The Mosella of Ausonius

Translated by Christopher Kelk

Reclining Venus

The Moselle Bridge, Coblenz (ca. 1842)
Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775-1851) - Yale Center for British Art

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The misty Nava, which flowed speedily,

I had traversed, gazing admiringly

At Vincus’ new-built walls, where once Cannae

By Gaul was flattened and now corpses lie,

Unwept, upon the fields. Alone I tread

Through desert groves and look at regions fed

By no agronomy, then on every side

Dumnissa’s lands which have been wholly dried,

Well-watered inns and fields but recently

Garnered by Sauromatian husbandry; 10

Then finally to the Belgae’s shores I come –

My first impression of Noiomagum,

Constantine’s famous camp; the atmosphere

Is purer than upon the plains, and here

Bright Phoebus shows Olympus flaming red;

The branches, with their foliage thickly spread,

Shut out the sky; the liberal air, so bright,

Displays to all a clear and liquid light.

It brought to mind Bordeaux, my fatherland,

For every view reminded me how grand 20

It is: the roofs of villas could be seen

To perch above the riverbanks; hills, green

With vines, beneath them, flowing noiselessly,

The fair Moselle. River, accept from me

These greetings – for your fields you’ve earned ovations,

And those who till them too; your fortifications

Match Rome’s. You flow beneath the scrutiny

Of vine-filled ridges. Ah, what verdancy!

How grassy are your banks! Like seas you’re strong

In ships, like brooks your wavelets dash along. 30

Your depths like glass. In your swift babbling

You match all other rivers, furnishing

Fresh drink which rivals what cool fountains slake

Men’s thirsts with. You alone have all a lake,

A spring, a brook, a streamlet and a sea,

Which duly ebbs and flows alternately,

Possess. You gently glide without a care

For murmuring winds or boulders in their lair

Beneath your waves: no boiling shallows stay

Your course as rapidly you make your way. 40

No islands loom to check you or to break

Your tributaries in two and thereby take

Your eminence away. Downstream you flow

So easily that it’s a gentle row

For oarsmen, although sailors have to tie

A tow-rope to their mules that they might try

To carry them upstream. You often gaze

Upon your eddies, thinking that you laze,

And yet no muddy sedge can hinder you

And with no filthy slime do you bedew 50

Your banks, our footsteps dry. And therefore go

And decorate with Phrygian stucco

Your smooth floors and with marble stone augment

Your panelled halls! Myself, though, I resent

What wealth affords – my grandchildren’s bequest

I will not spurge and have them dispossessed.

It’s nature I admire. Hard-packed, wet sand

Is strewn upon your banks, and when I stand

Upon that sand no imprint will appear.

One can see one’s reflection in that sheer 60

And glassy face: there is no mystery

In you, for it is just as if I see

Through air, whose gentle breezes will not spare

My eyes your riches, so, if I should stare

But steadily, far, far below I see

Your inmost parts, which stand out openly,

And as your shallows onward gently flow,

Shapes, radiated with blue light, you show;

Your sand is ridged, since quivering water-plants lean,

Moved by the waves, and make your bed seem green. 70

In natural springs the grass shakes constantly;

A pebble shines then hides alternately;

It all resembles Scotland, where seaweed,

Red coral and white berries, sea-shells’ seed,

Which please mankind, are open to our eyes;

And gems that match what our craftsmen devise

Are underneath your teeming waters shown,

While mottled plants uncover many a stone

Beneath your placid waves; but as we gaze,

A swarm of slippery fish wanders and plays, 80

Taxing our eyes. It’s not permitted me

To say how many species there might be,

Their slantwise swimming nor their names: I may

Not tell of their descendants, nor must say

Whose care’s a lucky share and whose concern

Is for the trident. Thus to you I turn,

Sea-nymph Naïs – tell of the scaly throng

That in the sky-blue channel swims along

The waves. Among the grassy sand there swims

The shining chub, which has such tender limbs, 90

Although it’s packed with bones: accordingly

In six hours serve it up. Now look and see

That trout with purple spots, and over there

A roach which has no pointy spines to tear

Your flesh: a speedy grayling flees our view;

Now you, barbel, who had to struggle through

The Saar’s six foaming rocky mouths and came

Into a river with a greater name

And swam more freely, and, as you progressed

In time, of every creature you were blessed 100

The most in old age. I’ll not pass you by,

Rust-red salmon, whose broad tail whips you high

Up to the placid surface. Though your face

Is smooth, your brow is scaly: if your place

At table is delayed, you will not mind

The waiting, for the company will find

You edible still: your belly bobs around,

A massive abdomen. The lamprey’s found

In Illyricum as it goes swimming through

The foamy waves of Hister, which boasts two 110

Names, and at last it comes into our ken

Lest the Moselle of such a denizen

Of note is cheated. Such a natural hue

You have! A yellow rainbow circles you,

Your upper back displays black marks, below

You’re sky-blue: in your centre, though, you grow

To a much larger size, while at your rear

The flesh upon your tail is rough and sear.

