Daylight was fading on June 3, 17 BC, when there suddenly ascended into the soft air above the Palatine Hill in Rome the pure and reedy sound of fifty-four young voices, belonging to adolescent girls and boys, singing a most unusual hymn. Anyone in the audience that evening who knew his Greek literature—and we may suppose that many did—would have recognized the syncopated, slightly nervous meter of the song being sung as the one invented and made famous six centuries earlier by the Lesbian poet Sappho, who used it to convey some of her most famous lyrics of erotic yearning. (“That man seems to me to be like a god/who, sitting just across from you,/when you’ve spoken sweetly/ hears you.”)
On this particular summer night, however, burning desire was not on the poetic menu. That much became clear as soon as the two choirs of twenty-seven youths—one of boys, one of girls, each corresponding to one of the deities invoked in the hymn—called upon Apollo and Diana, “world’s brightness and darkness, worshipped forever,” to
…make our young men tractable
and virtuous; to our old, grant peaceful health,
give to the whole race of Romulus glory,
descendants and wealth.
The singing of this hymn was, in fact, the high point of a magnificent and solemn civic occasion: the ludi saeculares, Centennial Games, which the First Citizen, Augustus Caesar (né Octavian), had ordered to be held that year—a celebration of Rome as the capital of the world, meant to commemorate the beginning of a new era, a new saeculum, in the affairs of humankind. And why not? Fourteen years earlier, Augustus had defeated Cleopatra and Antony at Actium, thereby establishing, for once and for all, Rome as the single great Mediterranean power and putting a hundred years of civil conflict to an end. Since then, he had been consolidating his power abroad and at home, traveling in the East, legislating ethical and moral reforms. Only now, in the year 17, could Rome and the world—and his own position as de facto emperor—be considered secure enough to announce the beginning of what was clearly a New World Order.
We happen to know an unusual amount about the commissioning and performance of the hymn that was meant to celebrate Augustus’ achievement because of the survival of a book and a stone. The book, by Suetonius, the historian and biographer of the emperors, was written about a century and a quarter after the evening in question, and in it the author describes how Augustus “approved so highly” of the works of a certain poet “and was convinced that they would remain immortal that he bade him to compose …the Carmen saeculare.” The stone, discovered in 1890 and visible today in the Musée des Thermes, is a chunk of the official catalog of the ludi saeculares, and with respect to the hymn it notes that on the third day, after a sacrifice offered on the Palatine Hill,
twenty-seven young boys and twenty-seven young girls, still having their mothers and fathers, sang a hymn. And in the same way at the Capitol. The song was composed by Q. Horatius Flaccus.
We know him simply as Horace.
The poem that was sung on that long-ago evening—a Greek lyric expression of Roman civic virtues and imperial ambitions; a patriotic anthem set to the lilting poetic rhythms of erotic yearning; a grand celebration of official and communal values given definitive shape by a private individual, a solitary bard—suggests the strange tensions and seeming contradictions that characterize not only Horace’s life and work, but also our awkward attitude toward him. He is, on the one hand, the august Augustan: during his lifetime, the emperor’s friend as well as Vergil’s, moving in the highest social, political, and literary circles, acknowledged as the “performer on Rome’s lyre,” as he himself boasts; after his death, a figure absolutely central to the Western poetic tradition, having had a particular influence in the Renaissance, after languishing in comparative neglect during the Middle Ages. (He has always been more popular when reason is in vogue.) The sixteenth century in France—Ronsard, who in more than one poem rhymes “grâce” with “Horace,” Du Bellay, Montaigne, “the French Horace”—and the seventeenth and particularly the early eighteenth in England—Addison, Steele, Prior, Pope—would be unthinkable without him.
