John T. Kirby · Purdue University
For some general observations on translating poetry, and on translating Latin poetry in particular, see our Catullus page. All of what is said there applies in the case of Horace as well -- and then some. With Horace, perhaps even more so than with Catullus, it is difficult to read the Latin without sensing the strong aroma of Greek poetry; in writing his Carmina ('Odes') and Epodi ('Epodes'), Horace has been profoundly influenced by his reading of the classical Greek poets, such as Sappho, Alcaeus, and Pindar. Too, one can see the strong influence of Hellenistic philosophy on his Sermones ('Satires' written in epic meter) and Epistulae ('Epistles,' formal verse letters written somewhat in the same vein as his Satires). But there is something quintessentially Roman about the Satires and Epistles: they are, among other things, important historical sources for information about Roman life in Horace's day.
Horace was the son of a freed slave, as he himself tells us; he was not born into the same type of aristocratic environment as, say, Julius Caesar. Imagine his thrill (and trepidation) when, having made friends with Vergil, he was introduced to Augustus himself! By virtue of his poetic genius, he eventually found himself traveling in the most exalted social circles in Rome. Along with Augustus, Horace met Augustus's right-hand man, Maecenas, who gave Horace the gift of his own Sabine Farm as a means of support. This gift meant, among other things, space and time to write -- the most important gift any artist can receive.
Once again, as with Catullus, these English translations are meant only as a stopgap measure. Horace's Latin is not easy reading, but if you can gain enough fluency to read him in the original, you will know that you are experiencing Latinity of the highest sophistication, elegance, and polish -- as close to perfection as any lyric poet could hope to attain.
English versions of the Odes here are taken or adapted from the translation by Joseph P. Clancy (University of Chicago Press, 1960).
CARMEN 1.1 [ode to Maecenas, Horace's patron]
Maecenas, descendant of ancient kings,
O my rock of refuge and dear source of honor:
there are men who delight in gathering dust
on Olympic chariots; when their blazing wheels
clear the turn, and the palm crowns them, they are
lords of the earth, lofted among the gods;
one man's joy is to hold the highest office
bestowed by the public whim of the Romans;
another's, to know his barns are stuffed with all
the grain from all the threshing-floors of Africa.
No treasures could talk the man who happily
breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe on the family farm
into plowing the Myrtoan Sea, a shivering sailor.
The trader, scared by rough-housing winds and waves,
sings in praise of the peaceful country town
where he was born; soon he refits his ships,
a lower standard of living is not for him.
There's a man not above a cup of good wine
and a pause in the day's occupation, sometimes beneath
the blossoming arbutus, sometimes by a quiet stream.
Many thrill to the soldier's life, the camp,
the sound of horn and trumpet, the battles so hated
by mothers. Under a cold night the hunter
stays, not a thought for his sweet young wife,
if the sure hounds have sighted a deer, or if
a boar of the hills bursts through his finest nets.
As for me, the prize for poets, the crown
of ivy, makes me one with the gods; in shady
woods, among the light-stepping nymphs and satyrs,
I am far from the crowd, while Euterpe allows me
her flute, and Polyhymnia does not refuse
to tune for me the lyre of Lesbos.
And should you rank my songs with the masters',
I shall walk tall, my head will touch the stars.
CARMEN 1.4 [a spring poem -- with a twist]
Winter's fists unclench at the touch of spring and western breezes,
dried-out keels are drawn down to the waves,
flocks are no longer at ease in stables, farmers at firesides,
meadows are no longer white with frost.
Under a hovering moon come dancers led by fair Aphrodite,
the slender Graces join hands with the nymphs
lightly to dance on the grass, as Cyclopes under sweltering Vulcan
forge bolts of lightning for the storms to come.
Now is the time to garland glistening hair with green myrtle
or flowers, as the freed earth rejoices in birth;
now a gift to Faunus is proper, in shadowy groves a victim,
whatever is to his taste, ewe lamb or kid.
Death with his drained-out face will drum at destitute cottage
and royal castle. You have been lucky, Sestius:
all of life is only a little, no long-term plans are allowed.
