Written when Horace thought he had completed the Odes (in fact he wrote a fourth book), this was Horace’s sign-off. It is a short poem, but not by any stretch of the imagination a small one. No-one should deny Horace his bragging rights – others come in and out of fashion, and some wrote as well in shorter bursts, but he and Virgil do stand supreme for sustained achievement. The last stanza especially pushes it a bit – in another usage, “princeps” (“the first”) was a title (“first citizen”) that Augustus adopted, and laurel crowns were what victorious generals wore in their Triumphs through the city. But Horace’s claim that his work is more eternal than bronze is true: as one small example, I once checked into a Bed and Breakfast and found one of the Odes (o fons Bandusiae) on my pillowcase and duvet cover. I hoped the landlady did not know it involved the sacrifice of a goat.
The river Aufidus and the legendary Daunus were local to Horace’s birthplace in the South. One of the nice touches in the poem is the switch in the second and third stanzas between the most august location in Rome and Horace’s small home town: both matter to him. In the second stanza, Libitina is the goddess of funerals. In the fourth, Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, was also the patroness of the lyre: Horace leaves some ambiguity about whether the tribute of pride that he offers her has been won by her “merits” or his.
See the illustrated blog post here.
To listen, press play:
To scroll both versions of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam: usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum, ex humili potens
princeps Aeolium Carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos: sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.
I have completed a monument more eternal than bronze,
higher than the pyramids on their kingly site,
which neither wearing rain nor vain north wind
could destroy, nor the numberless
series of the years or flight of the times.
Not all of me shall die, and a great part of me
shall escape Libitina: I shall grow, fresh with
the praise of posterity, as long as the priest
shall climb the Capitol with the silent Vestal.
I shall be talked of where violent Aufidus roars
and where Daunus, poor in water, has ruled his
country peoples, I, mighty though from humble stock,
the first to have spun Greek song
to Italian strains: take on the pride
won by our merits, and with a will, Melpomene,
ring my hair with Delphic laurel!