BMCR 2021.10.07

Horace: Epodes, Odes, and Carmen saeculare

, Horace: Epodes, Odes, and Carmen saeculare. Oklahoma series in classical culture, 60. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 581. ISBN 9780806164878 $39.45.

‘Translation of poetry is always impossible but translation of Horace’s Odes is inconceivable’. So wrote David West in the preface to his own 1997 translation[1] of Horace’s Odes and Epodes. Fortunately for us even West himself never really believed this and this latest version of Horace’s Odes and Epodes shows that (while nothing matches the original Latin) we can do a good job given the knowledge and the linguistic talent. We readers may know Horace’s text from years of familiarity but a new version such as this one will question some of our old habitual readings and—like a new recording of a piece of music which we know well—make us go back to the score and hear it as if for the first time. This handsome and well-edited book shows on every page a deep love of the poetry, sharp-eyed devotion to detail and a strong urge to communicate this with her readers.

A brisk and helpful introduction takes us through the life of Horace as we know it, while stressing that the ‘facts’ are hard to come by and less important than the poetic construct: ‘the “I” whose beliefs and thoughts these poems purport to voice is best thought of as a meticulously crafted literary persona’ (p.4). Take for instance the vexed question of Maecenas, Actium and Epode 1: our evidence cannot prove whether Maecenas was in Rome or at Actium at the time (see Watson’s Commentary[2] pp.56-7) and we have to bear in mind that there are many places where poetry plays with poetic motifs as if they were fact, such as the poet losing his shield at Philippi in Odes 2.7 or the poet’s miraculous avian saviours at Odes 3.4.9-20. In the case of Epode 1 McCarter wisely tells us that we ought rather to ‘focus on the ways in which the poem introduced the poetic themes of war and male friendship… rather than search for historical veracity.’ (p.5)

The historical background matters of course, and McCarter spends seven pages narrating the key historical events surrounding Augustus and the early principate, although it is perhaps overstated to say (as she does p.6) that ‘it is impossible to imagine any of these works being written in a different time and place than the Rome that witnessed the rise of Augustus, the first emperor’—given the universality of the themes which these timeless poems deal with.

McCarter then introduces the Epode-book as a collection. She helpfully summarises the ways in which this book is (and is not) a continuation of the tradition of Archilochean iambi. The arrant/apparent misogyny of some of these poems calls for comment and McCarter suggests that the ‘crisis of masculinity’ visible in many of the poems was a symbol of political enervation. The analysis of Horace’s use of metre is less satisfactory: she assumes knowledge of the key metrical symbols (p.17) as well as terms such as dactyl, spondee and adonaic—and some students will find her whistlestop tour of the issues (pp. 17, 20-21) baffling rather than illuminating. The notes on each poem name the metre used but nowhere is the reader told where to find out what exactly is (e.g.) a ‘Third Asclepiadean’. She rightly points out that the Odes were metrical tours de forceand it is a pity that more help were not given to explore this aspect of the poems. The Odes receive twelve pages of introduction, looking at the publication, the debt of the poet to his Greek predecessors and above all the range of their contents. Helpful attention is paid to the ethical contents in their poetic setting, without going into the detail of the poet’s use of the details of the Epicurean, Stoic and other philosophical schools: she shows us Horace’s use of private values and public moral concerns, existential issues of life and death and the use of the barbarian to focus Roman eyes away from earlier internecine conflict towards a common enemy. She neatly summarises some of the issues linking ethics and aesthetics in the theme of the modest lifestyle and the modest scale of lyric poetry.

