Versions of Horace 3

Versions of Horace 3

This is the third and concluding post comparing translations of Horace Odes.
Carmen One 28
Measure: First Archilochean:
– u u –  u u – / u u – u u  – u u  – x
– u u  – u u  – u u  – x

Theme: Death comes to all.
Latin and word-for-word translation:

Te maris et terrae numeroque carentis harenae
mensorem cohibent, Archyta,
pulueris exigui prope latum parua Matinum
munera nec quicquam tibi prodest
aerias temptasse domos animoque rotundum
percurrisse polum morituro.
Occidit et Pelopis genitor, conuiua deorum,
Tithonusque remotus in auras

You, sea and earth and numberless sand
surveyor confines you, Archytas,
small dust near unimportant shore of Matinium
offer nor are you worth
round sky home and spirit
scan sky you will die.
Died and Pelop’s father, guest of gods
Tithonus drawn into air

John Conington
The sea, the earth, the innumerable sand,
Archytas, thou couldst measure; now, alas!
A little dust on Matine shore has spann’d
That soaring spirit; vain it was to pass

The gates of heaven, and send thy soul in quest
O’er air’s wide realms; for though hadst yet to die.
Aye, dead is Pelop’s father’s heaven’s own guest,
And old Tithonus, rapt from earth to sky

Here the longer lines have allowed Conington to make more of the verse, and the rendering is faithful to the original in content and tone, though now very dated in its diction.

Edward Marsh 1941
Archytas meted with his wand the bounds of earth and sea,
Or weighed the unnumbered sand; and by a little meed of dust
Cribbed on the Matine shore he lies, not aught avails him now
The airy citadels to have scaled, and the convex of heaven

Visited with a mind that all the while was doomed to die.
Death found Tithonus, hidden in the secret courts of Dawn,
And Minos, whom all-ruling Jove to his deep counsels called,
And Tantalus, who supped with gods.

Again not one of Marsh’s best. The piece has been recast in a style that even then was rather old-fashioned, and various poeticisms added to give the rapture of inspiration to the lines: ‘meed of dust’, ‘not aught avails him now’, ‘airy citadels’, ‘doomed to die’, ‘supped with gods’. Today we’d probably think the poem would be stronger without such aids. The content is padded out but essentially faithful: even ‘meted with his wand’ could conceivably serve for mensorem.

David Mulroy 1994
A mound of dust where Matínus meets the sea
confines you now, Archýtas, a humble tribute
for one who measured heaven and earth
and the numberless grains of sand. You examined

celestial abodes in thought and traversed the sphere
but profited little; for still you were mortal.
Pelop’s sire also died, though he dined
with the gods, and Tithónus, taken to heaven

David Mulroy is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he has taught since 1973. He is the author of many translations from Greek and Latin, and of The War Against Grammar, a critical look at the neglect of grammar in contemporary education.

The translation is prose, though a rhythmic and dignified one with subtle assonance:

A mound of dust where Matínus meets the sea confines you now, Archýtas, a humble tribute for one who measured heaven and earth and the numberless grains of sand. You examined celestial abodes in thought and traversed the sphere but profited little; for still you were mortal. Pelop’s sire also died, though he dined with the gods, and Tithónus, taken to heaven

The Latin has been rounded out to make it more accessible, successfully, and, if the rendering is a little too reasonable, it astutely avoids the failures of other translations that aim to convey more of the poetry.

J.D. McClatchy (ed.) 2002
Calibrator of the sea and earth, who counted
infinite grains, Archytas,
now you’re honoured by a dusting of flung snow, now
you’re lightly buried near Matine.

So what good did it do to dare castles in the air
or double the cube,
how did it you behove you, when your brains
were death-bent from day one,

death-bent, that is, from birth. When Tatalus,
who was the guest of gods, dies dead,
and Minos, despite glimpses into Jove’s arcunum,
died, and Tithonus retired

as ghost of the wind.

The translator here is Alice Fulton, who has taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour but is now at Cornell. She has published five books of poetry, and has received fellowships from the MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundations.

