BMCR 2008.07.19

Horace’s Odes and the Mystery of Do-Re-Mi

, , Horace's odes : and the mystery of do-re-mi. Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 2007. 244 pages : illustrations, music ; 21 cm. ISBN 9780856687907. $37.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

Toward the end of his introduction to Horace in English, D. S. Carne-Ross tried to summarize the long history of Horatian translations in English. He observed that there had been an unexpected degree of poetic success in the last four centuries, but it was a success purchased at the price of making Horace sound far too much like an English poet, and argued for a new kind of poetic speech in translation: “A speech that, we must hope, translators in the days to come will learn to write, in the process giving us, sometimes (the word should be stressed), not English Horace but difficult, foreign, Latin Horace through whose intricate stanzas we make our careful way as we do with the originals.”1 In his new edition of Horace’s odes, Stuart Lyons has given us another English Horace in the long, nearly unbroken line from the sixteenth century. This is a fully revised text of his translations from the 1996 edition and comprises two main parts, Horace’s Odes and the Mystery of Do-Re-Mi and Horace Odes: English Verse Translation, which are then followed by three appendices (discussed below), a Bibliography, a Note on Research and a Glossary of Proper Names.

The first part of the book, Horace’s Odes and the Mystery of Do-Re-Mi, falls into three chapters: (1) a sketch of Horace and his work in context of the Augustan Age, (2) an argument for Horace as a songwriter and (3) an explanation of how Guido d’Arezzo created the do-re-mi solmization. I will take them in that order before turning to an assessment of the translations.

The first chapter, “Horace and the Augustan Age” (1-14), provides a cursory tour of Horace’s biography and a highly compressed summary of the main political events down to Philippi (1-8) before turning to an equally cursory account of Horace’s literary career (8-14). Considering the brevity of the treatment, Lyons does a reasonably good job at placing the period of the odes’ composition, from 29BCE to publication in 23BCE, against the background of Augustus’ consolidation of power and his break with Maecenas. What he does not do is provide a nuanced view of Horace’s ethical and political stance toward the Augustan reformation. We only learn that Horace “responded to the emergence of the Augustan Age and to the changing moral environment” (10) with the Roman Odes. While not rejecting the “moral hedonism” of his earlier odes, Horace “acknowledged the horror and futility of civil war, and supported the reinstatement of religious and moral values,” in which he may have served as advanced propagandist for Augustus’ later social legislation (11). Here Lyons should have forewarned his readers about simplistic biographical readings of poetry. The Roman Odes have long been a quarry from which critics try to extract hard traces of sincerity or insincerity, as if these were binary opposites, but the job of a court-poet is to reflect court agendas and not his own private opinions. We don’t know the degree of Horace’s sincerity and never will. There is on the other hand no reason to think, as Nisbet and Rudd state, “that Horace’s view of the national interest was at variance with that of the Princeps: he could advocate military training without feeling any desire to take part in operations (he had had quite enough of that); he could urge the rebuilding of temples and the revival of traditional rituals as a way of promoting national solidarity, without accepting the concomitant beliefs; he could support the institution of marriage without becoming a husband or father.”2 Sincerity is a poetic illusion created by the poet’s verbal and structural dexterity. We have no instrument to probe behind the illusion to mental states, even in the case of modern poets where we possess letters and contemporary documents.

