Horace is the great technician of Latin poetry. The critic can always examine more closely and find more cunning and subtlety. Like the Chinese, so humane and yet so sophisticated. Yet his excellence does not transfer well to twenty-first century America. The pacing, word order, and figures of speech appeal to tastes that exist today only if consciously cultivated. The allusions snag readers into footnotes rather than delighting them. Still, with my poor Latin, I have tried to do a few.
Horace lives, like all of us, in sadness and fear. The intimate conviction of art protects him against such assaults as history, in the person of Tiridates, the sometime tyrant who eventually took refuge under Augustus, might offer. His immunity is the result of his aesthetic control which produces grace and clarity. This offering of beauty is conflated with the love (or friendship) between the persona and Lamia. An amicus of the muse, he can order up a garland celebrating the human relation enjoys, and this fructifying creative motive inspires the importation of new meters which are presented not as a refinement for aesthetes but as running down with the energy of “mountain creeks.”
Odes I, 26
Oh, I'm the muses' friend. Let wild winds blow
my sadness and my fear to Crete's far side.
I’m cool, whatever people fear from northern kings
of icy lands. Let Tiridates shake.
And let the one who loves the clearest stream,
let the Pierian weave sun-
grown blossoms, weave a crown for my dear friend,
Lamia, weave it, muse, and now!
Without you all my honors just stand mute.
I’ll take my Lesbian lyre and sing new tunes.
Let poetry run down like mountain creeks!
I weave a crown of flowered words for him.
Though Horace’ most famous tag occurs in the following piece, familiarity has not emptied the words of their Epicurean poise. It’s Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now” but lacking the portentous machinery. For Horace there’s just the coastal landscape and the wine and his friend’s company. He has found it vain to entertain himself with supernatural prophecy or other illusion. Just to pass the time is surely enough.
Odes I, 11
Don’t ask, Leukonoe, it is taboo to know
what fate I’ve got and what’s awaiting you.
Forget the Tarot reader. It is best to tough
it out. Know Jupiter may give us many years
or this may be the last we see the Tuscan sea
come break against the rocks. Be wise; strain wine;
don’t hold great long-term hopes. We talk and jealous time
runs on. Just seize this day, think nothing of the next.
This last is in a similar vein, but finished off with a marvelous series of images suggesting the joys of flirtatious dalliance. I've been so reckless as to introduce rhyme here.
Odes I, 9.
Look! There Soracte stands topped with deep snow,
the hard-put trees in agony to hold it all.
The penetrating frost has frozen firm,
each river’s resting deep in ice’s thrall.
Dispel the cold and pile the logs up high
in your warm hearth and pour my favorite drug,
pour it high, that wine that’s aged four years,
o, party-master, from the Sabine jug.
Leave all else to the gods. As soon as they
have quieted -- the winds now fighting hard
with high-tossed seas -- the cypress trees won’t shake
nor will the ancient ashes in the yard.
O, don’t ask what tomorrow may produce.
Every day’s an answer to a prayer.
Don’t neglect when you have youth to dance,
and don’t think you’re too good for love affairs
As long as you’re still green, not peevish grey,
then think of nothing else in dusky light
but rendezvous around the fields and squares
and whispers soft as the approaching night.
Now too’s the time for her sweet laugh to give
a girl away in her dark hiding spot.
She makes a show, objecting when a tease
will grab her ring or bracelet that she’s got.