BMCR 2003.09.17

Horace Odes III: Dulce Periculum

, , Odes. III : dulce periculum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xxv, 280 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198721641 $24.95 (pb).

David West’s fine series on the Odes of Horace continues with this third volume. Readers of the earlier installments will be familiar with the general approach: the translation of each poem is followed by several pages of close reading, including careful attention to metrical effects and the sound of the language. The commentary is all the more useful in the absence of a Nisbet & Hubbard (although a Nisbet & Rudd for Book 3 is promised).

New in this volume is an “Other Views” section, found after the discussion of most of the odes. W. includes these selections from other scholars with the warning that they are unavoidably “wrenched from their contexts” (p.v). Maybe so, but I found that W.’s commentary gave enough background to the issues involved to make these extracts rewarding, and it is a mark of generosity to allow them to have the last word. In that position, they often encourage a second look at W.’s own remarks. For instance, at #13, W. renews his contention that Italian rustics would neither have seen cruelty in the sacrifice of the goat nor have felt squeamish at mixing its blood in the fountain of Bandusia.1 This historicist appeal is buttressed by matching other details in the poem to the ancient agricultural cycle. It all sounds very reasonable, but among the “Other Views” we get the observation of Hexter: “For West, “you read [Horace] your way, I’ll read him his” is no joke”.2 It’s not, indeed, as W. made clear in the preface to the second volume, where he stated his distaste for literary theory and announced his program of reconstructing the reaction of contemporary Roman readers.3 But does W. really believe that Italian rustics are the primary audience of the ode? A glance back at the commentary reminds us that W. also sees the poem as being “about poetry”, with Greek (and, via #4, especially Pindaric) touches. “Dogmatic” (his own word, p.v), W. sometimes may be, but it’s always a dogmatism that is soft around the edges. In this respect, W. is much like the Horace that emerges from the commentary.

There we find a Horace whose poetry is not philosophical, despite the poet’s broadly Epicurean outlook which W. finds compatible with the Augustan ideology that permeates the book. Horace’s support for Augustus’ incipient moral legislation is a recurring theme in Book 3 of the Odes and yet so, too, is the randy role of Praceptor Amoris in which the poet casts himself. Maecenas is his patron, but also a friend. The poet is “sure of the divine” (p.82), but perhaps of no fixed religion and capable of producing a parody of a hymn (#21) as well as writing #18, a “religious poem full of fun” (p.163). W. observes of the first three odes that “not only is Horace inconsistent, but he flaunts his inconsistency” (p.34) and later (p.76) quotes Walt Whitman’s defiant words on self-contradiction.

Probably the most arresting tactic in the commentary is the search for humor in a poetry-book which opens with the Roman Odes. W. finds less humor in these, of course, but gamely draws attention to a few items even there. The last ode, #30, likewise accommodates within its proud stance a touch of dark wit with the reference to Libitina, recalling the unsavory streets of the Esquiline where she was worshipped and possibly the corpses in the amphitheater. Sometimes W. prefers to read as comedies whole poems that are often thought to be serious pieces. The invocation of Mercury in #11 is not associated with Augustus but with the trickster god of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes; consequently an ode which might support Augustus’ views on marriage becomes a playful attack on love, the topoi of elegiac poets, and Horace’s own role as seducer. #15 is not a deep reflection on the Ages of Life but a poem that resorts to misogyny for a laugh. Similarly, to look for “profound explorations of narratological uncertainties” (p.231) in #27 is to miss the intended parody.

A virtue that W. has mastered is sign-posting, helpful to scholars and students alike. A section of the Introduction had already announced W.’s interest in Horatian humor, and the evaluation of his own interpretation of #11 as “unusually tentative” is characteristic of the self-reflective remarks sprinkled throughout the commentary. In the same vein, a mania for uncovering the identity of the wine that the poet promises Maecenas in #29 is appropriately placed at the end of the discussion with the heading “Endnote — a Speculation”, even as W. demonstrates the possible relevance of the vintage.

Undoubtedly, a difficulty in Horatian studies is knowing when to stop speculating. Although I appreciated the many links that W. draws between the poems, I wondered about other possible ones. For example, vixi is mentioned prominently in the commentary twice, on p.254 as a dramatic (and Epicurean) word in its appearance at #29 and as a funereal term lending mock solemnity as the opening of #26 (p.214). Are the two poems somehow a pair? W. may be implying as much when he envisions the dramatic time of #26 as post-sympotic. At 28.8, W. notes that the tactics of the consul Bibulus, delaying Caesar’s legislation with a trick of augury, are comically applied to the amphora containing wine pressed in his consulship, but he misses the opportunity to use this to bolster the argument that the augury the poet practices at the start of the previous poem is a comedy, along with that whole poem itself.

