Horace on not fearing the future: Lib. I, Carminum 11

Few poets today unread have the history of veneration that Quintus Horatius Flaccus commanded for nearly 2,000 years. It’s easy to understand why he is unread today. After all, what could be less appealing than finely wrought satires of things we know nothing of? Or Epistles, however preciously conceived, to people we are unacquainted with? As for the experiment in Epodes, who now cares enough about form even to bother understanding what the point was? No, the difficulty is not in seeing why he is ignored, but rather in understanding why his renown lasted for nearly two millennia. This is how Professor John William Mackail (of Oxford) explained it:

It is in the Epistles that Horace reveals himself most intimately, and perhaps with the most subtle charm. But the great work of his life, for posterity as well as for his own age, was the three books of Odes which were published by him in 23 B.C., at the age of forty-two, and represent the sustained effort of about ten years. This collection of eighty-eight lyrics was at once taken to the heart of the world. Before a volume of which every other line is as familiar as a proverb, which embodies in a quintessential form that imperishable delight of literature … give such beautiful expression, whose phrases are on all men’s lips as those of hardly any other ancient author have been, criticism is almost silenced. In the brief and graceful epilogue, Horace claims for himself, with no uncertainty and with no arrogance, such eternity as earth can give. The claim was completely just. The school-book of the European world, the Odes have been no less for nineteen centuries the companions of mature years and the delight of age—adolescentiam agunt, senectutem oblectant, may be said of them with as much truth as ever now. Yet no analysis will explain their indefinable charm. If the so-called “lyrical cry” be of the essence of a true lyric, they are not true lyrics at all. Few of them are free from a marked artificiality, an almost rigid adherence to canon. Their range of thought is not great; their range of feeling is studiously narrow. Beside the air and fire of a lyric of Catullus, an ode of Horace for the moment grows pale and heavy, cineris specie decoloratur. Beside one of the pathetic half-lines of Virgil, with their broken gleams and murmurs as of another world, a Horatian phrase loses lustre and sound. Yet Horace appeals to a tenfold larger audience than Catullus—to a larger audience, it may even be said, than Virgil. Nor is he a poets’ poet: the refined and exquisite technique of the Odes may be only appreciable by a trained artist in language; but it is the untrained mind, on whom other art falls flat, that the art of Horace, by some unique penetrative power, kindles and quickens. His own phrase of “golden mediocrity” expresses with some truth the paradox of his poetry; in no other poet, ancient or modern, has such studied and unintermitted mediocrity been wrought in pure gold. By some tact or instinct—the “felicity,” which is half of the famous phrase in which he is characterised by Petronius—he realised that, limited as his own range of emotion was, that of mankind at large was still more so, and that the cardinal matter was to strike in the centre. Wherever he finds himself on the edge of the range in which his touch is certain, he draws back with a smile; and so his concentrated effect, within his limited but central field, is unsurpassed, and perhaps unequalled.

(Mackail, by the way, lived in the day when scholars and philologists were also public intellectuals. He himself was passionate about social justice and considered himself a socialist, of the old school. Remember when we had public intellectuals of any sort? Perhaps not.)

Practiced (and “unintermitted”!) mediocrity hardly seems a recommendation until one considers the context. Horace was (or at least came to be) a republican. Rome’s one great achievement was the creation of a conservative organization of government, where sovereignty was (somewhat) widely distributed. (It was for both the idea of popular sovereignty and its practical restriction that the American founding fathers admired and studied Republican Rome rather than the volatile democracy of Athens.) Horace himself was not sufficiently lucky in his paternity to have participated in the ruling of the city. His father was in fact a slave, who became a freeman (libertinus) by some means lost to history. He was, however, exceedingly gifted (he was a tax farmer) for he was able to obtain a small estate and send his son for his education first to Rome, then to the literary capital of the world, Athens. Horace was there when Brutus at the head of a cabal of Senators (the “Liberators”) assassinated Julius Caesar.

Caesar had long played the populist card, which, together with his military victories outside Rome, forced the Senate to repeatedly honor him and give him executive power. Galling as that was, it took only a mere flash point to cause the Senate to coalesce to oppose Caesar by force. The result of the assassination was civil war. Marcus Antonius, former colleague of Caesar, attempted to ride Caesar’s popular wave to power at the expense of the Senate. He was surprised to learn, however, that Caesar had named his grandnephew Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) his sole heir. Octavian was only 18 at the time, but he was savvy enough when Antony was away to consolidate his own base of support.

