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The Odes of Horace
By David Ferry
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1997 David Ferry
All rights reserved.
i.1 / To Maecenas
Maecenas, you, descended from many kings,
O you who are my stay and my delight,
There is the man whose glory it is to be
So famous even the gods have heard the story
Of how his chariot raised Olympic dust,
The dazzling wheel making the smoking turn;
And there is he whose bliss it is to be carried
Up to the honors of office on the shifting
Shoulders of the crowd; and he whose pride
Is that his barns hold everything that can
Be gathered from the Libyan fields of grain.
And there's the man who with his little hoe
Breaks the hard soil of his poor father's farm,
But all the money there is could never persuade him
To venture out on the sea, a quaking sailor.
And the fearful trader in his wallowing vessel
As the storm comes on longs for his native village
And longs for the quiet fields surrounding it —
And then of course next year refits his ship,
Unable to forgo the profit of it.
And there's the man who likes his cup of wine,
Taking his ease in the busiest time of the day,
Under the shady boughs of the green arbutus
Or near the secret source of some murmuring brook.
There are those who love encampments, and love the confused
Music of trumpet and clarion sounding together
And are in love with the wars their mothers hate.
And all night long, out in the bitter cold,
If his faithful dogs have startled up a deer
Or if a wild boar has broken through the snare,
The hunter waits, forgetful of his bride;
All night the bride at home waits for the hunter.
What links me to the gods is that I study
To wear the ivy wreath that poets wear.
The cool sequestered grove in which I play
For nymphs and satyrs dancing to my music
Is where I am set apart from other men —
Unless the muse Euterpe takes back the flute
Or Polyhymnia untunes the lyre.
But if you say I am truly among the poets,
Then my exalted head will knock against the stars.
i.2 / The Tiber Flood
Jupiter the Father has brought down
A storm of snow and hail upon the city.
Striking the Capitol with his hand of fire,
He has terrified the city and the people.
Maybe the age of Pyrrha has come back,
The dreadful time when Proteus drove his herd
Up out of the sea and up the mountainsides
And there were living creatures from the sea
Entangled in the highest elm-tree branches
Where doves had cooed and nested, and in the water
Fear-maddened deer and other land-beasts struggled.
We witnessed how the Tiber, wild, thrown back
From against the Tuscan shore, ran loose and up
(Too ardent avenger of his beloved Ilia)
Over the other shore, washing against
The Regia and the temple of Vesta themselves.
The decimated people, our descendants,
Diminished by the vices of their fathers,
Will hear someday how citizens whetted their swords,
Which might have been better used against the Parthians,
Upon each other's bodies. What god can the people
Pray to, to save the state? What prayer can the Vestal
Virgins pray, if Vesta will not listen?
What god will come to expiate our crimes?
Augur Apollo, descend, your radiant shoulders
Clad in radiant cloud; or smiling Venus,
Laughter and love attending you, come down;
Unless you have forgotten us your children,
Come to our aid, O Mars, at last perhaps
Fed up with the game of war played on too long,
The battle cry, the glitter and gleam of arms,
Bloodhungry face confronting bloodhungry face;
Or wingèd Mercury, son of beneficent Maia,
Descend to help us, disguising yourself perhaps
In the form of that young man prepared to avenge
The murder of his kinsman Julius Caesar.
If this be so, may it be so for long;
Let it not come about that you, too soon,
Offended by Roman crimes, are carried back
Up to the heavens from which you came to help us;
May Caesar be content to dwell among
The children who descend from Romulus,
Enjoying the name of Father and of Prince;
Because of him no Parthians raid unpunished.
i.3 / Virgil's Journey to Greece
May Venus goddess of Cyprus and may the brothers
Castor and Pollux, the shining stars, the calmers,
Guard you, O ship, and be the light of guidance;
May the father of the winds restrain all winds
Except the gentle one that favors this journey.
Bring Virgil, your charge, the other half of my heart,
Safely to the place where he is going.
The breast of the man who was the first to dare
To go out in a little boat upon the waters
Must have been made of oak and triple bronze,
Fearing neither the sudden African squall
Contending with the North Wind, nor the storms
The Hyades threaten, nor what the South Wind, Notus,
Who rules the Adriatic, is capable of.
What way of dying could that man have feared
Who dared to be the first to look upon
The swimming monsters, the turbulent waters and
The dreadful cliffs of Acroceraunia?
The purpose of the god who separated
One land from another land was thwarted
If impious men could nevertheless set out
To cross the waters forbidden to them to cross.
Audacious at trying out everything, men rush
Headlong into the things that have been forbidden.
Guileful Prometheus audaciously by fraud
Brought fire down to the human race and thus
Brought fever down upon us and disease,
And death that once was slow to come came sooner.
Audacious Daedalus, wearing forbidden wings,
Tried out the empty air. And Hercules
Went down to the Underworld, broke in and entered.
