Horace, The Odes (edited by J. D. McClatchy)

New Translations by Contemporary Poets

Paper | 2005 | $19.95 / £12.95 | ISBN: 0-691-11981-3
Cloth | 2002 | $37.95 / £24.95 | ISBN: 0-691-04919-X
320 pp. | 6 x 9 Princeton University Press

Reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez

Following the approach of Hofmann and Lasdun's After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, which commissioned 42 contemporary poets to coax Latin caterpillars into modern butterflies, now J. D. McClatchy has gathered 35 poets together so that they can do their duty toiling in the Sabine fields. There is an earlier precedent, The Poems of Horace . . . Rendred in English Verse by Several Persons (London, 1666), but it seems about time to try the Several Persons approach again. The result is the complete odes in facing page translation in a patchwork of styles.

McClatchy seems to have delighted in cracking the whip (or sublimi flagello, "the divine lash"?) to push his poets into deliberate juxtaposition: "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'". Many of the poets have not previously shown an interest in odes, Horace, or Latin, but that seems part of the project: to shake things up a bit.

The lighter poems come across well; many of the odes about war have acquired a sarcastic edge. There are some where rhyme is introduced, and others which make an attempt at imitating Latin meters. What predominates is a notably plain style, and often the contemporary poet seems intent on "debunking" previous elevated versions. Robert Creeley does not give us a divine lash but an "imperious whip":

Please flick just once
with your imperious whip
young Chloë's disdaining bum.

The bum has been conjured from nowhere, it is not in the Latin. Mostly, however, these poets decide not to embellish.

The strength of thirty-five1 translators lies in the possibility that, somehow, one or two may just get close to an English version which would help to inspire the enthusiasm which Nietzsche felt: "Up to the present I have not obtained from any poet the same artistic delight as was given me from the first by a Horatian ode. [. . .] The mosaic of words in which every word, by sound, by position and by meaning, diffuses its force right, left and over the whole, that minimum in the compass and number of signs, that maximum thus realized in their energy,--all that is Roman, and if you will believe me, it is noble par excellence." (The Twilight of the Idols) However, David Ferry, introducing his own much-praised translations, accidentally hits upon one reason why many turn away: "One of the great pleasures of the four books of Horace's odes is to see how he will do it this time. How will Horace telling Postumus (II, 14) that death is inevitable be different from Horace telling this to Dellius (II, 3), to Leuconeoe (I, 11), to Torquatus (IV, 7), to Sestius (I, 4)? The success of each is a challenge to the others, and part of the exhilaration for the reader is that Horace – 'adroitest of artists,' as Auden called him -- meets the challenge every time. It's like watching a great diver being challenged by one perfect dive to perform yet another, of another kind and degree of difficulty, and another, and he does so." Yes, and how will Horace praise the need for warfare this time?

For a volume designed to open out Horace, the lack of notes or even a glossary of names would probably be disabling for the first-time reader who wouldn't, for example, realise "that queen" in I.37 is actually Cleopatra. To really get an idea of the book, it's necessary to look closely at a sample of the translations:

Robert Pinsky, poet laureate 1997–2000, heads us off with I.1, an ode listing different activities which make people happy, finishing off with the lyric vocation, the placing of "the wreath of ivy, crown of poets". Pinsky chooses rhyming couplets, some full, many slant. It just about works, with some awkward line-endings:

me doctarum hederae praemia frontium
dis miscent superis, me gelidum nemus

It's a wreath of ivy, crown of poets, that I
Need, to believe I'm among the gods on high.
Pinsky's other effort, II.20, is much more successful, one of Horace's supreme boast-odes. One can stomach these mostly because their prophecies of becoming renowned, "even in Britain", have all come true. This one suggests that Horace will fly over many lands like a better-prepared Icarus. Pinsky goes for a three line stanza which itself flies the right distance from the sun, "spare me / the unnecessary tribute of a tomb."

