In this ode, Horace is speaking to us, the posteri, the generations who have come after him. He asks us to believe what he saw among the rocky cliffs, how Bacchus and the nymphs and satyrs sang and drank and carried on. At first he is frightened, then he is filled with joy; and it is this joy that brings him to write this ode about Bacchus.
I know very little about Bacchus; so this poem has been difficult for me. I have had to find out who the Thyades are (women who celebrated in the orgies of Dyonisos: Bacchus), remember what a thyrsus is (a staff of giant fennel covered with ivy), and learn such trivia about and related to Bacchus as:
Ariadne was his wife. She was turned into a goddess (beatae). Bacchus honored her with a crown, which he placed among the stars and is today the constellation Corona
Pentheus was a king of Thebes who banned the worship of Bacchus. Bacchus, in revenge, lured Pentheus out to spy on his mother and daughters who were taking part in Bacchic rites. I wonder: is this like Horace spying on Bacchus? Perhaps this is the cause of Horace's terror, for in the story of Pentheus, Bacchus convinces the women that Pentheus is a wild animal. They drag him into the open and tear him apart! Later they destroy his house. Sparagmos (tearing) and omophagia (raw eating) were ritualistic methods of sacrificing to Bacchus.
Lycurgus was king of the Edoni in Thrace. He, too, banned the worship of Bacchus, but Bacchus turned him insane and his exitium from this life was not pretty. In some accounts his own people had him ripped apart by horses. In other accounts, panthers (symbols of Bacchus) devoured him.
Apparently Bacchus was able to change the course of rivers and calm even the wild ocean. This he did in the Punjab with the River Hydaspes (modern Jehlum) and with the Indian Ocean.
The Bistones were a Thracian tribe who worshiped Bacchus and could put ribbon-like snakes in their hair.
The Giants tried to attack the Bacchus' parent (that is, Jupiter), but Bacchus turned himself into a lion and repulsed their leader? Rhoetus. According to Clement Lawrence Smith, this story of Bacchus appears no where else in Graeco-Roman literature.
Finally, I learned how Bacchus went down into the underworld to find his mother Semele and take her up to heaven. On the way out, the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the gates of hell wagged his tail and licked Bacchus' legs and feet in submission.
Now that I have the necessary background knowledge to read the poem, I am still left wondering what the poem means. Érico Nogueira, in a 2006 dissertation at the Universidade de São Paulo suggests that this poem may show Horace examining the role of technique and inspiration in poetry. Is poetry all bacchic, that is, inspired? If not, what role does technique (art) play in its creation?
I, a newcomer to Horace, am concerned only with technique—his difficult constructions, his cramming Latin into Greek meter, as though he were an ugly stepsister trying to make the glass slipper fit. I see only the effort because I have to make so much effort to understand. I have little time to appreciate the inspiration.
But every now and then, I step back. I realize I am in awe of what Horace has done. Can I carry the metaphor of the ugly stepsister a bit farther? Once Horace gets the slipper to fit, we don't see the stepsister any longer. Only Cinderella. Okay, a bit over the top, but this transformation of effort into beauty is the process we are talking about and the role inspiration plays in this process. Inspiration allows this transformation to happen in the first place. It is the catalyst. How? I don't know.
Today the art of writing poetry has been trumped by the inspiration. There don't seem to be any rules. Emotion is everything. Too often I hear Garrison Keillor reading poems on the radio and think: another postcard from someone's soul. I put the "postcard" away, as it were, and wait for news from someone else. I rarely think: how well done, how unique. In other words, I am rarely in awe. So I have turned to Horace, who has sent no postcards but a gallery of paintings, no short note but Sunday afternoon at the symphony.
So, in this poem, here are the paintings I see, the concert I hear: There is a voyeur, Horace, happening onto a startling scene, an erotic one of tireless girls in a Bacchic frenzy with flowing wine and gushing milk and dripping honey from the crevices of trees. I see Horace, so overcome by what he sees that he must by some divine law (fas est mihi) write this poem to show Bacchus' power—his cruelty, his heroism—how he doesn't only war on the human soul but brings relief and release and peace in the end.
