BMCR 2006.04.35

Horace: The Odes. New verse translation with facing Latin text and notes

, , The odes : Latin text. London: Duckworth, 2005. xii, 287 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715634313 £16.99.

It is good to see a new translation of Horace’s Odes presented in an attractive format and with a parallel text that makes their status as tightly-patterned poetry clear to even the most casual observer. Colin Sydenham’s (hereafter S.) translation is evidently the long-worked product of many years of affection for, and contemplation of, the Horatian corpus. The result is a consistent and distinctive tone of translation and commentary alike, and a book which is often appealing even where it is not wholly successful.

S. is frank about his own non-scholarly status, and, since the average reader of this review is likely to be a professional classicist, it is only fair to point out that S. himself notes that this book is not intended for them. He has in mind, instead, the interested non-specialist who retains, perhaps, enough Latin from school or university to want to follow a parallel text. I have tried to keep his intended audience in mind in preparing this review, and I have also considered its possible usefulness for the school or university student.

As well as the body of text and translation itself, the book is composed of a short Foreword (contributed by the journalist and friend of the author, Philip Howard), Acknowledgments, a Translator’s Preface and a ten-page Introduction. The four books of the Odes themselves follow, with the Carmen Saeculare included in its chronological position between books 3 and 4. Each book is also introduced by a paragraph or two of prefatory material. End-notes dealing with each poem in turn occupy a further 45 pages; they are followed by a Glossary of Names (names included in this list are helpfully printed in bold type when they occur in the notes). The volume is completed by five brief appendices, which are, in the order they appear: a Chronology, a short appendix on metre, a descriptive list of ten key ‘Augustan Policies’, a page of ‘Further Reading’, and finally an ‘Index of Opening Words’. The text printed is, with few exceptions, that of Wickham’s OCT.

I shall begin by discussing the accompanying prose material — introduction, notes and appendices — before considering the English translation. The overall Introduction and the introductory paragraphs to each book are clear and accessible. I particularly liked S.’s suggestions for reading order aimed at the newcomer to Horace. He is frank about what he considers ‘dry or difficult’ (p. 11), lacking the scholar’s pride in finding — or at least affecting to find — the ‘difficult’ the most stimulating, and he advises the novice accordingly, suggesting, for instance, that one might begin reading in Book 1 with the fifth poem (the much-translated Pyrrha ode; he gives Milton’s famous translation in the end-notes and also mentions it in his discussion of translation in the introduction, p. 5). Each of these mini-introductions candidly lists the odes S. considers most suitable for ‘deferment’ to a second reading.

For S.’s intended reader — educated and interested but not a professional classicist, and perhaps reading Horace for the first time, or the first time at length — the end-notes are likely to be of particular significance. These are clear and of unintimidating length; they print in bold terms and names which are included in the various appendices, and sketch in key historical and cultural information. An attractive feature is S.’s tendency to point out connections between poems, either in sequence or throughout the collections: the ‘setting’ of 2.11 is connected to that of 2.3 (p. 248); the ‘charming miniature’ of 1.38 is explicitly contrasted to the ‘heavy political aftertaste’ of the close of 1.37 (p. 244); his pithy comment on 4.3 relates it effectively to 1.1 and 3.30 alike (p. 268). There is evidence of a healthy scepticism towards ‘commentators’ (e.g. on the literary agenda of 1.38, p. 244; and on the identity of ‘Virgil’ in 4.12, p. 272). S.’s real pleasure and enjoyment in Horace’s poetic world is very apparent, and his brisk asides are often amusing — Iccius of 1.29 ‘likes to shoot a line and cut a dash’ (p. 241). There is something of the barrister’s performative panache in his delivery of judgments.

There is in general a tendency, despite some gestures towards scepticism in the introduction (‘ Autobiography?‘, p. 3), to read the poems and their contexts solidly in terms of the historical Horace’s own life and experiences. The historical information given is however, perhaps inevitably, rather rudimentary and the very brief list of suggested further reading gives only Syme’s The Roman Revolution of 1939, although the suggested commentaries of more recent date do of course include discussion of historical and cultural context. Appendix 3, the annotated list of ‘Augustan Policies’, is very basic, although S. is careful to cue us to the passage in West ( Horace Odes III: Dulce Periculum, (Oxford, 2002), pp. 3-11) on which it is based. The omission I felt most strongly was in the appendix on metre (pp. 280-1): S.’s table of the relationship between Horace’s metres and the number of syllables in the corresponding lines of his English verse describes the Latin metres also only in terms of syllables (e.g. Alcaic is described as ’11, 11, 9, 10′). Although he makes it clear elsewhere that Roman metre was quantitative, there is no attempt to explain or describe the rules for, and patterning of, long and short syllables in any greater depth. The complete novice or interested reader with a little prep-school Latin, to whom S. is otherwise admirably careful to speak, must remain at a loss if he or she tries to read the Latin aloud — surely an essential element of any engagement with this poetry, if only to have some sense of the sound of the verse.

As for the translation itself, it is in general fairly but not obsessively literal. (S.’s practice regarding proper names and abstruse mythical material is set out in the introduction (p. 8) and strikes me as both reasonable and, in practice, successful.) The correspondence to the Latin text is marked out primarily by visual and metrical means: S. has compressed his translation into four-line stanzas, the lengths of whose lines echo (although they do not exactly replicate) the line-lengths of the Latin. (The patterns for each Horatian metre are detailed in the metrical appendix, pp. 280-281). The lines are also indented so as to correspond to the Latin text on the left-hand side.