Soon night and half-remembered shapes and drab
Pluto's walls will be closing in; enter his halls and you're done with
tosses of dice that crown you toastmaster,
marveling glances at slim young Lycidas, for whom all the boys are
now burning, and the girls will soon catch fire.
CARMEN 1.5 [a poem to an ex-girlfriend]
What slim and sweetly scented boy
presses you to the roses, Pyrrha,
in your favorite grotto?
For whom is your blond hair styled,
simple and clean? Ah, how often he'll sob
over your faithless conversions, staring
stupidly at the black
winds and wild seas. He has you
now, for him you have a golden glow,
ever contented, ever loving
he hopes, unaware of the
tricky breeze. Poor things, for whom
you glitter before you're tried. The temple
wall with its plaque serves notice: I
have hung up my wet clothes
and bowed to the sea-god's power.
CARMEN 1.9 [a poem on the 'carpe diem' theme]
See, the snows on Mount Soracte glare against
the sky, and the branches strain, giving way
eneath the weight, and the fluent
waters stand fast, fixed by the bitter freeze.
Take the chill off, piling plenty of logs
by the fireside, and pour out the wine, four years
aging, from the Sabine jar,
Thaliarchus, with a free hand.
Leave the rest to the gods, for once they quiet
the winds that are warring with the roaring
sea, cypress and ancient
ashtree are troubled no longer.
Do not ask of tomorrow what it may hold;
mark in the black each day you are granted
by Chance: you are young, no
sneering at loving and dancing
while the sap rises and whining old age
stays away. now is the time for playing field
and public squares with soft
whispers as night covers lovers meeting,
and now is the time for giveaway giggles
from the far corner and the girl in hiding,
and the prize snatched from her
arm or finger that (almost) resists.
CARMEN 1.10 [ode to Mercury]
Mercury, smooth-talking grandson of Atlas,
giver of language, founder of graceful games,
clever sculptor of the crude behavior
of primitive man,
my song is of you, messenger of great Iuppiter
and all the gods, creator of the curved lyre,
cunning, getting away with what suits you
by playing a trick.
Once, you were just a boy, when Apollo tried
to browbeat you into giving back cows
you had filched, he then found himself minus his
quiver, and he laughed.
And you were the guide when Priam brought ransom
from Ilium: the proud sons of Atreus,
the Myrmidon watchfires, the Troy-hating camp
never noticed him.
You escort deserving souls to their happy
places, with a golden staff shepherd the crowd
of shades: you are at home with the gods above
and the gods below.
CARMEN 1.11 [the famous 'carpe diem' ode]
Don't ask, Leuconoë, the forbidden question, how long
the gods have given to you and to me: don't imagine
fortunetellers know. Better to take what is coming,
whether Iuppiter allows us more winters, or this that now
wearies the Etruscan sea as it beats on the cliffs
is the last. Be sensible: strain the wine: in a little life,
take no long looks ahead. As we talk, time spites us
and runs: pluck today: save no hopes for tomorrow
CARMEN 1.24 [a consolatio, the ancient version of a sympathy card]
How shall we keep in or limit our grief, so dear
was this man? Teach me a funeral lament,
Melpomenë, gifted by your Father with a clear
voice and the lyre's music.
So the sleep that lasts forever now covers Quintilius.
Honor [Pudor], and unbroken Trust [incorrupta Fides],
the sister of Justice [Iustitiae soror], and Truth who walks naked [nudaque Veritas],
when shall they ever find his equal?
He dies mourned by many good men,
but by no man more deeply, Vergil, than you.
Useless devotion to beg the gods for Quintilius,
he was not lent on those terms.
What good would it do to play the lyre more sweetly
than Thracian Orpheus, to whose music the trees responded?
Would the blood come back to his thin ghost,
whom Mercury once and for all
(he does not take kindly to prayers to open the gates)
with his grim staff has gathered to the flock of shades?
It is hard: but patience makes those things lighter
that we have no power to change.