The commentary pauses three times to explain that further reflection has led to a re-interpretation of a Latin phrase, and, hence, to an English translation different from the one W. published in Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes (Oxford, 1997).4 In that book, some poems of Book 1 (e.g., #5) were reproduced exactly from 1995’s Odes 1; more extensive changes were made in Odes 2, although perhaps W.’s modest claim of translations “slightly adjusted” (p.v) held true for some (e.g., #15). In this third volume, the modesty is maintained by not mentioning the earlier translation in the front-matter at all. In fact, the translation of every poem in Book 3 has been refashioned, often quite extensively. In a typical instance, only one of the sixteen lines of #18 is identical to the version printed in Complete Odes and Epodes.

Some of the revisions are simple matters of repunctuation, and others concern accepting emendations to Wickham’s OCT ( Aceruntiae for Acherontiae at 4.14, Ferenti for Forenti at 4.16, Gyges for Gyas at 4.69, non for iam at 14.11, risisset for risissent at 16.7, ducit for ducis at 17.5) or rejecting an emendation admitted into the earlier translation ( sidere is restored from Sidone at 1.42). Glosses that W. saw fit to embed in the 1997 translation have been systematically dropped to match the Latin, and so we now get “wherever they may be” instead of “wherever Romans may be” (3.38). In the same vein, and perhaps aided by the luxury of a following commentary, more obscure references remain as they are in Horace’s original: Quirinus is no longer “Romulus Quirinus” (3.14), and “the unsleeping Euhias” is not ousted by “the unsleeping Bacchant” (25.9). Attention to the Latin reaches to the register of individual words. Earlier, W. was quick to find a more context-specific English idiom for the broader Latin. In #18, parvis alumnis was “the young of my flocks” whereas now W. retains the quasi-personification with “my little nurslings”; the flock “plays” ( ludit) on the grassy plain now instead of “grazes.” In the same poem, the use of “daring lambs” ( audaces agnos) for the earlier “fearless lambs” illustrates the general strategy of avoiding litotes where the Latin does not have it.5

Especially welcome are the changes to make the sound of the English better. Despite the fact that the translations do not pretend to follow a meter, the earlier versions had their share of too-jarring prosy constructions. The line “One day when I was a boy on Apulian Vultur” (4.9) has been eliminated by recasting the quatrain: “On Apulian Vultur, outside the threshold / of my nurse, the land of Apulia,/ I was overcome with sleep and play, / and the doves of fable laid on this boy…”. Even relatively unobjectionable phrases compounded with “of” tend to appear in more compact form; e.g., “song of birds” is transformed to “birdsong” (1.20), “darts of swift Cynthia” to “swift Cynthia’s darts” (28.12). A surfeit of the definite article has likewise disappeared — missing, and not missed, from #14 are the “the”s that preceded “laurel,” “wife,” “clear-voiced Neaera,” and “myrrh” (but, alas, “the wandering Spartacus” is untouched). Less often, alliterative fancy replaces a pedestrian turn of phrase, yielding “skillful, too, at spearing stags in full flight” instead of “skillful, too, at spearing stags as they run” (12.10). The first line of #12 reminds us that the translations still do not offer poetry (“It is a poor girl’s fate not to be able to give play to love or wash away”), but their appeal is much greater in this new guise. And I am pleased to see retained at 27.64 the Scots/Northern “darg,” even though W. tends to eschew words outside the register of conventional English prose.

The Introduction is in two parts. The first gives a quick overview of the portrait the poet presents of himself (W. is careful to observe that this is not necessarily the “true Horace”), with excursuses on Praise and Humor in the third book of Odes. A companion is the Augustan Inventory that prefaces the Roman Odes. The second part of the Introduction is a guide to Horace’s meters. Fuller than the treatment found in previous volumes, it restates W.’s belief that reading the poems metrically is not difficult. I suspect, however, that most people included in “anyone who has a notion of how to pronounce Latin and has grasped the basic principles of elision” (p.xviii) do not actually need the help provided; those who do not know the quantity of vowels, how consonants affect the length of a syllable, or how elision works will be lost.

Oxford University Press has produced a book with an attractive layout and meticulous editing.6 This enhances the value of West’s already-praiseworthy accomplishment. I await the fourth volume with as much eagerness as W. must be feeling as he nears the end of his labors on the Odes.


1. West, Reading Horace (Oxford, 1967).

2. The bibliography neglects to list: Ralph Hexter, “O fons Bandusiae: Blood and Water in Horace’s Odes 3.13″ in Michael Whitby et al., ed., Homo Viator: Classical Essays for J. Bramble (Bristol Classical Press, 1987).

3. West, Horace Odes II: Vatis Amici (Oxford, 1998), pp.v-vi. He concedes that the task is impossible but holds that it is a “target worth aiming at.”

4. At 3.24.5-6, 3.25.7, and 3.30.2

5. A partial exception is merum, rendered simply as “wine” at 13.2 and 29.2, but as “unmixed wine” at 17.14 and “unwatered wine” at 21.12.

6. All the more galling to the editors, I’m sure, is that the one typographical error I found was on the very first page of the preface, the dittography “he was was introduced”.