I’ll speak of you too, perch, a tasty dish,

Much closer than all other river-fish   120

To sea-creatures: alone you easily

Rival red mullets; you’re so savoury;

Your solid flesh by bones is separated;.

Here, too, we find the pike, both feared and hated

By frogs – it lives in swampland, laughingly

Called lucius from its locality

Of mud: in smoky shops it’s cooked and stored,

So you will find it at no groaning board –

It stinks! Of the green tench who’s not aware,

The poor man’s cheer, and the bleak, which schoolboys snare 130

With hooks, and the shad which sizzles in the flame

(The plebs eat it with bread) or that whose name

Is nether trout nor salmon but between

The two of them – the sario – is seen?

Gudgeon, well-known among the fishy bands,

You’re very small, the size of just two hands

(Minus the thumbs), although you are well-fed:

You’re soft and in your womb fish-eggs are bred,

And like the bearded barbel you’ve a crest

Upon your head. Sheat-fish, you’ll now be blessed 140

With honour: Attic olive oil must gleam

Upon your back, I think, as through the stream

You hugely glide while barely can you ease

Your massive self through shallow passages

Or sedge, and as you make your tranquil way

Upstream, the sky-blue bands of fish display

Their awe, as do the banks of verdant green,

The river, too. A rolling flood is seen

To split the waters and, on either side,

The waves run on, as on the Atlantic tide 150

A whale by driving winds and its own motion

Is dashed against the shore out of the ocean.

The sea, displaced, pours forth, the great waves swell,

Seeming to daunt the mountain-tops which dwell

Close to the shore; but this whale is benign,

Bringing no ill, and makes our river shine

Still more with honour. A sufficiency

We’ve had of each piscine variety

And streams, so let’s turn to another show –

The gifts of Bacchus which in vineyards grow 160

In long lines and attract one’s wandering eye

On rocks and sunny ridges way up high.

Such a dramatic sight! The Gauran crest

And Rhodope are luminously dressed,

And Mount Pangaea’s bright with her own wine,

While Mount Ismarus boasts a verdant shine

Above the Thracian Sea – thus one may see

The golden Garonne painted similarly

By my vineyards, and from the river’s verge

Vines grow as to the highest peak they surge. 170

Blithe folk and busy farmers dash up high,

Then down again as they all roughly vie

With roars. One on the towpath travelling

And a boatman rowing down the stream both sing

Lewd songs to those who prune late in the day.

The rocks, the trembling woods, the stream all pay

Respect to them with echoes. And this sight

Provides not only humans with delight,

But rustic Satyrs, too, I would surmise,

As well as Naiads with their grey-hued eyes 180

Run to the banks: goat-footed Pans cavort

And leap into the water and resort

To making all their sisters terrified

By splashing about. Many times on the hillside

While stealing grapes, the nymph called Panope

Among her river intimates will flee

The wanton pagan Fauns and when, all gold,

The sun stands high up in the sky we’re told

The Satyrs and their glass-green sisters sing

Their songs together, since the hot days bring 190

Them solitude, since humans can’t abide

Excessive heat: The Nymphs leap in the tide

And play about and easily emerge

Out of the Satyrs’ grasps and they submerge

Those Satyrs since they swim abominably,

Discovering that Nymphs are slippery,

And therefore it’s not bodies that they find

They grab but water. Settings of this kind

Have not been seen, and therefore let me speak

For my own part, and may we never seek 200

To know more than we do. Let us revere

The secrets that the river’s keeping here.

But let us openly enjoy this scene

As all the waters turn a leafy green

And young vine-shoots are planted in the tide,

The bright waves echoed on the mountainside.

