Odes 4.7

Diffugere nives

by Horace

Another poem on the theme of the shortness of life. Here, the emphasis is strictly on the inevitability of death – it happens even to heroes – and not on the fun to be had first. I find the tone similar to that of the old Church of England Prayer Book service for the burial of the dead, with references to the resurrection removed. The metre – a longer, epic line alternating with a shorter, answering one – increases the piece’s resemblance to a funeral march. Torquatus, to whom Horace addresses the poem, was a lawyer, hence the reference to eloquence.

This ode is a good example of how much the skilled use of mythological references in poetry was admired as a sign of learning and taste. Aeneas is a Trojan hero from the Homeric poems and Virgil’s Aeneid, the legendary ancestor of Julius Caesar and Augustus and precursor of the founders of Rome. Tullus and Ancus were ancient kings of Rome. Minos was one of the judges of the dead. Hippolytus was the son of Theseus, the legendary hero. He was devoted to Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt: his death was plotted by his stepmother Phaedra when he rejected her advances. Theseus and Pirithous were a legendary pair symbolising unbreakable friendship.

Metre: Hexameters followed by an Archilochius minor

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Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt;

Gratia cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet
ducere nuda choros;
immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
quae rapit hora diem.

frigora mitescunt Zephyris, ver proterit aestas
interitura, simul
pomifer Autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
bruma recurrit iners.

damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae
nos, ubi decidimus,
quo pater Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus,
pulvis et umbra sumus.

quis scit, an adiiciant hodiernae crastina summae
tempora di superi?
cuncta manus avidas fugient heredis, amico
quae dederis animo.

cum semel occideris et de te splendida Minos
fecerit arbitria,
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
restituet pietas;

infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum
liberat Hippolytum,
nec lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
vincula Pirithoo.

The snows have gone, now the grasses return to the fields,
The leaf-tops to the trees;
The land makes its round of change and the falling rivers
Keep their banks again;

Though one of the Graces, with her nymphs and twin sisters, dares to lead the dance unclothed; hope for nothing immortal, warns the year, and the hour that takes the pleasant day away.

Frosts soften with the West Wind, Summer follows hard
on Spring, soon itself to die, the same moment,apple-laden Autumn has poured out its fruits already, and soon the lifeless frost is back.

Though in quick succession moons make good their losses in the heavens, we, once we have passed away, where Father Aeneas is, where rich Tullus and Ancus are, we are dust and shadow.

Who knows, whether the Gods above may add more time tomorrow to today’s count? Everything will escape your heir’s greedy hands that you’ve already spent on your living comforts.

When you have died, and on you Minos has
pronounced his haughty judgement,
not your breeding, Torquatus, nor eloquence, nor piety will restore you;

for not even Diana frees from the darkness of the underworld her chaste Hippolytus, nor is even Theseus strong enough to strike oblivion’s chains from off his dear Pirithous.