Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.37


David West (ed. & trans.), Horace Odes I: Carpe Diem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xiii + 203. $17.95. ISBN 0-19-872161-7 (pb).


Reviewed by William S. Anderson, University of California at Berkeley, wsa@garnet.berkeley.edu.

Because West admires Horace as one of the world's greatest lyric poets, but deplores the fact that he is not sufficiently accessible, he has written this book with three specific purposes: "to help non-Latinists who like poetry to enjoy Horace; to stimulate young people who have to study the poems; and to add to the scholarly debate by putting forward my own views, which seem on occasion to go against present-day orthodoxies" (p. ix). In other words, he has aimed at intelligent popularization, with an eye principally to the non-Latinist, but secondly to the young Latinists (in Great Britain) who face Horace before they know much about their own or the Roman world, in the four, fifth, or six forms. And finally he intends to take on the scholarly establishment, insofar as his discussions can be made relevant to the interests of the first two groups of readers.

An Introduction of a mere five pages deals briskly with what West regards as useful for his select audience. He admits his great debt to the more thorough commentaries of Nisbet and Hubbard and of Syndikus. Then, he emphasizes the crucial relevance of Greek lyric models to Horace's achievement. Naming as most important Alcaeus and Pindar, he surprises me by totally ignoring Sappho, before passing on rapidly to Callimachus, whom he characterizes not as the ingenious poet that he was, but as "cataloguer of the Great Library of the Ptolemies". Two more paragraphs dispose of Horace's biography. The last two pages of this Introduction skim over the way in which the Latin should be pronounced and the various meters read. And then West lists the twenty-two places in which he differs from the old OCT of Wickham (1912), of which the only cases he argues are for Bentley's emendations in 1.23.5 and 6.

It is a little surprising that West did not choose to explicate the principles he adopts for translation. It seems obvious that the translation provides the main way he would first impress the non-Latinist, whose poetic sensitivities he aims to touch. On the dust jacket, which probably did not originate with West, a bolder claim is advanced for the translation. We now hear that the inaccessibility of Horace is due to the grievous fact that "he has never been translated into English which is both close to the Latin and readable." The blurb continues with a new construction of West's aims, which places the central emphasis on the English rendition: "The aim of this book is to provide such a translation and support it by a commentary" for newcomers to Horace who have some or no Latin. Oxford Press apparently wanted to advertize this book on the basis of its unique translation. West, wiser and more modest, said nothing about the translation in his Introduction, and I presume that he meant it to speak for itself. Still, we should ask whether in fact this version achieves the supposed ideal of staying close to the Latin and yet coming through as "readable" not only to British amateurs of poetry and restless schoolboys, but also to the wider English-reading public in America and Australia/New Zealand.

For me, who have read and taught the Odes for forty years, West's translation is quite adequate. I disagreed with only one passage on the basis of syntax: in 1.1.8, he treats what every commentator I know regards as an instrumental ablative in honoribus as though it were a loose dative (or he lets himself go free, for no obvious reason) and offers: "lift him up to triple honors." But I miss some responsiveness in the translation to the meter, or at least some discussion of why the meter, which is supposedly important for the Latin reader, is indifferent for the English audience. When we proceed to 1.2 and its Sapphic stanzas, it looks as though West gave some perfunctory thought to the short fourth line. He does make it visibly shorter than the other lines, and indeed in the first stanza he actually imitates the rhythm of the adonic: "fear to the city." But that was apparently an accidental achievement, which West does not repeat. One "short line" has three words of one syllable; others total four syllables; and in the last stanza West simply insults us and Horace by insisting on eight syllables and six words. Ode 1.3, in the second Asclepiadean, consists of an alternation of glyconics and asclepiadeans. When printed, we see a short indented line followed by a longer line extending to the left margin, in a series. This superficial pattern of indentation is easy to reduplicate, as West does, but he shows no interest in the meter itself. I noted in my margin at first reading that the translation is "metrically dull and erratic", by which I meant that West does not seek any consistent syllabic pattern.