No hill's too steep for men to try to climb;
Men even try out getting up to Heaven.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jupiter rages,
Hurling down lightning, shaking the sky with thunder?
i.4 / 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?
i.5 / To Pyrrha
What perfumed debonair youth is it, among
The blossoming roses, urging himself upon you
In the summer grotto? For whom have you arranged
Your shining hair so elegantly and simply?
How often will he weep because of betrayal,
And weep because of the fickleness of the gods,
Wondering at the way the darkening wind
Suddenly disturbs the calm waters.
Now he delights in thinking how lovely you are,
Vacant of storm as the fragrant air in the garden —
Not knowing at all how quickly the wind can change.
Hapless are they enamored of that beauty
Which is untested yet. And as for me?
The votive tablet on the temple wall
Is witness that in tribute to the god
I have hung up my sea-soaked garment there.
i.6 / To Agrippa
It takes a poet such as Varius,
Capable of Homeric flight and range,
To praise your deeds of courage and the events
Of victory whether by ship or cavalry.
I don't pretend to sing about such things
As the stubborn peevish anger of Achilles
Or duplicitous Ulysses' wanderings or
The ferocious House of Atreus. Not for me.
Self-knowledge and the Muse of peaceful things
Prohibit me from dimming with my verses
Your glory and the glory of great Caesar.
Who is it who is worthy to write the story
Of Mars in his adamantine armor, or
Of Meriones covered with Trojan dust
Or Diomedes in battle against two gods?
It falls to me to make up easygoing
Songs about such battlefields as parties,
Epic encounters between young men and women.
Sometimes I write them because I've fallen in love.
Sometimes I write them just for the fun of it.
i.7 / To Plancus
Others may give their praise to famous Rhodes,
Or Mitylene, or Ephesus, or else
To Corinth from whose walls two seas are seen,
Or Bacchus' birthplace, Thebes, or to the Vale
Of Tempe, or Apollo's sacred Delphi;
Some wearing the laurel wreath whose leaves are plucked
From the laurel wreaths that earlier praisers wore,
Unwearied as their only song sing praise
In honor of the city of Pallas Athena;
And many in praise of Juno retell the story
Of Argos and its horses, and rich Mycenae.
As far as I'm concerned, not even hardy
Sparta or the grainfields of Larisa
Take hold of my imagination as
The echoing Albunean grotto does,
Or the waterfall of the Anio or the sacred
Forest of Tibur and its quiet orchards,
Watered by the river passing by.
Just as Notus the South Wind isn't always
What he often is, the bringer-on of storms,
But sometimes clears the clouds away instead,
So, Plancus, be wise enough, wherever you are,
Whether you're camped on the battlefield, among
The shining weapons and the battle standards,
Or else at home in your shady groves at Tibur,
To put aside for a while, with the help of wine,
The cares and the anxieties of life.
The story goes that Teucer, when he fled
From Salamis and from his father's wrath,
Florid with wine, garlanded his head
And said these words to his troubled followers:
"Dear friends, companions, let us go where Fortune,
Kinder than my father, wants us to go.
Have confidence in Teucer and the omens.
Apollo never errs and he has promised
Another Salamis somewhere in the world.
O my brave fellows who have gone through worse
Than this with me, now with the help of wine
Let's put aside our troubles for a while.
Tomorrow we set out on the vast ocean."
i.8 / To Lydia
For God's sake, Lydia, tell me,
Why are you so determined
To ruin Sybaris
With love, the way you do?
Why has he taken such
A dislike to the sunny Campus,
He who used to put up with
The dust and heat of the games,
Liking it fine. Why doesn't
He who knew how to manage
The bit and the bridle with such
Elegance, why doesn't
He ride anymore these days?
Why does he act as if
He's afraid to go into the Tiber?
Why does he act as if
The olive oil he used
To oil his body with
Before the wrestling match
Is the blood of a poisonous snake?
He used to be famous for throwing
The discus and javelin too,
Far out beyond the farthest
Throw of his nearest rival.
Why do his arms not show
The bruises that are the signs
Of practicing with these weapons?
Why does he seem to hide out,
The way that, they say, the son
Of sea-born Thetis, Achilles,
Hid out in the clothes of a woman,
Thinking the clothes of a woman
Would keep him out of the war,
Just as the war was starting
That brought the Trojans down
To their doom and all the tears?
i.9 / To Thaliarchus
See Mount Soracte shining in the snow.
See how the laboring overladen trees
Can scarcely bear their burdens any longer.
See how the streams are frozen in the cold.
Bring in the wood and light the fire and open
The fourth-year vintage wine in the Sabine jars.
O Thaliarchus, as for everything else,
Forget tomorrow. Leave it up to the gods.
Once the gods have decided, the winds at sea
Will quiet down, and the sea will quiet down,
And these cypresses and old ash trees will shake
In the storm no longer. Take everything as it comes.