Believe me, future ones, I saw
Bacchus, on far off cliffs teaching
songs, nymphs learning and
sharp-eared goat-hooved satyrs.
E-u-hoy! my mind still shakes with fear
yet my heart Bacchus-filled rejoices.
E-u-hoy! stop Liber, stop frightening
me with that heavy wand.
I must sing: the Thyiades unstoppable,
the fountains of wine, the milk
overflowing, the hollow trunks
dripping honey; I must
tell of adding his goddess
wife to the stars, of Pentheus,
his roof cruelly cast into ruins,
of Lycurgus the Thracian's death.
You twist rivers, the barbarian sea,
You, drunk, on a mountain ridge
run a harmless ribbon of vipers
through the Bistons' hair
You, when a godless band of giants
scaled the cliffs to your father's realm,
turned Rhoetus back
with horrible lion claws and jaw
You, they say, are better at dance and fun
and games, not quite made, they tell us,
for fighting, yet you are in the middle
between peace and war.
You, decorated with a golden horn,
harmless Cerberus saw coming back,
nicely wagging his tail
and licking your legs and feet.
My prose rendition:
In rupibus remotis Bacchum carmina docentem vidi—credite posteri—nymphasque discentes et aures acutas Satyrorum capripedum.
Euhoe! Mens [in] metu recenti trepidat, pectoreque pleno Bacchi turbidum laetatur. Euhoe! Parce, [o] Liber. Parce, [o] metuende thyrso gravi.
Fas mihi est Thȳiadas pervicaces fontemque vini et rivos uberes lactis cantare atque mella [a] truncis cavis lapsa iterare. Et fas [est mihi] ‹honorem [tuae] coniugis beatae stellis additum› ‹tectaque disiecta Penthei [in] ruina non leni› et ‹exitium Lycurgi Thracis› [cantare].
Tu amnes, tu mare barbarum flectis. Tu, uvidus in iugis separatis, crines Bistonidum nodo viperino sine fraude coerces. Tu, cum ‹cohors impia Gigantum› regna parentis ‹per arduum› scanderet, Rhoetum ‹unguibus malaque leonis horribilis› retorsisti, quamquam [tu es] choreis et iocis ludoque aptior, dictus, non sat pugnae idoneus, ferebaris; sed idem medius pacis bellique eras.
Cereberus insons te vidit, cornu aureo decorum, leniter caudam atterens, et pedes recedentes cruraque ore trilingui tetigit.
[revised March 27, 2015]
Latin commentaries: http://www.horatius.ru/index.xps?2.1.219
Traductions en langue française:
Em português, a dissertaçao de Érico Nogueira (Dez. de 2006)—A Lírica Laudatória no Livro Quarto das Odes de Horácio:
Horace's original ode:
Bacchum in remōtīs carmina rūpibus
vīdī docentem, crēdite posterī,
Nymphāsque discentıs et aurıs
capripedum Satyrōrum acūtās.
euhoe, recentī mens trepidat metū
plēnōque Bacchī pectore turbidum
laetātur. euhoe, parce Līber,
parce, gravī metuende thyrsō.
fās pervicācıs est mihi Thȳiǎdās
vīnīque fontem lactis et ūberēs
cantāre rīvōs atque truncīs
lapsa cavīs iterāre mella;
fās et beātae coniugis additum
stellīs honōrem tectaque Pentheī
disiecta nōn lēnī ruīnā,
Thrācis et exitium Lycurgī.
tū flectis amnıs, tū mare barbārum,
tū separātīs ūvidus in iugīs
nōdō coercēs vīperīnō
Bistonidum sine fraude crīnıs.
tū, cum parentis regna per arduum
cohors Gigantum scanderet impia,
Rhoetum retorsistī leōnis
unguibus horribilisque [horribilique] mālā;
quamquam, choreīs aptior et iocīs
lūdōque dīctus, nōn sat idōneus
pugnae ferēbāris; sed idem
pācis erās mediusque bellī.
tē vīdit insons Cerberus aureō
cornū decōrum leniter atterēns
caudam et recēdentıs trilinguī
ōre pedēs tetigitque crūra.
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