Under the Shade of a Myrtle Tree with Horaceby Michelle Tsai
edited by J.D. McClatchy
Horace, the Odes, New Translations by Contemporary Poets
Princeton University Press (2002)
In the Divine Comedy, Dante encounters the ancient poets suspended in limbo, the first circle of hell: Homer the supreme poet, Horace the satirist, Ovid, and Lucan. It’s a shame Dante doesn’t describe Horace as a lyric poet, for the four books of the Odes are arguably his most loved and well-known poems. In his Epistles, Horace complains that Roman readers disparaged his Odes. But in the 2,000 years since his time, the work of Horace has endured in a way that the works of a few other Roman poets have: not just as poems in Latin schoolbooks but as living works that have inspired poets. Horace’s Odes influenced W.H. Auden, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, and Philip Larkin. Milton, Robert Lowell, William Wordsworth, Rudyard Kipling; even Queen Elizabeth I was Ben Jonson and Lord Byron were among those who made English Versions of his entire works.
So it is fitting that a group of leading contemporary English- writing poets have gathered to introduce the four books of poems to a new audience in Horace, The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Editor J.D. McClatchy, an English professor at Yale and editor of the Yale Review as well as a well- known poet, has brought together a remarkable collection of translations from 35 poet that will delight those who are new to Horace as well as those who have studied his works.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BCE) was born the son of a freedman in the town of Venusia near the heel of Italy. His father, a former slave, scraped together enough money to send Horace to fine schools in Rome and then Athens—the ancient equivalent of sending your boy to Oxford to turn him into a gentleman. Young Horace studied Plato and the epicurean ad stoic teachings as well as the poetry of Pindar, Sappho, and Alcaeus. Here he began to translate Greek poems into Latin, the first to “spin Aeolian song home to Italian verse”
The Roman republic was in great tumult around this time, and after the death of Julius Caesar, Horace joined the doomed army of Marcus Brutus, fighting at the famous battle of Phillipi. He survived and managed to receive amnesty under Augustus, who was on his way to establishing an empire. Horace returned to writing, publishing his Epodes and cynical Satires and attracting the notice of Virgil, a contemporary who introduced him to Maecenas, a literary patron and friend of Augustus.
Horace’s life as a poet truly begins at this time, for the powerful patron gave him a farm in the Sabine hills that provided an income and gave him welcome respite from the crowds in Rome. The poet went on to write three books of the Odes. A fourth was commissioned by Maecenas, as was the Carmen Saeculare, the celebratory hymn sung by a chorus of virgins and boys at a public celebration of Roman power in 17 BCE. The poet’s final work, the 23 Epistles to friends, is a contemplation of the golden mean. Horace died on November 8, 8 BCE, two months after the death of Maecenas. From the Roman historian Suetonius, we knew that on his deathbed Horace willed his estate to Augustus and asked that his body be buried near that of his patron.
Latinists have always studied Horace, but, as McClatchy admits in the introduction, the classroom ruins Horace. At first glance, although Horace was a young poet (just 43 at his death), his poems seem to be those of a solemn old man. His melancholy poems about mortality can’t compare to Catullus’s thousand kisses for Lesbia, and the political poems for his powerful patron Maecenas seem tranquil when placed side by side with the epic themes of Vergil’s Aeneid. The sober, watered-down Horace that one retains is the greeting card homily Carpe Diem, an in times of war, the line from the Wilfred Owens poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and proper to die for your country).
But return for a second reading, and suddenly Horace is burning up over Glycera (I.19) and Chloe (I.23), mourning the death of his friend Quintilius (I.24), cursing his enemies (II.8) and auguring the decline of an ill Rome (III.6)- all the while offering you a cup of Sabine wine in the shade of a myrtle tree (I.38, III.28). The joy of a simple life is a constant thread in these poems, but just as often Horace prefers urbane wittiness and a philosophy of sensible hedonism. Always, the Roman poet cooly reminds us that the snows have fallen again, that even rich men cannot outrun death, and finally, that the numbered days are slipping away even as we speak (I. 11, II. 14, IV. 7).
McClatchy deliberately pairs translators with specific poems. “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 write about the blandishments of the countryside, a gay poet about the strategies of ‘degeneracy’ […] these are part of the editorial plot,” he writes. So it is Robert Pinsky who opens the collection with poem I.1, an ode to Maecenas, the literary patron whose circle included Horace and Vergil. Pinsky, himself a former poet laureate of the United States, surely felt newly anointed as he translated the following lines:
It’s a wreath of ivy, crown of poets, that
Need, to believe I’m among the gods on
It’s the lyric dance of satyrs and nymphs
Woven by the muses in a secret grove
Hidden from the crow, where Euterpe
Tunes the flute
And Polyhymnia keeps the lyre-strings
Count me among the poets, and I feel
Like a god-
Bumping the stars with my exalted
A good translation breathes new life into the poems while remaining faithful to some balance of the language and spirit of the original. Horace us doubly complex because of the compressed nature of Latin poetry. Because Latin is an inflected language, words derive their meaning from their endings and can be placed in any order. So where the Roman poet executes fancy literary acrobatics, scrambling word order and postponing verbs until several lines down, translators have the challenge of refashioning the architecture of the Latin lines in English as well as writing a poem.
A myriad of Horatian voices greet the reader, which McClatchy points out “matches the mercurial shifts in mood and response the Latin poems themselves exhibit.” Some poets stick close to the Latin and even approximate the Sapphire and Alcaic meters, as Rosanna Warren does in the wistful “Diffugere nives” (IV.7). This is hard, because Latin meter is based on long and short syllables, while English relies on stressed and unstressed ones. Other poets reshape the rhythms of Latin into English temp, either as free verse or in rhyme.
The six poems that Heath McHugh translates are among the best of Horace’s and the liveliest of this edition. “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?” begins her version of Horace’s famous Pyrrha ode. McHugh takes some liberties in straying from the text and hits just the right notes of insouciance wit her witty and humorous turns. In Eavan Boland’s hands, “O fons Bandusiae” (III.13) comes alive, Bold as crystal, bright as glass.” In poignant anaphoras, Paul Muldoon expresses the impending horrors of the Trojan War (I. 15).
It’s natural for poets as translators to favor art over translation, so it’s a surprise that most of the poets in this edition have remained as faithful as they have to the Latin. This occasionally means that a translation isn’t the strongest poem in its own right. But the wealthy of poet-translators in this collection makes it a valuable one overall, and readers will appreciate the poems enough the see the Horatian strains in their own lives. It’s true, of course, what the Roman poet claimed in “Exegi monumenum” (III.30), here translated deftly by John Hollander: “More enduring than bronze now is this monument/ I have made, one to reach over the Pyramids’/ regal heaps, one that no greedy devouring rain, / that no blustering north wind nor the run of long / years unnumbered nor ages’ flight can ruin.