Put down in your books as profit every new day
That Fortune allows you to have. While you're still young,
And while morose old age is far away,
There's love, there are parties, there's dancing and there's music,
There are young people out in the city squares together
As evening comes on, there are whispers of lovers, there's laughter.
i.10 / To Mercury
O fluent Mercury, grandchild of Atlas, you
Who gave the means of order to the ways
Of early men by giving speech to them
And laying down the rules of the wrestling-floor,
Where grace is learned in the intricacy of play,
It is your praise I sing, O messenger
Of Jupiter and of the other gods,
Clever deviser of the curvèd lyre,
Hider-away of anything you please
It pleases you to hide. The day you were born
You stole Apollo's cattle away from him;
Apollo had to laugh when he found out
That while he stormed and threatened you'd stolen away
His quiver and arrows too. You stole away
Priam of Troy from Troy, bearing possessions,
Guiding him past the light of Thessalian watchfires,
Past the enemy camp of the arrogant Greeks.
You guide the pious dead to their place of bliss;
With your golden wand you shepherd the ghostly flock.
You please both the gods above and those below.
i.11 / To Leuconoë
Don't be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It's better not to know.
Either Jupiter says
This coming winter is not
After all going to be
The last winter you have,
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. Be mindful.
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Backwards away —
Hold on to the day.
i.12 / To Clio
Whom do you choose to celebrate, O Clio?
Is it a man? or hero half-divine?
Is it a god? Whose name will Echo echo
Playfully? Upon what mountainside?
From Helicon's shadows or from the height of Pindus?
Or is it cold Mount Haemus whence the trees
In rapt confusion followed after the voice
Of Orpheus singing as his mother taught him —
That voice to hear whose song the rushing streams
Fell silent and the winds' commotion stilled?
Whom shall I praise before the ordained praise
Of the father god, of Jupiter himself,
Who sets in order the things of men and gods,
Of seas, and lands, and all the changing hours?
Of those he has begotten there is none
Greater than he nor is there any god
Whose glory comes near his glory — yet there's one
Whose glory comes nearest his of all the gods,
Pallas Athena, mighty in battle — and then
There's Bacchus, and the virgin goddess who
Chastises all the beasts, and there's Apollo,
Whose never-missing arrow terrifies;
Then Hercules, and the twin sons of Leda,
The horseman and the boxer — because of them,
When in the nighttime sky their constellation
Makes itself known, the turbulent waters crashing
Against the rocky shore subside, and the wind
Blows gently, if at all. Next come the Romans:
I don't know which of them to celebrate first.
Romulus, perhaps, who was the founder,
Pompilius of the tranquil reign, or else
Tarquin the splendid, or Cato who by death
Set such an example, as Regulus also did,
Or men like Scaurus, or like Paulus who was
So generous with his very life in the time
When Hannibal was winning. Which of these
Takes precedence in my praise? And also there's
Fabricius, and long-haired Curius,
Camillus whom the austerity of the farm
His fathers also tilled made ready for war.
As in the secret way of time a great
Tree grows, so grows Marcellus' fame; and as
The moon at night outshines the other lights,
The light of the Julian constellation shines
Far brighter than the light of other lights.
O son of Saturn, Father Jupiter,
Guardian as you are of all things human,
May Caesar reign, your second, guarded by you,
And guardian in his turn may Caesar guard
His Romans from all their foes, whether they be
The Parthians menacing Latium, the Indians, or
The Seres beyond the borders to the East.
May Caesar with justice rule, second to you,
Across the regions of the whole wide world,
While Jupiter's heavy chariot shakes the sky
And Jupiter's lightning strikes the polluted woods.
i.13 / To Lydia
Lydia, when you praise your Telephus,
"His beautiful rosy neck," "his beautiful arms,"
Your praise of Telephus throws me into confusion,
My mind is all unsettled, my heart swells up,
The tears in my eyes are the visible evidence
Of the fire that burns inside me and torments me.
I suffer this way whether I think the bruise
That mars your snow-white shoulder is the sign
Of a lovers' quarrel brought on by too much wine
Or the mark on your lip the mark of his savage kiss.
If you listened to me you wouldn't give your trust
To one who would so barbarously treat
The lips that Venus imbued with essence of nectar.
Those lovers are happy and more than happy who
Are peacefully bound together in amity.
Love will not part such lovers until death parts them.
i.14 / To the Republic
O ship, O battered ship, the backward running waves
Are taking you out to sea again! Oh what to do?
Oh don't you see? Oh make for port! The wind's gone wild!
Your sails are torn! Your mast is shaking! Your oars are gone!
Your onboard gods gone overboard! How long, how long
Can the eggshell hull so frail hold out? O ship so proud,
Your famous name, your gilded stern, your polished decks,
Your polished brass, so useless now, O storm's play thing,
O ship my care, beware, beware the Cyclades!
Excerpted from The Odes of Horace by David Ferry. Copyright © 1997 David Ferry. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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