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This poem is taken from PN Review 22, Volume 8 Number 2, November - December 1981.

Paulinus's 'Talk About the Last Poet' Charles Johnston


Talk about the Last Poet is loosely based on the Eucharisticus or Thanksgiving, a Latin autobiographical poem of six hundred and sixteen hexameter lines. From what he tells us in the poem, we gather that the author, traditionally known as Paulinus of Pella, was horn in 376 A.D.,was the grandson of Ausonius, the poet-administrator of Bordeaux and Trier (c.f Rivers and Fireworks, pp. 17-24); that he survived the barharian invasion of the Western Roman Empire in 406 and the sacking of Bordeaux by the Visigoths in 414; and that he was still alive in 459 A.D.

Paulinus tells us that the purpose of the Eucharisticus is to show how his life was shaped by Providence. The poem concludes with an impressive and deeply felt thanksgiving to God and a prayer that, wbatever may happen to the author, after death he may be part of the body of Christ.

The main interest of the poem today is as a contemporary, eye-witness account of the end of the Western Roman Empire. Paulinus was born in the Greek-speaking East, and his Latin style is, as he admits himself, deplorable. The hexameters are heavy and graceless; there are a numher of false quantities; the grammar is involved; the sentences lose themselves in a maze of relative clauses. The elegance and technical skill of Ausonius are as far away as the moon. This is a pity, because Paulinus has the same aptitude for narrative as Ausonius, the same selective flair for significant detail; in addition his writing has a seriousness, and a certain nobility, beyond anything in Ausonius. If he had been able to express himself in a language where he was thoroughly at home he could have been a considerable literary figure. In fact, with his Greek
tour d'esprit and his strong Christian faith, Paulinus lives in a different world from that of classical Roman antiquity. He is, in a way, an anticipation of the Byzantine-in the best sense of that much-abused word.

In his misfortunes, although the sincerity of his Christian resignation is beyond question, there is no doubt either of the pleasure of his backward looks at the sweetness of his life before the barbarians arrived-a pleasure which, through all the clumsiness of his style, he succeeds in conveying vividly to the reader. He has preserved various not specifically Christian qualities- pride of rank, an off-hand attitude to his rich wife and a profound interest in questions of property and money. To the modern reader, the financial details of Paulinus' existence after the disaster have a strange fascination. What surprises us today is not the completeness of the collapse but the presense of of an element of continuity, almost of normality. The Goths are ravaging Illyricum-but for a time Paulinus still draws a revenue from his mother's estates there. In Gaul the Goths are violent, but individually they are capable of humanity and reasonably honest dealing. Paulinus not only survives; for some time he is even able to go on supprting his large retinue of relations and maid-servants. Eventually, poverty closes in on him, but it is a gradual, undramatic process-not at all the received idea of how individuals ought to have been affected by 'the Fall of the Roman Empire'. In fact, at the very moment the barbarians crossed the Rhine, his father's death and a family dispute about his father's will constituted in Paulinus' mind an at least equal disaster

Though Talk about the Last Poet is not a translation of the Eucharisticus, the narrative passages are substantially the same, in shortened form. I have used poetic, or at least novelistic licence, in the thoughts and comments ascribed to Paulinus- except for the Christian references, which are mostly his own. I felt that the most appropriate English equivalent of his hexameter would be a rather rambling blank verse. The two extracts which are quoted from Ausonius, his letter to his grandson (addressed in fact to another grandson, a cousin of Paulinus) and the letter to the Emperor Theodosius, are direct translations; they are rendered in rhyming verse to mark their old-time style -on a humbler level, rather like Monsieur Triquet's tinkling eighteenth-century couplets in the middle of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

A full translation of the Eucharisticus in prose, by H.G. Evelyn White, is contained in volume II of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Ausonius, published by Heinemann in 1921 and reprinted in 1949.

Talk about the last poet of Empire!
My grandfather was the famous praetorian prefect
of Italy, Africa, Illyricum
and Gaul: Decimus Ausonius by name;
almost the last chief minister of the West,
and absolutely its last poet. My story
will show exactly how terminal he was.
   He'd come a long way from the chair of rhetoric
at the provincial university of Bordeaux.

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