BMCR 2023.11.43

Selections from the poems of Paulinus of Nola, including the correspondence with Ausonius: introduction, translation, and commentary

, Selections from the poems of Paulinus of Nola, including the correspondence with Ausonius: introduction, translation, and commentary. Routledge later Latin poetry. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2023. Pp. 340. ISBN 9781138561359.



Alex Dressler’s new translation and commentary is a vivid, accessible, and densely researched addition to the Routledge Later Latin Poetry series, falling into three distinct sections. The first of these is a complete translation of the “Earlier Letters”, Ausonius’s letters to Paulinus before the latter’s Christian “radicalization” (plus a letter from Paulinus to the otherwise unknown Gestidius), which exhibit the courteous norms of aristocratic correspondence between friends, of gift- and poetry-exchange. The second, the “Principal Correspondence”, is a complete translation of the correspondence between Paulinus and Ausonius in the 390s—what Franz Dolveck[1] calls the Ultima—which charts the conflict between Paulinus and Ausonius over the former’s conversion to Christian asceticism. The third section contains selections from Paulinus’s Christian poetry, the bulk of which comprises his Natalicia, or “birthday poems” to Saint Felix, whose shrine he cultivated at Nola, but which also contains poems of farewell, consolation, epithalamium (wedding-celebration) and protreptic. In this section, rather than translating poems entire—some of the Natalicia are extremely long—Dressler arranges shorter excerpts according to five main themes which he identifies in Paulinus’s poetry: self, money, music, time, and Christ.

Dressler’s 70-page Introduction covers a lot of ground in clear and readable fashion. It includes an overview of Paulinus’s life, poetics, the history of the manuscript transmission, Paulinus’s role in the preservation of his own written legacy, the nature of epistolarity in late antiquity, and the organisational logic of Dressler’s own project (on which, more later). But the central goal of this Introduction is to set out Dressler’s response to what he calls the “Problem of Paulinus” (p. 4). In the post-radicalization life of Paulinus, do the same aristocratic values, in their restriction of both poetry and property-control to an elite class, merely find a new repackaging in an asceticism which was still practised by and for the elites, in much the same way as the aristocratic culture that preceded it? Against such a view, common in more recent scholarship, Dressler argues for the real radicalism of Paulinus’s conception of both poetry and property—radical in a Marxist sense: “it grasped at the root … of a problem and sought to extirpate it” (p. 4). Dressler emphasises—in a view perhaps more characteristic of older Paulinian and Ausonian scholarship (p. 4)—the culture-clash between the version of Christianity Ausonius represented, and the new ascetic Christianity Paulinus espoused. At the same time, Dressler identifies the aesthetics embraced by Paulinus’s asceticism—aesthetics that permeate his way of living, his writing, and his financial practices, and which consistently and flamboyantly repurpose “the secular [literary] riches of Classical Antiquity” (p. 8) for ascetic ends—as a radically different beast to the “high-profile problematizers of aesthetic experience in Greco-Roman antiquity (Plato and Augustine)” (p. 9).

Indeed, his most ascetic excesses, the vile mortification of his body and its assimilation to the abject bodies of the poor … seem to have proceeded from the same love of spectacle and sensuous display as his poetry, painting, architectural experimentation with sacred space, and cultivation of popular religious festivals. (p.9)

Dressler identifies three features of this “aesthetic asceticism” (p. 18): first, the “complete reversal of ‘bourgeois’ (or Ausonian) materialism”, instead idealising egestas (“absolute poverty”); second, “a willingness, even a zeal, to undergo extensive experiments in living”, as shown by the monastic community Paulinus cultivated at Nola; and third, “a commitment to the power of art” to express his ascetic conception of the world. Key to Paulinus’s conception of reality is what Dennis Trout called Paulinus’s “salvation economics”, where, in a sort of metaphor-made-real (inspired by biblical passages such as Matthew 6:19-21), the ascetic life is refigured as an investment in the kingdom of heaven, the implications of which are practically and aesthetically worked out in Paulinus’s writing (pp. 20-23).[2] The five main themes—self, money, music, time, Christ—which Dressler identifies in Paulinus’s poetry further elucidate the unique contours of Paulinus’s thought.

