The Complete Works of Horace

translated by Charles E. Passage
Frederick Ungar, 402 pp., $28.50

The Essential Horace: Odes, Epodes, Satires, and Epistles

translated by Burton Raffel, foreword and afterword by W.R. Johnson
North Point Press, 274 pp., $13.50 (paper)

Two more vessels land up on the Sirens’ coast, strewn with the wreckage of their countless predecessors. What is it that drives people to translate Horace, the most translated and least translatable of poets? Versions exist in their thousands, the successes can be fitted into a few pages. Surely, though, there must be some way of bringing this treasure across. Perhaps if one keeps very close to the sense and form, even reproducing the meters syllable by syllable? Or go about it the other way and write as Horace would have written were he alive today?

The first tactic is adopted by Charles E. Passage with a complete Horace done in the original meters, plus notes. I hope this book, a labor of love, finds its ideal reader, someone who enjoyed Horace at college and would like to return to him but has too little Latin left to do so with comfort. Someone who is not troubled by Housmanesque “lads” and the like, and is prepared to find “Hung my dripping-wet clothes up” moving to the tune of —uu—. Passage’s metrical observances work rather better with the satires and epistles, for the hexameter is less intractable than the Greek lyric meters Horace uses in the odes, and the English hexameter will lend itself to the more conversational kinds of verse, more readily if you handle it with the freedom that Clough allowed himself in his “Amours de Voyage.” “Am I prepared to lay down my life for the British female?” is a vile hexameter but in its context an agreeable line of English verse. Passage’s hexameters are unfortunately made of sterner stuff.

The other new Horace to hand, not the complete but the “essential” Horace, by Burton Raffel, belongs, I suppose, to the second school. Raffel “makes Horace accessible to the modern reader,” the blurb says hopefully. There is in fact nothing particularly “modern” about Raffel’s writing, unless slovenly diction and syntax and no discernible meter constitute the modern note. Is this, for example, modern or at any conceivable level poetry, Raffel’s version of the Pyrrha ode, one of the most exquisitely written poems in Latin?

O Pyrra, who
Is holding you
Now, roses above you, under you—who,
All perfumed, loves your yellow hair…

The hexameter poems fare somewhat better, or at least less disastrously, and Raffel’s treatment of the Ars Poetica is ingenious, but the verbal and typographical tricks belong to no acceptable rhetoric and quickly become tiresome. Let it be said, however, that W.R. Johnson, a far better reader of Latin verse than I claim to be, devotes a nine-page postscript to this translation, discovering in it “sparkle and tempo,” “dazzling elegance,” and other virtues invisible to me.

Horace untranslatable? Strictly, of course, all lyric poetry is. Pushkin, evidently, in Russian, Leopardi in Italian. The least capturable feature of the Horatian ode is the mosaic word order, the way the highly inflected Latin language is used to let a picture compose itself…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.