Rosanna Warren takes on five odes. I.2 concerns the Tiber bursting its banks, flooding the city, and unleashing an apocalyptic atmosphere of strange signs. In her translations, Warren's stanzas mirror Horace but she opts, whenever possible, for an iambic foot, allowing one language to expand outwards into another. It stands her in good stead, so that when she tackles IV.7, she unclogs an ode that was, some think, definitively mastered by Housman:

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
   arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
   flumina pratereunt;
rendered by Housman

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

All gone, the snow: grass throngs back to the fields,
the trees grow out new hair;
earth follows her changes, and subsiding streams
jostle within their banks.
Much better to bring the hair back in again and drop that "And". My favourite version of this is by Richard Fanshawe:

The snows are thaw'd, now grass new cloaths the earth,
   And trees new hair thrust forth.
The season's chang'd, and brooks late swoln with rain,
   Their proper banks contain.
Warren also lends a pleasingly comic timbre to II.13, the poem about a tree almost falling over onto the shocked poet, who then sings:

He planted you on a malignant day, whoever
first tamped your roots down, tree; with a cursed hand
   he raised you to blight the future
      and shame the countryside.
It's a wry comedy which Warren can even bring to a relatively obscure ode, III.7, advice to Asteria that she should not worry about the faithfulness of Gyges, away in Bithynia, because, when "the vixen / instructs him how to sin", he will be "deafer than the Icarian cliff".

Daryl Hine, well experienced in translation – his Homeric Hymns is excellent – produces a well-turned I.3, the first ode about sailing and the sea. His elaborations are subtle and have a rhythmic benefit

illi robur et aes triplex
   circa pectus erat, qui fragilem truci
commisit pelago ratem
   primus, nec timuit praecipitem Africum

A brass-bound heart of oak had he
   Who was the first to launch a frail
Craft upon the crafty sea
   Undaunted by a Southerly gale
though there's something flat about Hine's work here, and he spoils the poem by ending "Our naughtiness will not allow / Jove to lay his thunderbolts by." Here, "scelus", wickedness, has become "naughtiness", where the things the poem has listed, taking up the use of fire, building ships, spreading death and war, are a little more than the actions of schoolchildren being a bit naughty. Hine has, earlier in the poem, used "wickedness" for "nefas", but this is a clumsy way of differentiating the two. No such worries for Hine's other outing, II.1, an ambivalent elegy for Imperial war and the lyric singing of it.

What field is not enriched by our Roman blood
with tombs that testify to unholy war?
      The noisy downfall of our Western
   homeland is audible even in Persia.
James Lasdun creates chunky stanzas for his two odes from book one. I.30, a short address to Venus, Lasdun renders in a conversational tone, "oh, and Mercury too." It could be prose, a slightly tighter version of a class-room crib, which is an effect many of the poets seem to deliberately desire. Lasdun is shown to better effect in I.4, about the coming of spring, "time to haul the dry-docked boats to the shore." (Allan Ramsay rendered this as "The ships, lang gyzen'd at the pier, / Now spread their sails, an smoothly steer") Lasdun's looping rhythms create a forward momentum and the line-endings are never awkward. Here the plain translation, rather than being dull, is suited to the theme of simple dreams being all we have time for, before, we, too, find ourselves in "one of Pluto's black / airless rooms".

Heather McHugh is given the unenviable task of rivalling a whole tradition of translating I.5.

Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
   grato, Pyyrrha, sub antro?
      cui flavam religas comam
Milton "rendred" this as

What slender Youth bedew'd with liquid odours
   Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
   Pyrrha for whom bindst thou
   In wreaths thy golden Hair
Christopher Smart:

Say what slim youth, with moist perfumes
   Bedaub'd, now courts thy fond embrace,
There, where the frequent rose-tree blooms,
   And makes the grot so sweet a place?
Pyrrha, for whom with such an air
Do you bind back your golden hair?
Bedew'd or bedaub'd, McHugh decides to dodge that issue, but keeps Smart's form of a question:

What slip of a boy, all slick with what perfumes,
is pressing on your now, o Pyrrha, in
your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms?

Who's caught up in your net today, your coil
of elegant coiffure? [. . .]
This rolls along on a pure tone of frail sarcasm, "lapping crannies" and "rosy rooms". For more drastic changes, we should go to Basil Bunting:

Ginger, who are you going with?
Some slim kid? One who squeezes you
among the early meadowsweet?
You do your hair to please him,
or he thinks so, loose and smooth.
This is the ode which ends with climbing out of the sea of affection to hang up your garments ("vestimenta") to dry. Bunting:

You'll shine on them all, poor brats,
till one of them gets you.
But as for me,
I've wrung my shirt out long since.
Instead of a shirt, Milton declares "t'have hung / My dank and dropping weeds", and Fanshawe is non-specific, "I have hung up my wet Clothes." McHugh does raise a smile: "I've thrown off my habit, and hung up / my wet suit there." Is it a wet suit or a wetsuit? Elsewhere, McHugh's contributions vary. Her I.11 is awful, attempting a sort of wisdom-swagger, "Get wise. Get wine, and one good filter for it." Then McHugh tries to over-explain II.8 and the poem goes slack:

expedit matris cineres opertos
fallere et toto taciturna noctis
signa cum caelo gelidaque divos
morte carentes.