On the other hand, he is—well, the august Augustan: the avuncular philosophizing about the fleeting nature of pleasure and the inevitable passage of time, from one comfortably ensconced in the nests of privilege, comes off, today, as complacent and not terribly original, as even his admirers admit. “Heaven knows,” the American critic Brooks Otis wrote a generation ago, in an essay called, significantly enough, “The Relevance of Horace,”
there is nothing new about “seizing the day” or relaxing from business or moderating one’s desires or being philosophic about the future, but we all do fall into the moods that these clichés suggest and, when we do, find Horace just the man for our purposes. He was in short felicitous in his phrasing and charming in his life-style.1
Indeed, Horace’s lyric ouput has been reduced in the mind of the general public to a pair of clichés. One, which everyone knows even without knowing its author, concerns the poetry’s content: carpe diem. The other concerns its form—the rigorous structures of which their creator was so proud, those formidably dense verse patterns with the funny names that sound like constellations (“Greater Asclepiad”), which have notoriously been the bane of schoolboys both real and imaginary from Shakespeare’s Chiron in Titus Andronicus (“O, ’tis a verse in Horace, I know it well,/I read it in a grammar long ago”) to the pathetic student in Kipling’s short story “Regulus,” victimized by a sadistic teacher when called upon to translate Horace’s paean to the Punic War hero Regulus in one of the six great “Roman Odes” with which Book III of the Odes begins.
Neither the charm nor the felicity, the armchair Epicureanism nor the impregnable formality, suits the current taste. When we think of lyricists, it is Sappho who comes to mind, not Horace, who merely used her seamless meters while leaving the messy erotic stuff alone; we like our exaltation in the content, not the form, of our poetry. And yet Horace’s steadfast refusal to provide such exaltation, his stubborn artisanal focus on refinements in technique rather than rawness of emotion, is the key to both the beauties and difficulties in his greatest work, the Odes—to the subtle and fragile emotional textures that are so famously hard to convey, and to the elusive tonal artistry that make it so famously difficult to translate.
Horace was born to a freedman, a former slave, on December 8, 65 BC, in Venusia, a small military colony at the heel of Italy. (In the witty and caustic Satires with which, at thirty, he first announced his talent to the world—the Latin title, Sermones, means something more like “conversations,” or perhaps better “causeries“—the poet amusingly recounts his schooldays with the “burly sons of burly centurions.”) When he died, on November 27, 8 BC, in Rome, he was buried in a tomb on the Esquiline Hill next to his beloved patron, the fabulously wealthy littérateur and bon vivantMaecenas, the emperor’s longtime friend; the emperor himself was his heir.
What happened between Venusia and Rome, between centurions’ sons and Augustus himself, explains a great deal. The poet’s childhood and early manhood witnessed some of the most traumatic years Europe has ever seen: the death throes of the Roman Republic, with its political and social instabilities, and the proscriptions, executions, and confiscations that attended them. (His shrewd, self-made father was an auctioneer’s agent, responsible among other things for the disposition of confiscated properties: it’s entirely possible that Horace saw firsthand the emotional trauma inflicted by the era’s political violence.) As a university student in Athens, where he wrote quantities of verse in Greek—the education that made his later achievement possible—Horace became involved in the upheavals of his era, joining the cause of the “liberators” Brutus and Cassius after their assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. From the disaster at Philippi, he tells us, he barely escaped with his life. He slunk back to Italy to find his father’s property confiscated for veterans of the winning side: an ironic twist of fate for the auctioneer’s son. Still, he must have had some wherewithal, for he soon after bought himself a clerical post at the treasury—becoming, into the bargain, the model for many great poets (Housman, his great admirer and translator, and also Cavafy) whose stultifying day jobs seem not to have extinguished the lyric impulse.
Insulated from the decade’s volatile politics, he began to move in literary circles. By his late twenties he’d joined the circle of Vergil, which suggests he was already circulating poems by that point; and soon after met Maecenas, who remained an intimate for life. Two books of satires, along with a volume of epodes, scathing iambic verses modeled on the invective poetry of Archaic Greek, were published between 35 and 29 BC. It was around this time that Maecenas presented him with the gift of the Sabine farm about which he would write so lovingly—in fact a quite substantial property that allowed the poet to live henceforth as a kind of country gentleman.
