Translating Horace Ode 4.7

Translating Horace Ode 4.7

The famous ode is straightforward: {1}

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt;
Gratia cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet
ducere nuda choros.
immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
quae rapit hora diem.
frigora mitescunt zephyris, ver proterit aestas
interitura simul
pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
bruma recurrit iners.
damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae;
nos ubi decidimus,
quo pius Aeneas, quo Tullus dives et Ancus,
pulvis et umbra sumus.
quis scit an adiciant hodiernae crastina summae
tempora di superi?
cuncta manus avidas fugient heredis, amico
quae dederis animo.
cum semel occideris et de te splendida Minos
fecerit arbitria,
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
restituet pietas;
infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum
liberat Hippolytum,
nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
vincula Pirithoo.

A literal translation might run:

The snows scatter; now grasses return to the fields,
the leaves to trees.
By turns the earth changes; in shrunken banks
the rivers flow by.
In gratitude Nymphs and twin sisters dare,
nude, to lead the chorus.
Immortality you may not hope for, advises the nurturing year,
that drags off hours from the day.
Cold is ameliorated by West Winds, spring treads on summer.
They will perish at the same time
crops poured out by fruit-bearing autumn, and soon
winter returns inert.
Yet the heavenly moon quickly and repeatedly condemns.
With us descend
what blessed Aeneas, what rich Tullus and Ancus,
dust and shades we are.
Who know if they add today’s tomorrows to the sum
of time from the high gods?
Avoid the fleeting greedy hand of the heir, make friendly to oneself
whatever the spirit bestows.
Once you have perished, the splendid Minos
will fashion judgement.
nor, Torquatus, your birth, your eloquence, your
piety makes restitution.
Not from hell nor indeed night Diana the pure
Hippolytus frees,
nor Theseus break Lethe’s strong chains
of dear Pirithous

Indeed it’s so simple that many scholars have thought it lame and insignificant. {2}

There is no shortage of reasonably accurate translations:

By ‘James’ on Sheffield Forum: {3}

Fallen away the snows; to the fields now grass returns
And leaves to the trees;
The earth goes through its changes, and to within its banks withdrawing
The once-swollen river flows past;

Not even Diana from the underworld dark
Chaste Hippolytus frees,
Nor can strong Theseus from dearest Pirithous break
The Lethean chains.

And by E.D. Buckner 2010: {4}

The snows have scattered, and back comes grass to fields
And leaves to trees.
Earth changes seasons, and declining [between their] banks
Rivers flow.

For neither from the shadows below does Diana virtuous
Hippolytus set free;
Nor can Theseus break Lethe’s
Chains from [his dear] Pirithous

The metre is rendered as syllabic verse in Tony Kline’s 2003 version: {5}

The snow has vanished, already the grass returns to the fields,
and the leaves to the branches:
earth alters its state, and the steadily lessening rivers
slide quietly past their banks:

Persephone never frees Hippolytus, chaste as he is,
from the shadow of darkness,
nor has Theseus, for his dear Pirithous, the power to
shatter those Lethean chains.

Most poets find rhyme a useful shaping mechanism, however. John Conington’s version, which respects the alternating short lines, is not so pleasing in the opening lines {7}

The snow is fled: the trees their leaves put on,
The fields their green:
Earth owns the change, and rivers lessening run.
Their banks between.

But finishes more strongly:

Not Dian’s self can chaste Hippolytus
To life recall,
Nor Theseus free his loved Pirithous
From Lethe’s thrall.

Alex Foreman’s also respects the form: {6}

Snows scatter. Grass reclaims the field, and trees
Regrow the greenery they’d shed.
The world is shifting shape. The shrinking river
Rolls in the riverbed.

Even Diana had to let her chaste
Hippolytus fall dark and under
Where Theseus left a friend in Lethean chains
Not even he could sunder.

Horace’s poem is indeed a little plain, and the previous translations are verse of varying quality but hardly poetry.  Housman, finding the poem struck a chord in his own melancholy temperament, made it into something more, using rhymed (pentameter) quatrains throughout. His first ‘stanza’ has a magnificent fourth line: {8}

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.

But other lines are less accomplished. The final ‘stanza’:

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.

So it is with poets, who rework material to express themselves in the verse styles or preoccupations of their own time. Success isn’t guaranteed, even to great names. Samuel Johnson’s version, written late in his life, is flat and uninspired: {8}

The snow dissolv’d no more is seen,
The fields, and woods, behold, are green,
The changing year renews the plain,
The rivers know their banks again,

Hippolytus unjustly slain
Diana calls to life in vain,
Nor can the might of Theseus rend
The chains of hell that hold his friend.

Translation doubtless has varying rules: depending on what we hope to achieve. In Housman’s spirit of making a little more than the text actually says, I’d offer:

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

In blatant nakedness the Graces play,
and happily with Nymphs are chorusing.
Recall, as hour on hour removes 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
your judgement 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 darkness ever reigns,
and not from best of friends Pirithous
could Theseus remove the Lethean chains.

References and Further Reading

1. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace by Horace. Project Gutenberg.

2. Why Horace?: A Collection of Interpretations  edited by William Scovil
Anderson. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers,  1999. Google Books”.

3.  The Odes of Horace – IV.7. Sheffield Writers Group. Sheffield Forum.
February 2010.

4. Horace: Odes – IV.7 by E.D. Buckner 2010. The Logic Museum.

5. Horace: The Odes Book IV. A.S. Kline. Poetry in Translation.

6.  Horace: Ode 4.7 (From Latin) translated by AZ Foreman. Poems Found in Translation.

7. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace by John Conington. 3rd Edition. 1898. Gutenberg.

8. Spring: Horace, Ode 4.7. Laudator Temporis Acti (Michael Gilleland Blog). March, 2007.

9. Odes of Horace translated by Colin Holcombe. Free pdf ebook at Ocaso Press Ltda


  1. You might want to look at Carol Rumen’s analysis of Dryden’s translation of Horace’s Ode One.9. It’s over on the Guardian at:
    It details what Dryden was probably aiming at.

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