What colours! See the shadows from the West,

The verdant mountain’s image now impressed

Upon our river. All the ridges sail

Aquiver in the waves, the vine-leaves trail 210

Beneath and vineyards in the water seem

To burgeon, while, progressing through the stream,

The boatman tries to count them from his boat;

The image of the hill appears to float

And shadows join the river. O how sweet

A spectacle when all the skiffs compete

Midstream and twist and weave and turn about

And barely graze the seeds that are to sprout

Along the verdant banks! The farmers eye

Their bosses, who, as they go gliding by 220

In larger crafts, cavort, and watch a pack

Of lads who roam upon the river’s back,

Heedless of time, preferring play to work,

For new enjoyment causes them to shirk

Old cares. Bacchus looked on such games as these

When he was wandering, taking his ease,

Close to the lake of Cumae all along

Sulphurous Gaurus’ ridges and among

Vesuvius’ vineyards when the victory

At Actium brought such felicity           230

To Venus that she gave a stern command

That in commemoration the whole band

Of wanton Loves should have fierce battles staged

Such as the ones that on the Nile were waged

Or those where Latian triremes dashed pell-mell

Beneath Phoebus’ Leucadian citadel

Or where Euboean vessels came across

The shrill lake of Avernus, threatening loss

To Pompey at Mylae: as Sicily

Looks on, these harmless battles of the sea 240

Are mirrored in the waters’ sky-blue sheen;

Audacious youths present a similar scene

On painted ships. Blazing Hyperion

Bathes them with heat, reflecting them upon

The glassy surface as their bodies seem

To twist. They nimbly move across the stream,

Both left and right, and shift their weight as they

Apply the oars. And so the waves display

Others’ reflections as they laugh to see

Themselves and wonder at the trickery 250

Of replication. Picture, should you care,

A nurse who shows her ward her well-combed hair

For the first time in her glass: this new plaything

Delights the child, who quits her frolicking

And thinks she sees her twin and plants a kiss

Upon the metal glass but finds that this

Is not returned or checks the pins and tries

To pull the quivering curls down to her eyes:

Thus do the youths enjoy this mockery

Of shadows mixing truth with falsity. 260

Where easy access is afforded by

The bank, a crowd of anglers keenly eye

The depths for helpless fish. One angler trolls

His line and by his knotted snares the shoals

He sweeps are tricked: another in his boat

At some unruffled spot lets his nets float,

Rigged out with corks: another one reclines

Upon the river’s rocks as he inclines

His pliant rod, whose hooks he’s made secure

With bait, which proves to be a deadly lure; 270

The guileless fish snap at them, but they feel

Their open jaws pierced with the hidden steel

(Too late!). They struggle, and that is the sign

For the rod to shake, responding to the line.

At once the skillful lad rescues his prey

As he obliquely snatches it away,

Making a whistling noise, just as the air

Will rustle when a whip is cracked somewhere.

Upon dry rocks the fish now flops around:

Though vigorous in the water, he has found 280

Our atmosphere has weakened him, while fear

Of the sun has overtaken him, so here

He gasps and pants; a feeble flapping shakes

His body and his tail now undertakes

Some final tremors; his mouth open lies

While he breathes out his last breath to the skies:

In this way, at a blacksmith’s smithy’s blast,

The woollen valve takes in and then holds fast

The puffs of blowing wind alternately

And sports about each beechen cavity. 290

I have myself seen, at the brink of death,

Some fish who’ve summoned up a final breath

And leapt headlong into the stream below

And gained the home they’d thought they’d never know

Again. The lad, in anger that his catch

Was gone, would plunge into the stream to snatch

Him up, although he swam inexpertly:

Thus did Glaucus in the Euboean Sea,

Who’d tasted Circe’s lethal herb, one day

Take plants from dying fish, then swam away, 300

Another dweller in the Carpathian Sea:

In hooks and nets a master, it was he

Who fished in Nereus’ waters, sweeping through

The sea with fellow-captives. Villas, too,

Hang over rocks; the river winds around,

Dividing them, while palaces abound

On either bank. Who’s awed by Sestos’ sea,

The Hellespont, the home of Nephele?

Or by the straits that brought Leander fame?           

Or Chalcedon’s shore to which the Great King came 310

To build the bridge to span the straits between

Two continents? Here no fierce waves are seen,

No savage, battling winds. Here conversation

Is recognized, and friendly salutation

Along the pleasant shores is also heard,

And hands are almost gripped with many a word

Of greeting, resonating in midstream.

Who can explain each architectural scheme,

Fashion and style which shaped these villas here?  

