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Horace in the Afternoon

From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, we trace their pomp and circumstance in “A Year with the Romans.”

Many years ago, I found myself in those heady, rushing days at the beginning of a new friendship. The young man in question was lively, articulate company, and he seemed as intrigued by the thought of friendship with me as I was by the same prospect with him (exact equality of that curiosity is a drab essential to any lasting friendship, and lasting friendship is what I wanted). So for a while I forsook lazy afternoons with my dogs, and that young man and I spent them instead walking from room to room in his beautifully-appointed apartment, talking about writers and frequently pulling books off his shelves, finding choice passages to read aloud to each other. This has been the book-person’s preferred shortcut to conversation since time immemorial; we have Egyptian tomb-paintings of people reading to each other – and thus, presumably, expecting to do so for eternity.

My new friend was very young, barely out of his teens, so the going was a little rough for me. He could easily lay his hands on a bumper-crop of Calvino, Bukowski, Kundera, and the like … and he didn’t really need to, since he had huge swaths of their prose committed to memory. And his bookcases burst with verse – but almost all of it was the arrogant jottings of extant thirtysomething frauds. These jottings were also largely committed to his memory (and the frauds themselves often showed up in his photo albums).

I had seen such libraries before and experienced the barren peculiarity of being surrounded by books not worth even the micro-joules of energy necessary to open them, books whose only amusing function is to eventually embarrass their owners into better reading.

But all was not lost. Somewhere in his youth (or childhood), my new friend had managed to acquire a surprising smattering of real books; they glimmered at me like familiar stars in an alien sky. There were some great English novels, the odd volume of history, that small march of titles you find in every true book-lover’s library (The Common Reader, The Shores of Light, United States, Poetry and the Age … our lingua franca), a couple of companion-volumes to BBC nature specials, a childhood copy of Treasure Island, a few dog-eared Shakespeares.

And there, squat and content among the poets, was Horace.

I pulled the book down from its shelf in those clean, comfortable surroundings, and I smiled as I opened it. When Quintus Horatius Flaccus was this young man’s age – two thousand years ago, in the 40’s B.C. – his world was in upheaval, and writing poems was probably the furthest thing from his mind, though his education had been of the artistic bent and quite expensive (his father sacrificed a lot to pay for that education; Horace repaid him by making him immortal in verse). The master of the Roman world, Julius Caesar, had just been assassinated in Rome, and Horace was attending a kind of philosophical graduate school in Athens when Brutus, the foremost of Caesar’s assassins (and something of a hobby-philosopher himself), came to the city to take in some lectures, perhaps receive an honorary degree or two, and recruit soldiers in the great contest between himself and Marc Antony to see who would inherit Caesar’s power.

When Brutus rose up against Caesar’s tyranny, he was being a righteous republican. But when he recruited Horace to be a military officer, he was just being a bonehead. Horace was no more suited to the legions than a lark to the plow, and he later made an oblique joke that the only prowess he showed at the decisive Battle of Philippi was his speed at running away. He returned to Rome to find his patrimony confiscated and disbursed to mustered-out soldiers by the ruthless young ally of Antony who would one day be known as Augustus. Horace managed to acquire a minor clerkship in Rome and was surviving on its pay when he first turned to crafting Latin verses on Greek models.

He’s unique among the ancient Romans whose works survive. He’s neither as forbidding as Virgil nor as wanton as Catullus; he’s easily as virtuoso as Ovid but without Ovid’s straining showmanship; he’s as personal as the private letters of Pliny, all the while being as technically exacting as the architecture of Vitruvius. Even in his most formal pieces, we feel an immediacy, as though he were speaking directly and only to us – it’s easier to feel that with the poems of Horace than it is to feel it with Cicero’s speeches to his trial juries, even though the latter are direct exhortations. No other ancient author comes anywhere close to producing that feeling of being his reader’s contemporary, his reader’s friend. No other ancient author quite produces that feeling of welcome I had when I found the volume of Horace on my new young friend’s bookshelf. Hell, very few authors of any era do.