The rendering is a recreation, but with only limited success: Tithonus as ghost of the wind is imaginative but not what Horace is really saying: Tithonus was winnowed to air, to nothing at all: it’s the emptiness of air and not its movement as wind that is being emphasized. There’s nothing in the original about snow, and nor would there be: it can be cold, wet and windy on the Matinian coast, but it doesn’t snow. Lightly in the remainder of the line is again off kilter: Horace is saying that, despite the immense learning of Archytas, he is buried in the meanest sort of way, i.e. there is none of the ‘earth lie lightly on my grave’ association of English Romantic poetry in the original. Indeed the whole translated line is misleading, seeming to echo a recipe: Achytas is first dusted with snow and then lightly buried. Those unwanted comic effects continue with dare castles in the air (the man was a philosopher, not a daydreamer) and double the cube (with echoes of the Rubik cube). The death-bent is a neat condensation, but picks up connotations of ‘hell-bent’, which destroys its effect. More important, the rendering does not convey the lapidary neatness of Horace, though the general meaning is rendered well enough.

Tony Kline
You, my Archytas, philosopher, and measurer of land,
of the sea, of wide sands, are entombed
in a small mound of meagre earth near the Matinian shore, and it’s of no use to you in the least,
that you, born to die, have explored the celestial houses crossed, in spirit, the rounds of the sky.
Tantalus, Pelop’s father, died too, a guest of the gods,
and Tithonus took off to the heavens,

This piece is as previous renderings by Tony Kline, though not quite as faithful. Horace always needs some re-creation from his compact and not always obvious lines, but celestial houses may be too astrological a term and took off to the heavens is over-emphatic: Tithonus was not rocket-borne but simply wed Aurora. Otherwise, the rendering flows easily, maintains the correct tone, and should appeal to a contemporary audience.

P.E. Knox and J.C. McKeown (eds.) 2013
Measurer of earth and ocean and numberless sand,
Archytas, now you are confined
by the Matine shore, by a little handful of dust duly sprinkled
and it profits you nothing to have probed
the dwellings of air and traversed the round vault of heaven
with a mind that was to die.
The father of Pelops also died, boon companion of the gods,
and Tithonus, though carried off into the winds.

The duly sprinkled is anticipating matters: oblations come later in the poem. ‘Boon companion’ is also an odd choice, but helps to give the lines their momentum and muffled thunder, though the previous comment on Tithonus still applies. The rendering is again prose but a powerful and attractive prose.

Colin Holcombe 2014
Whatever cast of lands or seas or countless sands
you once surveyed, Archytes, now you boast
no more than one heaped tumulus we see in lands
along the monotonous Matinian coast.

Such pointlessness to set your mind in quest
of heaven’s high mysteries, while still you fare
as Tantalus, that died, who was the gods’ own guest,
and old Tithonus wasted into air,

The First Archilochean has been conveyed by a rhymed 6 5 6 5 stanza, which is here a little too ample for the content, ever a problem with fixed stanza forms. Line 4 has therefore been padded out with ‘monotonous’, and the present tense ‘fare’ employed to meet the rhyme rather than the past tense that the English meaning (if not the Latin) more properly requires.


Much has happened since Ezra Pound stressed the importance of translation, but if we look further at a gifted Modernist poet of a later generation, James Michie, we note how straightforward and intelligent is his translation of Ode I,1:

Maecenas, son of royal stock,
My friend, my honour, my firm rock,
The enthusiastic charioteer
Stirs up the Olympic dust, then, clear-
ing turning-post with red-hot wheels,
Snatches the victor’s palm and feels
Lord of the earth, god among men;
The politician glories when
The fickle voters designate
Him three times public magistrate;
A third if in his barns he stores
All Libya’s wheat-stacked threshing floors. {3}

But there is also loss. The rhymes are heavy, commonplace and not over appropriate. Much of Horace’s charm and dignity have gone, and where is that subtle sound patterning that distinguishes verse from prose? The same problems afflict to his rendering of Ode I, 11. It is verse, but not especially attractive verse:

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconoë,
What end the gods propose for me
Or you. Let Chaldees try
To read the ciphered sky
Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add,
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last.
Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricade of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine
Of expectations. Life’s short. Even while
We talk Time, grudging, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now. {3}

Now, some fifty years later, professional poets seem largely to have lost their craft skills. If we look at Mulroy’s rendering of the Sapphic I, 38 we see that some trace of verse still lingers in the opening two lines: {4}

Persian pomposity irks me, boy:
linden wreathes are not my style.
Abandon your search of the countryside
for a lingering rose.

Spare yourself the task of improving
the simple myrtle, no disgrace
to your service or me imbibing within
my private bower.

But that it’s otherwise prose – by its rhythms, its jumbled register of tones (‘irks’, ‘not my style’, ‘imbibing’),  and its lack of any pleasing sound patterning:

Does this matter? It’s clearly better to have a workmanlike prose for the more mundane poems and sections than incompetent verse, but the trouble comes when something more is wanted. Mulroy’s concluding lines for I 37 capture the sense reasonably well, as far as the Latin goes: {4}

She dared to pay her fallen palace
a peaceful visit and braved the touch
of serpents’ scales that her body
might drink their fatal venom.

