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 bit by bit before our eyes, or by dislocating the natural sequence of words bring the elements of a statement into arresting juxtaposition. At its simplest: qui fragilem truci / commisit pelago ratem. Classical Chinese (for all I know) could couple fragile/fierce and sea/ship and leave the reader to work out the relations. Latin cannot quite do that and distinguishes between direct and indirect objects with their accompanying adjectives: “who fragile (to) fierce entrusted (to) sea ship.” English must unscramble the message and put fragile beside ship, fierce beside sea, thereby losing the effect altogether.

A great pleasure, certainly, and a great resource, but this in itself cannot be what has drawn readers to Horace over the centuries and driven translators to him like lemmings. What is it about the odes of Horace? Or should we ask, who is Horace?

There is or was lovable, clubbable Horace, the favorite poet of those who don’t on the whole much like poetry (and hence periodically written off by the literati as not quite in the top bracket). Well, yes, Horace made his own the middle ground of experience where most people live most of their lives, providing the appropriate tags for countless everyday purposes, Diffugere nives for the first sign of spring, Simplex munditiis for a neatly dressed girl, Eheu fugaces for the twinge at the back of the knees as one goes up the stairs.

And there is Horace “the skillful versifier of commonplaces.” A little nearer the mark, provided that we write commonplaces, the commonplaces of Western thought and feeling to which Horace gave more durable expression than any other poet. Not that he simply made them the matter of his verse; he gave them the form that they were to have forever after. It did not take Horace to make us regret the passing of youth or hate death, to see our joys threatened by the flight of time and made more poignant by that flight. Rather, it is because of Horace that we respond to these things as we do. When we sit on our lawns drinking wine and watching the shadows thicken we are in the Horatian mode, George Steiner remarks, who devoted some eloquent pages in After Babel to the way Horatian organizations of emotion and response have been “canonical in Western sensibility.”


It looks as though we shall have to keep Horace on the books, and this means translation. To some extent it always did, but the kind of translation wanted by a classically trained public—one that mediated between Latin and English or ran free variations on the known originals—will not serve readers with no direct access to those originals. They need something closer, conveying in English what Horace does in his own language.

J.B. Leishman, in the valuable essay on translating Horace with which he introduced his metrical versions of some odes, noted that the “inimitable combination of difficulty and ease” that characterizes the Horatian Iyric is almost always missing in translation.1 The ease may or may not be preserved, the difficulty goes. Yet Leishman is surely right: the difficulty must be retained if the translation is to affect us at all as the original does. I do not mean the beginner’s difficulty of construing, rather the sense that one is confronting an artifact, an intricately made thing that will not yield itself quickly. Just as the thought and emotion of an ode resist immediate possession, so too the verbal surface and rhythmical movement must be absorbed slowly. Pound said of the opening line of the fourth poem of Book 1 (Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni) that it “has a week’s work in it for any self-respecting translator.” And yet here is Passage coming up with the whole 103. What the translator has to do is recreate the way the predominantly dactylic movement of the line is checked and slowed down as it runs into its trochaic close. Passage reproduces the longs and shorts of it:

Harshness of winter relents at the welcome return of Spring and Westwind.

Leishman (who was content to try only thirty odes) keeps the original meter but with better regard for the shape of English words, even if his diction is no more than passable:

Winter’s yielding in welcome change to the melting vernal breezes.

Clearly this is something that can be handled in English translation. And if Leishman is right in thinking that form and content are more than usually inseparable in Horace, then perhaps it should be. We may have too easily assumed that the classical lyric meters cannot work in English. They have worked well enough in German and, as some of the great nineteenth-century English metrists showed, they will work in our language too. Tennyson’s “Milton,” in Alcaics, is more than an exercise; it is decent, if minor, Tennyson. Swinburne’s “Sapphics,” metrically closer to the classical measure (in its Greek rather than its Horatian form), is a goodish poem in its own right and asks for no indulgence. Our poets, however, did too little work of this kind to naturalize these forms, hence they have remained exotics. But they showed that the thing can be done, and were some of today’s poets to take up the task again, discovering, just as Horace did, what modifications and adjustments are required if the transplant is to flourish, they would be adding a new formal resource to English poetry. And coming closer to the age-old problem of how to translate Horace.

So at least one can argue, and perhaps the argument should be given a run for its money. This might well be the time and place. Younger poets seem to be returning to a sense of form or at least the desire for form. And there are poetry workshops all over the country; here would be something to work at. The fact that most students would probably know no Latin could be a positive advantage, directing attention away from the meaning of the words to the movement. Let the novice poet or translator (to quote Pound again) “dissect the lyrics…coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.” The lyrics Pound was talking about were Goethe’s, but they might as well or better have been Horace’s.

For whatever happens to our Latin, it seems likely that people are going to continue translating Horace, and it is not hard to see why. He knew how to make a lyric poem better than anyone has ever done. For most poets, even good ones, a lyric poem is a kind of miracle or anyway a gift. Occasionally it happens, or is granted. Horace brings off the miracle again and again. It must surely then follow that if you study what he did and do the same thing in English you will find that you too have written a perfect poem. Like playing Mozart on the pianola? No, unfortunately.


