Ausonius (c. 310–395 CE) is probably the best poet you never heard of – no, he’s probably not a ‘great’ poet but he certainly is an interesting one, incredibly versatile, and a clever wordsmith. He inhabits that crepuscular world of late antiquity’s waning years and the incipient medieval era – neither a strictly classical poet nor, really, belonging to the Middle Ages.
Born in Burdigala (present-day Bordeaux), where he became a professor of rhetoric at the university in the 330s and in 379 an imperial consul, he has sometimes, if perhaps somewhat proleptically, been called France’s first poet. As such he wrote in many different meters in a large number of poetic genres (e.g., eclogues, elegiacs, epitaphs, epithalamia, genethliaca, protreptics, technopaegnia, etc.), clearly modeling himself on his classical Latin and Greek forebears in both the short poems (a single couplet [seeEpigrammata XIII.39 below]) and longer quasi-epic creations (as in the 483-line poem Mosella on the river Moselle and its environs).
The couplet below is so cleverly transparent in its Latin and so direct in its erotic sensibility and so universal in its applicability to all of us (mutandis mutatis women as well as men [cf. the Sappho stanza at bottom]) that it serves as the perfect introduction to Ausonius:
hanc volo quae non vult, illam quae vult ego nolo;
vincere vult animos non sociare Venus.
Her I want who doesn’t want to, the one who wants to I don’t want;
vanquish our feelings Venus wants to, not join them together.
Finally, for the record, I can’t help concluding that it seems Ausonius was harking back almost a millennium here and playing off the famous stanza in Sappho’s ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ lines 21-4:
καὶ γάρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέωσ διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ ἀλλά δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει ταχέωσ φιλήσει,
Fact is, if she flees you now, soon she’ll pursue,
if she refuses your gifts, she’ll be giving them,
if she doesn’t love you, soon enough she’ll love
even if she doesn’t want to.