Not even Daedalus would dare to sneer 320

At them, the man who built the Euboean shrine

(But he, when he attempted to design

In gold his son’s sad fall, was crushed with woe

And his paternal pain). Nor would Philo,

Nor he who, lauded by his enemy,

Used his famed skill in war on Sicily

Nor maybe those seven men whom Marcus praised

In his tenth book – such buildings that were raised

By them! And here perhaps Menecrates

Flourished with his renowned abilities, 330

And he whose work is famed in Ephesus,

And maybe it was here that Ictinus

Laboured, who built Minerva’s shrine, whose owl

Is smeared with magic dye, all kinds of fowl

Lured to her, which she kills with just a glance;

It could have housed Dinochares perchance,

Who built the palace of King Ptolemy

And the Pyramids which tower loftily

On square cones: bidden to immortalize

Arsinoë, he placed up in the skies 340

Her image, that it be suspended there

Beneath Pharos’s temple, in the air.

Upon the mottled roof an agate stone

Is breathing as it draws the maiden, blown

By her iron hair. So we may understand

That they, or others like them, in the land

Called Belgium built fair homes that reached the sky,

Embellishing the rivers gliding by.

One’s built on natural rock, another one

Stands on a mole which has been shaped to run 350

Along the bank, another stands apart

And takes the river to its very heart,

One more clings to a hillock, standing tall

And offering delightful views to all

Across tilled fields and barren wilderness,

And looks upon the land with happiness

As though it owned it all, while in wetlands,

Built further down, another villa stands,

Although it has a lofty mountain’s shape

And thereby seems to threaten to escape 360

Into the clouds, and flaunts its apogee,

Like Pharos in Memphis: its specialty

Is catching fish in fenced-in streams between

The rocks that dot the sunny fields of green.

One villa looks down from its ridge-filled height,

Obscured with filmy mist. How may I write

Of homes built in the verdant fields which gleam

With countless pillars and, beneath the stream,

The baths that have been built upon a mole,

When Vulcan’s breathed-out flames begin to roll 370

Along the hollow walls in his hot lair,

The gathered vapours sent into the air?

I’ve seen folk sweat from warm baths, tired out –

Both lakes and frigid swimming-baths they’d flout

But relish running water – presently,

Refreshed, they’d swim that water vigorously.

Think of a tourist coming from Cumae –

He’d think this was an alternate Baiae.

It lures with such sparkling urbanity

It leads to no excessive luxury.             380

How can I bring your azure tributaries

To an end, Moselle, so comparable with the seas –

You have so many streams that broadly flow

Into so many of your mouths. Although

They linger, nonetheless they rapidly

Give you their names: the Saur illustriously

With Pruem and Nims makes haste as it flows through

The waves you make, and it rejoices, too,

To join with you, prouder to boast your name

Than if it burst, lacking a hint of fame, 390

Into our Father Pontus, the Black Sea.

The Ruwer, which has earned celebrity

For marble, and the speedy Kyll make haste

To join you with their servant waves to taste

Of you. The Ruwer’s fish are splendorous,

While it keeps turning, fast and furious,

The millstone as it grinds the corn and draws

Across the glossy marble shrieking saws:

On either side a constant din is heard.

But of the little Lieser not a word        400

I’ll speak nor of the spare Drohn, and I’ll shun

The waters of the Salm, since everyone

Dislikes them. But the Saur calls out to me,

And always has, in all its pageantry,

Its sounding waves, its ships: in its fatigue,

When it has travelled many a weary league,

It finishes its journey right below

Augustus’ palace ramparts. Even so

The happy Eltz slips through the fertile land

In silence, almost touching crops that stand 410

Upon the banks. A thousand others, too,

Flow here and wish that they belonged to you.

There’s so much pull and character that dwell

Within their speedy waves. Divine Moselle,

If Mantua or Smyrna, of great fame,

Had given you their bard to sing your name,

The Simois, known on the Trojan shore,

Would yield to you and Thybris would no more

Dare to prefer her honours. Pardon me,

O mighty Rome, and leave us, Jealousy, 420

Who in the Latin tongue are quite unknown:

Our fathers kept in Rome the regal throne.

