Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.07

Sidney Alexander (trans.), The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999.  Pp. xxvii, 353.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Daniel H. Garrison, Northwestern University (
Word count: 1649 words

Whoever strives to translate Horace into another tongue is playing with wax and will give his name to a glassy sea. Sidney Alexander, twice honored for his translations (of Guicciardini's History of Italy in 1970 and Michelangelo's poems in 1991), recognizes in the Introduction to his translation of the Odes and Satires of Horace that the Odes "are an especially impossible instance within the general realm of impossibility."

The tightly interlocked effects of Horace's lyric do not admit of translation, and the best this poet (author of three volumes of poetry in the 1940s) can hope to do is render the words as honestly as possible while adding bits of rhythm and other poetic touches as seems fitting. The reader of Horace who knows his lyrics well must respect the limits of what is possible and try not to patronize a translation or scarify it for missing a favorite effect that remains locked in the original language.

How well does Alexander (hereafter A.) understand his poet? In the first place, he sees "the anxiety underlying Horace's seeming serenity" and is alert to the various masks that Horace puts on when he writes. Other features perceived by A. may be less easy to recognize or even to understand, as little effort is made to explain them. "Horace is the quintessential Italian." This, the topic sentence of the present translation, tells us more about the translator, who has lived most of his adult life in Italy, than it does about a poet who grew up over two millennia ago when Italy had conquered the Mediterranean and was consolidating its own self-rule. The study of antiquity is not that easy. To know modern Italians is not necessarily to know ancient Romans, whatever the similarities may be. "Horace is always of the earth," A. continues in his oracular way. Perhaps he meant only to say only that Horace keeps his commonsensical feet on the ground, except "in some few drunken lyrics" which he does not specify. Does that include the silly ode where the poet turns into a swan? Does it include the considerable patriotic twaddle that lards the Odes, some of which must have embarrassed even his imperial patrons and the morality police of Augustus' regime? A. writes more as an enthusiast than a student of the poet. This objection aside, most readers will find his sentimentality about the "quintessential Italian" easier to accept than the leather-upholstered stuffing we got in Peter Levi's recent Horace: A Life (see Lee Pearcy's review in BMCR 98.10.4).

A.'s understanding of Horace's meters is less easy to accept. No translator can be blamed for begging off the task of rendering Latin lyrics in their original meter. But the swagger of A.'s "I have put a stethoscope to the heartbeat of the poetry" is undercut by his claim that whereas poetry is musical, Horace's meters are only visual (his italics): "Syllable-counting is primarily visual," A. tells us. "All of this I have dispensed with and instead listened to Horace's pulsations." He has done so, he says, according to the view of H. J. Rose that accent is more prominent than quantity in Latin verse. A's own pulsations are mostly prosy: he does not allow any rhythmic pattern to persist long enough to be felt as a meter. Some of his poetic successes, though, come in opening lines whose rhythm is palpable:

Maecenas descended of ancestral kings (Odes 1.1.1)
Often Faunus swiftly flies (my favorite, Odes 1.17.1)
So long as I was loved by you (Odes 3.9.1)
I have erected a monument more durable than bronze (Odes 3.30.1)

Horace's complex language is enough to try the wits of any professional Latinist. It should come as no surprise that it also trips up a gifted amateur. In spot checking A.'s English versions, I have found places where misunderstood Latin appears to lie behind his choice of words. In Odes 1.1.31, Nympharumque leves cum Satyris chori cannot be "agile nymphs ... with lively Satyrs" but agile bands of nymphs with Satyrs. Horace's mythological vignette is deliberately and correctly asymmetrical: as Greek vase paintings show, the loutish Satyrs are rarely a match for the nymphs they stalk. In Odes 3.1.11, the nobleman who comes down to the Campus Martius does so as a candidate for office (petitor, OLD 3), not "to compete in games." A line later, moribus and fama are not "philosophy and fame" but character (OLD 5) and reputation (OLD 5). Horace is still talking at that point about qualifications for public office. In Odes 3.9.12, animae does not mean "her soul" but my sweetheart (OLD 7b), as we see from the substitution of puero, my boyfriend, in 3.9.16.

