Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pro Patria Mori III:2

I have waited for the line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori [sweet and right it is to die for one's country] to appear and it has in this poem. It is often quoted, most famously in Wilfred Owen's 1917/18 anti-war poem, of which the last stanza is quoted here:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.
              —Wilfred Owen (March 18, 1893—November 4, 1918, Battle of the Sambre)

Nineteenth-century boys were brought up on Horace and taught that it was right to die for one's country, but, I think not in the way that Horace meant for them to die—ignominiously. 

In 1914 no one was prepared for a twentieth-century war, in which dying for one's country had nothing to do with one's personal standing, with heroic bravery, with a moral framework that sought immortality through battle and heroic deeds. It had more to do with being part of the state's war machine. After Verdun, after Gallipoli, after the fields of Europe were sown with horror, there was no immortality—just blood and gore and red poppies as far as the eye could see. 

By 1918 there were too many dead, some so dismembered that they became faceless and nameless and their bodies were dumped into huge ossuaries. The unknown soldier became a reality. What an impossibility in Horace's world! What a horrific thought! To the ancient peoples personal honor and glory in battle were everything! How hollow Horace's words must have sounded in 1920, when personhood died and was buried in the tomb of the unknown soldier in Paris, when anomie—the anomie of our modern world—was glorified with a monument. 

In this ode, we learn more of Horace's political views—of his contempt for the common man and the electoral process that existed in Rome two thousand years ago, his desire to see the emperor deified, his likening virtue to a winged beast rising above the unwashed masses. Finally, in a rather sour look at the last lines of the poem, I learn that, since Diespiter (Jupiter) lumps the innocent with the guilty, vengeance is the only tool for real justice. A real right-wing talk radio rant. My! How clear the reception after twenty centuries!

But this poem has many meanings. For a different interpretation, take a look at Robert Haas' retelling with references to the last nine years of war and deception. See:

Here is my translation:

let the sound lad learn cheerfully to suffer the
hardships of harsh service. let the fearsome 
knight vex the Persians with his lance. let him 
make stirring deeds of his life beneath God's 
sky. him the warring tyrant's wife will see
from enemy walls and with her virgin 
daughter gasp  "oh!" fearing her royal mate, 
untried in battle, will rile that raging 
lion and by gory anger be snatched 
away amidst the carnage. it is sweet 
and right to die for home and fatherland. 
Death chases fleeing men and spares not the 
limbs nor timid backs of pacifist boys.

being a real man means: ignore the sordid 
setbacks of the elections: let shine
unblemished honor by not taking up 
or laying down the axes* and bending  [*of state]
in the wind to the whim of the people.
being a real man opens heaven to 
the undeserved to die, attempts the path 
to others denied, scorns the unwashed and 
and on fleeing wings the miasmic ground.
there is safe reward for lasting silence. 
I will stop all who divulge the sacred 
mysteries of God-Ceres from sharing 
the same roof and sailing on some flimsy 
boat with me. often Father-God ignored 
joins holy man to sinner, yet rarely 
does limping Vengeance abandon the chase.
                                   © 2009 James Rumford

My prose rendition:

Puer, militia acri robustus, condiscat pauperiem angustiam amice pati et, eques metuendus, Parthos feroces hasta vexat, vitamque sub divo et in rebus trepidis agat! 
Matrona tyranni bellantis, illum ex moenibus hosticis perspiciens, et virgo adulta supire[n]t, “Eheu, ne sponsus regius, agminum rudis, ‹lionem tactu asperum› lacessat quem ira cruenta per medias caedes rapit.” 
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, et mors virum fugacem persequitur, nec poplitibus timidove tergo iuventae imbellis parcit. 
Virtus, repulsae sordidae nescia, honoribus intaminatis fulget, nec secures arbitrio aurae popularis sumit aut ponit. Virtus, caelum ‹mori immeritis› recludens, iter via negata temptat, coetusque vulgares et humum udam pinna fugiente spernit. 
Et silentio fideli est merces tuta. Vetabo [eum] qui sacrum Cereris arcanae vulgarit sub isdem trabibus sit, phaselon fragilemque mecum solvat. 

Saepe Diespiter neglectus integrum incesto addidit. Raro Poena, pede claudo, scelestum antecedentem deseruit.
[revised March 27, 2015]

Horace's words:

Angustam amīcē pauperiem patī
rōbustus acrī mīlitiā puer
   condiscat et Parthōs ferocıs
        vexet eques metuendus hastā
vītamque sub dīvō et trepidīs agat
in rēbus. illum ex moenibus hosticīs
   mātrōna bellantis tyrannī
        prōspicīēns et adulta virgō
suspīret, ēheū, nē rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat rēgius asperum
   tactū leōnem, quem cruenta
        per mediās rapit īra caedıs.
dulce et decōrum est prō pǎtriā morī:
mors et fugācem persequitur virum
   nec parcit imbellīs iuventae
        poplitibus timidōve tergō.
virtus, repulsae nescia sordidae,
intāminātīs fulget honōribus
   nec sūmit aut pōnit secūrıs
        arbitriō populāris aurae.
virtus, reclūdēns immeritīs morī
caelum, negātā temptat iter viā
   coetūsque vulgārıs et ūdam
        spernit humum fugiente pinnā.
est et fidēlī tūta silentiō
mercēs: vetābō, quī Cereris sǎcrum
   vulgārit arcānae, sub īsdem
        sit trabibus fragilemque mēcum
solvat phasēlon: saepe Diespiter
neglectus incestō addidit integrum,
   rārō antecēdentem scelestum
        dēseruit pede Poena claudō.


For the other 102 odes, annotated and rendered into prose, get the revised and emended Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetized.

To find out more, click on the blog archive for March 26, 2015: 

To purchase a copy for $11.50, go to and paste this in the search box: Rumford diem

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