The second chapter, “Horace the Songwriter” (15-25), attempts to persuade us that Horace was an accomplished musician who meant what he said when he called his odes carmina, ‘songs,’ arguing against the opinion of virtually all twentieth-century commentators. “The evidence is inescapable,” Lyons claims, that Horace wrote songs that he performed with his own musical accompaniment (15). Lyons begins with the “Carmen Saeculare,” which we know was performed by a chorus of 27 boys and 27 girls, all freeborn with living parents, on June 3 as the climax to the Centennial Games of 17 BCE. Is it feasible, Lyons asks us, that the Princeps and the Quindecimviri, the college of priests, “would have asked a writer who was musically illiterate and allowed a choir that could not sing to create and perform such an important political and religious showpiece?” (16) The second half of that rhetorical question is hardly credible: a large chorus of 54 voices would have been carefully selected and trained to sing the hymn. The authorities would never have assigned the job to a choir that couldn’t sing. The first half is pure speculation. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the notion that Horace was a skilled musician or trained the chorus himself. Lyons cites IV.3:23 as proof that Horace was adept at playing a stringed instrument like the tortoiseshell lyre since, with Lady Pieria’s inspiration, he is pointed out by passers by as “Romanae fidicen lyrae.” In calling himself a fidicen, one who plays a stringed instrument, Horace is employing a convention that links his poetic art to the great lyric poets of Greece. This convention invites us to deduce confidently, Lyons asserts, that the Romans, who derived the bulk of their literary culture from Greece, “would have followed suit in the world of music” (17). That is, the use of a conventional topos about music entails musical performance. But a convention that is separated by six centuries from its origin cannot vouch for an actual performance practice. We simply don’t know how Horace performed his odes, and given the general conservatism of Roman literary adoptions from Greece, it’s quite likely that Latin poets repeated early Greek performance practices to authorize their own poetry and set it in a traditional genre. At this point, Lyons suddenly veers off into a short digression on Greek music (17-20) before returning to his main theme, that musical references abound in the odes because they are carmina, songs meant for singing to music. He cites more examples of musical imagery in the odes, particularly I.26, IV.9, IV.6 and II.12, before concluding that “Horace is not just a poet but a songwriter” (22) who “was regularly involved in some form of theatrical performance” (23). Whatever Horace’s own theatrical performance might have involved, there is nothing to suggest his contemporary readers sang such complex, intricate, allusive, ambiguous and rhetorically informed odes. The only way to comprehend their riches is by reading. Lyons shows himself far too confident in drawing “inescapable” conclusions from literary conventions that lack the slightest external corroboration. Lyons then tries to cap his argument by citing the German musical historian Guido Adler, who reported that “he was aware of melodies for six of Horace’s odes” including I.1, I.3, I.33, III.9 and III.13 (24). None of these melodies can be shown to date from ancient times and all are certainly medieval in origin, but that allows Lyons to segue into his discussion of Guido d’Arezzo by reminding us that the musical fragments confirm “a Horatian musical tradition and its survival through the Dark Ages in some of the courts and monasteries of Europe” (25). But this musical tradition has no historical connection with Horace, so it lacks evidentiary value for Horace as fidicen who sang his odes in theatrical performances and is thus quite tangential.

The third chapter, “Guido d’Arezzo” and the Do-re-mi Mystery” (26-40), is by far the most interesting and informative. Although Lyons would seem to imply that the unraveling of this “mystery” supports his contention that Horace was a songwriter, it does no such thing, but is a fascinating bit of detective work. Guido d’Arezzo was a Benedictine monk who invented the musical stave and the “do-re-mi” solmization system. Guido found the original do-re-mi music in a melody set to “The Ode to Phyllis” (IV.11). The music dates to sometime between the tenth and early eleventh centuries, but was not of course composed by Horace or any other ancient musician for that matter. Guido then transferred the melody from the Phyllis ode to a Latin hymn by Paul the Deacon in praise of St. John the Baptist and created the do-re-mi mnemonic. The full details of Lyons’ detective work are quite fascinating but of nugatory value for his claim that Horace was a poet “who set his work to music and entertained the Roman aristocracy with his songs” (24). For those interested in the precise way Guido created his mnemonic, a series of three short appendices inserted rather illogically after the translation provides the music and texts in detail.

Following these three chapters, we have a chronological Life of Horace, a Translator’s Note and an Index of Odes. The Translator’s Note sets out Lyons’s approach to translation. After the obligatory confession that no English verse translation can “fully replicate the polish and compactness of Horace’s Latin” (43), Lyons tells us that he has used traditional English meters and rhyme schemes. For I.4 Lyons says that he employed the metrical scheme of Gray’s Elegy, as if this were unique among the translations, but he uses the same iambic pentameter quatrains with cross rhymes (abab) in many other places. That aside, he turns I.34 and IV.10 into sonnets, casts the more formal hymns I.2, I.12 and the Carmen Saeculare into “an anglicized version of Horace’s Sapphics” and gives III.12, the song to Neobule, an English reflection of the original Ionic a minore meter. Let’s look more closely at the English versification since that is the only unique feature of this translation.

Except for the two sonnets and the faux-imitation Sapphics, the vast majority of the translations run smoothly along in well-varied iambic pentameter that has been molded into a few standard rhyme schemes: couplets,3 quatrains with abab cross rhymes,4 quatrains with enveloping abba rhymes5 and quatrains consisting of two aabb couplets.6 Lyons relieves metrical monotony by scattering iambic trimeter and tetrameter versions in the same rhyme schemes throughout the four books7 and even turning the final ode in Book III, III.30, into a ghost of blank verse with half-rhymes that are almost imperceptible:

I’ve made a monument to outlast bronze,
Rise higher than the pyramid of a king;
no gnawing rain, no north wind’s violence,
Or countless ranks of years and the fleeing
Of time could e’er this monument erase.
I shall not all die; some great part of me
Will escape Death’s goddess. With posthumous praise,
I’ll freshly grow, be renewed constantly,
So long as priest with silent priestess shall
Climb upward to the Roman Capitol.