It was in the comfort and security afforded by this munificent gift that Horace undertook an enormous project of a character radically different from that of the spicy, scintillating, gossipy Sermones and the often outrageous Epodes: the three books of odes, comprising eighty-eight poems in Greek meters on a wide range of subjects. Their publication in 23 BC made his name. (It was the Odes, certainly, and not the Satires, that earned him the Carmen saeculare commission.) There followed some verse epistles; an additional, fourth book of odes, which Augustus himself “compelled” Horace to write, according to Suetonius; and another epistle on the writing of poetry, which has been enshrined separately as the Ars poetica, the “Art of Poetry.” His last decade was darkened by the losses of friends and other poets: Vergil, Tibullus, Propertius. In the year 8 BC, Maecenas died, admonishing Augustus on his deathbed to treat Horace as “a second me.” He needn’t have bothered: a few months later, Horace himself was dead.
Even this brief biography should help to account for much about Horace that irritates today: his ostensible embrace of the Augustan regime, his status as a poet of the establishment, his studied avoidance of ecstasy in favor of a measured appreciation of modest beauties and pleasures. For he had seen, firsthand, the worst that his century had to offer; whatever his reservations about Augustus may have been—and given his youthful politics, he must have had some—the new imperial stability was clearly to be preferred to the kind of violent upheavals he had witnessed. Who could blame him for wanting to spend the rest of the life that he had nearly lost celebrating the virtues of solid pleasures sensibly enjoyed—pleasures that are, in the Odes more than anywhere else in his work, both shadowed and heightened by an awareness of the violent energies always threatening to destroy them?
Yet it was not the temperate content, but rather the artful form of the Odes that was their great distinction—or so at least Horace declared. In the final entry to his third book of odes (the last lyric he ever planned to write, before Augustus asked him to whip up some more), he asserts that his claim to poetic fame would rest on the fact that he was the “first to adapt Aeolian [i.e., Greek, the verse forms used by Sappho and Alcaeus] verse to the Italian measure”—that grafting of Roman onto Greek that would be replicated in the great public hymn that Augustus commissioned to celebrate the new Rome.
Why would an achievement that was, at least superficially, a technical one, matter so much—and make Horace’s influence on later literature so profound? Roman authors during the last two centuries of the Republic—years marked, among other things, by the annexation of much of the Hellenistic Greek world—were acutely aware of the dominance and authority of the Greek cultural inheritance, which proved at once to be a superb model and an irritating burden. Poetry in particular was a vexed subject. The Greeks had an ancient poetic tradition, rich in its own special diction and forms; by comparison, the Roman tradition was both young and relatively impoverished. Roman poets found it was proving difficult to make Latin sound “poetic” (which is to say, Greek). Latin as a language feels heavier than Greek: unlike Greek it has no articles, a phenomenon that lends Latin a certain chunkiness; unlike Greek, it does not have a number of monosyllabic “particles” that can be sprinkled through lines or sentences to give subtle extra flavor—or to help meet the requirements of meter.
As a result, it was difficult to adapt Latin (so ideal for grave prose utterances) to the fluttery and complex stanzaic meters of Greek lyric verse. Horace dealt with this by altering certain conventions of the Greek models used by Sappho and her peers in ways that made them more suitable vehicles for the gravity of Latin words and rhythms (substituting spondees, for instance, where the Greek called for trochees or iambs, and placing regular caesuras, or breaks, within lines to allow for the greater stateliness of Latin speech). By eliminating the hiccupping effect of Greek meters, he achieved verse forms that for the first time sounded natural in Latin—and indeed exploited the monumental quality of the Latin tongue. It was Nietzsche who most famously put his finger on the special quality of Horatian verse, which took the stone blocks that were Latin words, ungainly and difficult to maneuver, and for the first time made them genuinely beautiful and artful: reading Horace, he said, was like encountering a “mosaic of words, in which every word by sound, by position and by meaning, diffuses its influence to right and left and over the whole.”
