Ode 1.14

Stormy seas

by Horace

What is this poem about? The image of the ship is surely not to be taken literally, so what does it stand for: the ship of state, as in so many poems, ancient and modern? But the generally accepted date of appearance of the first three books of Horace’s Odes is 24 or 23 BCE, by which time civil wars were over and the Emperor Augustus had Rome and its possessions firmly under his control, so implying that they were at risk might seem rather tactless. There have been various suggestions, including that the ship is either Horace’s poetic talent, or a love affair going through a stormy phase. The answer is that we don’t know, but the most likely solution is surely that this is a “ship-of-State” poem written in earlier and more dangerous times, before the turning point of Octavian/Augustus’s victory at the Battle of Actium in 30 BCE, and the deaths of Mark Antony and Cleopatra which followed. Perhaps Horace made this clear in the way he presented his new Odes to his public, or perhaps members of his audience were more likely than we might imagine to recognise that this was a historical reference and not a contemporary one. Whatever the truth may be, the poem is certainly a rousing performance: the language is rousing and vivid, often spilling over the line-breaks, and this and Horace’s artful use of metre carry the sense along in imitation of the rolling of the storm, with three long syllables at the start of each line evoking the swell of a pounding sea.
You can find links to all of the poems by Horace that feature on Pantheon Poets here.

Metre: third 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.

O navis, referent in mare te novi
fluctus. o quid agis? fortiter occupa
portum. nonne vides, ut
nudum remigio latus

et malus celeri saucius Africo
antemnaeque gemant ac sine funibus
vix durare carinae
possint imperiosius

aequor? non tibi sunt integra lintea,
non di, quos iterum pressa voces malo.
quamvis Pontica pinus,
silvae filia nobilis,

iactes et genus et nomen inutile:
nil pictis timidus navita puppibus
fidit. tu, nisi ventis
debes ludibrium, cave.

nuper sollicitum quae mihi taedium,
nunc desiderium curaque non levis,
interfusa nitentis
vites aequora Cycladas.

O Ship, fresh waves are bearing you back out to sea. O, what are you doing? Make hard for port! Don’t you see that your side is bare of oars,

and your mast is cracking under the racing gale, and that unless the hulls are shored up, ships can barely withstand the swelling power

of the sea? Your sails are no longer in one piece, and the gods, call on them over and over as you may, oppressed by your misfortune, are not with you! Though you are Pontic pine, the daughter of a noble woodland,

it would do no good to boast of your origins and your name: frightened sailors put no faith in painted ships. Take good care that you do not become the plaything of the gales!

You, who before were for so long my constant worry, and now my heart’s desire and heavy care, avoid the seas that flow between the shining Cyclades!