Latin and English poetry and language work in such different ways that even very good literary translations rarely capture the mood and atmosphere of the original, as well as its content. This one captures them brilliantly, perhaps partly because Housman, born 1859, was both an outstanding classicist and a Cambridge professor of Latin as well as an outstanding English poet. But, successful though it is, Housman’s poem is very unlike Horace’s original in almost all respects and achieves its effects using very different technical means.
Horace uses alternating long and short lines: Housman, lines of the same length. Housman’s verses rhyme; Horace’s do not. Both are slow-paced and dignified in tone, but achieve this in very different ways: Horace by the use of the hallowed rhythms of epic metre, with a pause implied at the end of his shorter, alternate lines; Housman by the use of archaic word-forms, associated by his time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with ceremonial and liturgy (thee, thou, -est, -eth). Horace’s poem consists of spondees and dactyls (dum-diddy or dum-dum); Housman’s lines have a very different, basically iambic rhythm (di-dum, di-dum, di-dum).
Such differences are one of the reasons why it can be so rewarding to take a look – and a listen – to Latin poetry in the original.
You can compare Horace’s poem with a less free translation here.
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.
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
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
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum
nec lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses on the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play,
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, thou wast not born for aye.
Thaw follows frost, hard on the heels of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.
But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.
Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.
When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o’er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.
Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithöus in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.