Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.08.04

David Mulroy, Horace's Odes and Epodes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Pp. viii + 242. $37.50. ISBN 0-472-10531-0.

Reviewed by Jeanne Neumann O'Neill, Davidson College (

Translating Horace remains a fascinating, if daunting, undertaking; in recent years some translators (e.g. Burton Raffel, 1983) have tried to reproduce their interpretation of Horace's poems using modern idiom, while others (e.g., W.G. Shepherd, 1983) have wanted to remind their readers of the antiquity of their author and his long tradition in literature by using archaisms, etc. In his new translation of the Odes and Epodes, David Mulroy aligns himself with those who aim to give as close a sense as possible of Horace's language (i.e., Dryden's "metaphrase" or a more "scholarly" translation) rather than those who try to interpret Horace more freely (i.e., Dryden's "paraphrase" or a more "literary" translation). M. has produced a translation, aimed at American college students (presumably in Roman literature in translation courses), which strives to convey "Horace's clarity and chaste diction" (vii).

Although he is not concerned with trying to reproduce Horatian meters (as was James Mitchie, 1963, following Lord Lytton's nineteenth century efforts and J.B. Leishman's 1951 translation), M. adjusts Latin quantitative meter to English verse by using "roughly one main word stress for every three syllables" (vii) in the original meters; one or two unstressed syllables follow each stressed syllable, which gives a line of "readily perceptible but variable rhythms" (viii). This system has the virtue keeping in proportion verses with lines of varying length and, as is fitting, produces a verse well-suited to being read aloud. In the Odes M. does not follow the usual editorial convention of indenting lines of shorter length, so that although verses are kept in proportion, M.'s text is visually different from the Latin text. The Epodes follow convention.

The book begins with a useful note on pronunciation which gives the rules for Latin stress accent; names whose accent cannot be easily determined are accented in the text. The text is preceded by a general introduction, divided into four subsections: Horace's life, followed by the literary context of his poetry, the political context, and a section on appreciating Horace's poetry. Five appendices follow the introduction: (1) "Ambiguity in Horace's Personal Allusions"; (2) "Sadism in Horace"; translations of (3) Virgil's Eclogue 4 (cited because of its relationship to and the nostalgia for the golden age of the past which underlies Epode 16 and Odes 3.6); (4) Satires 1.6 (cited as evidence of Horace's disingenuousness); (5) Suetonius' Life of Horace. A brief bibliography follows the appendices; there is a good index.

Each poem is preceded by its number and an English tag, e.g. for Odes 1.1: "Horace's ambition is that Maecenas admire his poetry" and is directly followed by a commentary in the form of notes. While supplying summaries of the contents of individual poems is in keeping with traditional presentation of the Odes, the summaries can limit and direct the readers' interpretation by suggesting what they will find. A small point of visual presentation: although the heading "commentary" and the pertinent words elucidated are in bold type, the numbers and headings to the poems themselves are not, making it more difficult to locate an individual poem readily in the collection. This makes tracing the numerous cross-references (without benefit of page numbers) in the notes frustrating.

Although I do not think it is a good idea to overburden and confuse undergraduates with the details of too many scholarly arguments, I do think it only fair to let them know how few of our assumptions are indisputable. So, for example, M. states that Horace had enough money, despite his losses in the civil war, to purchase a post as a scriba quaestorius; the opposite view, that Horace after the war was an impoverished cliens who received his post as scriba through patronage (for which, see E. Badian, CP 30, 1985, 347 n.7), deserves at least a reference, since, in fact, we do not know what Horace's financial status was in the early part of his career. We do, however, know that the final version of the Res Gestae was written when Augustus was seventy-six (not sixty-seven, as on page 12 of the introduction).

M. claims to like the man who shines through Horace's poetry; the poet's more complex qualities, however, are characterized in decidedly negative terms: the Horatian persona is "a selfless facade disguising a passion for self-aggrandizement" (12); the poet's career reveals "an element of opportunism" (13) while the poet himself is guilty of an "amoral pragmatism". Horace was certainly a competitive and ambitious man (characteristics of his culture as much as of his personality), but M.'s discussion of Horace's relationship to the Augustan regime would have been better balanced had it made some reference to the considerable disagreement about the interpretation of Horace's political verse and had it acknowledged that Augustus, for all his manipulations, brought peace to a land which had known nothing but war for as long as anyone living could remember.