This lapidary quality is the supreme Horatian achievement, the hallmark of his poetry. He ends his famous Mount Soracte ode (“See how deep stands the gleaming snow on/Soracte”) with a description of how a flirtatious girl’s lovely laughter betrays her hiding place in the corner of a Roman piazza:
nunc et latentis proditor intimo
gratus puellae risus ab angulo…
Literally, the words mean this:
Now/too/of a hiding/betraying/ from an intimate
lovely/of a girl/laughter/from a corner
Any translation into syntactically correct English will shatter the cunning effect of the (syntactically correct) Latin, which is capable of a far more elastic word order. To the Roman eye and ear, the first line creates a terrific anticipation, consisting as it does of a series of adjectives describing nouns we don’t encounter until the second line. When we do get there, we realize that the correct relationship between each adjective and its noun is meticulously vertical: hiding/girl, betraying/ laughter, intimate/corner. So the lines in fact produce the very phenomenon they describe: a sound, a mysterious sound that you cannot at first identify because its source is deeply hidden (as is the word angulo) in a corner. Every line of every ode by Horace is this dense, this complex.
The problem remained of how to give poems composed in those newly useful meters the kind of intellectual heft that suited Roman sensibilities, molded as they were by immersion in the study of rhetoric, focused as they were on the concrete, on the useful; and expressed in the rolling periods, the long, balanced, complex sentences, that so brilliantly distinguish Latin oratory. Horace’s second great technical achievement was to learn to thread complicated and extended ideas through one after the other of the four-line stanzas perfected by Sappho and her peers; in so doing he hit upon an unmistakably poetic way to think like a Roman—and provided, into the bargain, a tautness, variety, and sinew to lyric utterances that had never been achieved before. The energizing tension between the static “mosaic” quality of his diction, which invites you to pause and admire every word, every stanza individually, and the forward-moving pull of his long arcs of thought is what gives Horatian verse its great distinction.
As it turned out, these stylistic and technical innovations perfectly served a characteristic thematic preoccupation: the relationship between pleasure and pain, between how we would like to live and what life does to us. When you carefully follow the strangely winding thread of Horace’s thought from stanza to stanza, you often find yourself arriving at a destination quite different from the one the opening line might have promised. Below I have translated I.22, Integer vitae, “Wholesome in life,” a classic example of this characteristic Horatian sleight of hand, in which the poet’s attention wavers between high Romanness and his charming girlfriend, Lalagê:
Wholesome in life, of sin
that man needs no Moorish
spears nor bow
nor quiver pregnant with its
even if he’s about to journey
scorching Sidra, or the
Caucasus, or regions that the
For instance: a wolf—while once
in the Sabine woods
I hymned my Lalagê and
my usual bounds, free of all cares,
fled from me;
a monstrosity such as neither
Apulia rears among her wide oak
nor Juba’s land, arid wet-nurse of
Place me in benumbed plains
a single tree’s refreshed by
that region of the world which
mists and harsh
place me beneath the route of a
sun, in a land denied to human
still I’ll love my sweetly laughing
The poem begins as if it’s going to celebrate a certain kind of Roman virtue and gravitas. (It was, indeed, often set to music and performed at funerals in Germany and Scandinavia during the last century.) And yet a shift occurs at the beginning of the third stanza, which purports to give an example of the principle, articulated in the first two, that the honest man needs no armor but his goodness. With a flourish so grand that it suggests we are not to take this business about virtue all that seriously, Horace posits himself as the exemplar of the heroism he lauds in the opening, all because (another letdown) a wolf once avoided him in a forest.
And just what (another shift) was he doing in the forest, anyway? Singing ditties about his darling if perhaps air-headed girlfriend (her Greek name, Lalagê, is derived from the verb “to chatter”). The final pair of stanzas make us realize that the poem is not, after all, about purity and innocence, but rather about desire and poetry. For it is Horace’s singing and his loving that will endure, however adverse the conditions; and it occurs to you to wonder whether those conditions might not, after all, include a dour cultural emphasis on wholesomeness and purity.
The sudden swerve in Horace’s trainof thought, so elegantly limned by Horace’s particular technique, can be found in a vast range of the odes on many subjects, both patently political and quietly personal. The penultimate poem of Book I, on Octavian’s triumph over Cleopatra, famously begins with a call for the celebratory drinking and foot-stomping to mark the demise of the “demented queen” (Nunc est bibendum, “Now let us drink”), but segues to an unsettling simile that compares the fleeing queen at Actium to a “gentle dove” pursued by a hawk—which is to say, Augustus—and then ends, somewhat disorientingly, with a moving hommage to the “fierce” dignity of her desire to “die more nobly,” “not to be dragged, some lowly woman, in another’s proud triumph.”
