Odes, 1.1

Horace’s first Ode

by Horace

In this, the first poem in his first book of Odes, Horace does two things for the first, but by no means the last, time. First, he compliments his great friend and patron Maecenas, who was one of the Emperor Augustus’s right-hand men. At the other end of the poem, after listing diverse things that matter most to different people, he says what matters most to him: being recognised as the peer in Latin of the great Greek lyric poets of the past. It is his masterly adaptation of those Greek poets’ themes, and of the intricate metres in which they wrote, that marks Horace out as a great innovator, and one of the very greatest Latin writers.

This first Ode is a good illustration of how very different English and Latin are as languages to write poetry in. The translation cannot get near to the economy of the original: in Latin, one of Horace’s lines uses just under five words on average; the translation needs nine. While good poets might be able to adapt Horace’s Ode as the basis for a decent English poem, they would have to do so using the very different techniques of English poetry. They simply could not reproduce in English the concision of Horace’s Latin, the much greater flexibility of its word-order, the intricacy and elegance of its wordplay or the musicality and rhythmical quality of its metre. These are the things that give the Ode its beauty and flow, and make it a poem, rather than a piece of prose or rhetoric. This is why it is worth listening to the original – which would have been composed with performance in mind – and not just relying on a translation to explain what, in a literal sense, it “means”.

North Africa provided a large share of Rome’s corn supply, hence the “African” threshing-floors; and Attalus was a King of Pergamon in the second century BCE who was famous for extreme luxury (and who left his kingdom to Rome in his will). Lesbos is mentioned because at least two of the most important Greek lyric poets that Horace took as his models – Alcaeus and Sappho – came from the island. Euterpe and Polyhymnia are Muses.

Metre: Asclepiad.

See the illustrated blog post here.

To listen, press play:

To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

Maecenas atavis edite regibus,
o et praesidium et dulce decus meum:
sunt quos curriculo pulverem Olympicum
collegisse iuvat metaque fervidis
evitata rotis palmaque nobilis.
terrarum dominos evehit ad deos
hunc, si mobilium turba Quiritium
certat tergeminis tollere honoribus,
illum, si proprio condidit horreo
quidquid de Libycis verritur areis.
gaudentem patrios findere sarculo
agros Attalicis condicionibus
numquam demoveas, ut trabe Cypria
Myrtoum pavidus nauta secet mare.
luctantem Icariis fluctibus Africum
mercator metuens otium et oppidi
laudat rura sui; mox reficit rates
quassas indocilis pauperiem pati.
est qui nec veteris pocula Massici
nec partem solido demere de die
spernit, nunc viridi membra sub arbuto
stratus, nunc ad aquae lene caput sacrae.
multos castra iuvant et lituo tubae
permixtus sonitus bellaque matribus
detestata. manet sub Iove frigido
venator tenerae coniugis inmemor,
seu visa est catulis cerva fidelibus
seu rupit teretes Marsus aper plagas.
me doctarum hederae praemia frontium
dis miscent superis, me gelidum nemus
Nympharumque leves cum Satyris chori
secernunt populo, si neque tibias
Euterpe cohibet nec Polyhymnia
Lesboum refugit tendere barbiton.
quodsi me lyricis vatibus inseres,
sublimi feriam sidera vertice.

Maecenas, sprung from regal ancestry, my bulwark and my pride, some delight in stirring up Olympic dust in a chariot, in avoiding the turning-post with their fiery wheels and in the victor’s noble palm. It lifts one man to the level of the Gods if the throng of fickle voters vie to exalt him through the triple course of public honours, another if he has stored in his own granary crops from the threshing-floors of Africa. Even with offers generous as those of King Attalus, you will never divert a man who loves to till the fields of his fathers with the hoe into cleaving the Aegean, a frightened sailor in a ship of Cypriot timber. The merchant, when scared by the southerly battling the waters where Icarus fell, praises leisure and the fields of his home town, but soon he finds that he can’t do without money and refits his battered ships. Some don’t say no to cups of vintage Massic wine and taking time out of the working day, stretching themselves  under the green arbutus, or by the gentle source of a sacred stream. Many get their pleasure from soldiering, the bugle mingling with the sound of the trumpet, and the wars that mothers loathe. The hunter forgets his sweet wife and stays out under the cold sky if a deer has been sighted by his faithful hounds, or a boar of the hill country has torn through his ring of nets. Me? The ivy garland, prize of learned poets’ brows, unites me with the Gods above; the cool grove and the nimble dances of nymphs with Satyrs set me apart from the crowd, if Euterpe does not stint the music of the pipes and  Polyhymnia is prepared to tune the Lesbian lyre. Count me among the bards of lyric poetry, and I will bang my head upon the stars!