The strangest thing was, my young friend felt it too. And this was strange because he knew no Latin, yet if ever there were a pure and inextricable inhabitant of the Latin language, it’s Horace. My friend could not watch Horace tame and transform the Latin language to sing in the lyric metres of Alcaeus, Anacreon, Sappho, Pindar, and Stesichorus, nor could he see the dazzling mastery Horace displays over every poetic rhythm to which he sets his hand. No other ancient poet equals this feat, but the triumph can’t be witnessed by the non-Latinate reader. My young friend had fat poetry anthologies on every shelf, and he had a volume of Horace alone, but all in English translation. You’d think the joy of this particular writer would wither in the transition, but no: there it was in my friend’s enthusiasm.

W. Y. Sellar once wrote, “No ancient writer has so much excited and so much baffled the ambition of translators,” linking the challenge with its almost inevitable failure. James Hannay, writing about one particular ode, might as well have been writing about them all when he put it this way: “It is perfectly simple and perfectly finished. Nobody can translate it, precisely because it looks as if everybody could.”

Because of course we’re talking about the Odes of Horace here, although he wrote quite a bit else. Through his friendship with the famous Roman poets Virgil and Varius, he met Augustus’ powerful lieutenant Maecenas in 39 B.C., and the friendship changed his life totally (it was probably through Maecenas’ good offices that Augustus came to forgive Horace for having sided with Brutus – also, Augustus probably found Horace just as easy to love as we do). In 35 he published his first book of Satires, and in 30 B.C., somewhere in the midst of that literary activity, Maecenas gave him a pretty little working farm in the Sabine countryside, a permanent island of simple peace which Horace so effectively captures in verse that across the centuries countless readers who’ve never set foot in Italy have nonetheless felt welcomed home to that Sabine farm. Horace’s gratitude, though never servile, was overwhelming, and there’s every indication it changed his art – in 23 B.C. he published his towering masterpiece, the first three books of his Odes, a carefully-arranged collection of poems in which the dreams, hopes, tawdry realities, and everyday pleasures of Augustus’ new Rome breathe the breath of the eternal present. Past ages always feel strange to readers of history, and literature distorts as often as it portrays – but in the Odes of Horace, we have home movies, taken by a master cinematographer with exquisite editing skills.

The poetry of Horace has attracted countless poets, obviously. Jonson, Surrey, Sidney, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Congreve, Pope, Johnson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Wordsworth, Byron, Pushkin, Tennyson, Hopkins, Housman, Kipling, Pound, Lowell, and great galaxies of lesser lights have all tried to work their various magic on bringing the Odes and the other poems to their own tongues and idioms, with wildly varying degrees of failure. And since Horace has featured prominently in the Latin instruction which for two thousand years was the cornerstone of the Western educational process – and since, as Hannay observed, Horace is such an inviting presence – those poets have been joined by an even greater number of less credentialed amateurs: statesmen, politicians, playwrights, sportscasters, architectures, lumber barons, presidents, and prime ministers have also spent time mucking around with Horace, not always with contemptible results.

It was the Odes my young friend had, naturally. And so we spent afternoons paging through the various volumes on his shelves, comparing the works of so many loving hands. It was a crisp, blowing autumn almost on the doorstep of winter, and we read Samuel Johnson’s 1787 version of the Diffugere nives, Ode IV.7, in which Horace muses on slim promises of spring:

The snow dissolv’d is no more seen,
The fields, and woods, behold, are green.
The changing year renews the plain,
The rivers know their banks again,
The spritely nymph and naked grace
The mazy dance together trace.
The changing year’s successive plan
Proclaims mortality to man.
Rough winter’s blasts to spring give way,
Spring yields to summer’s sovereign ray,
Then summer sinks in autumn’s reign,
And winter chils the world again.
Her losses soon the moon supplies,
But wretched man, when once he lies
Where Priam and his sons are laid,
Is naught but ashes and a shade.
Who knows if Jove who counts our score
Will toss us in a morning more?
What with your friend you nobly share
At least you rescue from your heir.
Not you, Torquatus, boast of Rome,
When Minos once has fix’d your doom,
Or eloquence, or splendid birth,
Or virtue shall replace on earth.
Hippolytus unjustly slain
Diana calls to life in vain,
Nor can the might of Theseus rend
The chains of hell that hold his friend.