You swear on your mother's grave, for sakes alive;
you perjure the wordless stars, and their whole sky; you take
the names of the gods in vain (who feel no coldness visited on men)
– and still you thrive.
McHugh's other efforts are better, notably odes originally in a comic mode. I.23, an appeal to Chloë who is being excessively shy and frightened, "let any lizard make the least green streak / toward any under-tangle – and she'll freeze", causing the poet – and I actually giggled along with this – to protest: "But I'm no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite, / to track a baby down and eat her up. I'm only / human: I'm a man." Only human! Madame Realism, where are you? 2

Charles Simic steps in to provide yet another prosy, polite translation. I.6 is perfectly unremarkable. Perhaps the poets were intimidated by the thought of the Latin versions printed on the left? II.15 is about the spread of private property –

Before long, the estates of the rich
and their fish ponds bigger than a lake
will cover what few acres
are still left for the plow.
– but Simic seems more enthused by I.6, an ode to the "unbelligerent muse" which cannot speak of epic grandeur for fear of lessening it. This is Horace being self-reflexive: "Epic winefests are my speciality." Simic returns for a third time with III.11, a piece which reads as under-worked:

Mercuri (nam te docilis agistro
movit Amphion lapides canendo),
tuque testudo resonare September
   callida nervis,

nec loquax oli neque grata, nunc et
divitum mensis et amica templis,
dic modos, Lyde quibus obstinatas
   applicet aures

Mercury, old teacher, you who taught
Amphion to move stones with his music,
and you, my lure, made of tortoise shell,
whose seven strings a short time ago

were neither in tune nor worth a listen,
but now are all the rage
in the temples of the gods
and where the rich dine in style:
Phrases such as "a short time ago", "all the rage", "dine in style", are not plain but dull and they dull the poem. It is a very long way from Nietzsche's "that maximum thus realized in their energy". There is, however, a nice touch later in the poem: "Cerberus, / who guards the manhole to hell". This image sets off an atmosphere of pulp-Taxi Driver thoughts, steam in the streets.

Richard Howard, distinguished as a translator from French, brings us I.7, a festive drinking ode, managing to keep the English stanza to the same shape as the Latin, thus forcing various rhythms into the lines. An effective English song results, which isn't the case when the same technique is applied to III.6, where implications of the Latin phrasings are erased; it is a complicated poem of religious faith and its relation to the state, ending with an idea of dilution, generation by generation, a particularly resonant theme for Roman intellectuals, aware of being "late". Howard seems to paper over the vehemence of Horace's attack on moral and sexual degeneracy, embarrassed by it, rather than facing it head on from a contemporary vantage, the possibility for subversion unappreciated. For IV.1, Howard tries something different, collapsing the Latin stanzas for this doleful ode: I'm too old, opines the poet, for war, for love, even sometimes for speech – "lingua silentio". Howard risks sentimentality with his final flourish:

nocturnis ego somniis
   iam captum teneo, iam volucream sequor
te per gramina Martii
   Campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.

        [. . .] Why
   do I hold you in my arms
in certain dreams, certain nights, and in others
   chase you endlessly across
the Field of Mars, into the swirling Tiber?
Howard's final contribution, IV.10, is an unqualified success, the earlier prim translator vanished in this song of adolescence and the boy become the man: "Cocksure and licensed so by Venus' gifts," the poet teasingly asks, "what'll you say to your glass, Ligurinus, / when "feathers" first poke through unbroken cheeks".

That boy can't fathom today's experience;
yesterday's flesh can't furbish this strange man.
"I am," you'll say, "no longer one and the same."
Robert Creeley greatly extends the length of I.8, a poem which is a series of questions, choosing a short line which brings an emphasis on the delay as answer after answer is deferred into a parallel, invisible poem which would be all answers. In III.26, Creeley decides to go further and introduces a conversational tone, a monologue which comes in at the ode's complacent trip through passions past with a contemporary version of the urbane:

Vixi Puellis nuper idoneus
et militavi non sine gloria;
which could be cribbed as "Until now I've lived on easy terms with girls, and been renowned in love's battles", now becoming

No problems with life,
at least from those I've loved, who testify
I've done all right

till now. [. . .]
It's witty – sparking off the original – and it's recognisably a Creeley deadpan take, his departure from the text taken in a similar spirit to Bunting's I.5 above.