Such shifts are paralleled by another technique: sudden narrowings in focus from the general to the concrete, which can also subvert the poem’s ostensible meaning. In the Soracte ode, Horace’s blithe admonishment to a young friend to enjoy love while he can takes a sudden, ferocious force from that closing evocation of the laughter of a young girl flirting in some piazza with a boy who’s just snatched a love token from her finger. That flirtation was a plausible enough prospect for Horace’s friend, but is, you realize, only a memory, now, for Horace himself. (And the loaded if taut manner in which the poet describes the girl’s finger—male pertinaci, “badly resisting”—gives some sense of the economy of expression that further characterizes his “lapidary” diction.)
So too the Regulus ode, which so tortured Kipling’s schoolboy, and which ends with a description of the dutiful soldier going off to suffer in war—an action the poet decides, almost as an afterthought, to compare to a man going off to a weekend in the country. In the context of what has preceded it, the sudden invocation of peacetime pleasures is shattering. The progressions and shifts of the poet’s thought, as it moves through his meticulously fitted verses, is as unpredictable as the progress of any human experience, or human life, and it is this uncertainty that gives the poems, like the lives, their evanescent tone and fragile beauty.
All this is done with such great authority, and with such wit and panache—each of the first nine odes of Book I, the so-called “Parade odes,” is in a different Greek meter; it’s the poetic equivalent of the compulsories in a sporting event, designed to show you that he’s up to all the technical challenges—that it’s easy to forget that nobody had ever done it before. But it made a great posterity possible. That we find it perfectly natural that a poet’s project might be to express, in a wide variety of personas, something at once weighty and delicate in simple-looking four-line stanzas—to be formally structured but intellectually and emotionally varied, to be discursive and deeply poetic at the same time about a wide variety of subjects, many of them ostensibly everyday rather than ecstatic—is Horace’s legacy to Western poetry.
The fiercely disciplined reasonableness of Horace’s vision, his insistence on a poetic technique as rigorously thought out and meticulously achieved as the happiness the poems themselves endorse, have long endeared him to other poets more, perhaps, than to the reading public at large. Auden had already put his finger on Horace’s appeal in his own, very Horatian ode about the modern “Horatians,” sensible but deeply feeling people who know that they
…are, for all our polish, of little
stature, and, as human lives,
compared with authentic martyrs
like Regulus, of no account. We
do what it seems to us we were
made for, look at
this world with a happy eye
but from a sober perspective.
The word “polish” in the contemporary poem suggests the germ of Horace’s appeal particularly to poets who have, as J.D. McClatchy points out in the introduction to his collection of verse renderings of the Odes by thirty-five well-known poets, “put aside their singing robes, once they think of themselves as craftsmen rather than as bards, once they attend the world as a surgery and not a party.” It is, indeed, Horace’s supreme craftsmanship that has always made him at once “wholly untranslatable,” as Brooks Otis declared (“like making ropes out of sand,” Harold Mattingly harrumphed in his book about Roman civilization2 ), and irresistible to centuries of poets, particularly poets in English, from Dryden and Pope to Housman and (to cite the most recent of a spate of new translations of the Odes) David Ferry, whose much-praised translation appeared in 1997.
It is perhaps inevitable that every new translation of a great classic, like every new production of a canonical opera, needs some kind of self-justificatory new “take” on the work: in Sidney Alexander’s meticulous 1999 translation of the Odes, for instance, it was that he was giving us Horace as “the quintessential Italian.” In the introduction to the new translation, McClatchy announces the distinguishing feature of his collection: “Never before,” he writes, “have the leading poets of the day assembled specifically to translate all the odes.” He goes on to declare that
the variety of tone to be heard in these translations matches the mercurial shifts in mood and response the Latin poems themselves exhibit. The pairings of poem and translator were deliberate, and made in the hope of creating interesting juxtapositions. To have an American poet laureate write about political patronage, to have a woman poet write about seduction, an old poet write about the vagaries of age, a Southern poet about the blandishments of the countryside, a gay poet about the strategies of “degeneracy”…these are part of the editorial plot for this new book.
