Odes 4.11

Last love

by Horace

In the fourth and last Book of his Odes, produced, we are told, at Augustus’s bidding a decade after the first three, a now middle-aged Horace is wooing a woman who, he says, will be his last love. Her name, and the name of the young man she would like as a lover, are Greek – Phyllis and Telephus – so  the likelihood is that the inspiration for this Ode is literary rather than personal, or that, if Horace does have real people in mind, he has disguised them under Greek aliases. A Phyllis appears several times in the Eclogues of Virgil, to whom the next Ode in Book 4 is dedicated, so Horace may have chosen the name as a compliment to him. A Telephus appears as a lover once or twice in other Odes, never with anything to mark him out as a real person. In myth his name belonged to someone who was wounded by Achilles’s spear, then cured by rust from it, so the implication is that his affections may be changeable.

As often with Horace, a great deal of the artistry and charm of this beautiful poem lies in its intricate word-order and in the play of the metre, which are impossible to mimic convincingly in English. This helps to explain why Horace, though probably the greatest poet on PantheonPoets.com after Homer, is one of the hardest to appreciate in translation alone.

The metre, Sapphics, is distinctly musical, in keeping with the musical references at the end of the poem. References to myth include Phaethon, who unwisely borrowed his father Apollo’s chariot, and was first burnt when he drove too close to the sun, then blasted by Jupiter’s thunderbolt: you can find Ovid’s version of the story  here. Pegasus, the winged horse, was tamed by Bellerophon, but threw him when he presumed to try to fly up to the realm of the Gods on Olympus.

This is the only piece in the final book of the Odes in which Horace mentions his friend and patron Maecenas, who by this time was not in such high favour as previously with the Emperor Augustus.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Est mihi nonum superantis annum
plenus Albani cadus, est in horto,
Phylli, nectendis apium coronis;
est hederae vis

multa, qua crinis religata fulges,
ridet argento domus, ara castis
vincta verbenis avet immolato
spargier agno;

cuncta festinat manus, huc et illuc
cursitant mixtae pueris puellae,
sordidum flammae trepidant rotantes
vertice fumum.

ut tamen noris, quibus advoceris
gaudiis: Idus tibi sunt agendae,
qui dies mensem Veneris marinae
findit Aprilem,

iure sollemnis mihi sanctiorque
paene natali proprio, quod ex hac
luce Maecenas meus adfluentis
ordinat annos.

Telephum, quem tu petis, occupavit
non tuae sortis iuvenem puella
dives et lasciva tenetque grata
compede vinctum.

terret ambustus Phaethon avaras
spes et exemplum grave praebet ales
Pegasus terrenum equitem gravatus

semper ut te digna sequare et ultra
quam licet sperare nefas putando
disparem vites. age iam, meorum
finis amorum,

(non enim posthac alia calebo
femina) condisce modos, amanda
voce quos reddas: minuentur atrae
carmine curae.

I have a cask full of Alban wine, Phyllis,
more than nine years old,
I have celery in the garden to make garlands with,
I have no end of ivy

for you to tie your hair with and shine, the house
smiles with silver, the altar,
decked with wreaths of sacred leaf, stands waiting
to be sprinkled with blood from the offered lamb,

the whole household is hurrying, the servants,
girls and boys together, are scurrying to and fro,
the flames are quivering, swirling and eddying,
with sooty smoke at their tips.

So that you know what joys you are
being invited to share, you will be
celebrating the Ides, the day
that halves sea-born Venus’s month of April,

duty-bound to be a solemn one for me,
and more sacred almost than my own birthday,
as it is the day from which my Maecenas
reckons his succeeding days.

You have designs on Telephus, a boy
who is not destined for you: a rich and playful lady
has taken possession of him, and he enjoys
the chain she keeps him bound with.

That Phaethon was burnt,  should be a deterrent
to greedy hopes, and Pegasus the winged horse,
weighed down by his earthbound rider, Bellerophon,
offers a painful example

that you should always seek what is proper,
think carefully and avoid going astray
by wrongful aspirations to someone
who is beyond your station.

Come, my last amour –  from now on
I shall warm to no other woman – let’s learn tunes together for you to sing  me in that lovely voice,
and sad cares will be relieved by song.