John Hollander clocks in with six translations, creating a stanza in direct imitation of Horace, using a meter which ratchets forwards, going on, but sliding back, an achieved movement which points up the paucity of the plain, prosy versions elsewhere here. Hollander's first appearance is with one of Horace's big hits, I.9, winter-time meditation on ways to break the cold while you can:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte, nec iam sustineant onus
   silvae laborantes, geluque
      flumina constiterint acuto?
Dryden found a measure and ran with it -

Behold yon' Mountains hoary height,
   Made higher with new Mounts of snow:
Again behold the Winter's weight
   Oppress the lab'ring Woods below;
And Streams, with Icy fetters bound,
Benum'd and crampt to solid Ground.
- whereas Cowper was more compact:

See'st thou yon mountain laden with deep snow,
The groves beneath their fleecy burden bow,
The streams congeal'd forget to flow;
Hollander's version:

See how Soracte, glistening, stands out high in
its cape of snow, how laboring woods let go of
   their load, and all the streams are frozen
      over completely with sharpest cold now.
This retains the proper name of the mountain, and is, with Dryden, concerned with a close sound and correspondence – "laboring woods" for "silvae laborantes" – while "frozen / over" is convincing modern speech at the point where Dryden decides to embellish.

Eavan Boland experiments with her versions, working to convey the sinewy quality of the Latin. One is worth quoting in full:


Montium custos nemoruque, Virgo,
quae laborantes utero puellas
ter vocata audis adimisque leto,
   diva triformis,

imminens villae tua pinus esto,
qua per exactos ego laetus annos
verris obliquum meditantis ictum
   sanguine donem.

      guardian of these
         hills and groves,
   when the cries –
      repeated thrice –
         of girl-mothers,
   in the throes
      of birth and labor,
         reach your ears,
   you hear their prayers,
   you save their lives.
Three-sided goddess
         I offer this
   pine which overhangs
         my house.
   With a glad heart
through the years
   I will bring to it
         the wild, first
blood of a boar
         just beginning
to swerve and thrust.
These short lines like controlled swerves are familiar from Boland's own work, and this opens out another aspect to this book which is great fun: discovering new passages between a contemporary and one so out of sympathy as Horace. What might have seemed an invocation and offering specific to Horace's time, is unfolded by Boland into a new form.

Charles Tomlinson shines here, too, relishing the opportunity to choose a set of particularly high-flown odes, collapse each one into a large block, then add a spine with a series of simple rhymes and half rhymes:

What echoing ravine will hear
My words enrolling star-god Caesar
In the heavenly senate? I shall sing
Some vigorous, unattempted thing
and he does. (III.25) The other poet I'd particularly single out is Carl Phillips whose I.32 might be the stand out for the entire book. The poem is an appeal to the poet's lyre to "give me a Roman song". Phillips takes it apart, choosing short lines and irregular stanzas while paying close attention to the patterns of force in the Latin, the construction of sense, trying to unleash these patterns, as it were:

dulce lenimen medicumque, salve
   rite vocanti!

Sweet drug,
cure for suffering,
whenever I pray for help – please,

help me.
For this commentary on a cross-section of the translations I have chosen the best, the worst, and the middling. For a first introduction to Horace, the Penguin Horace In English has the benefit of cherry-picking centuries of great work right down to Pound and Bunting; McClatchy's book, however, has an energy which comes from a shared project, and from the continual leaps as we switch from one translating vision to the next. It's very unlikely that you'd put this down and say, with Byron, "Then farewell, Horace - whom I hated so."

1 Robert Bly, Eavan Boland, Robert Creeley, Dick Davis, Mark Doty, Alice Fulton, Debora Greger, Linda Gregerson, Rachel Hadas, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Anthony Hecht, Daryl Hine, John Hollander, Richard Howard, John Kinsella, Carolyn Kizer, James Lasdun, J. D. McClatchy, Heather McHugh, W. S. Mervin, Paul Muldoon, Carl Phillips, Robert Pinsky, Marie Ponsot, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, Ellen Bryantr Voigt, David Wagoner, Rosanna Warren, Richard Wilbur, C. K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Stephen Yenser

2 see Lynne Tillman's The Madame Realism Complex for the adventures of Madame Realism among those who say, with a sigh, "it's only human".

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