Cento Ground

The cento is a sophisticated and demanding poetic form — and best suited to schoolboyish ends

Classics Rome Wine
17th-century monument to Ausonius, Milan (photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Decimus Magnus Ausonius (310-395), poet, professor, and imperial courtier, is one of the most engaging literary figures of late antiquity. If Ausonius is known to wine drinkers today, it is probably as the eponym of the great Château Ausone in Saint-Emilion. However, since this property overlooks the valley of the Dordogne, and Ausonius tells us in his “Mosella” that his villa overlooks the Garonne, it is very unlikely that he had any connection with the property that bears his name.

Born in Bordeaux, Ausonius was a grammarian and teacher of rhetoric. He was made the tutor of Gratian, the son of the Emperor Valentinian, and held a number of court offices, finally becoming consul in 379 when his pupil became emperor. After Gratian’s assassination in 383 Ausonius retired to his estates and amused himself with poetry until his own death some ten years later.

Ausonius’s gift was for centos, a poetic form defined perhaps too pithily by Dr Johnson as a “composition formed by joining scraps from other authors”. A cento is a form of poetic composition in which individual phrases or lines from some great and respected poet of the past are excerpted and stitched together to form a new piece of poetry (the term, which derives ultimately from the Greek verb meaning to plant slips or cuttings of trees, came in time to refer to a patchwork quilt or garment). This “new” poem tended to be on an un-epic or otherwise undignified or common subject; and the most usual source of material for centos was the work of the most respected poets — Homer and Virgil in Greek and Latin respectively.

It was a form which generated its own aesthetic, as Ausonius explained in the dedicatory epistle to his own most notorious cento, the “Cento Nuptialis”, a work commissioned by no less a patron than the Emperor Valentinian himself:

I’ll try to tell you what a cento is. It is a poem neatly constructed out of a variety of passages and diverse meanings, in such a way so that either two half lines are joined together to form one single line, or one line and the following half of the next line. To place two entire lines side by side is poorly done, and three in a row is really disgraceful. . . . And so this little work, the cento, is handled in much the same way as a geometrical puzzle, so as to bring together different meanings, to make pieces which are in fact arbitrarily connected seem to fit in naturally with one another, to let foreign elements let no crack of light slip between them, to prevent the far-fetched from proclaiming the metaphysical force which yokes them together, the densely packed from bursting, the closely knit from gaping.

This sophisticated and demanding poetic form succeeded best, paradoxically, when applied to the most schoolboyish ends. The most notorious part of the “Cento Nuptialis” is the account of the wedding night. In this extract of five lines no fewer than six fragments from different books of the Aeneid and one from the Eclogues have been stitched together:

. . . ramum, qui veste latebat,
sanguineus ebuli bacis minioque rubentem
nudato capite et pedibus per mutua nexis,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum,
eripit a femore et trepidanti fervidus instat.

. . . the rod hidden within his clothing
scarlet with elderberries and reddened with dye
its head bare, as their legs entwined,
an horrific monster, huge, shapeless, no sight in its single eye,
he draws forth from his flank and eagerly presses as she quivers.

Prim scholars have responded with outrage to this “desecration” of Virgil, while Gibbon asserted that Ausonius’s poetry “condemns the taste of his age”. It certainly is shallow. But there is real wit and genuine learning in the reapplication of some of the lines. And is it not curiously liberating, once in a while, to see great art treated with something less than reverence? Ausonius himself admitted — perhaps a better word would be “proclaimed” — that the cento was more likely to provoke laughter than praise.

Ausonius, and the cento form in which he excelled, have particularly appealed to young writers who entered their literary majority at a moment when the achievements of their immediate predecessors seemed stifling because unsurpassable. In English poetry one such moment was the decade preceding the death of Pope in 1744, when the possibilities for poetry seemed exhausted. No one could hope to surpass Pope in couplets, and recent attempts to revive a Miltonic grandeur were not encouraging, tending to fall into bathos. At just this moment two young Etonian friends, Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray, went up to Cambridge. A fine copy of Ausonius was one of the few volumes Sir Robert Walpole had allowed Horace to borrow from the library at Houghton and take with him to King’s. This edition highlighted the parodic techniques of the cento by noting the original sources of Ausonius’s fragments in the “Cento Nuptialis”.

The example of Ausonius clearly resonated with the two youths, whose own later work shows its influence. In The Castle of Otranto (1764) Walpole would consciously apply the principles of the cento to the Gothic novel, combining scenic form derived from sentimental drama, characters lifted from Shakespearean tragedy, and décor from the medievalism of the imagination. Gray’s poetry took the technique of classical allusion to a pinnacle of complexity and succeeded in transforming it from a literary game to the expression of a particular kind of moral sensibility.

The cento had this broader application in Ausonius, too. In his “Mosella”, the poem on the river Mosel he wrote after attending the imperial court in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), Ausonius praised the river as “amnis odorifero iuga vitea consite Baccho”, a stream whose banks are overgrown with Bacchus’s fragrant vines. Ausonius depicted nature as itself a kind of cento, in which disparate elements came together to create unexpected new wholes, sometimes beautiful, sometimes bucolic and comic:

laeta operum plebes festinantesque coloni
vertice nunc summo properant, nunc deiuge dorso,
certantes stolidis clamoribus. inde viator
riparum subiecta terens, hinc navita labens,
probra canunt seris cultoribus: adstrepsit ollis
et rupes et silva tremens et concavus amnis.

The people, happy in their work, and the restless husbandman are busy, now on the hilltop, now on the slope, exchanging shouts in boisterous rivalry. Here the wayfarer tramping along the low-lying bank, and there the bargeman floating by, throw their insults at the lazy vine-dressers; and all the hills, and shivering woods, and channelled river, ring with their cries.

Just as the vine has a place in that cento which is a beautiful landscape, so too does wine have its place in the cento of a life well lived.