Her death was defiance: she thereby refused
to be taken away dethroned in Liburnian
galleys and mocked in a triumph,
being no submissive woman.

The Latin is:

ausa et iacentem uisere regiam                 25
uoltu sereno, fortis et asperas
tractare serpentes, ut atrum
corpore conbiberet uenenum,
deliberata morte ferocior:
saeuis Liburnis scilicet inuidens                 30
priuata deduci superbo,
non humilis mulier, triumpho.

And the word-for-word rendering is:

Daring and ruined to see palace
looks serene, strong and fierce/rough
handling snakes, that black
body absorbed poison
resolved on death violently
savage Liburnian warship certainly refuse
private leading proud
not lowly woman, in triumph

What’s needed is something to echo the superbo/triumpho structure that conveys Cleopatra’s defiance. Tone is important: Cleopatra is a queen, and we can’t therefore call her ‘brave’ without being crassly patronizing (‘braved /the touch of serpents’ scales’: Mulroy above). Nor, for the same reason, can we use crude everyday terms like ‘looked straight’ and ‘without blinking’ (McClatchy: below) And ‘touch the poisonous asps /with courage’ seems altogether too namby-pamby (Kline: below). The inversion of ‘She dared to gaze with face serene’ (Oxford Anthology: below) is a bit Augustan though pleasing, but is followed by the wretched ‘brave’ again:

The  McClatchy offering (here by Ellen Bryant Voigt): {5}

She looked straight at the palace now in ruins,
her face composed, and without blinking took
into her arms the scaly venomous snakes
in order to drink each drop of their black wine,

and by that cup this woman of such fierce pride
made the triumph hers: that she would die
not as a slave, and not as someone’s prize.

Tony Kline: {6}

And she dared to gaze at her fallen kingdom
with a calm face, and touch the poisonous asps
with courage, so that she might drink down
their dark venom, to the depths of her heart,
growing fiercer still, and resolving to die:
scorning to be taken by hostile galleys,
and, no ordinary woman, yet queen
no longer, be led along in proud triumph.

The Oxford Anthology of Roman Poetry: {7}

She dared to gaze with face serene upon her ruined palace
and brave enough to take deadly serpents
in her hand and let her body
drink their black poison,
fiercer she was in the death she chose, as though
she did not wish to be queen, taken to Rome
on the galleys of savage Liburnians,
to be humble woman in a proud triumph.

One answer is to paraphrase, and use an assonance-thick, forward-driving energy in the verse: {8}

Far round at fallen palaces she stares
but still that sovereign calm and strength retains
to gather in fierce snakes whose venom bears
a final darkness to her veins.

Perforce a violent death. Resolved that no
Liburnian ship convey her to the scene
of our high triumph here, she would not go
as woman humbled but a queen.

The culprit in so many recent versions of the Odes is the ‘free verse’, which is little more than prose, and therefore lacks the devices to make each syllable count. No doubt there are many occasions when we need the tang of ‘real speech’, the immediacy and authority of the instinctively spoken that mirrors the world we live in. But Horace translation is not one of them. Horace is artificial, and no Roman ever spoke like one of his Odes. Whether wholly satisfying poetry can be made with wholly second-hand language as Heidegger would call it (‘everyday language is forgotten and used-up poetry which scarcely any calling forth can be heard’. On the Way to Language: 188), is of course another matter, but I will end with the English poet closest to Horace, although not his translator: Walter William Landor: {10}

Past ruin’d Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth; ’tis verse that gives
Immortal youth to mortal maids.

1. Conington, J. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace Translated into English Verse. Gutenberg.
2. Marsh, E. The Odes of Horace. Macmillan, 1941.
3. Michie, J. Sample text for Odes : / Horace ; with the Latin text ; translated by James Michie ; introduction by Gregson Davis.
4. Mulroy, D. Horace’s Odes and Epodes. Translated with an Introduction and a Commentary. Michigan University Press, 1994. Google Books.
5. McClatchy, J.D. Horace The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Princeton Univ. Press, 2002.
6. Kline, A.S. Horace. 2003.
7. Knox. P.E. and McKeown, J.C. Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. OUP, 2013. Google Books.
8. Holcombe, C.J. 2014 The Odes of Horace. Ocaso Press, 2014. Free ebook.
9. Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Review.
10. Walter William Landor.

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