Stanza Shaping in Horace

Stanza Shaping in Horace

Contemporary styles notwithstanding, translators have generally grouped Horace’s Odes in four-line stanzas to reflect the continuity of content and the Latin measures, a practice often called Meineke’s Law after their originator. A few translators have gone further and devised individual stanza shapes to represent the Latin measures, the best known of whom may be John Conington. {1} It’s an approach that works happily enough in the lighter pieces, as in I 26:

The Muses love me: fear and grief,
The winds may blow them to the sea;
Who quail before the wintry chief
Of Scythian real, is nought to me.

But comes to grief in the more demanding odes packed with detail, as here in IV 14 (16-20), using a 4 4 4 4 stanza shape
spectandus in certamine Martio,
deuota morti pectora liberae
quanti fatigaret ruinis,
indomitas prope qualis undas
in the Alciac strophe:
x -  u  -  -  /  – u u  – u  – x
x -  u  -  -  /  – u u  – u  – x
x -  u  -  -  – u  – x
-  u u -  u u  – u  – x

Conington:

‘Twas then the elder Nero came
To conflict, and in ruin roll’d
   Stout Raetian kernes of giant frame.
O, ’twas a gallant sight to see
 The shocks that beat upon the brave

That’s an heroic attempt, but the rhymes are contrived, and the content seriously trivialized. In contrast, it seems better to use an ampler (5 5 5 4) stanza shape throughout for the Alcaic strophe:

In turn the elder Nero entered on the fight
and, with the favoring omens plain to all,
  defeated and so put to headlong flight
   the hordes of Rhaetians. That vast fall

received its rapturous approbation when
he daunted minds, exhausting combatants {2}

Housman
But do we need to be so restrictive in stanza shaping? It’s certainly a way of giving variety to the Odes, and to some extent escaping the usual complaint, that Horace has once again been rendered as anodyne English verse. One of the problems with the McClatchy collection {3} is the absence of proper shaping to the translations: they are generally too loose to be effective verse. Nonetheless, Housman {4} in his celebrated translation of IV 7 ignored such matters, and used quatrains throughout for this (Second Archilochean) strophe:
- u u -  u u – / u u – u u  – u u  – x
— u u  – u u  x

Few older translators ignored such differences in length, however, and I in fact used a 5 3 5 3 stanza form: {5}

The snows are fled away, the fields new grassed,
   and trees are filled with leaves’ rebirth.
The streams, diminishing, flow quietly past
   and glad-apparelled is the earth.

In blatant nakedness the Graces play,
   and with the Nymphs are chorusing,
but think, as hour on hour draws down the day,
   in time there passes everything.

Cold melts before the western winds, and spring
   is soon on summer’s traces, then
comes autumn with its ripe fruit scattering,
   and lifeless winter’s chill again.

Though moon on moon reproves the seasons’ waste,
   we go on deathward still, and must
with Tullus, and with Ancus lie, and haste
   with good Aeneas into dust.

Who knows, Torquatus, if the gods on high
   will add tomorrow to our wealth?
Take all the hand can grasp, for why deny
   yourself what heir won’t keep himself?

When you go down among the shades, and meet
   what regal Minos gives, no stir
of eloquence, or family, or good may cheat
   that fate, or make you as you were.

Diana left the pure Hippolytus
   where hell with darkness ever reigns.
Nor from best-beloved Pirithoüs
   could Theseus loosen Lethe’s chains.

But it has to be admitted that a much better rendering – more faithful and pleasing – is achieved with longer (pentameter) lines:

The snows are fled away, the fields new grassed,
and trees now flourish in their leaves’ rebirth.
The streams, diminishing, flow quietly past
and fresh-apparelled is the new made earth.

In blatant nakedness the Graces play,
and happily with Nymphs are chorusing.
Recall, as hour on hour draws down the day,
immutably there passes everything.

Cold melts before the western winds, and spring
is soon upon the summer’s traces, then
comes autumn with its ripe fruit scattering,
when lifeless seems the winter’s chill again.

Though moon on moon reproves the seasons’ waste,
we go on deathward all the same, and must
with Tullus, and with Ancus lie, and haste
with good Aeneas into dreams and dust.

Who knows, Torquatus, if the gods on high
will add tomorrow to our fleeting wealth?
Take all the hand can hold, for why deny
yourself what heir will scarcely keep himself?

When you go down among the shades, and meet
with Minos in that dread assize, no stir
of eloquence, or family, or good may cheat
that fate, or take you back to what you were.

Diana left the pure Hippolytus
she loved where night with Hades ever reigns,
and not from best of friends Pirithoüs
could Theseus remove the Lethean chains.

Similarly, the famous Carmen III, 30. A perfectly sensible rendering can achieved by adopting the 5 5 5 5 stanza shape used for other examples of this First Asclepiadean:
-  -  -  u u – / – u u – u  x

A monument more durable that brass
I’ve raised, and loftier than the regal towers
of pyramids, that neither north wind’s powers
nor rain can batter down – for all there pass

the long unheeded passage of the years,
or time itself. I shall not wholly die:
my praise will Libitina’s self defy
while virgin on the Capitol appears

beside our Pontifex. Such sights evoke
the powers from humble parentage, from where
the Aufidas with roarings fills the air,
and Daunus rules by stinting simple folk.

By me, the first devising, verse was led
to fill Aeolian measures: such the praise
so earned that Melpomene has her bays
of Delphi willingly approve this head.