In a sense not quite easy to define, the Horatian ode feels unusually solid. Even Marvell, Robert Lowell once said, can seem brittle beside him. In part this solidity is achieved by the way Horace so often expresses the mood or feeling of a poem through a situation. Very few good poems consist of nothing except the emotion, of course, though many bad ones do, but in Horace the situation tends to be more prominent and is sometimes developed into a kind of short story, a very obliquely told short story where the reader must collaborate and supply the unsaid. He did not invent this kind of poem. It is found embryonically in Greek in the Alexandrian epigram, but he greatly developed it and the secret seems almost to have died with him, for despite his immense influence few have tried to follow him here. Many poets do tell stories (Browning in his dramatic monologues, Hardy, Cavafy), but the poems in which they do so are professedly narrative. They are not, like Horace’s short story poems, presented in concentrated lyric form.

The occasion for these poems is regularly a drinking party or symposium—a literary convention, to be sure, though perhaps we should allow that Horace did sometimes go to parties. As Steele Commager mildly remarked of another Horatian genre: “It seems unlikely that he would have been moved to write so many love poems simply by a fondness for displaying his mastery of amatory formulas.” 2

The most brilliant example of this kind of poem is Odes I.27, an account of a rowdy Roman party. It is already in full swing when the poet arrives and someone puts a cup of strong wine in his hands. I will drink on one condition, he says, pointing to a boy who is sitting shyly by himself, looking out of it. He hasn’t yet got a name and is referred to simply as “the brother of Megilla,” obviously a well-known social figure. I want to know who he’s in love with, Horace goes on. “You won’t tell me?” he says to the boy. “I’ll drink on no other terms. Come on now, I’m sure it’s someone quite suitable. Just whisper her name in my ear.” The boy does so, we hear the poet’s cry of pretended horror, and the poem ends with a highly rhetorical stanza telling him that his plight is indeed hopeless.

The marvel of this little twenty-four-line piece is the way a real, that is, quite conceivable and in itself entirely trivial occasion is set clearly before us—the stage directions are all there if we look for them, the narrative line is firmly held—in an elaborate poetic style designed for quite different purposes. The effect is to set up a relation between two different spheres of the mind. Our pleasure in the gossipy small change of social comedy and our pleasure in high art are brought together and in the process both are enriched, the quotidian elevated, the rarefied made more accessible. Mock epic can do something of the same sort; Pope brought off comparable effects in The Rape of the Lock, but he was working in a narrative genre. No one has written a lyric poem like this one, and no one has been able to translate it.

Horace has several poems that tell a story in this way; one of the most appealing, though it seems to have attracted relatively little attention, occurs in the fourth book of Odes (number 11) which appeared when the poet was in his fifties. It is addressed to a girl called Phyllis. I have some wine that is “passing its ninth year,” he begins (Is Phyllis a wine snob?), and there are flowers in my garden to bind your hair with and make yourself look decorative for the occasion. Preparations for a party are evidently under way—we are shown the whole household bustling about to give the place a festive air. The party is to mark the ides of April, he tells her, “the day which divides the month of sea-born Venus,” the day, even more important, “by which my Maecenas reckons his onward-flowing years.” The mention of Maecenas comes in the central stanza, the place Horace often reserves for some key element in a poem.

He now offers Phyllis some advice on her love life (while they wait for the guests to arrive, we suppose). Forget the young man you fancy, he tells her; you’re not in his class, and anyway he is fully occupied with a rich playgirl. Two mythological allusions stress the unwisdom of reaching for more than you can get: “combusted Phaëthon” who drove his father’s horses too close to the sun, and, “a weighty example,” Bellerophon who tried to scale heaven on his horse and was thrown back to earth. The moral duly follows: “Always pursue what befits you. Count it a sin to hope for more than is granted and shun an ill-matched love.”

The mythology is obviously too heavy for poor Phyllis and her affairs; the tone is ironic, even mocking. Is Horace laughing at her pretension? Hardly, for the lines he now addresses to her are the tenderest he ever wrote:

…age iam, meorum

finis amorum—

non enim posthac alia calebo

(“Come now, last of my loves—for no woman will ever again move me deeply.”) He ends by asking her to sing to him. “Dark cares can be lightened by song.”

With the final picture, the aging poet listening sadly as the girl sings, we realize that we have been getting everything wrong. This is not a party poem; no one has been invited except Phyllis. It is a love poem, a farewell to love. A reticent poet, Horace was a still more reticent lover, and throughout the odes we see him standing at an ironic, middle-aged distance from affairs of the heart. If here he ends by speaking out with unusual directness, it is only after carefully pointing us away from the poem’s true subject. The wine is there in the opening line not for its festive associations but because it speaks of the passage of time. Maecenas is at the center of the poem not for his own illustrious sake but because his years, like the poet’s, are “onward-flowing.” We are told the date because it falls in the middle of the month of Venus. The mythological exempla are there not to warn Phyllis of the folly of caring for a man socially too high for her. They are addressed to the poet; he is warning himself against an “ill-matched love,” someone far too young for him. The fact that the emotion expressed in the final lines is guarded so chastely makes us value, and trust, it all the more.

This poem too, though less untranslatable than the previous one, has not found its translator. Which brings us back to the question: Can Horace be translated? Perhaps not, but we must hope that poets (let them be professionals, initiated in all the mysteries of their craft—procul este, profani!) will keep on trying to bring essential Horace across. Mr. Raffel chose the right word here. Essential for the range and quality of his achievement, and for what he represents, his canonical status in Western culture. When no one any longer reads or understands Horace we will finally have ceased to belong to the great family from which we have come.

This Issue

May 10, 1984