2 February, 2009Issue 8.2LiteraturePoetry

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Feeling the “Lyric Flow”

Clem Wood

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The Odes of Horace
Translated by Jeffrey H. Kaimowitz
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
208 pages
£14.00 (paper)
ISBN 978-0801889967


The foundation of a Western literary tradition extending from Ronsard to Auden, Horace’s Odes rank among the most familiar of poetic works. But a place in the canon can obscure meaning: the fullest English-language commentators on the Odes, Robin Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard, speculate that the poems “are too familiar to be easily understood”. They certainly are for Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, who exclaims:

Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,
Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse
To understand, not feel thy lyric flow,
To comprehend, but never love thy verse…

Of course, it is not just Childe Harold, but also Byron himself, who rejects Horace here. Byron attempts to move his own volume of lyric poetry out of the shadow of an ancient progenitor’s. For the English Romantic to breathe new life into the old genre, he must distance himself from the original trailblazer.

Byron and Childe Harold hit upon the most salient and difficult feature of the Odes: their simultaneous classicism and novelty. When we accept a work as a classic, we can easily lose sight of its originality. This is especially risky in the case of the Odes, since Horace emphasises both continuity and innovation: he recasts the Greek metres of his lyric predecessors Sappho and Alcaeus to become the “first to bring Ae√≥lic song to Latin | verse” (3.30.14-15). In his new translation of the Odes, Jeffrey Kaimowitz brings Horatian song to English verse and thus renews our sense of Horace’s novelty. By adapting the strict Latin metres to similarly formal English “reminiscences”, Kaimowitz expresses the feeling of the original Latin while creating a more distant, intriguingly unfamiliar Horace in English.

Although the Odes certainly have not lacked translators, some recent attempts have tended to privilege poetic licence at the price of accuracy. Although we can learn from such ambitious adaptations, we cannot fully appreciate Horace’s own accomplishment without some degree of literalness. Kaimowitz, a classicist by training and the head librarian of Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Connecticut, stakes his Odes on their metrical closeness to Horace.

In addition to recreating some of the sound of Horace’s Latin, Kaimowitz consistently preserves its syntax and even word order. Such faithfulness should appeal to readers who know the Odes in the original, as it reproduces in English the long sentences, striking juxtapositions, and deceptively simple diction that give the Odes much of their power in Latin. To those without Latin, Kaimowitz’s English may occasionally seem ungainly, but it makes up for the rare awkward moments by reaffirming how creative Horace was in his time—one of the reasons for reading the Odes in the first place.

At his best, Kaimowitz demonstrates that he both understands and feels Horace’s “lyric flow”. Like Horace, he creates an atmosphere of quiet urgency in the last three stanzas of 1.9, the so-called “Soracte ode”:

Of what will be tomorrow, do not ask:
whatever days that Luck provides account
…..as gain, and, while a youth, don’t spurn the
…..…..sweet delights of love and dancing,

as long as you are green, not peevish with
gray hair. Seek now once more the Field of Mars,
…..the plazas, and soft whispering towards
…..…..nightfall at the time appointed,

seek now what gives away a hidden girl,
her pleasing laughter from a secret place,
…..and tokens snatched away from arms or
…..…..fingers but barely resisting.

But Kaimowitz does not merely reproduce Horace’s words. His double “seek now” translates Horace’s single repetantur in content and form: the Latin verb can mean both “seek” and “repeat”, and “seek now” is itself repeated. With this subtle touch, Kaimowitz enacts a meaning that is not the primary one in his or Horace’s text, but which does enhance the inherent contrast in the speaker’s languorous but pressing advice: heap up the logs on the fire, don’t worry about tomorrow, but find that girl now. Kaimowitz’s Horace moves quickly: the peaceful images of the snow-bound mountain and warm home in the preceding stanzas give way to a hasty rendezvous in the city in the closing lines.

Yet sometimes Kaimowitz does produce inelegant English when he strives to preserve the Latin. In 1.28, for example, he renders animomorituro as “with mind that must perish” (5-6), which reproduces Latin’s lack of an article and thus rings hollow in English. Similar clumsiness appears occasionally throughout the translation. In a volume that aims to be evaluated on the basis of its English alone, sacrificing smoothness for literal rendering is a mistake.

Kaimowitz’s sensitive ear for word play does, however, help compensate for the occasional infelicities. His elegant enjambments work as well in English as Horace’s do in Latin: “with bold | effrontery” (2.5.15-16) is a pun on the Latin proterva | fronte that preserves the meaning, the sound of frons, and the positions of the words in their lines. This is a model of how a translation can remain close to the original without being literal (“with an onrushing forehead”.) Given Kaimowitz’s attention to the Latin, though, having Horace’s text facing the translation would have benefited even non-Latinists, who could have discerned the metrical adaptations and etymological puns that illuminate the translator’s art.

In the closing poem of Odes 1-3, Horace declares that he has erected a monument more enduring than bronze (3.30.1) and that he will reap praise from posterity as long as a priest and a Vestal virgin ascend the Capitoline Hill (3.30.7-9). Of course, his edifice has outlasted the priest and the Vestal and become more familiar to us than many of the trappings of Rome. But, accustomed as we are to the presence of Horace in our own exemplars of lyric poetry, we have gotten so close to the monument that it has become hard to read.

Jeffrey Kaimowitz has produced a translation that manages to convey the metrical rigour of the Latin in straightforward and simple English inflected with the syntax of the original. By keeping close to Horace’s text as he crafts his own fine English verse, Kaimowitz has made the Odes new again. He brings us nearer to Horace even as he reminds us of his distance. With Kaimowitz’s Odes, we can learn to love and comprehend Horace’s verse as we see his monument up close in a new light.

Clem Wood is a graduate at New College, Oxford, studying Greek and Latin historiography and Latin poetry.