The unfavorable tone in the analysis of the poet's social and political motives is continued in the excursus on the poet's supposed "marked sadistic streak" (33). The giggling girl hiding in the corner at the conclusion of Odes 1.9, for example, is seen as encouraging male violence and as prompting a voyeuristic, sadistic pleasure in the reader; the "pleasing chains" of love (grata compes) in Odes 1.33 and 4.11 are similarly suspect. I do not argue with the fact that Horace uses imagery from warfare to describe the machinations of sexual pursuit and conquest (no matter which sex is seen as pursuing and conquering). It is disturbing, however, that the role of literary topos (e.g., the miles amator) finds no place in the interpretation of Horace's aggressive imagery.

M. regards the dissension which arises over Horace's tone and meaning in many of his poems as part of the poet's intention: the poet's program is to force us as readers to evaluate our own feelings by presenting us with poetry which prompts discordant reactions, by making us ask what the poet is up to. But M. wants to have it both ways: Horace was intentionally ambiguous in order to make us think and hold our attention (17) and does not see poetry as fulfilling an ethical function (16); but then again, by making us think, the poet edifies (35). Although I think that M.'s point is merely to discourage an interpretation which guides the reader toward any particular set of beliefs, it has the effect of denying Horace's verse an ethical focus. It can be argued that the author's meaning is less important for us as readers and appreciators of poetry than the meaning we arrive at for ourselves by careful analysis. Such a stance, however, should be presented as a critical approach to poetry and not as the poet's intention.

The translations themselves often succeed admirably in conveying the lucidity of Horace's language. At times, however, a striving for clarity engenders an oversimplification of expression and a somewhat prosaic rendering. So, for example, in Odes 1.2 rabiem Noti / quo non arbiter Hadriae / maior, tollere seu ponere vult freta becomes "the rabid southern wind dictating storm and calm to the Adriatic". In Odes 1.6. while lines 5-6 nec gravem / Pelidae stomachum cedere nescii become "or stubborn Achilles' anger", Horace's wonderfully compressed tenues grandia (9) is rendered "Minor poets are wrong to attempt such major themes as those" and in Odes 1.34.1 parcus deorum cultus et infrequens becomes "My religious devotions were mean and infrequent".

In some places Horace's meaning is obscured instead of clarified. In Odes 1.7.7 undeque decerptam fronti praeponere oliviam becomes "and gathering olive twigs from every quarter" with a note which explains this as "poets find many different ways to praise Athens". But neither the translation nor the note makes clear what the Latin does: the olive wreaths are plucked from everywhere, that is, they are earned for poems on every theme, for the poet's own brow. Structure is sacrificed for simplicity as well. Odes 1.8 consists of six questions; instead of preserving this structure, M. reduces the number to four and inserts the rather pale declarative "He endured the sun and dust before" for cur apricum / deserit Campum patiens pulveris atque solis. Also, in contrast to the previous poem (Odes 1.7) where the role of olive branches is made more obscure in translation than in the Latin, here the translation adds an explanatory "athletic olive oil" for olivum (8), where perhaps an explanation in the notes would have sufficed.

M. often chooses words which reflect the original sound of the Latin. While such choices are lexically defensible, they can be distracting: in Odes 1.4.13 the personified image of death becomes "Pale Mortality", conveying the Latin roots but not the impact of pallida Mors. Horace opens Odes 2.14 thus :

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,
labuntur anni nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti,
Mulroy provides the following translation:
Eheu! Póstumus, Póstumus, fugitive
years glide by and virtue will give
no pause to wrinkles, rapid
senectitude, pitiless death ...
While the years of our lives can be seen as fugitive as they run away from us, "fugitive" for fugaces jars with the river image in labuntur; "senectitude" for senectae remains faithful to its root but not to M.'s goal to highlight Horace's simplicity and clarity; the point of indomitaeque morti, it seems to me, is not that death lacks pity, but that we cannot get the better of it. Similarly in Odes 2.7.5-6 Pompei, meorum prime sodalium, / cum quo morantem saepe diem mero becomes
Pompeius, premier friend, with whom
I often shattered a tedious day
with wine ...
"Premier", renders the sound of primus better than the sense; "shattered", M.'s translation of fregi, belongs to a cluster of renderings which seem too strong an interpretation of the original. Another example occurs at Odes 1.9. 5-6:
Disintegrate winter! Cover the hearth
with kindling completely ...
"Disintegrate" is, I think, not a good choice for dissolve (nor is "kindling" for ligna). In the same poem (17-18) M. translates donec virenti canities abest / morosa as
so long as your green is free of the peevish
The image is perfectly clear in Latin, where virere regularly connotes human youth and vitality as well as springtime fertility, and where canus, the adjective on which canities is based, describes the cold grey of the winter; but in English more clarity is called for ("peevish" for morosa, a precedent set by Mitchie, does not help). Such renderings distract from some fine images, such as (as in Odes 2.7) "the seething undertow / carried you back for more" for te rursus in bellum resorbens unda fretis tulit aestuosis (15-16).

