Horace Odes Book 2. 14

The fleeting years slip by

by Horace

A famous ode, beautiful, but definitely from the glummer end of the “carpe diem” spectrum. It is very allusive: Geryon was a giant with three bodies; Tityos another giant whose liver was eternally eaten in Hades by two eagles; Cocytos, one of the underworld’s rivers; the Danaids, fifty sisters of whom all but one murdered their husbands on the wedding night; Sisyphus, a king condemned in Hades forever to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down every time he neared the top; cypress trees were sacred to Pluto and were thought gloomy.

Is there a subtext? Is there half a hint that Horace thinks Postumus a bit too smug in the enjoyment of his estate, his house, his charming wife and his tree collection? Might the reference to Geryon and his three bodies imply that Postumus had put on a bit of weight? Could the exaggeratedly locked cellar in the last stanza mean that Horace was unimpressed by the wine served to guests at Postumus’s? It would be nice to think so, but safer to regard the poem as an accomplished variation on an established literary theme.

See the blog post with a picture of the daughters of Danaus here.

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Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,
labuntur anni nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti,

non, si trecenis quotquot eunt dies,
amice, places inlacrimabilem
Plutona tauris, qui ter amplum
Geryonen Tityonque tristi

compescit unda, scilicet omnibus
quicumque terrae munere vescimur
enaviganda, sive reges
sive inopes erimus coloni.

Frustra cruento Marte carebimus
fractisque rauci fluctibus Hadriae,
frustra per autumnos nocentem
corporibus metuemus Austrum:

visendus ater flumine languido
Cocytos errans et Danai genus
infame damnatusque longi
Sisyphus Aeolides laboris.

Linquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum quas colis arborum
te praeter invisas cupressos
ulla brevem dominum sequetur;

absumet heres Caecuba dignior
servata centum clavibus et mero
tinguet pavimentum superbo,
pontificum potiore cenis.

Fleeting, alas, Postume, Postume, the years slip by, nor will piety delay wrinkles and impending old age and unvanquished death,

not, my friend, if you were to please Pluto with three hecatombs of oxen every passing day; Pluto, not to be moved by tears, who imprisons trebly ample Geryon and Tityos

within his mournful waters, which definitely must be sailed by every one of us that feed on the gifts of the earth, be we kings or penniless farmers.

In vain we will avoid the bloody God of War and the breakers of the roaring Adriatic, and take precautions against the south wind, noxious to our bodies:

we must see the black river Cocytos wandering in his sluggish flow, and the wicked daughters of Danaus, and Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, damned to his long labour.

we must leave world, home and charming wife, and not one of these trees that you tend will follow their short-lived lord, except for the hateful cypresses;

a worthier heir will drink the Caecuban that you have guarded with a hundred keys and tinge the floor with wine of which you are so proud, choicer even than what is served at the banquets of the priests.