Brutus and ally Cassius in the meantime were in Greece raising an army. It was there that Horace met Brutus, who gave him a surprisingly high military commission. Horace was on hand (according to Ode II.7) for the final disaster at Philippi when Crassus and Brutus both committed suicide and the Republic was finished. When Horace fled home his father was dead and his estate confiscated. Horace would now copy for a living. Within three years at the government office, however, Horace had impressed Virgil, who put him in touch with Maecenas, patron of the arts for Augustus. (Maecenas had fought on the other side at Philippi.)

Augustus was one of those rare dictators, like Napoleon, whose “humane” accomplishments cause some to forgive his crushing of freedom and arrogation of power. Napoleon’s accomplishment was the rooting out of the worst vestiges of the feudal legal system and modernizing the administration of France (which would become the model of Europe). Augustus, however, created a literary culture that became known as the Golden Age of Rome. Today we only have the literature and are not forced to look at the poverty, injustice, slavery, squalor and corruption of Imperial Rome. So it is much easier to use “Augustan” as a positive modifier of “literature.”

Like Virgil, Horace would now be in the service of this Emperor. And while his future would be secure, his movements, writings and aspirations would be controlled by the orbit of Augustus. He probably felt the bit less harshly than Virgil, whose great work occasionally hints at discontent. Horace seems to have made peace with the loss of the Republic, his father’s estate and his other ambitions. He seemed to want nothing (if the Odes are any guide) and he died a bachelor shortly after the death of Maecenas in 8 B.C.E. at 58.

The Odes of Books I-III were begun in 30 B.C.E., nine years or so after Augustus had become his patron. By now he had quietly settled into his role as extoller of the new order, the Empire, and the virtues of its sun, Augustus. The first book of the Odes begins with a tribute to Maecenas, then Augustus.

Today’s poem, Ode I:11 contains the phrase of Horace most widely known today (possibly the only phrase of Horace generally known today): carpe diem. This expression is now used by motivational speakers to encourage corporate go-getters with the rendering: “Seize the day.” New Age aphorists use it to suggest that life is short so seize each moment, much like the early Roman men seized the Sabine women. But in fact the common usage of the verb carpere is “to pluck” as a fruit or flower and suggests gentle appreciation. Horace was much too diffident to play the role of Andrew Marvel to his coy mistress; he is not suggesting passion but rather refined enjoyment.

Carminum 11

Liber Primus
[ca. 23 B.C.E.]

by Q. Horatius Flaccus

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
Finem di dederint, Leuconoë, nec Babylonians
Temptaris numeros. Ut melius, quicquid erit, pati,
Seu plures hiemes, seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
Quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrhenum. Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
Spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

It remains, as I once showed, a dangerous undertaking to translate a poem when Ezra Pound has already done so. Since Pound translated this very ode in 1963, I am forced to produce it. But first, I note that Pound was never particularly impressed with Horace. He didn’t consider him in the league with Ovid or Catullus or Sextus Propertius. And he preferred Horace’s Satires to his Odes, which he thought unsuccessful technical exercises in fitting Latin into Greek poetic forms. Nevertheless Pound translated several of the Odes and selected three of them for his collection of translated poetry (I.11, I.31 and III.30).

“Ask Not Ungainly”
from Horace

Translations (1963)

by Ezra Pound

Ask not ungainly askings of the end
Gods send us, me and thee, Leucothoë
Nor juggle with the risks of Babylon,
Better to take whatever,
Several, or last, Jove sends us. Winter is winter,
Gnawing the Tyrrhene cliffs with the sea’s tooth.

Take note of the flavors, and clarity’s in the wine’s manifest.
Cut loose long hope for a time.
We talk. Time runs in every of us,
Holding our day more firm in unbelief.

If you parse the original, you will see that Pound takes a fair amount of liberties with the structure of the poem. He rearranges lines, inserts new sentences, cuts out one phrase and even refashions an image. The last change is most striking, for Pound was one of the original (and best known) Imagists. In the poem, it is winter which causes the Tyrrhenian sea to be worn out by the rocks (or the pumice stone). In Pound’s refashioning it is the cliffs that are eaten away by the “sea’s tooth.” Pound’s version is more striking visually (the “tooth” is a repeated image in Pound’s poetry), but Horace often employs non-intuitive images or metaphors to place an additional distance between the poem and the reader as a stylistic inducement to closer reading and contemplation. And it certainly causes a close reader (a memorizer or reciter, for example, or even a translator) to reflect because the idea of the sea being “worn out” is not a common one.

Pound also employs a highly artificial diction that seems at odds with the calm reasoning of the poetic narrator.  On first reading, the language almost seems rococo. Perhaps the oddest thing is that his final line, which initially appears to mistranslate the line, but on close review seems a subtler rendering than is usually given.

