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Horace in the Hills--World Poetry Project

Updated on February 27, 2012

From Horace, I learned to call people an ass in Latin. He was the star of my college introductory Latin course published by Oxford. My Latin is very limited, however, despite the good college try, and I am pretty much limited to calling you an ass, telling you that the dog is barking, and informing you that a pretty girl has arrived with a rabbit. I didn't use what I learned very much outside of the course, and it all has disappeared from my mind, crowded out by other, temporarily more useful, information. The same thing is happening to my college French, by the way, but at least I read a bit in that, so it is not quite as rusty as my Latin. I do have Green Eggs and Ham and the Cat in the Hat translated into Latin, which are good for a laugh, especially when you read them with a five year old.

Horace is the premier lyricist of the Augustan age, a classic poet to whom other poets, from Alexander Pope to W. H. Auden, revisited for inspiration and lessons in form. Pope wrote of Horace's work, "what was oft thought, but ne'er so well expressed", and it was Horace's tone, his ease, that inspired others. They wanted to write as well in their language as Horace wrote in Latin. Personally, I would like to master the vigor and depth of Czeslaw Milosz, but Horace is a fine model, too.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus was born to a freedman in Apulia in 65 BCE. The family had its own property, which Horace lost backing the wrong side in the Civil War that ended in Augustus's take over of the Republic. He fought with Brutus's army at Philippi, or, according to him, he was in Brutus's army and ran away from the battle, leaving his shield behind, in a recapitulation of the coward's trope we saw in the Greek lyricists. After Philippi, his military career was over, his estates confiscated, and his prospects somewhat dulled. Included in a general amnesty of civil war opponents by Augustus, he went to Rome to work as a secretary in the treasury and sought patrons for his art. He found Maecenas, whom we met with Virgil, and Maecenas thought well enough of him to provide him with a villa in the Sabine Hills, providing Horace with the leisure necessary to be a full-time poet. In 29 BCE he published his epodes, and in 23 the first three books of his Odes. He was commissioned by Augustus to write a poem for the Secular Games in 17 BCE. In 8 BCE, Horace died, leaving his estate to Augustus and buried near his patron, Maecenas.

Virgil became the poet of the Roman state, the poet who presented to Rome a mirror of its greatness, and bid it admire itself. Horace's mirror was not so grand, for he did not call upon Romans to admire the state, but to admire themselves in their domestic contacts, their daily lives and encounters, their loves and their small joys. He does not provide the grandeur of the epic, but the intimacy of the lyric, often enmeshed with a presentation of the rural life as one of calm, luxury, and a leisure that often crosses the line into laziness. This is the rural life of a man who does not have to labor, but who may enjoy the pleasures of long days, friends, and such fancies as strike him.

World Poetry 's selections from Horace begin with a translation of "Solvitur acris hiems" (if you use google's translation for the title it comes out as "solved" or "dissolved" in a sharp winter) by Louis MacNeice. This is a poem about the approaching end of winter, when the coming joy is anticipated even as the dead season has not entirely retreated: "The field removes the frost-cap from his skull".

Now is the time to twine the spruce and shining head with myrtle,

Now with flowers escaped the earthy fetter,

And sacrifice to the woodland god in shady copses

A lamb or a kid, whichever he likes better.

The present is a time of celebration, and again, as with the Greeks, it is the very transitoriness of mortal existence that creates a sense for the preciousness of life and living.

Equally heavy is the heel of white-faced Death on the pauper's

Shack and the towers of kings, and O my dear

The little sum of life forbids the ravelling of lengthy

Hopes. Night and the fabled dead are near

And the narrow house of nothing, past whose lintel

You will meet no wine like this…

Two separate translations of "Quis multa gracilis" are offered, one by Stephen Sandy and the other by Anthony Hecht. The subject is Pyrrha, a beautiful gold-digger of a girl, who does not hesitate to invest in her charms and expects a return on them. She has a new lover, young and hopeful, without a thought to the ones who have come before him, and to his inclusion on her list of former lovers some day soon. He has her attention at this moment, but when she begins to wander he will feel it.

"Black gales and the cruel sea

Will amaze this neophyte

who finds merely being with you golden.

He hopes--careless affection, ever; no thought

Of shifty breezes. Misery for men

Who in a body's beauty bask

Content!..." [Sandy]

Hecht's translation of the same section is more brutal in its tone:

"The more fool he who has mapped out for himself

The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.

Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks

Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,

He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing

Is done for, when the breakers wallop broadside,

When he's rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped

In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me

Once, when I ventured in your deeps, Piranha."

The small tragedies and resentments of the idle Roman are also a fine subject for Horace's pen.

Mortals are all damaged by time. They cannot avoid the decay involved in its passing, unless they are so fortunate (or unfortunate) as to die young. Horace was not interested in dying young, but he indulged frequently in considerations of age, although his perception of age must have been very different from ours, as he died in 8 BCE, in his fifties, not an aged creature these days. Part of the comforts of a peaceful life, however, is sound in such self-indulgence, in the half-hearted mourning of the unavoidable and the trivial.

In Michael O'Brien's translation of Horace's Ode 4.7, the author dwells on time and age, using the trope of the seasons, a device that is often reused in later ages by other poets.

Cold softens in west wind, summer overtakes spring,

goes under in turn

as autumn, apple-bearing, pours down its yield &

inert winter comes on.

Swift moons repair celestial losses, but we,

going down to keep faith with Aeneas

& the old, rich kings, Tullus & Ancus,

are dust & shadow.

Mortal life follows a single trajectory, that to the grave, and each man lives in ignorance of the allowance of time he has been given. This meditation on age and death reminds one of the Renaissance meditations and early modern idylls concerning the same subject, especially those of Shakespeare.

Age and inevitable decay are also the subject of "The Young Men Come Here Less Often" translated by Robert Fitzgerald, but this time the author is speaking not of his own aging and confession of mortality, but of the decay of a woman, once a great beauty. The value of a woman to men lies in her beauty, her appeal to the senses, certainly that was the source of the value the woman in this poem had for men.

There was a time your door gave with proficiency

On easy hinges; now it seems apter at being shut.

I do not think you hear many lovers moaning…

No. The time is coming when you will moan

And cry to scornful men from an alley corner

In the dark of the moon when the wind's in a passion

With lust that would drive a mare wild

Raging in your ulcerous old viscera.

Younger women, beautiful in their day, are now the object of men's passion.

To think how happy boys take their delight

In the new tender buds, the blush of myrtle,

Consigning dry leaves to the winter sea.

What women were open to the poet's commentary? From what we have seen the field was limited. There are loose aristocratic women, lovers who are elevated and berated in opposing breaths of song, as in Catallus, and professional women, to which class this woman appears to belong, although she may not be so, and the presentation of her as a prostitute merely a device to demean her out of a former lover's pique. But where are the respectable women? Where are the women whom one would marry and love for more than a season? These have not appeared. Perhaps they were not considered fit for song, not because they were less important than the others, but because they were more, and respect, the protective arms of the patriarchal household, kept them outside of verse, which was public and often scurrilous.


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    • TL Boehm profile image

      TL Boehm 6 years ago from Bernalillo, New Mexico

      Wow. Very interesting article. I reached the point in Latin in college where we were able to sight read Latin Poetry. I don't think I could still do that but I remember it was an enjoyable endeavor.