But it’s a bit flat and clips the sense rather. Matters change with the hexameter:

I’ve reared a monument more durable that brass
and loftier than the pyramids, those regal towers
that not devouring rain, nor yet unbroken powers
of north wind’s storms can batter down – for all there pass

immeasurably the long succession of the years,
and fleeting time itself. I shall not wholly die,
but find my praise will Libitina’s self defy
while silent virgin on the Capitol appears

beside our Pontifex. Such echoings evoke
the powers that come from humble parentage, from where
the violent Aufidas with roarings fills the air,
and Daunus, stinting water, rules her simple folk.

By me, the first devising, Latin verse was led
to replicate Aeolian measures: such the praise
that’s merited of Melpomene that her bays
of Delphic laurel willingly approve this head.

Sapphic Strophes

Shaping problems are most acute with Sapphic measures. In Book One the content can usually be fitted into a 4 4 4 2 stanza, sometimes very neatly: I 2:

Such snow and hail has Jove hurled down
upon our sacred hills, defied
by his fierce hand, that our vast town
   lies terrified.

And people too, lest Pyrrha’s time
should come again with monstrous sights
when Proteus had his sea herds climb
      the mountain heights.

Then fish were hoisted high in elms
where naturally the pigeons roost,
and on those swirling liquid realms
   were red deer loosed.

We’ve seen the turbid Tiber’s tide
hurled back from wild Etruscan brine,
raze Numa’s tomb and throw aside
   the Vestal shrine.

Remorselessly the river rose
as though of Ilia’s harms it drank,
to inundate within its throes
   the whole left bank.

By ode I 32, however, the denser content of the Sapphic odes argues for an ampler form, here 5 5 5 3:

If I have fashioned in my rural shade
some little thing that lived a year or two,
come, sing of Italy, and so persuade
   this lyre to pay its due.

Alcaeus of Lesbos turned your strings – a man
much famed for daring, and well versed in war,
who through the tempest-driven ocean ran
   his boat close in to shore,

and sung to Bacchus and the Muses there,
to Venus, and to Cupid often viewed
with her. To Lycus too, with raven hair
   and eyes as darkly hued.

To Phoebus glory on that tortoiseshell
so welcome at Jove’s festivals. And you
who have the power to heal, help me as well
   to make my music true.

The form encourages the content to flow on in a natural and pleasing manner, but it’s clearly very different from I 2, which has a harder, more lapidary quality, with the last line of each stanza summing up the previous three. If only for consistency we should perhaps condense I 32 to the tighter form:

If I have fashioned in my shade
some trifle of a year or two,
let praise of Italy be paid
   in lyre anew.

Alcaeus turned your strings – a man
much famed for daring, and for war,
who through the ocean tempest ran
   his boat to shore,

and sung to Bacchus, Muses there,
and Love with Cupid often viewed,
to Lycus too, with raven hair
   and eyes dark hued.

So Phoebus on that tortoiseshell
is welcome at Jove’s feasts. And you
whose power can heal, help me as well
   make music true.

The cost is in naturalness and some content. Rural shade becomes shade, and Alcaeus of Lesbos becomes Alcaeus, etc. Later in the Odes, the content loss becomes more severe. Horace uses the Sapphic form for the ambitious IV 6, and the translation in the compressed 4 4 4 2 form is only barely acceptable:

A god by whom Niobe’s brood
and Tityos were killed. That one
who all but boastful Troy subdued,
   who ever won:

in you Achilles met his peer.
For all that Thetis blood had gone
to arm him, he but shook his spear
at Ilion.

As pine before the axe, or like
the cypress at the East Wind’s gust,
he fell, and felt his body strike
   the foreign dust.

No Teucrians he’d trick with horse,
or hide in false Minerva’s shrine
while Priam’s celebrations course
   through dance and wine.

How wickedly, how great the sin:
he would have sent his captives on -
both mothers and the lives within
   to death’s flames gone -

In the ampler 5 5 5 3 form the opening stanzas run:

Apollo, by whose hand Niobe’s brood
and boastful Tityos would meet their end,
as did Achilles who had half subdued
   what distant Troy could send,

in you that unmatched hero met his peer.
Although great Thetis’ ancestry had gone
to strengthen blood, he’d only brandish spear
   at walls of Ilion.

As pine before the curt-edged axe, or like
the cypress at the sudden East Wind’s gust,
he fell, and felt his outstretched body strike
   and mingle with the dust.

No cheating Teucians with trickery
of horse imagined as Minerva’s shrine,
no hiding of himself, or joyfully
   with Trojans, drugged with wine.

Yet he’d – how wickedly, how great the sin -
quite openly have sent his captives on:
how cruelly mothers and the lives within
   to Argive flames had gone,

But again, of course, that distinctive shaping with the curt, end-stopped lines is missing. So what’s best? All translation is a compromise: between form and content, fidelity to text and general spirit of the piece, proper names and emotive effect, what the plain words say and what the translator would dearly like to make of them. On balance I have thought it wise to aim for consistency, giving each of Horace’s strophes a distinctive English form and getting what poetry I could from these constraints. The approach works well for the great majority of the Odes, and I have put some of the ampler and more pleasing variations in my Diversions {5} collections of translations.

End Notes
1. Conington, J. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace Translated into English Verse. Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5432
2. Holcombe, C.J. 2014 The Odes of Horace. Ocaso Press, 2014.
3. McClatchy, J.D. Horace The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. Reviewed: http://www.textetc.com/blog/translating-horace-ode-4-7/
4. Housman, A.E. Diffugere Nives. http://www.favoritepoem.org/Poems/diffugerenives.html
5. Holcombe, C.J. 2008-14 Diversions. Ocaso Press, 2014.

 

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