Dressler’s commentary is, like the volume as a whole, accessible, engagingly written, and an excellent repository of relevant further scholarship. It frequently refers back to the ideas which he raised in the Introduction, thereby collecting ample evidence for his fresh interpretations of the material. Particular strengths are the discussion of both classical and biblical allusions and their thematic relevance within the poems, and the identification of important themes and features of each poem, together with the scholars that discuss them.

To an otherwise wide-ranging discussion in the commentary, a few themes and their accompanying scholarly sources could perhaps be added. David Amherdt’s analysis of the locus inamoenus motif in the letters,[3] and Ian Fielding’s discussion of Paulinus and Ausonius’s employment of Ovidian theme of exile,[4] would have been worth a mention in the commentary on the Principal Correspondence (Chapter 3). Likewise, I was looking forward to reading Dressler’s opinion on Dolveck’s view that Poems 6 was likely not written by Paulinus,[5] but it went unmentioned.

Dressler’s method of translation (discussed at Introduction pp. 58-66) is well-suited to the subject-matter and purpose of the volume. As the first translation into English verse of extracts from Paulinus and Ausonius, it is an important contribution. The decision to avoid a strict metrical scheme, instead employing a flexible English structure which broadly, rather than exactly, reflects the different Latin metres, pays off. What Dressler sacrifices by not portraying the regularity of the Latin metre is more than made up for by the richness of poetic imagery which his chosen scheme allows him to preserve. For instance, in Paulinus, Poems 10 (p. 91), Christ’s “radiance in heaven” is shown “shak[ing] / our hearts with light” (57-8, nostris ut suum praecordiis / uibrauerit caelo iubar); and in Ausonius, Letters 24 (p. 101), without Paulinus “the goddess Pomona performs no autumnal symphonies of smell” (93, translating nulla autumnales uariat Pomona sapores, but imitating the alliteration and assonance of sine flore fugit, Canis aestifer ardet in the previous line). Readers will come away from this translation with a real sense of Paulinus and Ausonius as poets.

Dressler’s decision to organise Section 4, “Selections from the Poems of Paulinus”, by theme, providing excerpts from the poems rather than translating them in full, is effective in bringing out the five themes that Dressler identifies as central to Paulinus’s poetry (and highlights throughout with his choice of poetic diction). It is also effective in identifying self-contained and palatable excerpts from these often lengthy and digressive works, and thus in potentially rendering them more accessible for the classroom. As Dressler points out (p. 233), it is likely that the public performance of the Natalicia (for the debate around the historicity of this, see pp. 232-4) also used excerpts rather than the whole works. What Dressler’s approach does not provide is a sense of the Natalicia (or indeed of Paulinus’s Christian writings generally, apart from the correspondence with Ausonius) as a chronologically-ordered body of work, or a sense of each Natalicium as a complete text. Those in search of such a sense will want to read Dressler’s translation alongside Walsh’s complete prose translation of the poems,[6] Walsh’s two translated volumes of the prose letters,[7] and perhaps Dolveck’s Latin edition which reorders the Natalicia.[8]

Some of Dressler’s attempts to reproduce in English effects from the Latin are more successful than others. In his translation of Ausonius, Letters 21 the use of Shakespearean verbal echoes (“an idiot signifying nothing”, l.45, cf. Macbeth 5.5.27-8); “Let me not to the marriage that us confined”, l.48, cf. Sonnet 116) reproduces for the modern reader, with singular effectiveness, the experience of being a late antique reader of classical allusions in the letters. In many places, Dressler preserves the alliteration and assonance of the original in a way that adds to the poetic quality of the translation, but occasionally Dressler’s rendering of Latin effects in the English strikes the wrong tone. For instance, the translation of “smart heart” for docto … pectore (Paulinus, Poems 21.270, 5D, p. 151) is a distractingly colloquial phrase. The statement that “the golden lyre of Christ makes the entire / world achieve perfect pitch with tongues beyond number” (toto Christi chelys aurea mundo / personat inumeris uno modulamine linguis, Paulinus, Poems 20.59-60, p. 136) sounds trivial where it should sound sublime—the reader will either think of Pitch Perfect, the popular movie, or of musical “perfect pitch”. Neither association correctly expresses the sense of the original, which is the perfect harmony between the created world and God. Similarly, Dressler skilfully reproduces the verbal echoes between the opening of Ausonius, Letters 21 and Paulinus, Poems 10, but “a pack of salutation” (Ausonius, Letters 21.4, p. 87, to translate salutigeris…. libellis; cf. “a pack of good wishes”, Paulinus, Poems 10.5 translating salutifero … libello) is confusing English. Dressler’s decision to add end rhymes in the English to give more emphatic closure to sections mostly works well, but “investment” / “assessment” at the end of Poems 10 (p. 98) adds an unwelcome touch of banality to what is otherwise, in both the English and the Latin, a sublime (see pp. 203-5) final section.

