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A Poem by Horace


   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
March 29, 1998

It's spring. And here's a chance to print a song of the season that comes from a very old, sunlit, Mediterranean sanity. Also a chance to celebrate a remarkable recent book.

One of the poets central to the history of lyric poetry in the European tradition is Quintus Horatius Flaccus, whom we know as Horace. He was born when Rome was emerging as a world power. He fought, as a young man in those turbulent years, in the wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and wrote most of his poems in the age of Augustus.

With Catullus and Virgil and Ovid, he's one of the four great lyric poets of ancient Rome. For English poets from Shakespeare's time to the end of the 19th century, he was the man. Horace spent most of his life in retirement on a modest farm in the country outside Rome. He wrote immensely civilized, poised, exquisitely polished, and apparently casual poems about the countryside and the Roman seasons, about not living in the Augustan equivalents of the corridors of power and the feeding frenzies of the media and the fevers of the deal. His values were the gentleman farmer's ideals. Balance was what he admired, independence, privacy, friendship, a sensible prosperity, good wine, the fruits of the season.

These are reasons to read him, but the deepest reason is pleasure. He's a beguiling poet. Reading him in stray moments is, I've been finding, like carrying around a particularly delicious and soothing dream-trance. "Soothing" isn't quite accurate for the complexity of Horace's mind, but this was the idea of him among poets of the early 20th century, which is why he fell out of favor and why he hasn't really had a compelling English translator in this century. Now one has arrived. David Ferry, a New England poet and Wordsworth scholar, has published a complete translation of "The Odes of Horace" (Farrar Straus Giroux), and it's wonderful to read. (See Book World, Oct. 26, 1997, for a review.)

The Odes have to be lived with – they'll make great summer reading of a mellow and reflective kind – and one sample won't convey that. But here's the flavor. Cut to a spring day in Italy 2,000 years ago where Horace's friend Lucius Sestius is worried about his bank account and his place in society and his love life:

To Sestius

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their
    caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the
    early mornings.

Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth
    has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.

Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He's going to knock at a rich man's door or a poor man's.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don't put your hope
    in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto's shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love
    with Lycidas,
This or that girl with him, or he with her?

(Ode I.4 "To Sestius" from "The Odes of Horace," translated by David Ferry. Copyright 1997 by David Ferry. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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