CARMEN 1.37 [the 'Cleopatra' ode]
Now for a drinking spree, now for a loose-footed
light fantastic, now is the time to pay
our debt to the gods, my friends,
and spread a spectacular banquet.
Before today, to bring out Caecuban wine from
family storerooms was wrong, while the crazy
queen was still scheming with her
sickly eunuchs, her pack of perverts,
to send the Capitol crashing and bury
the empire: wild were her dreams of doing
whatever she wished, the best
luck was her liquor. She sobered up
when her ships caught fire, scarcely one unscathed,
and delusions of mind nursed on Egypt's wine
were cured by Caesar with the facts
of fear, his navy close as she fled
from Italy, like a hawk going after
a gentle dove, or a swift hunter tracking
a hare over snow-covered fields
in Thessaly: chains awaited this
damnable monster. But a heroine's death
was her goal: she showed no female shivers
at the sight of a sword, and her
fast-sailing fleet sought no secret harbors.
Her courage was great: she looked on her fallen
palace, a smile still on her face, and boldly
played with venomous serpents,
her flesh drinking their bitter poison,
so highly she dared, her mind set on her death.
Not for her the enemy ship, the crownless
voyage, her role in the grand
parade of Triumph: she was no weak-kneed woman.
CARMEN 2.3 [more carpe diem]
Keep this in mind: a steady head on a steep
path; the same holds true when the going is good:
don't let happiness go to your head,
friend Dellius, for you must die someday,
whether you spend all your time in sorrowing,
or keep yourself happy on festival days
stretched out on the grass in seclusion
with a jar of your best Falernian wine.
Why do the towering pine and white poplar
love to weave shady welcome by lacing their
branches? Why do the rushing waters
hurry on against the winding river?
Tell them to bring the wines and the perfumes and
sweet rose blossoms that live such a little while,
here, while it still is allowed by luck and
youth, and the dark threads of the three Sisters.
You will leave the pastures you bought and your home
and your country place washed by the tawny Tiber,
you will leave, and into the hands of
an heir will go the riches you piled so high.
Rich, and descended from ancient Inachus,
or poor and from the lowest class, loitering
out in the open, it is all one:
an offering to Death, who has no tears.
All of us are being herded there, for all
lots are tossing in an urn: sooner, later,
out they will come and book our passage
on the boat for everlasting exile.
CARMEN 2.19 [a hymn to Dionysus]
Bacchus on the far-off rocky hills, teaching
his chants -- you who are still to come, believe me --
I saw him and his student Nymphs and
goat-footed Satyrs and their pointed ears.
Euhoë! -- my soul trembles with that moment's fear,
Bacchus possesses my breast and I madly
rejoice. Euhoë!, spare me, god of freedom [Liber],
spare me, god of the fearful rod of power.
I must celebrate your inexhaustible
revelers, and the fountains of wine and full
rivers of milk, and mirror in song
honey dripping from the hollows of trees;
I must celebrate your bride and her
constellated crown, and Pentheus' palace
shaken to bits in a mighty downfall,
and the destruction of Lycurgus of Thrace.
You control the streams, the savage sea,
you are hot with wine as on distant hilltops
you bind Bistonian women's hair
with a knot of vipers that do not harm them.
And when the rebellious army of giants
tried to climb the heights to the Father's kingdom,
you were the one who threw back Rhoetus
and his terrible lion's claws and teeth;
although you were said to be more suitable
for dances and fun and games and were labeled
unfit for a battle, yet you took
your part in war as well as in peacetime.
You were graced with golden horn when Cerberus
saw you: he was harmless, and softly wagged his
tail, and as you were leaving, he licked
your legs and feet with all three of his tongues.
CARMEN 3.16 [a didactic poem about Stoic equanimity]
Danaë was imprisoned in a tower of bronze
with doors of solid oak and a ferocious pack
of watchdogs; these would have kept her quite secure
from seducers that prowl by night,
if only Acrisius, this hidden virgin's
panicky keeper, had not made Iuppiter and Venus
laugh out loud: for a way would be safe and open
for a god who turned into money.