The new Odes thus stands alongside recent collections of translations of a given classic—notably Dante’s Inferno, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses—parts of which are distributed among different contemporary poets.3
And yet while you admire McClatchy’s impulse to create interesting textures between poet and translator, some of that “editorial plot” sounds a little gimmicky to me. Surely it’s enough to want to see how a group of excellent contemporary poets handle Horace, without having to suggest, inter alia, that Southerners know more about countrysides than (say) Midwesterners or New Englanders do, that women know more about seduction than men, or that gay men are more intimate with “degeneracy” (scare quotes or no) than are others. For my part, I’d be happy with a gay translator who knew Latin as well as he presumably knew degeneracy: Mark Doty seems to think that Horace was (as he says in III.14) a young man during the consulship of someone called “Planco,” probably because the words consule Planco appear in Horace’s text; but that’s just because Planco is the ablative form of Plancus, the consul’s actual name. Such glitches would have been easy enough to correct, had the editorial focus been on Romans rather than Americans.
There are, to be sure, many deep pleasures to be had from individual translations you find here. Not least is that of an older poet, who has given to the incomparable Ligurinus ode, which begins with a weary rejection of love but ends in an image of heartbreaking erotic turmoil, just the right shift from bantering faux-Sappho (“So it’s war again, Venus,/after all this time?”) to the plaintive and poignant yearning of the poem’s ending. In these last lines, the translator nicely replicates, with the long and short i’s, and with the m’s of his “Then why, Ligurinus, why/ do my eyes sometimes fill, even spill over?,” both the assonant repetitions and yearning alliterative m’s and n’s of the Latin sed cur heu, Ligurine, cur/ manat rare meas lacrima per genas? I doubt that such felicities are due simply to the fact that Richard Howard, the translator, was born in 1929.
Similarly effective is the contribution of John Hollander, who in all of his translations, including an excellent rendering of the Soracte ode, displays a fine sensitivity in matters of enjambment, both between lines and between stanzas—always of vital importance in this poet, in whom sequences of thought are everything. Dick Davis’s Carmen saeculare, which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, is appropriately dignified and yet manages, by means of rhymes on alternate lines, to sound like a song, which is precisely what it is. And I liked the elegant way in which Rosanna Warren handles the unenviable assignment of IV.7, Diffugere nives, “The snows are fled away,” the poem that A.E. Housman famously considered to be the most beautiful in ancient literature and which he himself memorably translated in a way that managed to sound both like Horace and like himself (“The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws/And grasses in the mead renew their birth…”). Warren has managed to find new growth herself in these lines, unpacking the Latin to create fresh but not strained effects in English that make the poem sound, indeed, like poetry: “All gone, the snow: grass throngs back to the fields,/the trees grow out new hair….”
So McClatchy’s Horace has grown out some lovely new hair in which we can all luxuriate. Yet as a representation of the Odes as a whole (which, with its facing Latin pages, it is impossible not to take it as, whatever the editor’s demurs), the new collection has deep problems, for precisely the reasons the editor proffers in order to authorize the new effort: that Horace’s “mercurial shifts in mood and response” justify the wildly different tones and degrees of formality, from free verse to rhymed couplets, on offer here.
It seems to me that this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Horace’s work. Horace’s poetic identity lies precisely in the meticulous and masterly way he uses form, form above all, to solve both stylistic and intellectual problems: if he writes a poem in a stanzaic meter, it’s because he wants you to feel the delicate rhythm of pausing and moving, pausing and moving, en route to the heart-stopping climax; if he casts it as a series of dense lines (as he does in the envoi to the first three books, III.30, Exegi monumentum, “I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze”), it’s because he wants you to feel the weight, the monumentality. Whatever his mercurial mood shifts, his absolute control and forceful personality give the poems a profound and unmistakable unity.
