ignore all that astrology: Horace and Ovid

poems by Horace and Ovid
translated by Christopher Childers

“Elegy” is a loaded word in classical poetry; Ovid’s poem for Tibullus employs it in its several senses. Tibullus (ca. 55–19 BC) was a love elegist, called by Quintilian tersus atque elegans (“polished and elegant”). The love elegy is a specifically Roman genre, written in elegiac couplets (one meaning of “elegy”) and borrowing themes and motifs from the Hellenistic epigram. Ovid’s poem is an elegy in this specialized sense and in ours, as shown by the false etymology in line five (deriving elegos from Greek ἔ ἔ λέγειν, “to say eh eh;” the true etymology is unknown). The poem is no less moving for its conventional motifs drawn from the pastoral elegy and the funeral epigram; yet in its raw existential terror (“I doubt the gods are real, and I am shaken”) one senses the real Ovid.

My own use of heroic couplets to render Ovid’s elegiac ones is part of a larger program to convey the structural effect of classical meters by way of English analogies. As Ovid is careful to keep his couplets closed, and loads them with balance and antithesis, I try to do the same. By contrast, Horace’s Ode 1.11 is in a stichic meter, an expanded Asclepiad (used by Horace’s model Alcaeus in many of his drinking songs), while Lyce is in an Asclepiad quatrain. My own analogies for these forms (especially the quatrain) may at times feel somewhat “foreignizing,” but they should still be intelligible according to standard English prosody. More importantly, my versions seek to convey the relationship between sentence, line, and stanza as it exists in the original, and to make this audible through the lapidary presence of rhyme. These structures, of single line, couplet, and quatrain, are not mere arbitrary constraints but units of thought the poet is working in and sometimes against; taking my formal and stylistic cues from the poets themselves is one way I hope to make them sound as different from each other in English as they do in Latin.

The Horatian tag (from Ode 4.1) Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cinarae, “I am not what I was beneath the sway of gentle Cinara,” serves as the title of one of Ernest Dowson’s most famous poems (“I have been faithful to thee, Cinara, in my fashion”). In Ode 4.13, Cinara is dead, and Lyce has outlived her charms; the snows of yesteryear are melted, and there is only the taste of ash. The poem’s emotion and power derive from the combination of cruel satirical distance and intimate identification: Auden’s “clear expression of mixed feelings.” In Ode 1.11, by contrast, Horace’s speaker may well still be as he was when ruled by Cinara. This ode gives us the phrase carpe diem, surely one of the most widely recognizable of any language. My translation opts for “pluck” instead of the more famous “seize” because, as Latin nerds love to point out, the ode’s controlling metaphor belongs to the realm of viticulture.

—Christopher Childers

Amores 3.9
by Ovid

If Memnon’s mother, mistress of the Dawn,
or if Achilles’ mother mourned her son,
if grief leaves even goddesses undone,
then, Elegy, tear your hair, and weep with me!
Alas, how true—too true!—your name will be.
Your bard, Tibullus, glory of your lyre,
now leaves his empty body on the pyre;
look, Cupid breaks his bow and comes in mourning,
his quiver upside down, his torch not burning;
see how his wings are slumped, how sad he goes
dealing the breast he’s bared resounding blows.
The tears are sopping in his unbound hair,
and hoarse sobs choke his chest and shake the air.
Just so, Iulus, they say he left your hall
after Aeneas, his brother’s, funeral.
Never did Venus groan or suffer more
when her young love was savaged by a boar.
We holy bards the gods look kindly on—
some think we have a godhead of our own;
yet all that’s holy Death soon steals away,
profaning it with hands that blot the day.
What use was Orpheus’ mother, or Apollo;
what use those songs that charmed the beasts to follow?
That sire wept Linus too through wood and brier,
Sang Aelinon! to his reluctant lyre.
And Homer, from whose everlasting fountain
bards sip the spring of the Pierian mountain—
him too Avernus swallowed in its mire:
poems alone escape the hungry pyre.
Yes, poems endure: Troy’s glory and her doom;
the web unwoven nightly at the loom.
Thus Nemesis, thus Delia have a name;
the first his last, the second his first flame.
What good are Egypt’s rattles? What good to moan
and sacrifice? What good you sleep alone?
Forgive me: when bad fates leave good men stricken,
I doubt the gods are real, and I am shaken.
Live just, die just. Be holy; keep your vows;
still Death will drag you to the charnel house.
Trust in good poems. This tiny urn constrains—
so little’s left!—Tibullus’ scant remains.
O holy bard, and did the fires take you?
Did they not shrink to graze on and unmake you?
They could have burned the golden monuments
and shrines of gods, so rank was their offense!
The Maid of Eryx turns her face away;
not even she could hold back tears, some say.
Yet this is better, than if Phaeacia kept
your body in its soil, unknown, unwept;
for here your mother seals your eyelids, washes
them with her tears, gives last gifts to your ashes;
here too your sister joins in her despair
and grieves and tears at her disheveled hair;
beside them Nemesis and Delia moan
and kiss you and won’t leave your pyre alone.
“Our love was best,” says Delia, by the pyre.
“You lived so long as I still stoked your fire.”
“Why claim my sorrow?” Nemesis replied.
“His failing grip held my hand as he died.”
If more remains of us than name and shadow,
Tibullus is in the Elysian meadow.
You, young Catullus, ivy on your hair
and Calvus at your side, will meet him there;
and open-hearted Gallus, if it’s untrue
that you betrayed your friend, you’ll meet him too.
They’ll join your shade, if shade is more than dust;
Tibullus, you belong among the just.
This urn protect you; may your sleep be sound;
and may your bones lie lightly in the ground.

Ode 4.13
by Horace

Lyce, the gods have heard me; I called on them by name,
and they heard, Lyce; you’re aging, and still your dearest wish
is to be thought a dish.
You flirt and tipple without shame,

get sloshed, and try, with breaking falsetto, to rouse Desire,
who lies there unresponsive, while his gaze only seeks
the roses on Chia’s cheeks,
so fresh and lovely at the lyre.

Past sapless oaks he whizzes, unwilling to be led
astray by you, recoiling because your teeth are yellow,
your chops are lined with hollow
furrows, and snow pollutes your head.

Your purple silks and precious gemstones won’t attract
ever again those ages the forward-fleeting day
has secreted away,
calendared and almanacked.

That gorgeousness—where is it now? That delicacy
of hue, that grace of movement? What’s left of who you were?
Of her whose breath was pure
passion, who stole myself from me—

my joy after Cinara, famed widely for your skill,
the face of art and pleasure? But Fate decreed that brief
Cinara come to grief,
and Lyce be preserved until

her years outstrip the super- annuated crow,
when fiery young fellows will snicker at the sight
of her old torch’s light
extinguished in the ash below.

Ode 1.11
by Horace

Don’t ask—it’s not for us to know—what end the heavens will bestow
on you and me, Leuconoe; ignore all that astrology
from Babylon. It’s better just to bow to what will be and must,
no matter if Jupiter will send more winters, or this one’s the end
that wears out the Etruscan sea against the rocks relentlessly.
Be wise; have taste; let the wine decant, and prune back your extravagant
hopes for forever. Life is brief. While we sit talking, Time, that thief,
escapes. Don’t let your life delay until tomorrow: pluck today.

Published on June 27, 2018