The final four lines lapse into overt rhymed couplets, perhaps to provide a rounding cadence to the poem, but the contraction “e’er” in line four—like its presence throughout the translations—is a stylistic blemish. Besides the common iambic rhythms, Lyons shows himself a true craftsman in a number of other metrical and stanzaic forms. He deploys the “Venus and Adonis” ababcc rhyme scheme in I.14 and III.27, the former in regular iambic tetrameter and the latter in iambic rhythms that slide between three and four beats with a strong dolnik movement. The meter of I.14 is too light and brisk for the stanza, trivializing Horace’s “Ship of State” imagery, though it ends with a memorable rhyme (“Avoid the currents of the seas/Around the shining Cyclades”) that recalls the thrilling sound of the cuckoo in the second stanza of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” (“Breaking the silence of the seas/Among the farthest Hebrides”). The versification works better in III.27 because the stanza is a natural narrative form and the meter is more highly modulated to avoid facile precision. In I.18 Lyons tried his hand—very unsuccessfully I would say—at a more complex irregularly rhymed stanza that seems to have the nominal form abcdedbb with alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines. Besides these three, Lyons also applies a quatrain of three iambic pentameter lines and one trimeter line rhyming abab to IV.2, the famous description of Pindar’s style and its dangers for imitators. This isn’t a bad choice for Horace’s Sapphic stanza and achieves some good sonic effects in lines 1-16:

Whoever, Iullus, strives to emulate
Pindar, reaches with Daedalus for the sky
On waxen wings and is destined to donate
His name to the glassy sea.

Just as a mountain river downward flows,
When heavy rains have fed it far beyond
Its usual banks, Pindar boils, falls and grows
Massive, with a voice profound.

How he deserves Apollo’s crown of bay!
In audacious dithyrambic refrain
He rolls down new words and is borne away
On rhythms no laws constrain,

Or he sings songs of gods, kings and gods’ blood,
Those at whose hands the Centaurs rightly came
To their last fall, and others who subdued
Fearful Chimaera’s flame.

Scattered throughout the translation are four trochaic tetrameter poems (I.3, I.19, I.30 and III.15) and one anapaestic tetrameter poem (I.26) that will almost certainly not be recognized by the average reader. The somewhat irregular anapaestic song for Lamia is too rolling and expansive as it sloshes through the couplets for Horace’s three concise Alcaic stanzas, but the trochaic meter in couplet form works surprisingly well for I.3 with its pulsing, rhythmical echo of Part III to Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” It is however perfect for I.19 and III.15. Here are the first two stanzas from I.19 followed by lines 1-14 from III.15 for comparison:

Mother of Cupids, Venus wild,
Bacchus, Theban Semele’s child,
Frolicsome Licentiousness,
All put me under duress
To give back my heart and mind
To the love I once resigned.

I’m on fire with passion for
Glycera, whose skin glows so pure
Parian marble can’t impress
More than her own loveliness.
I burn at her wanton grace
And her too seductive face.

You are just a poor man’s wife
Living an immoral life;
Now it’s time for you to shirk
All your infamous hard work;
As you near your dying day,
You must now retire from play
Among the girls; you must desist
From blanketing the stars with mist.
What suits Pholoe well enough
May on you, my dear, look rough;
It’s more proper for your daughter
To lead young men to slaughter,
Like a Bacchante in their home
Roused by a pulsing drum.

Lyons shows his rhythmical skill again in the opening poem of Book IV, which is really an imitation of Milton’s meter in “L’Allegro” with the lines shifting seamlessly between trochaic and iambic tetrameters. Here’s an energetic passage from lines 9-22 with some clever rhymes that ring with Gilbert-and-Sullivan wit:

You had better fly at once
On the wings of purple swans
And hurry to Paullus’ home,
Where your fever can consume
A ready heart; for he’s well-born,
Decent and no taciturn
Advocate of tough defences,
With a hundred competences.
Far and wide the boy will carry
The colors of your military
And, when he has won success,
And laughed at his rival’s largesse,
He’ll see your marble statue gleams
By the Alban lake beneath citrus beams.

The Sapphic imitations I.2, I.12 and the Carmen Saeculare utilize an abba stanza consisting of three strongly-varied iambic pentameter lines that often tend toward stress rhythms and a fourth two-beat Adoneus. The form has a gravity that is suitable for hymns, and Lyons makes good use of his flexible Adoneus to round off each stanza. Lyons’s version of the Carmen Saeculare is one of his better experiments with rhyme, though it is not very redolent of Rome with its mixture of Marvell, Yeats and Auden. Here is just a brief passage from lines 57-68:

Now Faith, Peace, Honour, ancient Modesty
And Manliness neglected dare return,
And blessed Plenty’s overbrimming horn
Gladdens the eyes.

Prophetic Phoebus decked with shining bow,
Beloved and welcomed by the Muses nine,
Raising to health the weary limbs of men,
Skilled Apollo,

May he with grace look on the Palatine,
May he prolong the Commonwealth of Rome
And happy Latium for a further term
And age more fine.