Although the line lengths vary to reflect the variety of metres employed by Horace, S. is consistent in his use of rhyme: with the sole exception of 3.30, the final syllables of the second and fourth lines of each stanza are made to rhyme in his translation. While the use of rhyme itself seems to me, as S. remarks, ‘an admirable tool for binding verse together’ in English (p. 4), and a justified choice in rendering verse as tightly metrically disciplined as the Odes, this unvarying placement of the rhyme words sometimes struck me as wearying, and dulling to the aural variety of the Latin: some very different poems run the risk of sounding too much the same.

Rhyme in English is also a difficult tool: it takes a fine poet to carve real tonal variety out of such a consistent rhyme-scheme. Mediocre rhyme has a tendency to counteract seriousness, drama, or even linguistic ‘edge’ — to flatten the tone in the direction of a surface lightness. I quite often felt that S.’s versions suffered from this tendency: that he is not, in short, quite sure-footed enough a poet to bring it off. James Michie’s verse translation of the Odes, printed in parallel text by Penguin Classics in 1967, also made use of rhyme, and is in many ways a natural comparison. Although rather uneven, Michie did I think sometimes succeed in this aspect in which Sydenham does not quite convince. A very few examples must suffice: ‘ecstasy’ (rhyming with ‘rank me’) seems to me a weak choice in an important place — the very last word of the first poem. Similarly, ‘distilled’ for Latin ‘lapsa’ at line 12 of 2.19 seems forced by the rhyme, and the phrase ‘broadcast strewing’ at line 14 of the same poem (both p. 107) struck me as very strange. S.’s own note makes it clear that he is sensitive to the ‘extreme’ shifts of tone of this difficult poem (p. 252), but the choice of rhyme words, here and throughout, are too often unable to bear the weight of their emphatic role and position.

But this slight ‘flattening’ of tone is a feature of S.’s work that I felt corresponded to something larger in his translation than the self-imposed discipline of finding rhymes. The delicacy and tonal variety of Horatian lyric is too often attenuated in S.’s English by its translation into a more constricted range of diction. S. seems least comfortable with the most ‘high-flown’ Horatian moments : some of them at least should come across as ‘straight’, if only to emphasise the force of their subsequent undermining. Lines 25-28 of 4.9, for instance, seem underserved by the edge of flippancy in S.’s version: ‘Before the dawn of Agamemnon’s day / a host of brave men lived, but who can show it? / Unmourned, unnamed, engulfed in endless / night they rot, because they lack a poet.’ (p. 213; once more, the rhyme seems part of the problem here, and S., like many of us, seems generally less sure-footed in his dealings with Odes 4).

This is not to say that these translations are not often pleasing and successful. S. seems in general more comfortable with the most purely ‘lyric’ of the odes, the songs of love and wine and age, and in these pieces or passages his tone and vocabulary alike are often well-chosen. I liked for instance ‘which pillage the life-giving day’ for ‘almum / quae rapit [. . .] diem’ (4.7, lines 7-8, pp. 208-9). Several such poems — including 1.5, 3.7 and 3.9 — seem to me among his most successful complete pieces. When his rhymes are tonally and syntactically effective, especially in the final lines of an ode, they capture something of the force of Horatian cadence — I found his rendering of the close of 2.16, for instance, convincing: ‘while my little lot / is narrow land, from Greece a slender vein / of inspiration, and, for those who live / by spite, disdain’ (2.16, lines 36-40, pp. 102-3). Similarly, S.’s version of the final stanza of 4.2, describing the sacrificial calf, impressively manages to capture something of the tightly controlled and untranslatable tenderness of Horace’s description — the phrase ‘a crescent moon of three days, barely grown’ for ‘tertium lunae referentis ortum’ (4.2, line 58, p. 196-7) I thought particularly well-judged.

S.’s own introduction makes it clear that he has in mind as readers ‘a more numerous sub-class [than professional Latinists]: the comparatively expert, the dwindling, but still enthusiastic, band of those with a smattering of schoolroom or self-taught Latin, who wish to rediscover Horace, or meet him for the first time’ (p. 5). He does not, however, mention its possible teaching role. Students of course are always eager for parallel texts — and perhaps especially parallel texts which might be less familiar to their teacher than the Loeb edition! I myself teach a course, for students of English studying Latin or Greek literature, which is partly concerned precisely with the art and implications of the ‘literary’ translation. With increasing numbers of students approaching Horace’s testing Latin with little linguistic knowledge of their own, stimulating translations which, though more than mere cribs, remain sensitive to the Latin text, are of great importance. I often found S.’s versions pleasing, and even where I did not, they would be a useful starting point for class or small-group discussion of the complexities and tonal subtleties of the Latin text.

Considering the possible reaction of professional Latinists to his work, S. comments that ‘the best I can hope is that they will put it down without disgust’ (p. 5). In this he has certainly exceeded his own modest expectation : all of us, however ‘professional’ our interest, can learn from the honest and unaffected pleasure with which S. interprets and engages with these very great poems.

I found only a few typographical errors, and the quality of the book as a whole is good, attractively presented and laid out.