Saturday, 31 October 2009

Another letter to Ausonius (Symmachus Ep. 1.14)

This one certainly has been translated before, many times (I haven't compared this version to any others except Callu's Budé). It is usually found with editions of Ausonius' Mosella, a delicious irony given that Symmachus' letter complains of the fact that Ausonius did not send him a copy of the poem. The conceit count is through the roof, and there are doubtless some that I have missed. The date is the early 370s, as there are references to Symmachus' stay at court in Trier at the end of 360s, but the western emperors are still Valentinian (d. 375) and Gratian. The version of the Mosel here described is therefore prior to the one that now survives, which refers obliquely to Ausonius' consulship of 379. The circles in Rome to whom it was sent may have been linked to the Prefect of Illyricum, Italy, and Africa, Sex. Claudius Petronius Probus, who has plausibly identified as the holder of high office praised in the latter stages of the poem.

You ask me for a longer letter. That is a sign of true affection for me. But since I am aware of the poverty of my intellect, I prefer striving for Laconic brevity to laying open, over manifold pages, the meagreness of my immaturity. And no surprise if the vein of my eloquence is diminished, since you have not helped by letting me read any poem of yours, nor any volumes in prose. Why do you request such a sizeable loan of my conversation, when you have trusted me with nothing of your own literary credit. 2. Your Mosella is flying through many people’s hands and laps, immortalised in divine verses by you, but its flow goes past my lips alone. Why, tell me, did you wish me to be deprived of that little book of yours? Either I must seem to you too kulturlos to be able to judge, or at any rate malicious so as not to know how to praise! So you either traduced my intellect or my character. And still, against your ban, I have managed, barely, to discover that work’s secrets. 3. I’d like to be silent about what I feel; I’d like to get revenge with a justifiable silence about you, but admiration for your writings breaks through my hurt feelings. I knew your river myself, when some time ago I was a companion [i.e. comes] to the standards of the eternal emperors: it is the equal of great rivers, unequal to the greatest. This river, against my expectations, you have rendered with the dignity of your lofty verses greater than Egyptian Melo, colder than Scythian Tanais, and more famous than our fellow citizen here, the Tiber. I would absoluely not believe the many things you say about the rise and flow of the Mosel, if I didn’t know for sure that you don’t lie even in a poem. 4. Where did you find those swarms of river fish, so various in their names and their colours alike, so distinct as in their size so in their taste, which you with the palette of your song have coloured beyond the gifts of nature? Although I often experienced your table, and though I often marvelled at many other things which offered for consumption in the palace, I never managed to catch this sort of fish. When were these fish of yours born in your book (they never existed in serving dishes)? 5. You think I am joking and dealing in trifles? So may I be esteemed by the gods, I place this poem of yours by the books of Vergil. But now I’ll stop being cloying in praise of you and forgetful of my hurt, in case you also twist to your glory the fact that I am offended and amazed. Even if you scatter your books around and always leave me out, I’ll still enjoy your work—but other people’s generosity.

1 comment:

Allen Strouse said...

Do you have any sense why Symmachus is impressed that the fish are various by names ("nominibus varia")?

It seems that Symmachus is praising Ausonius's intellectual knowledge: "You're so learned to know the names of various fish." But the names also demonstrate Ausonius's aesthetic power: variety in names is on the same level as variety of color.

For Ausonius's contemporaries, was there something beautiful about names?