We sighed with satisfaction and reached for some other voice – and found A. E. Housman in 1897 striking a very different chord on his lyre:

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in their mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrows to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o’er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor they righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.

Two versions, one by professional scholar and amateur poet, the other by a professional poet and amateur scholar, separated by a century, and even in English you can see the wide storehouses of flexibility Horace commands. Housman is closer to the word-by-word content of the Latin, but – to my mind, anyway – Johnson far better captures the lyric quality that would have been the most ‘horatian’ aspect of the poem, when street-hawkers on the slopes of the Esquiline were selling these odes set to the time’s catchiest tunes.

This is the eternal conflict facing any would-be translator of Horace, as Dryden so ably schemed out four hundred years ago. You effectively have three options: you can try to preserve the meter and word-count of the original precisely, you can strike a medium and preserve some of the original while paraphrasing to round off the odd, unconvertible edges, or you can freely adapt the whole thing, abandoning accuracy in the hopes of better conveying the feel of the original. Those who fear that too much is lost via the third option should remember that absolutely vital elements are lost in all three methods. Even the ablest Latinists know this, which is why they’ve often been the first to carve paraphrase into adaptation. Horace himself knew it, which is why he didn’t waste his time actually translating Anacreon, or Alcaeus, or Sappho.

He knew something else, too. He was a humble man and a happy one, everybody’s teacher, everybody’s student, everybody’s friend … but when he sat back from composition and allowed himself a smile, he knew before anybody what he had achieved in his verse. He went on from his first three books of Odes to publish his Epistles, and around 13 B.C. he was convinced by Augustus (who’d earlier succeeded in commissioning him to compose the Carmen Saeculare) to publish a fourth book of Odes, and in 8 B.C. he died, only two months after Maecenas. But long before that, he chose to conclude the third book of his Odes with a quietly confident prediction that his work would live on. The British Prime Minister Gladstone read the Exegi monumentum and turned it into this:

Now I have reared a monument
More durable than brass,
And one that doth the royal scale
Of pyramids surpass,
Nor shall defeated Aquilo
Destroy, nor soaking rain,
Nor yet the countless tide of years,
Nor seasons in their train.
Not all of me shall die: my praise
Shall grow, and never end,
While pontiff and mute vestal shall
The Capitol ascend,
And so a mighty share of me
Shall Libitina foil.
Where bellows headstrong Aufidus,
Where, on his arid soil,
King Daunus ruled a rural folk,
Of me it shall be told
That, grown from small to great, I first
Of all men subtly wrought
Aeolian strains to unison
With our Italian thought.
So take thine honours earned by deeds;
And graciously do thou,
Melpomene, with Delphic bays
Adorn thy poet’s brown.

In 2008, Jeffrey Kaimowitz managed to echo a bit more faithfully (though, to my ear, less forcefully – the old trade-offs happening still) the gentle cascade of Horace’s lines, their rippling waterfall down the page:

I have achieved a monument more
permanent than bronze and higher than the royal
pyramids, which no devouring rain,
no raging North Wind can destroy or years

in endless series or the flight of time.
I will not wholly die; much will escape
the Goddess of the Dead: through future praise
I will grow ever fresh, while yet a priest

with silent Vestal climbs the Capitol.
I will be mentioned, where the wild
Aufidus resounds, where Daunus, poor
in water, governed rustic peoples, as

the one, although of humble birth, able
first to bring Aeolic song to Latin
verse. Justly proud, Melpomene,
with Delphic laurel gladly wreathe my hair.

Those autumn afternoons are long gone by now, and that young friend grew into his own distinctions. But back then, we would finish our book-foraging in his apartment with reluctance, closing the various anthologies and putting Horace back on his shelf. My new friend had poetry readings of his own to go to (on the slopes of the Esquiline? I never asked), and my dogs were missing me. When I left, I’d walk up the street smiling to myself, trailing the memories of friends old and new, dancing just ahead to keep my heart in sight.

Horace did that. Horace always does that.

___
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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