Horace: Ode i.4

Spring, and the bitter winter thaws as west winds warm the earth,
…………….and boats are dragged from storage to the shore.
The cows aren’t cooped up in their stalls, or farmer by his hearth;
…………….the white fields shine with ice and frost no more.

Venus leads out her chorus line, a low moon overhead;
…………….the Nymphs and lovely Graces, joining hands,
skip lightly, foot to foot, in time, while Vulcan’s fires are fed
…………….by huge Cyclopes at his stern commands.

Now that the fields are free of ice, fresh flowers from the meadow
…………….or sprigs of myrtle grace our shining brows,
and Faunus calls for sacrifice in his groves wreathed in shadow,
…………….either a goat or lamb to seal our vows.

Pale Death beats at the pauper’s door and palaces of kings,
…………….the same for both. Sestius, you’re blessed,
but life’s brief compass can’t endure our long imaginings.
…………….Soon night will hold you, and the Ghosts, half-guessed,

and Pluto in his paltry house—where, when you’ve entered in,
…………….you won’t be Lord of Wine when dice decree,
nor will you lust for Lycidas, for whom all the young men
…………….are melting now, and soon the girls will be.

Soluitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni
…………….trahuntque siccas machinae carinas,
ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni
…………….nec prata canis albicant pruinis.

Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna          …………….     5
…………….unctaeque Nymphis Gratiae decentes
alterno terram quatiunt pede, dum gravis Cyclopum
…………….Volcanus ardens visit officinas.

Nunc decet aut viridi nitidum caput impedire myrto
…………….aut flore, terrae quem ferunt solutae;         …………….……      10
nunc et in umbrosis Fauno decet immolare lucis,
…………….seu poscat agna sive malit haedo.

Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
…………….regumque turris. O beate Sesti,
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam.      ………         15
…………….Iam te premet nox fabulaeque Manes

et domus exilis Plutonia, quo simul mearis,
…………….nec regna vini sortiere talis
nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuventus
…………….nunc omnis et mox virgines tepebunt.      …………….………… 20

 

Translator’s Note: Two of Horace’s three odes to spring are among his most famous and best-loved poems. Topping that list is ode 4.7 (Diffugere nives), called by A.E. Housman “the most beautiful poem in Latin,” but this one is almost as good. Behind Horace’s poem is a sub-genre of Hellenistic epigram, a small cluster of which opens Book 10 of the Greek Anthology. Apparently invented by Leonidas of Tarentum, this kind of epigram comes in three parts: first, an announcement of spring’s arrival and brief weather report (birds, breezes, calm sea); next, an exhortation to sailors to shape up and ship out; last of all, the speaker, usually a statue of Priapus in the harbor, reveals his identity. In poem 46 Catullus makes a more personal use of the template, to announce his excitement at leaving a boring office job in the Troad for a sight-seeing tour of Asia Minor.

Against this backdrop the originality of Horace’s poem may be more readily apparent. The “weather report” of stanzas 1-3 is far richer than in the Hellenistic poems, and conjures a visionary insight and numinous charge rare in Latin poetry. The alternation of long and short lines manages to suggest the simultaneous clench and release of hard work and relaxation, the extension of a present that completely absorbs the attention and the swiftness of a person’s passage through time. The moment of real electricity comes at the start of stanza 4, where the shock of Death’s sudden entrance finds sonic expression in an alliterative flurry of Ps pounding down the door (Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas / regumque turris). The poem’s key changes as it modulates to its quintessentially Horatian theme, revealing not its speaker but its addressee, one Lucius Sestius, consul in 23 BC, who served with Horace in Brutus’ army and was defended by Cicero in his speech Pro Sestio. The final stanza, a characteristically Horatian diminuendo, returns to a now metaphorical springtime with added poignancy as it celebrates wine, youth, and love. The genius of Horace in this and other poems was less to perceive the embeddedness of Heraclitean contraries in the cycles of nature than to feel it deeply and give it definitive expression. Finally, it should be said that l.15 of our poem gives Ernest Dowson the title of one of his two Horace-inspired masterpieces, “Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam”–“But life’s brief compass won’t endure our long imaginings,” as I have it. Dowson’s poem in turn gives us “They are not long, the days of wine and roses”–through such reliance on the past Dowson manages what Frost calls “the old way to be new.” Nothing could be more Horatian.

Chris Childers

Chris Childers

Christopher Childers has poems, essays, and translations published or forthcoming at Kenyon Review, Yale Review, Parnassus, and elsewhere. He is at work on a translation of Latin and Greek Lyric Poetry from Archilochus to Martial for Penguin Classics.
Chris Childers

Latest posts by Chris Childers (see all)

Author: Chris Childers

Christopher Childers has poems, essays, and translations published or forthcoming at Kenyon Review, Yale Review, Parnassus, and elsewhere. He is at work on a translation of Latin and Greek Lyric Poetry from Archilochus to Martial for Penguin Classics.