Gold enjoys going through the midst of sentinels
and forcing its way through stone: it has more power
than the lightning bolt. the house of Argos's prophet
collapsed, for the sake of riches
sank into ruins; the man from Macedon broke
through the city gates, he undermined rival rulers
with his gifts; gifts have the power to captivate
the sternest naval commander.
The money increases, followed by worry and
greed for still more. I have been right to be fearful
of raising my head into everyone's notice,
Maecenas, glory of the knights [equites].
The more a man will deny to himself, so much
the more is given by the gods: stripping myself,
I seek the camp that knows no greed, a deserter
longing to leave the wealthy side,
a more glorious master of things i reject
than if i were said to have buried in my barns
harvests from all the plowed fields of Apulia,
and had no good of all my goods.
A brook with clear water, a few wooded acres,
and confidence in my crops: a happier life
than fertile Africa's glittering governor
was given -- not that he knows it.
Although no Calabrian bees bring me honey,
and no wine is mellowing for me
in Formian jars, and no fleeces of mine
grow full in the pastures of Gaul,
still poverty stays away, with all its troubles,
and if I wanted more, you would not refuse it.
As my desire for things is lessened, I stretch my
little income even further
than if I were to join Alyattes' kingdom
to the plains of Phrygia. For men who seek much,
much is never there; a man is well off when the god
gives him, with frugal hand, just enough.
CARMEN 3.22 [a votive hymn to Diana]
Holy Virgin, guardian of the mountains and the groves,
to whom young women in labor
pray, you who hear and save them from death,
triple goddess [diua triformis, i.e. Luna + Diana + Hecate],
bless this pine-tree that overhangs my villa,
and gladly at each year's end I will present to it
the blood of a young boar
still practising its sidewise slash.
CARMEN 3.26 [a dedicatory epigram -- with a twist]
I have lived my life -- till lately -- attractive to the girls,
and performed in the wars of love with no little glory;
now my weapons and my lyre, discharged
from service, will be held by this niche
in the wall that shelters the left side of sea-born
Venus' statue. Here, here, lay down the bright
torches, and the crowbars and the bows
that threaten war upon barred doors.
O goddess, you who dwell in blessed Cyprus
and Memphis that never knows Thracian snows,
O queen of love, lift up your whip and
let arrogant Chloë have just one flick.
CARMEN 3.30 [a sphragis on the first three books of odes]
I have built a memorial more lasting than bronze
and higher than the Pharaonic pyramids,
and no rain or corrosion, no raging north wind
can tear it down, nor the innumerable years
in succession, and the transitory age.
I will not wholly die: the greater part of me
shall escape the goddess of death [Libitinam]: I will grow on,
kept alive by posterity's praise. As long as
high priest and silent [Vestal] virgin climb the Capitolium,
I will be known where the wild Aufidus thunders,
in the land where water is scarce, whose farmers
Daunus once ruled -- known as a man who rose from poverty,
who led the way in adapting Aeolian song
to Italian verses. Accept the high honors
I have won by your kindness, and graciously crown
my hair, Melpomenë, with Delphic laurel.
CARMEN 4.1 [poetry resumed, love renounced -- and yet ...]
Those wars, Venus, are long over,
and now you provoke them again. Please, please, spare me.
I am not what I was when dear
Cinara ruled me. Put an end to your efforts,
savage mother of sweet Cupids,
to soften the stiffness of a man now fifty
by your gentle orders: go where
the young men invite you with flattering prayers.
This is a better time for you
to bring, drawn by your swans' glowing wings, your joy
to the home of Paulus Maximus,
if you're looking for the kind of heart to catch on fire.
For he is noble and handsome,
and speaks well in defending his troubled clientes, a young man of many talents
who will carry the banner of your service far;
and whenever he is happy
to have conquered the gifts of a spendthrift rival,
he will set your marble statue
under a cedar roof, beside the Alban lakes.