McCarter tells us that the translation is ‘not meant to be read in place of the Latin original but alongside it… and seeks to keep rhetorical effects, such as enjambment, anaphora and repetition, intact where feasible.’ The rendering is ‘literal but also poetic and metrical’, using a form of iambic pentameter (while keeping the adonaic as last line of Sapphic stanzas).  The translation is superb. It manages to translate every word of the Latin without extending the length of the poems and some of her renderings are simply brilliant. To take a few examples at random, ‘slithering’ (at Epodes 1.20 for allapsus) is so much better than (e.g.) ‘gliding’ as it keeps the sibilance of the original. She is not afraid to sound silly where the occasion demands, such as her version of cattle as ‘mooers’ (in Epode 2.11 mugientium) or telling Venus to ‘thwack’ (tange) Chloe at Odes 3.26.12. McCarter gets the sound just right on innumerable occasions (e.g. Odes 2.2.1 where the assonant argento color is neatly recreated in her ‘sheen for silver’ or her version of the alliterative dulce et decorum (Odes3.2.13) as ‘sweet and seemly’) and her versions manage to keep closer to the original than we have a right to expect with no loss of sense (for instance her rendering of the opening lines of Odes 2.1 where she (like Horace) keeps the main verb back for seven lines). She keeps enjambement where she can (e.g. Odes 1.11.1-2) and breaks up the original into punchy phrases where it helps (as in her version of the famous final line of that poem). Odes 2.5.15-16 (iam proterua/ fronte petet Lalage maritum) is well rendered ‘with a brazen/ brow will Lalage dash against a mate’ where the use of alliteration and monosyllables catches the ‘playful head-butt’ (as Harrison[3] describes it ad loc.).  At Odes 3.6.43 her use of ‘heralding’ for agens is exactly right, and in that same poem (3.6.24) the much-discussed de tenero ungui is sensitively translated ‘all the way to her tender fingernail’ (and glossed ‘with every fiber of her being’). The pearl-wearing woman of Epode 8.14 ‘sashays along’ (ambulet) while ‘not note’ in Epode 3.6 recreates the assonance of viperinus his.  On rare occasions she seems to me to miss the target—as for instance at Epodes 2.27 where ‘fountains’ hits the wrong note for fontes—but no two people will ever agree on every word of Horace and her translation overall is a masterpiece of style and accuracy.

The opening of Odes 1.9.1-4 is worth quoting in full:

uides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte nec iam sustineant onus
siluae laborantes, geluque
flumina constiterint acuto?

Do you see how beneath deep snow stands white
Soracte, how the straining woods can prop
their burden up no more and how the piercing
ice has now made the rivers’ flows stand still?

Every word of the Latin text is translated and the version cleverly seeks to match the effects of the original: the enjambed magnificence of Soracte is recreated, the balancing act of the woods in nec iam… laborantes) is well conveyed in the extended phrasing of the translation while the static mountain is seen with a series of monosyllables (‘deep snow stands’). ‘piercing’ is perfect for acuto and the final run of monosyllables brings the river-flow to a halt.

Each poem has explanatory notes at the foot of the page covering matters of fact and interpretation (but not aspects of grammar or syntax—so for instance at Epodes 3.3 the optative form edit is not explained). Key literary and rhetorical terms are highlighted and explained in a useful glossary at the back of the book and each poem is given a short summary analysis which sometimes (as in the case of Epode 9) cuts through a forest of secondary literature to get the reader started on the poem with some idea of what to look for. Corners are cut of course—but McCarter is always ready to refer to the major commentators and other scholars for further discussion of the disputed areas. On a few occasions McCarter makes use of typography to bring out devices such as chiasmus (Epodes 2.43), hyperbaton (Epodes 8.5-6, 10.3-4, Odes 1.1.14, 1.1.28) or interlocking word order (Odes 3.1.21-2). At Epode 2.43, for instance, she prints:

sacrum vetustis exstruat lignis focum
and translates
‘and heap the sacred hearth with ancient wood’.

Typographical errors are vanishingly rare: the most egregious is probably where Velleius is called Valleius twice on p.5. The book has a modern (anglophone) bibliography to take the reader into the wider debates surrounding the poetry and this handsome book would make the perfect vade mecum for any student or general reader who wants to deepen their knowledge of this captivating and elusive poet.


[1] D. West Horace: the Complete Odes and Epodes: a new translation (Oxford 1997).

[2] L.C. Watson A Commentary on Horace’s Epodes (Oxford 2003).

[3] S. Harrison Horace Odes Book II (Cambridge 2017).