I infer, then, that the translation has little or no interest in Horace's meters. The trick of typography, which makes the English look like the Latin, by short and indented lines, is little more than slight-of-hand: it is not responsive to the meter. So then we come down to the question: Is this English version, which I appreciated from my extensive familiarity with Horace, really the answer for the "new comer" to the centuries of inaccessibility suffered by the Odes? A problem which all modern translators of Horace consciously face is what to do with his obscure references to mythological or historical characters, to geographical locations, and the like, all very respectable elements of his lyric art? A poem like 1.28 starts off for modern young readers like a puzzle. Addressed to an unknown Archytas (who at least is characterized in the opening line), who is "confined" near an unknown Matine shore, it reminds him of the father of Pelops and the son of Panthous, who are in Tartarus. (The reader probably has heard of Minos, possibly of Tithonus, who are also named.) Many translators decipher the device of antonomasia by simply giving the real name, Tantalus or Pythagoras. West literally translates; I doubt that his young readers will bless him. I conclude that the translation is the work of a competent Latinist, who has not openly faced as many problems in the Latin poetry as we might have expected him to. It reads like English prose, but its tenacious respect for Horace's allusiveness makes it English that readers will not enjoy, and its flat rhythm is a faint vestige of the metrical virtuosity perceptible in the Latin.

West's commentary received the most searching investigation by me, because I am not the reader he most seriously addresses, but the scholar who takes an interest in his interpretation of the poems and in the controversial personal views that he advances in the face of "present-day orthodoxies", as he declares. In little essays of three, four, or five pages, West cannot challenge many scholars or orthodoxies, because he has the task of explaining the many obscurities of Horatian phrasing and lyric argument to his other audience of newcomers. He does use his benefactors, Syndikus and Nisbet & Hubbard, ably and with critical independence, but he simply cannot go very far beyond them in the limited space available. What, then, does he do with Horace and with the subtitle of carpe diem?

West regards Horace as deeply involved in the political and social changes that were made possible by the victory of Octavian at Actium. His Horace has no apparent reservations about the man, two years younger than himself, who took the title of Augustus in 27. Thus, in the first Ode to address the new ruler, West, with Nisbet & Hubbard, focuses almost exclusively on the details and problems of panegyric: how Horace praises Augustus (if the poem was written after Jan. 27) and whether and why he takes such a servile stance. West is more tolerant of Horace than his predecessors, but he should have read Commager and some of those appreciated the literary themes of the Ode. They put more attention on the way the poet seems to scan the expected divine symbols of the regime, Apollo, Venus, and Mars, and implicitly rejects them as models for the new era: they are made to yield to Mercury, and the god is said to have taken the form of the young ruler. I believe that indicates considerable independence on the part of the poet, not the anxious and clumsy search for successful panegyric that West implies. More needs to be said about Horace's attitude toward war. Is it significant? The poet calls the ruler in 1.2 simply Caesar. The penultimate poem of the book, 1.37, deals with the victory of Caesar over Cleopatra at Actium and her flight and suicide at Alexandria. West is more thorough here, still primarily concerned with Horace and history, and he argues unapologetically for his viewpoint that "Horace was a court poet and that is no disadvantage" (p. 188). For me, that statement should be nuanced. How and why did Horace, the enemy of Octavian at Philippi, become a devoted court poet in fifteen years? Other scholars sense a considerable amount of diffidence toward Augustus in our poet, precisely in Cleopatra.

The first chance West had to use the phrase carpe diem, namely in 1.4, he neglects his opportunity; instead, he introduces the phrase ad hominem. That is, instead of helping his novice readers by identifying and discussing the main concern of the Ode, namely, the need to seize the moment, he spends most of his comments on the full identification of the poem's addressee, L. Sestius. For two thousand years, people have been reading this and other Horatian Odes without knowing or caring who the addressee was: it is a fair assumption that Horace meant the poems to live and move readers long after Sestius ceased to have significance except as a paradigm of middle-aged affluence and moderate political importance. At the next poem of carpe diem type, 1.7, West does the same thing: he spends his commentary speculating on the particular circumstance of Plancus that Horace is supposedly addressing, arguing for a date of composition on the basis of the relatively little that we know about this man.

In concentrating on this speculative historicism, West ignores important thematic and structural issues which would be of more interest to the Latin-less lover of poetry for whom he announced he was working. The third carpe diem poem is 1.9, involving Soracte in winter and Thaliarchus and the vernal temptations of the Campus Martius. Again, West turns away from the poetic contents to focus on the addressee, Thaliarchus. From Nisbet & Hubbard, he picks up the fact that the name is a genuine Greek one and has occurred once on a vase as a kalos name. He rejects the caution of his sources, who primly declared that there was no warrant for "a sentimental implication", and he argues for a relation between poet and addressee that is indeed sentimental, homoerotic. I concede that such a relationship might be implied, but I see no necessity for it. However, it is important that Horace tries out a new addressee: he is no longer advising a middle-aged politician here, but urging a young man to enjoy his youth.