There you will breathe in plentiful
incense, and you will find delight in the music
of the Berecyntian flute
mingled with the lyre and pan-pipes;
there, twice every day, the boys
and delicate virgins will chant the praises of
your divinity, their white feet
beating the ground in triple-time Salian dance.
As for me, not woman nor youth
nor the hope that believes its feelings are returned
pleases me now, nor drinking bouts,
nor having fresh flowers wound about my forehead.
But why, ah Ligurinus, why
does a tear now and then run trickling down my cheek?
Why does my tongue, once eloquent,
fall, as I'm talking, into ungracious silence?
At night I see you in my dreams,
now caught, and I hold you, now I follow as you
run away, over the grassy
Campus Martius, over flowing streams, with your hard heart.
CARMEN 4.2 [Pindaric verse: don't try this at home]
Whoever labors to be Pindar's equal,
Iulus, mounts up on wings that are fashioned with wax,
Daedalus-fashion, and will soon give his name to
glittering water below.
As a river roars down a mountain, swollen
by showers of rain, spilling over its banks,
so Pindar rages and the deep of his voice
pours ever onward,
worthy of the laurel sacred to Apollo,
whether he is tumbling freshly-minted words
through frenzied hymns, carried along on meters
free and unruly,
whether he is chanting of gods and kings,
offspring of gods, who struck the Centaurs down,
a death they deserved, struck down the fire-breathing
or is singing of those the palm of Elis
brings home as immortals, boxer or horseman,
and is giving them an honor finer than
hundreds of statues,
or else is lamenting a young man, taken
from his weeping bride, exalting his manhood
and courage and golden virtues to the stars,
envying dark Death.
Strong is the wind that lofts the swan of Dircë,
as often, Antonius, as he aims for
the cloudy heights. My methods are those of a
bee on Matinus,
working hard to gather the sweet-tasting thyme
all about the many groves and the banks of
tibur's streams, a painstaking minor poet,
shaping my lyrics.
You are a bard in the grand manner: you will
celebrate Caesar, wearing the garland he
won, leading in triumph up the sacred hill the
the Fates and the kind gods have given the world
nothing that is greater or better than he,
nor ever shall, not even if time returned
to the golden age.
You will celebrate festivals and public
games for the answer to the city's prayers,
brave Augustus's return, and no lawsuits
heard in the Forum.
Then, if something I sing deserves hearing, my
best voice will join in, and 'O glorious
sun, worthy of praise,' I will gladly chant for
As you lead the way, 'Hail, God of Triumph,
we shall sing more than once, 'Hail, God of Triumph,'
all the citizens, and to the kind gods shall
offer our incense.
Your promise is fulfilled with ten bulls and cows,
mine with one tender calf, no longer beside
his mother, growing big on rich grasses to
satisfy my vow,
with a forehead that mirrors the crescent light
of a new moon on the third night it rises,
white as snow wherever he has a marking,
CARMEN 4.12 [spring and carpe diem]
Now the breezes from Thrace, the companions of spring,
have pacified the sea and are filling the sails;
now the fields are not hard, nor the rivers roaring,
swollen with the snows of winter.
She is building her nest, the unfortunate swallow,
mourning sadly for Itys, forever a shame
to the house of Cecrops, her revenge too cruel
for the savage passions of kings.
They are singing as they lie on the yielding grass
keeping their fat sheep and playing their pipes
and delighting the god who is fond of the dark
Arcadian hills and their flocks.
The time of year has made us thirsty, Vergil,
but if you are longing for a drink of wine pressed
at Cales, you servant of noble young patrons,
you must pay for your wine with nard.
Nard in a small box of onyx coaxes a jar
from its cubbyhole in Sulpicius' storehouse,
brimmimg with the gift of new hopes and with power
to wash bitter worries away.
If you want these joys in a hurry, come quickly
with your merchandise: should you arrive with no gift,
I have no intention of drenching you with wine-cups
like a lord whose house is richly appointed.
But look, put aside your delays and desire for wealth,
and keep the dark fires of death in mind: while you may,
mix a bit of silliness into your scheming:
sometimes it's good to be foolish.