Horace: Odes

May 27, 2019

Odes
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
(Wordsworth Classics, 1997) [23-13 BC]
lvii + 282 p.

Horace is one of the authors whom I’ve most looked forward to reading during the Roman reading project in which I’m engaged. I have known him only by reputation; to my knowledge, before taking up this volume I’d never read a line of his poetry.

The Odes are his most famous poems, admired for their graceful artistry. Horace was the master of the polished miniature; the elegant turn of phrase; the marriage of form and content; the personal touch. There are four books, published between 23 and 13 BC, comprising about 100 poems altogether.

Each ode is, as a rule (occasionally broken), addressed to a particular individual: to a friend returned from war, or to a friend who has fallen in love with his servant-girl, or to someone writing a book, or mourning a death, or to an unfaithful beauty. One is addressed to a lute. The subject matter is as wide as the heavens: love, friendship, the vanity of riches and power, the fleetingness of life, the virtues of wine. The tone is largely whimsical and tender, poetry on a small, domestic scale, but not a hint of rusticity. Horace professes a love for the countryside, but his own personality, it seems, was gently urbane.

This is personal poetry, then, far from the high style of epic, akin in some ways to Catullus, but more guarded, using meticulous poetic construction to put a little distance between the finished poem and the poet.

*

Let’s look at a few examples. This volume of Horace that I have been reading is an anthology in which the work of many different translators are combined. Therefore where I quote lines I shall indicate in brackets the name and date of the translator.

A recurring theme is the small ambition of Horace the poet, who is content with a simple, domestic sphere, and whose style is not fit for great matters like war and affairs of state:

Small wits, small themes! I know my humble place,
Nor would the Muse of my unwarlike lyre
Suffer my verse with ineffectual fire
Your fame or Caesar’s to disgrace.
(I, 6) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

*

And as for Caesar — you in your great prose
Will tell his battles better, and display
Proud kings with necks enchained, his vanquished foes,
Led captive down the Sacred Way.

Me the sage Muse assigns an apter part,
To praise your fair Licymnia’s radiant eyes,
Her thrilling voice that lifts you to the skies,
The treasure of her faithful heart;

How all she does becomes her, the swift play
Of parrying wit, the dance of frolic grace
When with the bright-robed girls she takes her place
To hymn Diana’s festal day.
(II, 12) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

Yet this modesty is a subterfuge of sorts, for he does occasionally turn his pen to Caesar’s advantage:

Come then, auspicious prince, and bring
To thy long gloomy country light,
For in thy countenance the spring
Shines forth to cheer thy people’s sight;
Then hasten thy return for, thou away,
Nor lustre has the sun, nor joy the day.
(IV, 5) [Philip Francis; 1746]

This was consistent with his social position; though the son of a freedman, and so not part of the Roman aristocratic circles, his talent earned him a place among the powerful in Roman society. His special artistic patron was Maecenas, Augustus’ adviser and confidant.

In any case, it is equally clear that his quaint subject matter is but a vehicle to greatness of another sort:

Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flowers my hearse;
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.
(II, 20) [Dr Johnson; 1726]

This poetic conceit — that the poet’s immortality, or that of his subject, is assured because of the poetry itself — is familiar from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I wonder (but do not know) if Shakespeare inherited it from Horace.

The shortness of life is another theme that comes up again and again. It ought to spur us, says Horace, to live each day with determination to wring from it all that it can yield:

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
(I, 9) [Dryden; 1685]

Or, again, in an ode addressed to Virgil, he argues that the brevity of life should encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously, but to enjoy levity and folly:

Then leave delays, and gain’s desire,
And mindful of black funeral fire,
Short folly mix with counsels best:
‘Tis sweet sometimes to be in jest.
(IV, 12) [Sir Thomas Hawkins; 1625)

All of this, of course, under the shadow of death, which loomed over all:

One end awaits us all. Our fate
Is fixed. The ferry-boat is sent
To carry all men, soon or late,
To their perpetual banishment.
(II, 3) [John Gielgud; 1951]

*

The indifferent earth, an equal friend,
As willingly opens her wide womb
For beggar’s grave as prince’s tomb.
(II, 18) [Thomas Hawkins; 1625]

**

I enjoyed these poems a good deal. Reading poetry in translation — especially non-narrative poetry — is something of a fool’s game. I cannot name a single poem which has achieved eminence or widespread admiration in the English speaking world that was not originally written in English. Translations, however talented the translator, somehow fail to really take wing. Yet there are wonderfully talented poets in this volume, Dryden and Milton being the most eminent. The reader, if innocent of the original tongue, is unsure whether whatever elegance or artistry they perceive in the translation is a reflection of something present in the original, or not. As such, it is difficult to form any precise view of, in this case, Horace the poet from reading the poems.

Why bother then? In part, I think, because of the personal tone of the poetry, which comes through quite clearly despite the mediating voices. There is a man behind the lines whom we can, in some measure, get to know, whether that man is Horace himself or his artful public persona. The point is that there is a “character” there, who speaks to us across the centuries with a startlingly immediate voice.

Another reason would be simply to appreciate, in some measure, a poet whose influence over subsequent European poetry, and English poetry specifically, has been great. If the translations in this volume are representative (and they are consistent with what I found in the even more extensive collection Horace in English), an interest in re-expressing Horace’s poetry in English forms began in roughly the sixteenth century and has extended up to the present. This is not the same thing, of course, as saying that an interest in Horace began then; educated readers before the twentieth century could, and did, read him in the original, and he has been considered one of the great poets of our tradition since antiquity. Wikipedia has a nice potted history of his reception in European cultures.

*

[Complicated love]
No sooner hast thou, with false vows,
Provoked the powers above;
But thou art fairer than before
And we are more in love.
Thus Heaven and Earth seem to declare
They pardon falsehood in the fair.
(II, 8) [Sir Charles Sedley; 1701]

[The glory of the past]
Time sensibly all things impairs;
Our fathers have been worse than theirs;
And we than ours; next age will see
A race more profligate than we,
With all the pains we take, have skill enough to be.
(III, 6) [Wentworth Dillon; 1684]

[Against riches]
We barbarously call those bless’d
Who are of largest tenements possess’d,
Whilst swelling coffers break their owner’s rest.
More truly happy those, who can
Govern the little empire, man.
(IV, 9) [George Stepney; 1689]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: