Odes 1.6

Horace’s limitations

by Horace

In this ode, addressed to Augustus’s greatest military commander, my namesake Marcus Agrippa, Horace excuses himself from writing about Agrippa’s and the emperor’s wars and victories. They are subjects for epic poetry, and Varius is the poet for that: Horace just writes frivolous lyrics about love and parties.

But hang on a minute – four of the five stanzas in this little poem turn out to be about precisely those epic themes that Horace says he is not up to. He finds neat Latin ways to quote “the wrath of Achilles” and the “Odysseus the deceiver” from the openings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He doffs his hat, not only to famous motifs and incidents like these, and Diomedes managing to wound gods in battle in Iliad Book 5, but also to a much less well-known character from Homer, the Cretan warrior Meriones. He is far from a major character in the Iliad, but he keeps cropping up – volunteering for a dangerous mission here, slaying a Trojan there, helping to cope with the aftermath of Patroclus’s death at Hector’s hands, making a mess of a chariot race in the funeral games but winning the archery contest. In fact, Horace seems to be using Meriones to make it quite clear that he knows a lot more than most about epic, and when he says at the end that he is “no more than usually frivolous,” he has in fact just been showing us that he is not really frivolous at all.

Add the fact that Horace has included gracefully-turned compliments to Varius the poet, Agrippa the general and Augustus himself, and it is clear that this deceptively simple little poem is tightly packed with subtlety, skill and meaning.

See the lllustrated blog post here.

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

Scriberis Vario fortis et hostium
victor Maeonii carminis alite,
quam rem cumque ferox navibus aut equis
miles te duce gesserit.

nos, Agrippa, neque haec dicere nec gravem
Pelidae stomachum cedere nescii
nec cursus duplicis per mare Ulixei
nec saevam Pelopis domum

conamur, tenues grandia, dum pudor
inbellisque lyrae Musa potens vetat
laudes egregii Caesaris et tuas
culpa deterere ingeni.

quis Martem tunica tectum adamantina
digne scripserit aut pulvere Troico
nigrum Merionen aut ope Palladis
Tydiden superis parem?

nos convivia, nos proelia virginum
sectis in iuvenes unguibus acrium
cantamus, vacui sive quid urimur,
non praeter solitum leves.

Surely Varius will be the one to set you down in verse, strong and victorious over our enemies, Agrippa – he is a bird of Homeric song – and all that your plucky sailors and cavalrymen have done under your command. Me? I am a trifler, and don’t venture on great themes like these – the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son, who would never yield, or the voyages that Ulysses the deceiver sailed across the ocean, or Pelops’s house of pain, as awareness of my limitations, and the Muse who rules our unwarlike lyre, warn me not to risk damage to the praises of matchless Augustus, and your own, by the failings of my imagination. Who will do justice in words to Mars, snug in his adamantine tunic, or Meriones, black with the dust of Troy, or Diomedes, who with Minerva’s help could face up to the Gods on equal terms? Us? what do we write about? Parties, and the battles that warlike girls fight with their manicured nails against the boys. We do it, maybe out of idleness, maybe because someone has taken our fancy: we, after all – but no more than is our wont – are the frivolous ones.