Great parent of all crops and men, acclaim

Is yours, Moselle. Your leaders, filled with fame,

Your younger men in arms, your eloquence,

Which rivals our own tongue, with reverence

Salute you. Furthermore, you’ve naturally

Endowed your children with integrity

And carefree wit. Not only Rome can crow

About such famous people as Cato,    430

And Aristides, who brought Athens fame,

Is not the only man who’s earned the name

Of Just. But why, with slackened rein, do I

With love of you wear out your praise? Put by

Your lyre, Muse, and mark my paean’s end

With your last chord. Someday hence I will spend

Old age on humbler things and sit at ease

In sunshine: when I sing the histories

Of Belgian heroes and their deeds of glory,

The Muse will with fine thread spin out each story: 440

My spindles shall have purple, too. Whom, then,

Will I commemorate? Hushed husbandmen,

Wise lawyers, speakers potent and first-rate,

Chief leaders of the senate and the state,

Counsels for the defence and those who came

From schools of rhetoric that brought them fame,

Quintilian’s rivals, those who could display,

In cities where they ruled, nontoxic sway

And courtrooms free of blood, those whose right hand

Aided their governors in the Britons’ land 450

And Italy, those who ruled Rome, the head

Of cities, who, although they never led

Their citizens, were equal nonetheless

Of those who did – let Fortune, then, redress

The error that she made and finally

Return the chalice tasted formerly

And give to their descendants due acclaim.

But see it’s followed through – put off the fame

Of men and let me tell how joyfully

The river through the country’s greenery 460

Glides in its happy course, and let me say

Prayers to the Rhine. Your sky-blue bays display,

O Rhine, and open up your glass-green dress

That covers all of them, try to assess

A space for other streams. But what you own

As your reward is not from waves alone –

From Caesar’s walls you’ve seen the victory

Of son and father and our enemy

Crushed at the river Naker and beside

Lupodunum and the spring of Hister’s tide, 470

Unknown in our records. But recently

You’ve heard of this colossal victory.

There will be many more. Therefore press on

And drive the purple sea in unison

With double stream. Don’t fear a lack of fame –

A host will feel no envy – for your name,

Fair Rhine, is timeless. So be confident,

Receive your brother, being opulent

In waves, in Nymphs, showing a generous heart

To both; your course will stretch and split apart 480

And spill in common streams. Your strength will swell,

Which Germans north and south, the Franks as well,

Shrink from: Rome’s true frontier you will be thought.

A massive flood like this will then have wrought

A double name for you. Now as for me,

I trace my lineage from the Vivisci.

A long-established friendship I can claim

Among the Belgians; I’ve a Latin name,

For I am called Ausonius, and I

Was born and then grew up between the high 490

Pyrenees and Farthest Gaul, where Aquitaine

Would blithely moderate my native brain.

I’m daring, though my lute is small. It’s right

That to the river I should pour a slight

Bardic libation. It’s not eulogy

I crave, but pardon. Kind stream, frequently

The Muses’ sacred waves were troubled by

Poets while Aganippe was drained dry.

But when Augustus and his sons send me,

Relieved of my responsibility                    500

As tutor, to Bordeaux, as far as the vein

Of my poetic talent may remain

(For they’re my chiefest care), I’ll settle there,

Endowed with consulship and curule chair,

Nestled in my old age, where I’ll pursue

More praise of the Moselle; the cities, too,

Beneath the walls of which you quietly flow

As they look down at you as on you go,

I’ll praise, and forts that were camps recently

But now are granaries since harmony 510

Has come to Belgium, and those who abide

In happiness as settlers on each side

Of you, and once more I will sing of you

And how you graze your banks while cutting through

The fertile fields and watch the work that’s done

By husbandman and ox in unison.

The Loire won’t claim first prize, nor the headlong

Aisne, nor will the Marne that flows along

The Gallic and the Belgian boundary;

The Charante won’t indulge in rivalry 520

With you, though at Saintongue her flowing tide

Is noted. Down the freezing mountainside

Of Duranus runs a river that will yield

To you and give your waters a clear field,

Although she’s lined with gold. Though frantically

The Adour through rolling rocks flows out to sea,

She truly worships you, horned Moselle,

Both first and foremost, since you’ve earned so well

The right to be respected everywhere,

Not only where springs leap into the air 530

As you your horned, bull-like visage show

And through the curving fields you calmly flow

Or mingle in German harbours with the sea;

Should grace breathe on my humble poetry,

If anyone should think it worth his while

To read this poem, you’ll raise a happy smile

And live on people’s lips. You will be known

By springs and lakes, and not just these alone

But blue streams, ancient groves, a rural pride,

The Drohn, the Durance, winding far and wide, 540

The Alpine streams, the Rhone, meandering

Throughout the double city, labelling

Both banks, and then my poem will honour you,

Commending you to pools that show the blue

Of Heaven and rivers loudly rushing on

And spreading grandly like my own Garonne.

The end of The Mosella of Ausonius