Odes, Book 4, Ode 1

Horace returns to lyric poetry

by Horace

It is about ten years after Horace signed off his first three books of Odes in Greek lyric metres with a poem declaring that his task was done. Now there is a fourth book, of which this is the first poem. Horace says he is reluctant, and no longer the right age – he would have been fifty a couple of years before this Ode was written – to write this sort of poetry. The elegant set-piece on the praise of Venus and the compliment to Paulus Maximus, a powerful public figure who was Consul in 11 BCE, are framed by an opening and a conclusion which purport to tell us how the ageing Horace now feels about love. The beginning suggests that he would rather it were over and done with, but the ending, with its dream-sequence of longing for a beloved who seems now attainable, now elusive, contradicts this. Whether the poem expresses the middle-aged Horace’s true feelings, or whether it is no more than a characteristically skilled literary fiction, we don’t know, but it is a powerful piece.

See the illustrated blog post with a mosaic of Ganymede from Sousse in North Africa here.

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Intermissa, Venus, diu
rursus bella moves? parce, precor precor.
non sum qualis eram bonae
sub regno Cinarae. desine, dulcium

mater saeva Cupidinum,
circa lustra decem flectere mollibus
iam durum imperiis: abi,
quo blandae iuvenum te revocant preces.

tempestivius in domum
Pauli purpureis ales oloribus
comissabere Maximi,
si torrere iecur quaeris idoneum;

namque et nobilis et decens
et pro sollicitis non tacitus reis
et centum puer artium
late signa feret militiae tuae

et, quandoque potentior
largi muneribus riserit aemuli,
Albanos prope te lacus
ponet marmoream sub trabe citrea.

illic plurima naribus
duces tura lyraeque et Berecyntiae
delectabere tibiae
mixtis carminibus non sine fistula;

illic bis pueri die
numen cum teneris virginibus tuum
laudantes pede candido
in morem Salium ter quatient humum.

me nec femina nec puer
iam nec spes animi credula mutui
nec certare iuvat mero
nec vincire novis tempora floribus.

sed cur heu, Ligurine, cur
manat rara meas lacrima per genas?
cur facunda parum decoro
inter verba cadit lingua silentio?

nocturnis ego somniis
iam captum teneo, iam volucrem sequor
te per gramina Martii
campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.

Are you stirring up those wars again, Venus, suspended so long ago? Spare me, I pray, I pray!
I am not now what I was under the reign of gentle Cinara. Sweet Cupids’

savage mother, don’t try to soften me, toughened now and around my fifties,
with your tender commands: go back to where the tempting prayers of the young are calling you.

It would be more fitting for you, winged with your gleaming swans, to lead the revels into the house
of Paulus Maximus, if you are looking for a suitable liver to roast

– such a noble and presentable young man, with endless accomplishments and forever ready to speak up in court for his anxious clients, and as your soldier he will bear your standard far and wide.

Say perhaps one day he has bested a competitor in love, with a dismissive smile at the rich inducements the rival can offer: he will set you up in marble by the Alban lakes in a shrine under a citrus-wood lintel.

There you will breathe no end of incense and take delight in songs accompanied
by the lyre and the Berecyntian flute, and the Pan-pipes too;

there twice a day, in praise of your divine power, boys, dancing with tender maidens, will pound the floor
with their flashing feet to the four-beat rhythm of the Salic dance.

As for me, I take no pleasure now in woman or boy, in the fallacious hope of requited love,
in toasts and drinking-games, or in binding my temples with fresh flowers.

Ah, but why, Ligurinus, why is this unaccustomed tear rolling down my cheeks? Why even as I speak
does this clever tongue of mine lapse into such clumsy silence?

In my sleep at night it’s now you that I now catch and hold; now you, receding fast, that I follow over the grass of the Campus Martius, you, my cruel one, that I follow through the swirling waters.