I have picked out these three poems, because they could have been used to elaborate the importance of the book's subtitle and to bring out a significant theme of Horace. I guess it should be no surprise that West does not even avail himself of his opportunity when he comments on 1.11, the Ode in which Horace actually uses the words carpe diem. Twice he calls the phrase "famous" (pp. 52, 53), but he does not tell his young readers why it is so. And I think he badly misinterprets the poem and its advice. He argues that Leuconoe must love Horace, because she is concerned about his death. That is not what the poem says: she is worried about where their relationship is likely to end. Why? Because now the speaker of this carpe diem routine is arguing for his own amatory advantage: he wants her to forget about the future and prudence and instead let him make love to her. Thus, Horace is showing in these four poems that carpe diem acquires different meanings, depending on the situation of the addressee and the interest or disinterest of the adviser.

The self-irony which I find in the short sketch of a love-situation in 1.11 brings up the tricky question of Horace as a love poet. It is evident, in an era which saw the flowering of love elegy and the representation of the elegiac lover as a passionate, irrational slave of love, which saw also the sympathetic depiction of destructive love in Vergil's Dido and Aeneas, that Horace is a very special recorder of personal love and of the love follies of others. He is regularly cool and mocking about others; but when he recounts his own amatory affairs, he shows, I think, that he cannot keep up the pose of objectivity and cool distance. That is what emerges from 1.11, in my opinion: the "good sense" that he urges on Leuconoe will benefit him, the lover, not Leuconoe. I find myself regularly differing from West on Horace the love poet, starting with 1.5. He takes the surface meaning and treats it as the only meaning: the Ode "is a farewell to Pyrrha, to love fouled up with tantrums and silliness and misery" (p. 24). I think that misses too much, above all why the speaker is so interested in Pyrrha and her latest victim, and why he is so eager to claim that he has hung up his wet sailor suit and absolutely given up love entanglements. Doesn't he claim too much at the end and betray too much interest in Pyrrha earlier?

West introduces the characterization of Horace as "Professor of Love" (pp. 117, 129, 138). He glosses the phrase with the Ovidian praeceptor amoris and talks about the poet's dispassionate observation of the human comedy. I see little resemblance between the attitudes of Horace on love and the teacher of the Art of Love. Ode 1.25 is an especially good test case. If we place all the emphasis on the aging prostitute Lydia, we end up with something not very nice, a man gloating over the miseries of a lonely whore. All West can say, using his theory of the Professor of Love, is that Horace had no feelings for what he said: he was "smiling at the silliness of the love poets" and completing his portfolio of verse with a familiar elegiac situation. But the poem can and should be read, like 1.11, as a self-interested appeal to a woman. If we note carefully the sequences of time, we see that the speaker, who is at the closed door of Lydia, is claiming that she is not so popular now as she used to be. Then, he goes on for the final three stanzas with an entirely imaginary picture of her future, designed to frighten her into opening the door to him. All his statements, then, are not facts cooly reported, but chosen and biased details intended to persuade Lydia; and thereby the speaker exposes himself to our irony. I think West's young readers should be introduced to a Horace who enjoys love, not proves himself exempt from its silliness. In the Chloe poem, 1.23, where West gets distracted by trivial "problems" and by his excitement over Bentley's emendation, he could at least have shown the speaker's lack of professional distance and his obvious self-interest in his "advice"; in other words, Horace as the not-so-cool lover.

As I read this book, I kept trying to imagine how the literate but Latin-less reader would receive what is supposed to be especially for him/her. I also tried to picture using this book as the text for a Latin class first reading Horace. West's personal interests, as inferrable from what he chooses to comment on, are so far from the needs and interests of young students, that his Horace would, I fear, leave them indifferent. In a commentary of adequate scope, there is room for historicism along with sensitive poetic analysis. But in this book, ad hominem interpretation does Horace disservices and leaves him even more inaccessible than ever. Horace cannot be epitomized as a court poet in his political Odes and a professor of Love in his amatory Odes: that denies him all the ironic subtlety that centuries have detected and savored, the qualities of complexity which we should be teaching in all our best Classical writers.