This short tour of Lyons’s metrical inventiveness and wit brings us back to the issue with which I opened this review: his decision to use traditional English versification has dressed Horace in such traditional garb that he vanishes into the mob of pallid imitations that stretch back to the sixteenth century. No matter how hard Lyons tries to make the odes sing, they sound like Thomas Gray on a bad day when he had nothing better to do than write his “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat.” The metrical and stanzaic forms he has chosen to use find their best outlet, with a few exceptions noted above, in the sympotic and erotic odes. In the political, moralizing, mythological and religious odes, these forms sweep nearly all Horace’s allusive complexity beneath a smooth, vapid flow of sound that drowns the irony Lyons P. Wilkinson once memorably said lies in wait for his seriousness.8 The sheer musical grace that Lyons imparts to the odes with traditional versification must, given the exigencies of rhyme, distort most where Horace is at his most ironical, intricate, ambiguous and rhetorical. The formal weight, seriousness and somber magnitude of the Roman Odes vanish into song that sounds like late Romantic pastiche. Ode I.37, the great tribute to Cleopatra, is a typical example of what happens when you compress Horace into iambic tetrameter quatrains. They jingle along without any sense of the growing irony that will transform a drunken, cowardly woman who plotted ruin for the Capitol into a proud, courageous queen who preferred death to capture. Here are the last two stanzas:

She dared with face serene to see
Her fallen palace; then bravely
Fondled her deadly snakes until
Her body drank the poison vile.

More fierce when she resolved to die,
Scorning a jailer’s cruel galley,
No humble woman, she ne’er sank
To grace a proud triumph, stripped of rank.

The syntactical inversions forced by rhyme, the elision, the compression of rhetoric, the loss of imagery due to the short meter and the anticlimax of the final phrase “stripped of rank,” all simply erase Horace. In a few cases, like II.14, Lyons is able to maintain the overall structure and content without too much distortion, but the norm is far more like the famous ode to Licinius, II.10, from which I quote the first two stanzas:

You life would be in better shape
If you stopped pressing out to sea
Or clinging too close to the rocky cape
While eyeing storms too warily.

He, who adopts the golden mean,
Safely avoids a squalid place
With a rotten roof, and isn’t seen
Courting envy in a grand palace.

Horace and rhyme rarely go together. James Michie’s rhymed and metered translations of Horace9 are still to my mind the best in English, but he had the good sense to abandon rhyme where it would wrench Horace too much out of shape. He used variously, for example, an accentual template of the Sapphic stanza for his version of II.15, which is one of the masterpieces of Horatian translation, an iambic stanza of two pentameters, a trimeter and a pentameter for III.4 and an iambic stanza consisting of three pentameters and one trimeter for his outstanding Carmen Saeculare translation. We should hope to see no more rhymed Horace for the next century.

Lyons’s translation is well worth reading for his wit and his often inspired rhymes, but it has no place in a classroom due to Horace’s frequent absence in the Lake District and the lack of detailed annotations. The Glossary of Names is no substitute for good notes in such a difficult and allusive poet. It seems to me that anyone who offers a complete translation of an ancient poet these days ought to provide it with an extensive historical introduction, a full set of annotations and a really comprehensive glossary. The model here is Peter Green in his translation of The Argonautika or The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition.10


1. Horace in English, ed. D. S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes, intro. D. S. Carne-Ross (Penguin, 1996) 58.

2. A Commentary on Horace: Odes Book III, ed. R. G. M. Nisbet and Niall Rudd (Oxford, 2004) 99.

3. I.1, I.7, I.15, III.21 [arranged in three eight-line stanzas] and IV.8.

4. I.6, I.11, I.16, I.17, I.22, I.23, I.29, I.32, I.35, I.36, I.38, II.1, II.5, II.6, II.7, II.8, II.11, II.15, II.20, III.1, III.3, III. 5 III.6, III.10, III.14, III.16, III.19, III.22, III.23, III.28, IV.4, IV.6, IV.13, IV.14 and IV.15.

5. I.10, I.24, II.2, II.9, II.17, II.19, III.11, III.13 and IV.12.

6. I.10, I.27, II.4, III.2, III.8, III.17, III.28, IV.5 and IV.7.

7. I.5, I.8, I.9, I.13, I.21, I.25, I.31, I.33, I.37, II.3, II.10, II.12, II.13, II.14, II.16, II.18, III.4, III.7, III.9, III.10, III.18, III.20 [arranged in two eight-line stanzas], III.24, III.25, III.26, III.29, IV.3, IV.9 and IV.11.

8. L. P. Wilkinson, Horace and His Lyric Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1968) 55.

9. James Michie, The Odes of Horace (Penguin, 1967).

10. Peter Green, The Argonautika By Apollonios Rhodios (University of California Press, 1997); The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition (University of California Press, 2005).