Thursday, February 28, 2008

Readings in Ancient History

Readings in Ancient History,
Thought and Experience from Gilgamesh to Saint Augustine
edited by Nels M. Bailkey

Dear Janet,
I was unwilling to tell you about the book I just finished for fear I would seem pedantic. But it ended so movingly with an exchange between the late 4th Century poet Ausonius and his pupil Paulinus of Nola, that I am no longer embarrassed. They are writing in an era when the Roman world is in decay, dying, about to be over-run by barbarians, an age when people had lost hope in the future and were turning away from life. Ausonius has had a long career as a professor of rhetoric and adviser to emperors. He has retired to his estates near Bordeaux.

On Newblown Roses

Spring, and the sharpness of the golden dawn.
Before the sun was up a cooler breeze
Had blown, in promise of a day of heat,
And I was walking in my formal garden,
To freshen me, before the day grew old.

I saw the hoar frost stiff on the bent grasses,
Sitting in fat globes on the cabbage leaves,
And all my Paestum roses laughing at me,
Dew-drenched, and in the East the morning star,
And here and there a dewdrop glistening white,
That soon must perish in the early sun.

One moment, all on fire and crimson glowing,
All pallid now and bare and desolate.
I marvelled at the flying rape of time;
But now a rose was born: that rose is old.
Even as I speak the crimson petals float
Down drifting, and the crimsoned earth is bright.

So many lovely things, so rare, so young,
A day begat them, and a day will end.
O Earth, to give a flower so brief a grace!
As long as a day is long, so the life of a rose.
The golden sun at morning sees her born,
And late at eve returning finds her old.
Yet wise is she, that hath so so soon to die,
And lives her life in some succeeding rose.
O maid, while youth is with the rose and thee,
Pluck thou the rose: life is as swift for thee.

Ausonius' student Paulinus was a lawyer and poet. He rose in the administration, became wealthy, eventually became a provincial governor in Italy before he was 30. Suddenly he stopped writing to Ausonius. He had undergone a spiritual crisis, given away his vast estates, and become a parish priest in the obscure town of Nola in southern Italy. Here he sounds the death-knell of the Roman world.

To Ausonius

Not that they beggared be in mind, or brutes,
That they have chosen their dwelling place afar
In lonely places: but their eyes are turned
to the high stars, the very deep of Truth.
Freedom they seek, an emptiness apart
From worthless hopes: din of the marketplace,
And all the noisy crowding up of things,
And whatsoever wars on the divine,
At Christ's command and for His love, they hate;
By faith and hope they follow after God,
And know their quest shall not be desperate,
If but the Present conquer not their souls
With hollow things: that which they see they spurn
That they may come at what they do not see,
Their sense kindled like a torch, that may
Blaze through the secrets of eternity.
The transient's open, everlastingness
Denied our sight; yet still by hope we follow
The vision that our minds have seen, despising
The shows and forms of things, the loveliness
Soliciting for ill our mortal eyes.
The present's nothing: but eternity
Abides for those on whom all truth, all good,
Hath shone, in one entire and perfect light.


  1. Anonymous7:50 AM

    Who is Janet and why doesn't she comment?

  2. She is a Montana girl who lives in Paris. I met her in an ex-pat writing group there in 2005. She is married to a Frenchman who is a train engineer-driver (Casey le Jones).
    I been workin' on the railroad,
    all the live-long day,
    I been workin' on the railroad,
    just to pass the time away,
    can't you hear the whistle blowin', etcetera
    is stable work. Being an aspiring writer is not. So they live in Paris rather than in Montana. She just got an agent so we are pretty excited that she is at last getting somewhere.

    I have assumed that she may be one of the Anonymouses, but frankly my dear -- if you will forgive the racial slur -- all you Anonymouses look alike.