A's poetic idiom is generally clear and modern, though he occasionally slips into archaizing inversions ("Better will you live, Licinius" and "bold and valiant show yourself" to preserve Horace's word order in Odes 2.10) and he is excessively given to interjections of "O" and "Oh" (more than 150 times in the translation vs. just 36 in Horace's Odes). The English is usually sober and straightforward, though A. cannot always resist inventing some extra pizzaz, such as a hallowed stream "murmurous with nymphs" (a curiously Romantic note added to Odes 1.1.22), some bodice-ripping ("tear open your unoffending robe" for scindat immeritam vestem at the end of the Tyndaris ode, 1.17.27 f.), and occasional purple patches ("entrapped in life's bitter maze" for rebus in arduis at 2.3.1).

A. provides a few brief notes to the Odes and the Satires in the back of the book and a short bibliography of books in Italian and English. The notes are chiefly on people mentioned by Horace, myths, and historical references. There are a few literary notes. More would have been welcome, such as why the mention of Mercury at the end of the Glycera Ode (1.30.8) gives this pretty epigram an ironic twist. Literary analysis seems not to be A's strong suit, and he wisely keeps it to a minimum.

Until the twentieth century, Horace was most quoted and admired for his Satires or Sermones, "conversations" (A. says that Satires is a subsequently applied title, but Horace applies the term to his own work in Sat. 2.1.1 and 2.6.17). As they are the work of Horace's earlier career, they should more properly have been placed before the Odes, which are given pride of place in A's book. A's poetic diction is better suited to these humorous sketches, written in a hexameter style which Horace himself assures us is not poetic. A. uses a short line to render Horace's hexameters, yielding about two lines of English verse for each one of Latin. This keeps the reader moving quickly and easily, as Horace would have wished. Here, for example, is the opening of Satires 2.6, Hoc erat in votis:

This is what I prayed for: a plot of land
not very large where there could be a garden,
and a perennial spring near my house,
and besides these, a little patch of wood.
The gods have granted my wish -- and more.
A. tracks the Latin closely, adding little that can be avoided, respecting the economy that distinguishes Horace's literary esthetic. This can be seen by comparing Palmer Bovie's quite respectable 1959 translation. Bovie's "small piece of land" for modus agri non ita magnus has economy without A.'s precision. His "fresh-flowing spring" for iugis aquae fons misses the point caught in A.'s "perennial spring." Bovie's "above and behind, a small forest stand" for paulum silvae super his is topographical where A. is (rightly, I believe) more adverbial, taking it that the silva is an extra benefit. In perspective, we can see that these famous lines are a metaphor for the lyric poetry that Horace at that time aspired to write (in the 30s, just prior to his lyrical anni mirabiles preceding the publication of Odes I-III in 23 B.C.E.). Great poetry is compounded of small details; the better these are preserved by the translator, the more is learned by the reader. On the whole, A. captures detail better in the Satires than he did in the Odes.

Horace's Satires have found a congenial translator in A. His work on Horace in a way recapitulates his work on Michelangelo, whose life he reconstructed in three novels (The Hand of Michelangelo, 1977, Nicodemus, 1984, Michelangelo the Florentine, 1985) before translating his poetry (The Complete Poetry of Michelangelo, 1991). With Horace's Satires, A. is working with a complicated early form of autobiography mingled with ethical conversation, literary talk, and anecdote. Like the Odes, they are likely to need a little more introduction and explanation than A. provides. The Satires are full of names; though here as before A. provides useful identifications of historical characters, he is less helpful with the fictitious and semi-historical characters who people the Satires, such as Pantolabus and Nomentanus, Canidia, Bolanus, Persius, Scaeva, and numerous others, or why Horace chooses characters for his satires who belong to an earlier generation or to the imagination, representing types rather than living people. Augustan (not "Augustinian," as A. terms it) literature belongs to a world sufficiently remote from our own that it requires some mediation from the translator to make our own. What feature of a Priapus, for example, makes it funny? A. has made good use of the commentaries available to him, but he does not provide the general overview of Horatian satire given, for example, in Palmer Bovie's 1959 verse translation.

A.'s translations of Horace cap a distinguished and versatile life of writing. His command of his idiom is calm and firm, and, particularly with the Satires, he has given us a dependable companion to the Latin text that allows the reader a quick overview of what Horace wrote. A modern English commentary on the Satires, of the kind provided by the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, is badly needed to bring the study of these pieces up to date.

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