Indeed, each ode within the larger groupings (individual books, and all the books taken together) is arranged with as much “mosaic” precision as are individual words within individual odes. To cite just one example: odes II.2–11 are arranged in pairs of poems treating (roughly) the same subject, one poem in skipping Sapphics, the other in more weighty Alcaics. Part of the pleasure this sequence affords is the undulating shifts in tonality and rhythm between, first, the poems within each pair, and (then) among the pairs themselves.
Of this Horace, McClatchy’s collection can give you no impression whatever. The multiple-translator approach works better for epic, whose narrative momentum helps to thread discrete cantos or books, themselves often fairly weighty and substantial, together; the continuities among lyrics organized by their creator into a collection are more fragile.4 And of course some of the approaches on display here work less well than others. Rachel Hadas’s use of sing-song rhyming couplets in the Regulus ode give it a fatally Gunga-Dinish ring; Carl Phillips’s decision to cast I.32, a crucial poem that quite self-consciously concerns Horace’s formal achievement (“give me a Roman song,/my lyre, though Greek yourself”) in loose-limbed free verse that trickles down the page makes it, in a way, far too easy—it deprives you of an essential component of the experience of reading Horatian verse, that of an aesthetic and emotional effect achieved by means of a serious intellectual effort. Horace is hard in Latin, and he should be hard in English. Without the formal rigor, the odes are reduced to little more than their apparent content, which is of course much less than what they’re really “about.”
So the individual talents of translators are on show here at the expense of Horace himself. You wonder, indeed, just who it is this new collection is meant to serve. Certainly it will be of little use to those interested in ancient, as opposed to modern, poets: a major and distressing omission is the utter lack of notes of any kind. As nice as it is to think that the average intelligent reader will be able to makes sense of (I have opened the collection to a random page) references to Gyges, Peleus, Magnessian Hyppolyte, Oricum, and Chloë, you suspect this is a tad optimistic. The importance of the poems’ specific references isn’t, as the current collection might suggest (one translation leaves out the proper names altogether, substituting blanks), pedantic: when Horace chides Venus for starting up old battles again in IV.1, for instance, it’s useful to know that Augustus claimed descent from that untrustworthy deity, and hence that the poem thus slyly questions both the erotic and political compulsions responsible for its own creation. To miss such nuances, easy enough to explain in a sentence or two, is to miss much of Horace’s wit, and a lot of his seriousness, too.
The startling failure to offer even simple clarifications that would enhance ordinary readers’ appreciation of Horace’s deeply constructed meanings suggests again that the real focus here is on the translators; there is, indeed, a whiff of clubbiness about the present collection. (I kept wondering why none of the so-called New Formalists—Timothy Steele, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Dana Gioia—appears in these pages: their emphasis on formal rigor, and particularly Steele’s temperament, with its wry celebrations of emotional restraint, would make them ideal candidates for translating Horace.) That hermetic quality will surely have the unfortunate effect of making Horace more rather than less forbidding to the poetry-reading public. Whatever the pleasures it affords, Horace: The Odes isn’t, finally, Horace’s Odes. For the present saeculum, at least, their strange music—exotic and plainspoken, Greek and Roman, fluid and lapidary, yearning and complacent, earthy and effete—continues to hover in the air, just out of reach.
May 13, 2004
Brooks Otis, “The Relevance of Horace,” Arion 9.2–3 (1970), p. 146. ↩
Otis, “The Relevance of Horace,” p. 145; Harold Mattingly, Roman Imperial Civilization (Doubleday, 1959), p. xv, quoted in Joseph Clancy, The Odes and Epodes of Horace: A Modern Verse Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 5. ↩
Dante’s Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets, edited by Daniel Halpern (Ecco, 1994); After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hoffman and James Lasdun (Noonday Press, 1996). ↩
A device that suits both the original work and its contemporary admirers is that employed in R. Storrs’s collection of 144 translations of Horace’s Ode I.5 Ad Pyrrham: A Polyglot Collection of Translations of Horace’s Ode to Pyrrha (Oxford University Press, 1959), a work that actually illuminates the ancient original while showing the variety of choices available to translators. ↩