M. translates certain words in a way which supports his view that Horace had a sadistic streak, but these interpretations do not always ring true. Pyrrha in Odes 1.5 is given as an example of "women deliberately provoking minor acts of male violence" (34). The evidence for this is urget, which M. interprets as "besieges". The slender young man making love to Pyrrha is very much focused on his beautiful lover; the fact that he is "pressing" her does not mean he is "oppressing" or harming her, especially since there is nothing else in the context of the poem to argue for this interpretation. That Horace may be projecting his own anger and hostility (if we choose to read his reaction as such) onto the lover, transforming the scene he views from one of passion to aggression, asks too much of the Latin. Although Horace does use urgere in contexts where "besiege" is an appropriate evaluation of the situation, there seems nothing in this poem which would encourage a view that Pyrrha is being attacked. The word is often quite neutral in Horace (e.g. Satires 2.7.6-7; Odes 2.10.2). Where there is hostile intent, the context points to this, e.g. in Satire 2.6 when Horace jostles others in the crowded roads of the city, he is jostled in return and treated to angry rebukes: 'quam rem agis?' inprobus urget / iratis precibus; the context gives urgere a hostile flavor.

The translations generally move smoothly. Often references which would be obscure to the modern reader are rendered more accessible by a periphrasis, making for us the association the Roman listener would have heard. Thus, in the carmen saeculare, (15-16) sive tu Lucina probas vocari / seu Genitalis is aptly translated "whether you wish to be honored as goddess of light or of childbirth". There are also some fine renderings of style and tone, e.g. the final lines of Odes 3.24 (63-64): tamen / curtae nescio quid semper abest rei becomes "but the goods they buy are somehow never enough". M. is at his best, I think, in the more narrative poems. Odes 3.16, for example, begins thus:

Inclusam Danaen turris aenea
robustaeque fores et vigilum canum
tristes excubiae munierant satis
nocturnis ab adulteris,
si non Acrisium virginis abditae
custodem pavidum Iuppiter et Venus
risissent: fore enim tutum iter et patens
converso in pretium deo.
M. translates:
The tower of bronze, its solid doors
and wakeful dogs on gloomy patrol
had kept their prisoner Danae safe
from lovers at night except
that Jove and Venus conspired to mock
the virgin's nervous protector, Acrisius.
They knew how smooth the road would be
for a god transformed into money.
The commentary stresses Horace's debt to Greece, yet curiously neglects his debt to Hellenistic poetry and poetics. Callimachus is mentioned in such a way as to suggest that Horace was not influenced by his poetry or poetic theory: Horace's "poetry was free of Callimachean erudition and Propertian complexity" (9). While M. is good at giving background for Greek myth and Greek literary antecedents, the Latin literary tradition does not fare as well. So, Alcaeus is given as a prototype for the Soracte ode (1.9), but neither Sappho 31 nor Catullus 51 is mentioned as part of the literary tradition which Horace looks to in Odes 1.13. Nor is there any mention of textual problems; in Odes 4.8, for example, M. does not bracket lines 15-19 or mention any difficulties with the text in the notes. The social climate of the first century BCE also receives limited attention. In Odes 1.8 and 1.9 references to the Campus Martius are obscured by the translations "So why does he shun the field" (O. 1.8.4-5) and "revisit the field" (O. 1.9.18) with no explanatory note. In a few places the language barrier is lost sight of as well; so heu, eheu, which are almost impossible to translate into modern idiom and are better left in the original, find their way into the translation but not into the notes.

Although I think in a course M.'s translation would work best if supplemented by translations with different aims and effects, this recommendation is true of all translations of Horace. The art of the poet who predicted he would not completely perish does not survive completely in any one translation Despite this, M.'s translation remains a fine text to use to give students a sense of the scope of Horace's poetry, the progression of his thought, and the clarity of his language.