BMCR 2003.03.05

Horace, The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets

, , , Horace, the Odes. Facing pages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 312 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 069104919X. $24.95.

These are good times for fans of verse translations of Horace’s Odes. This version of the 103 odes of Books 1-4, plus the Carmen Saeculare, follows a recent version of the Odes and Epodes by David West (Oxford World’s Classics, 1997), while classic and historic translations are well represented in two recent paperback anthologies — Horace: The Odes in English Verse (edited by Antony Lentin, Wordsworth 1997), and Horace in English (edited by D.S.Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes, Penguin 1996), both volumes which reprint a wide range of translators. This new collection follows the successful framework of Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun’s After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (Faber, 1994) in collecting versions of a single work of a single Latin poet by a wide range (thirty-five all told) of contemporary poets, many of whom are well known and almost all of whom are currently working in North America. The Horatian collection is perhaps more satisfying in that it is a complete version, and in that the presentation of the Latin text on the opposite page ensures that these pieces are firmly conceived as translations rather than pieces loosely related to the classical author, making reading against the originals particularly relevant and interesting.

The result of using thirty-five translators is naturally a wide range of approaches to translating these tightly-written and carefully constructed poems. This variety is particularly evident in choices of metre, ranging from forms which correspond very closely to particular kinds of the common Horatian quatrain stanzas to much freer treatments. The compact miniaturism of form in the Odes in my view responds best to rhyme, which provides an overall structural framework analogous to the very strict metrical schemata of the originals (famously tightened by Horace from the slacker rules of archaic Greek lyric), and the usual quatrain stanzas are often best rendered by a similar form in English. The Sapphic stanza with three identical lines and the final, shorter adonean can be closely replicated with success in English as (e.g.) Marie Ponsot’s version of the first stanza of 2.1 shows: ‘You, Crispus Sallust, know how dull silver is, / kept idle in the greedy earth. And you know / how bravely it gleams when modestly deployed, / usable, useful’. The quatrain stanza can be stretched widely in line-length, as in Paul Muldoon’s version of 1.15 shows with an anaphoric amplitude very different from the original: ‘While the young herdsman, Paris, a herdsman as faithless as he was fair, / was hauling Helen back on his boat / of Trojan pine, the sea-god Nereus would stop the sea-airs / that can’t abide being stopped and float / (this vision of the future)’. Shorter lines can be effective too, as in Eavan Boland’s opening of 3.22 ‘Maiden-goddess / guardian of these / hills and groves, / when the cries – / repeated thrice – / of girl-mothers, / in the throes / of birth and labor, / reach your ears, / you hear their prayers, / you save their lives’ (expanding the original, as she does elsewhere – see below).

The Odes are well known for their variety of language and occasional prosaisms, while maintaining an overall linguistic decorum suited to the moderate dignity of lyric in the ancient generic hierarchy. Some translators in this collection might be thought to go too far on the colloquial side in the erotic odes, though it is true that these poems are naturally lighter in tone (and I like Marie Ponsot’s ‘gorgeous Hebrus’ of a hunk in 3.12). In the more dignified 1.10 Mark Strand translates the terse ‘viduus pharetra / risit Apollo’ by ‘then had to laugh / when it dawned on him / you had swiped his quiver too’, neat and amusing but perhaps below the hymnic register of the original, while Robert Creeley’s reference to ‘young Chloe’s disdaining bum’ at the end of 3.26 supplies a body part not present in the Latin, and Charles Simic’s ‘bitches’ of the Danaids in 3.11 conveys the judgement rather than the expression of the passage.

Charles Tomlinson, who translates some of the more elevated odes, can combine flexibility with dignity: in 3.25 the opening stanza well catches the excited but high tone – ‘Bacchus, where are you carrying me to? So spirited, so full of you? – /Driven to what woods, recesses, / My new-born vision scarcely guesses’, while the portentous closure of 1.12 is well turned with the kind of isolated archaism used by Horace for nobility (though not in fact in this poem): ‘O may divinity keep whole his thoughts / Against the murrain that abstraction yields / And Jove’s own lightnings strike polluted fields’. Still amongst the more serious odes, the moving end of 3.5 is well conveyed by Rachel Hadas in simple but telling tone, with an excellent use of pararhyme: ‘What tortures were awaiting him he knew / perfectly well; but hurried out as though, / Finally free of tedious hours in court, / Demanding clients, he were heading out / To some secluded valley, cool and green, / Some innocent and peaceful little town’.