The accessible and engaging contents of this book are somewhat let down by the volume’s layout, which is difficult to navigate, especially for the reader seeking to use it primarily as a commentary. The three chapters of translated text are followed by three corresponding chapters of line-by-line commentary (thus, Chapter 5, “Comments: The Earlier Letters”, comments on Chapter 2, “The Earlier Letters”). However, apart from the initial chapter headings, all three chapters of commentary are simply labelled Comments in the header. The navigational difficulties this creates are compounded by the fact that each chapter, including the Introduction and the chapters of commentary, also has endnotes. Firstly, footnotes are generally preferable to endnotes for ease of reference. Secondly, in this case, their presence also means that the reader who wants to comprehensively consult all of Dressler’s observations on a given section of text must keep four pages open at once. Additionally, these endnotes do not feature in the Contents page—a mention, with page numbers, would be helpful. While I can understand the impulse to separate different types of commentary to streamline the text, I think that in this case the cure is worse than the disease.

In sum, this volume can be recommended as an accessible introduction to Paulinus/Ausonius for the newcomer, a useful resource for the researcher, an incisive contribution to scholarship, and a poetic translation of precision and beauty. I note a very few printing errors and other small issues below:

p.87 has the DOI printed at the bottom of the page

p.88 Ausonius, Letters 21.54 “Treacherous Hannibal” should be a lowercase t

p.88 Ausonius, Letters 21.62-3 “Who, at last, has convinced you of such long silence? / Henceforth let the irreverent lose the use of their voice!” The reader without prior knowledge of this poem would, I think, not grasp right away that “the irreverent” (translating impius) refers back to the person mentioned in the previous line; this could be easily fixed by translating it as “that irreverent”. Dressler also mentions that this is “[p]ossibly a reference to Paulinus’ wife Therasia” (p.175) but not Witke’s alternative suggestion that this refers to “a straw Paulinus”.[9]

p.103 Paulinus, Poems 11.65 “like” should be “as”

p.116 Paulinus, Poems 15.72 “He dwelt” should not be capitalised

p.131 Paulinus, Poems 27.149 I assume the threefold “Hale” rather than “Hail” is a printing error, unless it is a pun on “be well” and the meaning of salue.

p.199 note on 193-5, Father: “Rehab of the bible” should be “Rahab”

p.247 note on 103-4, universe: “even as he might himself demure” should be “demur”

p.254 first line of page: “Aulus Gellius, Attic Nghts” should be “Nights

p.256 note on 81-106: “Greek, poêtês” should be “poiêtês


Works Cited

Amherdt, David. 2005. “Le locus inamoenus de Paulin de Nole: La rhétorique au service du christianisme.” Mouseion 49, 3rd ser., vol. 5, no. 2: 143–58.

Dolveck, Franz, ed. 2015. Paulini Nolani Carmina. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.

Fielding, Ian. 2017. Transformations of Ovid in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: CUP.

Trout, Dennis E. 1999. Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Walsh, P. G. 1966a. Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola Volume 1. Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 35. New York: Newman Press.

———. 1966b. Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola Volume 2. Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 36. New York: Newman Press.

———. 1975. The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola. Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 40. New York: Newman Press.

Witke, Charles. 1971. Numen Litterarum: The Old and the New in Latin Poetry From Constantine to Gregory the Great. Leiden: Brill.



[1] Dolveck (2015), 521

[2] Trout (1999), 133-59

[3] Amherdt (2005), 144-51

[4] Fielding (2017), 28-51

[5] Dolveck (2015), 26-27

[6] Walsh (1975)

[7] Walsh (1966)

[8] Dolveck (2015)

[9] Witke (1971), 23