Regular readers of this blog will know that my favourite flower is the iris. It stands so proud; its colours are changing; its perfume is subtle. Nothing can beat the iris in my eyes. For some strange reason that I cannot fathom, poets through the ages have not competed in singing the glory of that most beautiful flower. Instead, they have focused on roses. Now, I do like roses, but I am not sure why they occupy such a place in the poetic flower pantheon. Not that I do not appreciate rose poems – I do, and this post is devoted to an important rose poem: De Rosis Nascentibus (The Birth of Roses) by Ausonius, a fourth-century author from what is now Bordeaux.
I can’t say I know much about Ausonius. He is not an author frequently read in schools and universities; and the fourth century is slightly out of my comfort zone. But my parents, who are visiting from Belgium, brought me an edition and French translation in two volumes of Ausonius’ works (ed. Jasinski, c. 1935). Clearly the previous owner(s) of those volumes were not interested in Ausonius: I had to cut open the pages myself, which is not something one does everyday!
Well, I like Ausonius. He is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, writing in all sorts of genres. His epigrams are fun. Then, I came across his poem On the Birth of Roses. And I had this very strange sense of deja-vu. It sounded all very familiar. It did not take me very long to realise that these verses had been the inspiration for one of the most famous French poems: ‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose’ by Ronsard (sixteenth century). Both Ausonius’ and Ronsard’s poems sing the fragility of roses’ beauty: born and gone in the same day. The ‘roses’ are of course both vegetable and human. Every feminist fibre in me says that I should rebel against the moral of the story. But then again, she is a fool who cannot appreciate Ausonius’ elegant metaphors.
Perhaps Ausonius’ poem should have come to my attention earlier, but the simple truth is that it didn’t. Serendipity put the poem in my hands, and I felt I owed that goddess a little translation effort. So here it is, starting from verse 10.
I saw rose gardens that rejoice in Paestum-style cultivation,
Dewy at the new rising of the morning star.
Here and there, a pearl glimmered upon the hoary shrubs,
To perish at the first rays of the day.
You may wonder whether Aurora from the rose steals her blush;
Or whether it is day-rise who gives to flowers their dye.
One is the dew, one if the colour, and one is the dawn of both;
For the one mistress of stars and flowers is Venus.
Perhaps, also, one is their perfume; but high above, on the breeze,
That one flows; this one, close by, breathes out more strongly.
The Paphian, at the same time goddess of stars and goddess of flowers,
Bids both display the same purple tint.
It was the moment when the flower buds,
as they are born, open in the same instant.
One is verdant, covered with a narrow cap of leaves;
Another marks her slender leaf with ruddy purple;
A third opens the high tip of her first bud,
Releasing the point of her crimson head.
Another was unfolding the cloak gathered on her brow,
Already planning to take count of herself with her petals.
Without further delay, she opens the treasure of her laughing calyx,
Showing off the compact seeds of imprisoned saffron.
Another, who just now, glowed with all the fire of here locks,
Pales, abandoned by her tumbling petals.
I marvelled at the at the swift plunder wrought by the fleeting season,
And that, as soon as they are born, they decay those roses:
See: the purple hair of the golden red flower flows away,
Even while I speak, and earth sparkles, covered with crimson.
How many forms, how many births, how many varied changes,
One day starts, and the same day ends.
We deplore, Nature, that such beauty is short-lived;
As soon as they are displayed to our eyes, you snatch away your gifts.
The time a day lasts, that is the life-span of the roses;
Their adolescence blends together with their short old age.
The rose whom, just born, the bright Morning star contemplated,
That one, when he returns with late evening, he sees as an old lady.
But never mind, for even if she must die within a few days,
Through her offspring, she prolongs her own life.
Gather, girl, the rose while the bloom is new and new your youth,
And remember that your life too hastens away.