The lighter odes in sharper and more humorous idiom come out particularly well in this volume. Especially attractive to this reviewer are the witty versions of Heather McHugh, for example the last stanza of 1.23 ‘But I’m no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite, / to track a baby down and eat her up. I’m only / human: I’m a man. The time is right, in you, for some / bold move. Now, let your mother go. Now, let me come’, or the parody of erotic yearning in 1.25 ‘Almost never now the strains / of that old hue and cry, / the compliment of their complaint / in suitor singy-songing: / O Lydia, my Lydia, / you have to tell me why / you sleep so deep while I must die / the whole night long, of longing’, or 1.33 ‘Lycoris, too, her brow refined, / for lowly Cyrus burned: / but Cyrus finds himself inclined / to Pholoe in turn, / who craves his low-life just as much / as deer desire a wolfish touch.’

Of course, a major issue in poetic versions is how close to stay to the original. Expansion presents few problems and some opportunities: Eavan Boland (one of the most interesting translators here) renders 2.11.11-12 ‘quid aeternis minorem / consiliis animum fatigas?’ by ‘Why do you weary yourself? Why do you worry the infinite question with your finite spirit?’, where the more ample translation brings out nicely the futility of enquiry and the same poet creates a beautiful amplification of the opening stanza of 3.13: ‘Bold as crystal, bright as glass / Your waters leap while we appear / Carrying to your woodland shrine, / Gifts below your worthiness, / Grape and flower, Bandusia, / yellow hawksbeard, ready wine’. Stephen Yenser (another impressive contributor) colours the first stanza of 2.17 with the image of the falling tree which occurs later in the poem, a creative insight which brings out the analogy between two falls: ‘Why torture me to death with your complaints? / Neither the gods nor I would have me fall / Before you fall yourself, Maecenas, / Roof-tree of my life’; his Audenesquely witty and somewhat expanded opening of 3.16 is also excellent – ‘Acrisius, Danae’s fearful father – / Whose banal tower of bronze and oaken portal / And trained attack dogs had been meant to keep / His virgin from a midnight lover’. Rosanna Warren in 3.20 renders one Latin word ‘insignem’ with ‘stark in his nimbus of beauty’, perhaps over-translated but certainly a striking poetic phrase.

Compression is sometimes more debatable: in 2.12, Carolyn Kizer renders three Horatian stanzas by two of hers through leaving out the proper names and mythological references, which produces neat verse (‘Maecenas, think on this awhile: / Strong themes are suited to your style, / Like dragging tyrants by their necks, / While my sweet Muse would sing of sex’) but loses much cultural specificity (and also the important idea that Maecenas’ putative work is in prose history and not poetry). The proper names in Horace’s Odes are part of their musical impact, and this can certainly be reproduced in translation, as shown by the editor’s own version of 3.4.61-4 ‘Who bathes his unbound hair in the waters of Castalia, / Who hunts the thickets of Lycia and rules / His native woodland, of Delos and Patara / Lord, Apollo himself’. Even problematically obscure lists of names are turned to witty account by Tomlinson in 1.12, rendering six lines of minor Republican heroes with ‘Or all that string of heroes still left listening / To catch the echoes of their own names’. Other omissions may reflect cultural transformations: Ellen Bryant Voigt’s elegant rendition of 1.17 to Faunus leaves out the poet-speaker’s famous claim to divine protection (13-14 ‘di me tuentur, dis pietas mea / et Musa cordi est’), perhaps following the editor’s statement in his introduction downplaying (too much?) the religious element in the Odes (p.13 ‘when he invokes the empty formulas of divinity he is speaking of forces within us’).

Again on names, some of the translators take liberties with the originals: in 1.22 Donald Hall’s ‘Fusco’ for ‘Fuscus’ seems a needless modernism, while in 3.14 Mark Doty’s ‘Planco’ may suggest that the ablative original has been taken as a nominative. Marie Ponsot’s ‘Varsus’ for ‘Varus’ in 1.18 is surely a misprint, like ‘decorus’ for ‘decorous’ in the same poem, and it would seem petty to worry about ‘Lycia’ for ‘Lyce’ in 4.13 or ‘Cantabriani’ for ‘Cantabri’ in 3.8 (both no doubt for rhythm’s sake). In 2.20 Germany is gratuituously introduced (the original refers to the Rhone), in 3.6 Herod (the original refers to Antiochus).

But any minor slips or misinterpretations, and any prosy or merely workmanlike translations (of which there are a number), should not be thought to outweigh the important and successful project of this volume in presenting Horace through the prism of some of the best of contemporary verse. The wide variety of translating styles suits the equally wide variety of tone in the Odes, from sexual innuendo to vatic solemnity. Above all, the many brilliant and intriguing versions are a splendid demonstration of the survival, reception and influence of Horatian lyric at the beginning of the twenty-first century.