming through the secret of eternity. But his heart aches for his old master, and the gratitude, all but adoration, he lavishes upon him might have deceived most men. It did not deceive Ausonius. The letter in which he makes answer is poignant enough; but the superscription is more poignant atill - 'To Paulinus, when he had answered other things, but had not said that he would come.' Eternity? He words me, he words me. One thing was clear to Ausonius:

'Nous n'irons plus au bois, Les lauriers sont coupes.'

Aod this time he gives up argument, speaks no longer of a lost career, of great promise starved, but pleads for lovers take only,

"And so, Paulinus, you cast off the yoke -"

There follow pages that have-only one parallel, the cry from Po Chu-i in exile, four centuries later - 'O Wei-chih, Wei-chih! This night, this heart. Do you know them or not? Lo Tien bows his head.' Then Ausonius falls to dreaming; he hears the grating of the boat on the beach, the shouting of the people in the street, the footsteps, the familiar knock on the door.

'Is't true ? or only true that those who love,
Make for themselves their dreams ?'

That wounding spearhead of Virgil reached its mark. Paulinus answered in something like an agony of love and compassion. Once again he pleaded the mystery that no man sees from without: then the crying of his own heart silenced the sober elegiacs, and he breaks into one of the loveliest lyric measures of the ancient world.

"I through all chances that are given to mortals -"

After this there is silence. Whether Ausonius laid it to his heart, or wrote again above it, 'But did not say that he would come', there is no showing, A few years saw him go down to his grave, a shock of corn fully ripe, full of years and honour, his children and grandchildren to mourn him: the same years saw Paulinus 'parish priest' of the shrine of St Felix at Nola.

"To guard thy altar through the silent night,
And sweep thy floor and keep thy door by day,
And watch thy candles burn — "

'voila le reve de ce senateur et de ce consulaire.' Year after year his devotion to his saint brings an ode for his feast, the 14th of January, cheerful and sweet, like a robin singing in the snows: the loveliest written for that eternal April of the heart which was to flower in the twelfth century, the faint clear colouring of the first spring flowers, crocus and almond blossom. But never again is he the lark singing at heaven's gate: never again so stung by the lacrimae rerum, the blindness and the pain of solitary hearts, the suffering divinity of human passion, as to transmute its anguish into ecstasy.

"The poetical fame of Ausonius," said Gibbon in an acid footnote, "condemns the taste of his age." A good deal of it is sad stuff; the elegant trifles that weigh like lead on later generations. But his De rosis nascentibus, in its own phrase, 'lives again in each succeeding rose.' Desperiers of Lyons translated it, after twelve hundred years,

'Un jour de mai que l'aube - '

and Ronsard caught the echo of it from him,

'Mignonne, allons voir si la rose -'

and after him Spenser in a slower melody,

'Gather the rose of love, whiles yet is time,'

and after him the Cavalier lyrists in the loveliest melody of all. Cupido Cruciatus is the new romantic imagination working on Virgil, himself romantic enough, and in the fields of the Sorrowful Lovers, from a phrase or two in his original,

'per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
Est iter in silvis,'

he has created the twilight world of Western Europe. As for the Mosella, it is a mirror of quiet observation. Edward Fitzgerald was so haunted by the lovely pause after the tremit absens, that he scribbled a fragment, adapted from Shelley, to his friend Cowell

'- in Time's fleeting river
The image of that little vine-leaf lay,
Immovably unquiet - and for ever
It trembles -- but it cannot pass away.'


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