ElAnt v5n2 - REVIEWS - Horace, Odes and Carmen Saeculare

Volume 5, Number 2
October 1999

Horace, Odes and Carmen Saeculare, with an English version in the original metres, introduction, and notes, by Guy Lee. Francis Cairns Publications, Ltd. ISBN 0-90525-94-4. Pp.xxiv + 278.

Reviewed by Andrew S. Becker
Virginia Tech
E-mail: andrew.becker@vt.edu

This intriguing book is made up of: an introduction, which assumes some knowledge of roman history (e.g., mentioning, without explanation, knights, consular, the Asian mainland, quaestor, the capacity of a papyrus roll, etc.); a Latin text of all the Odes and the Carmen Saeculare, differing from Garrod & Wickham's OCT in 53 instances, noted at the end; a rather literal English translation facing the Latin text, trying to retain the meter of the original; brief notes, which provide some help on historical and literary matters, but which also annotate the Latin text; finally, a brief bibliography. The distinguishing feature of this translation is the attempt to render Horatian meters into English, and that will be the focus of this review.

Horace set himself a difficult task. He took alien verse forms, forms developed from and for a language not his own, forms that fit his language only with difficulty, then he made these forms sing in his own native tongue. Horace made poetry by shaping the raw material of his own language through the mediating form of Greek lyric meters.

Si licet parva …, Lee has set himself a similar, though not identical, task. He harbors no illusion that he has created a monument more lasting than bronze. Lee's translations do not stand as poetic achievements on their own, as Lee himself acknowledges, when he says that he hopes not to rival the verse translations of Michie, but rather the efforts of Leishman of forty years ago. Few read Leishman to read Leishman, but rather only to consider his versions in relation to the rhythm of the Horatian lyrics he tries to emulate. Lee does, though, take quantitative meters, an alien verse form, and try to make them work, if not sing, in English. Formal poetry in English, for the most part, takes one of three forms: it works by the number of stresses per line (accentual, as in, say, Skelton), the number of syllables per line (syllabic, as in, say, Marianne Moore), or by a combination of the two into an expected number and order of stressed and unstressed syllables. This last form--accentual syllabic--is the most dominant, and there is a centuries old, very distinguished tradition of successful English versions of Horace's Alcaics and Sapphics, using an accentual syllabic pattern. Lee himself mentions Auden's Alcaics ("In Memory of Sigmund Freud"); Auden's characteristically masterful adaptation retains the number of syllables in each line (11, 11, 9, 10), but transforms the quantitative pattern of long and short syllables into a looser pattern of four stresses (with some variation to three or five when appropriate). Auden creates a form in English that moves much like the movement of Horace's Alcaics, but keeps harmony with the expectations of English verse. The advantage of this is that it turns Latin quantitative verse into a pattern of stresses, a much more natural organizing principle for verse in our own language.

Lee, however, in his introduction, avows that he is writing quantitative verse in English, emphasizing the length of syllables as his organizing principle for the meter of each line. This is a tall order, since quantity has not been used as a basis for English meter, "save for some grotesque and failed examples" (to quote the now famous phrase of the poet and critic John Hollander). The communis opinio among scholars and poets of English verse is that meter based on quantity will work in English only if the reader already knows the pattern. Once apprised of the expected pattern of longs and shorts, the reader can make the line work; absent this prior knowledge, the pattern cannot make itself felt in English, as can the accentual syllabic forms. In spite of his focus on syllable quantity, Lee does acknowledge accents and verse beats (ictus) very briefly on p.xxi, leaving the reader to wonder about his treatment of this controversial aspect of Horace's lyric verse. In actual practice, moreover, Lee's verses do often use accent as an organizing feature of the rhythm of the line, and some of his most successful efforts use it well (e.g., the famous Soracte Ode, I.ix).

Many poems are problematic, however. There are many that will work rhythmically, as indicated above, only when the reader knows the pattern and is willing to make it work; it is not that Lee does violence to the language, but that the reader must know what pattern is expected to render the rhythm with any consistency. It is counterproductive, then, for Lee to discourage the reader from paying explicit attention to form (p.xviii): many poems will not flow without this type of foreknowledge (e.g., a good number of stanzas in the Alcaic Roman Odes).

After reading in Lee's translations, I am left to wonder about the intended audience for this book. Lee says: "this book is not aimed at scholars but primarily at lovers of poetry who wish to know what Horace says in his Odes and how he says it" (p.ix). Those without Latin, however, are more likely to read the versions of Michie and Ferry. One audience will be those who have some Latin, and wish to develop a better feel for the poems, both their content and their form; this audience will appreciate the rhythm of the English in light of the Latin meters, and will use the English as they turn back to the Latin poem on the left. This audience will also be more likely than the general lover of poetry to appreciate the introduction and the notes: while both are helpful and explain much to the educated general reader, they do, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph with respect to Lee's introduction, assume some knowledge of Roman history. The introduction also includes an excellent description of Horace's principles of composition, and the question of Horace's "sincerity." A reader who knows some Latin will also be able to appreciate Lee's notes on Latin words, which are very sensible and clear. There will also be a not insignificant pleasure for this kind of reader, the kind of pleasure (and understanding) that comes from hearing the audible echo of Horace's rhythms through the sea-change that they have undergone on their way to English.

Another audience will be students of Latin. Horace himself expressed concern that he would end up a school text (Epistles I.20); Lee's book may follow this same path, but there is much good in this, especially for a teacher of poetry like myself. The translation will bring students closer to the world in which Horace's poems first made sense; it will help the students take a step toward understanding, moving back from these rather literal translations on the right to the specificity of the Latin on the left. Not all translations work so well in drawing us back from the English to a better understanding of the Latin; many translations efface the Latin, but this one all but asks us to glance back at Horace's words, to consider them anew after reading Lee's rendition. While some of the translations fall flat (e.g., I.xiii), at times Lee very impressively brings us what the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky called the "miracles" that occur in each line of Horatian lyric (e.g., II.3 and III.30).

The notes will also be of use in the class and the seminar, but the most salutary part of this book will be the rhythmical reflection of the Latin poems. While I have said that these versions will not be read as poems themselves, they are nevertheless of immeasurable use in conjunction with the Latin. Now our students will be able to develop a feel for Horace's meters, as they work through the poems and Lee's English reflections of these poems. A mere metrical appendix can, if we work at it, help the students to see, but not to feel, Horatian meters. I usually have to coax and tease out this elusive feel for the meter, supplementing work on the Latin with English poems--Sapphics from, e.g., Timothy Steele or Lewis Turco, Alcaics from, e.g., Tennyson or Auden. Now the task is made more efficient and effective by Lee's acoustic echo of these rhythms in the very translations the students will use as they try to make sense of Horatian lyric. Lee has done a great service to teachers of Latin verse, as we encourage our students to see that in matters of poetry form is at least as important as sense.

After a visit to Pompeii, Wallace Stevens wrote "Postcard from a Volcano," which begins:

Children picking up our bones Will never know that these were once As quick as foxes on the hill

These translations, like the plaster casts of those who perished at Pompeii, can give us a feel for the form of life that was the rhythm of Horatian lyric. As we work to recover some feel for the anchored life within these 2000 year old poems, Lee's casts of their forms can help us see, or rather hear, how Horace's verse could have lived, and, though not quick themselves, can quicken the Latin on the facing page in ways too valuable to ignore.

by Kaavya Giridhar