That Pound knew Latin is not disputable. Take the first two words: “Ask not.” The problem with the Latin is that the verb ask (quaestoris) and the parallel tempt (temptaris) (in Pound’s rendering juggle with the risks) are conjugated in the perfect subjunctive. The subjunctive can be used as a command (somewhat less abrasive than a strict command (the imperative)). But in that case the normal usage is the present subjunctive. (“Let us go then you and I …” would be put in the present subjunctive.) A perfect subjunctive is used in a somewhat more highbrow hortatory sense. Let you have gone = May you have gone. It is difficult in English to convey such a formal (and polite) command in a few words. It must be high-sounding and concise. So the solution “Ask not” is perfect. It is both high-minded and politely exhortative. It is, in fact, a friendly encouragement. (That is why Sorenson used just that phrase in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.)

If there were any doubt of both Pound’s grace and his command of Latin, however, look at how he deals with sepias in line 6. Most translators treat the word as an injunction to “be knowledgeable” or “be mindful”; in other words, as a warning to smarten up. The verb sapere surely is used often in the sense of “to know,” particularly in poetry. In fact, the present participle sapiens means “knowing” and by repeated use “wise,” and in that sense is the species name of our kind, whose binomial name is Homo sapiens. But that is a secondary meaning acquired through repeated metaphorical use in poetry. The principal meaning of sapere is “to savor, to taste” and then “to savor of” or “be redolent of.”  (Or perhaps the reverse. But the meanings are closely related.) So instead of a rather nonsensical translation such as “Strain your wine and prove your wisdom” (as John Conington translates the two phrases), Pound provides a more literal translation, and also one that makes sense: “Take note of the flavors [of the wine] …”

In the second part of the line is the verb liques, and this is perhaps where Pound goes a bit astray. The word is the second person singular form of liquere, the most common meaning of which is “to be liquid.” It is used more abstractly as “to be clear” or “to be apparent.” Pound seems to try to force the meaning of the wine being clear and manifest. But the verb is in the second person, so that construction cannot work. In fact, the only sensible construction is to see it as a subjunctive, “to make clear” or “to clarify” the wine (i.e., to remove the particles from the wine so that it is clear). So, it seems to me, the meaning of the line is “Sample and clarify the wine ….” In other words, go about your ordinary business of preparing wine for consumption. The suggestion by the narrator is to forget about mortality and occupy yourself with daily tasks that make life pleasurable.

Having suggested Pound got a verb wrong, I am now required to fix up the rest of the stanza that he made depend on his rendering of the verb. This requires me to soften his “cut loose” to something more domestic. Pound is right that resecare can mean “cut loose,” like a mooring or a tree stripped of branches, but it is also used for cutting things that require less violence, such as eye-lashes, hair, beards and finger nails. So I suggest that the proper concept is “trim,” not “cut loose,” which brings to mind some swooping act of violence.

So having ventured into the slough of “fixing” another’s translation, fairness requires that I substitute a completed other. This one is barebones, however. I am no more interested in vying lyrics with Pound than editing Hamlet.

Ode I:11

[translated by DK Fennell]

Ask not, you’re not meant to know, what end,
mine or yours, the gods shall have rendered, Leuconoe;
and tempt not the Babylonian numerologists.
Better to endure whatever will be!
Whether Jupiter has allotted many winters or only this last,
which now weakens the Tyrrhenian sea on opposite rock:
Savor, clarify the wine and as the space is short
trim long hope. While we’re speaking jealous time
shall have fled. Collect a present no more credulous than the past.

And so on this New Year’s Eve, as we’ve spent this time pondering a poem two millennia old, time has fled and the Tyrrhene is even that much more asthenic. And the time was spent, not on the pathos of Virgil, but on lines of golden mediocrity! Fortunately there is only a few more hours to find out if we’ve been allotted one more year.

And perhaps by thus dawdling we’ve seen why Horace has attracted through time a fair share of Latinists and Victorians drinking port by the hearth: his trick was to puzzle through meanings of words and avoid the meaning of life.


John Conington, The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (London: George Bell & Sons: 1882).

Peter Davidson, Ezra Pound and Roman Poetry: A Preliminary Survey (Amsterdam: Rodolpi: 1995).

John William Mackail, “Horace,” Latin Literature (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1895), pp 112-13.

Ezra Pound, Translations (NY: New Directions: Enlarged Edition: 1963).

Paul Shorey & Gordon J. Laing (eds.), Horace: Odes and Epodes (Chicago: Benj. H. Sanborn  & Co.: 1919).

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