Poems about spring...thousands of them, written by those who live within the four seasons. And for good reason. After the bonds of winter, what better time to talk of warmth and joy, wine and song! What better time, alas, to talk of short-lived beauty and then, faced with one's own mortality, to throw all cares to the wind! Such is the case with today's ode.
But to the Persian poet, spring is so much more. The blossoms, warm breezes, and chirping birds become metaphors for love and, by the twists and turns of a mind bent on mysticism, these symbols of spring come to stand for man's desire to lose himself in God.
Here is an example of such a poem, this one written by Hafiz (#158/163):
گل بی رخ یار خــوش نباشد * بی باده بهارخوش نـباشــد
طرف چمن و طواف بستان * بی لالــه عذار خوش نـباشـد
رقصیدن سرو و حالت گل * بی صوت هزار خوش نـباشـد
با یار شکرلب گل اندام * بی بوس و کنار خوش نـــباشـد
هر نقش که دست عقل بندد * جز نقش نگار خوش نباشد
جان نقد محقر است حافظ * از بهر نــثـار خـوش نـباشد
No good the rose
without the beloved's face.
No good the spring
without the wine.
No good the meadow side,
the walk round the garden,
without thy lily cheek.
No good the swaying cypress,
the ecstasy of the rose,
without the sound of nightingales.
No good beside the beloved,
without a kiss, an embrace.
No good the portrait painted
by the hand of intellect,
unless it be of thee.
A pittance thy life
as money, Hafiz.
No good for scattering
at this wedding feast.
Translation © 2010 by James Rumford
Traveling farther east, we encounter the Chinese poet who also writes about spring. He may entertain thoughts akin to those of Horace or Hafiz. He may talk of warmth and joy, even the ephemerality of life and the nearness of God. But more often than not, he will present you instead with the beauty of spring and leave it for you to ponder its mysteries. This is the case with the following poem by the eleventh-century poet Su Dongpo 苏东坡:
spring night one moment
worth a thousand gold coins
the clear fragrance of flowers,
the shadows of the moon
from the balcony a song a flute,
thin thin sounds
in the courtyard a swing,
deep, deep night
translation © 2010 by James Rumford
I'm afraid I haven't been fair to Horace in my journey east. I seem to have dismissed his poem as spring-is-sprung drivel. Yes, Horace is happy that spring has come. He wants a drink and when drunk hopes to forget his own mortality. But there is more to what he says than this. There is stuff I just don't understand.
In the second stanza, Horace mentions a horrific story from Thrace about Procne, who kills her son Itys and feeds him to her husband King Tereus, because he (King Tereus) had "committed an outrage" on her sister. When the king discovers what his wife has done, he turns her and her sister into nightingales—thus their plaintive song each spring. What surprises me is why Horace would have alluded to such a story that, once heard, cannot easily be forgotten, and—how skillfully he constructed the poem by having the opening lines carry us to Thrace.
So, what is Horace saying? O joyful spring. O nightingale. O reminder of dark horror. Is this to prepare us for the black funeral fires of the last verse? I do not know.
And one more thing: why denigrate his friend Virgil, who may or may not be the famous poet? Why call him a cliens iuvenum nobilium—a client of the young nobles? Why say that Virgil must bring some spikenard if he wants good wine? Why be so inhospitable?
This spikenard or nard was an essential oil prepared from a valerian-type plant, Nardostachys jatamansi. The amber-colored oil was used as a sedative and a perfume and was highly valued by the Romans, who kept it in onyx boxes or jars. It was also used as a palliative to ease the passage from life to death. Perhaps this is the key to understanding this poem, for death lurks in the joys of spring, in the call heard from the nest-building bird lamenting Itys.
Here is my translation of Horace's poem:
Already the friends of spring, the winds of Thrace
are tempering the sea and swelling the sails
no longer stiff-cold the meadows, nor roaring
are the streams swollen with winter's snow.
Lamenting Itys, moaning, the ill-starred bird
makes her nest, and on the House of Cecrops
brings eternal shame, having cruelly avenged
the barbarous libidos of kings.
They sing amidst the tender grass the herders
of fattened sheep and with their flutes delight
the god who holds the cattle within his heart
beneath Arcadia's shadowed hills.
The times call for a drink, but if you, Virgil,
free-loading off the high born, are hankering
to down a bit of wine that's pressed at Calvi,
you'd better earn it with some spikenard.
One onyx box of nard will bring out a jar,
now lying in the Sulpici storehouses,
prodigiously giving new hope, quite able
to wash away the sharpness of care.
And if you want such joy, be quick, bring your stuff.
I wouldn't even think, not I, of treating you,
empty-handed, to my cups of wine, as do
the rich in their over-stuffed mansions.
Come on, put aside delay and zeal for gain,
remember the black fires, and while you still can,
mix brief stupidity with understanding.
For now, it's sweet to let it all go.
translation ©2010 by James Rumford
Iam ‹comites veris›, animae Thraciae, quae mare temperant, lintea impellunt. Iam nec prata rigent, nec fluvii nive Hiberna turgidi strepunt.
Avis infelix et ‹opprobrium aeternum domus Cecropiae›, Ityn flebiliter gemens, nidum ponit, quod ‹libidines barbaras regum› male ulta est.
In gramine tenero, custodes ovium pinguium carmina fistula dicunt delectantque deum, cui pecus et colles nigri Arcadiae placent.
Tempora sitim adduxere, [o] Vergili; sed si gestis, [o] cliens iuvenum nobilium, Liberum pressum Calibus ducere, vina [cum] nardo merebere. ‹Onyx parvus nardi› eliciet cadum, qui nunc horreis Sulpiciis accubat, [qui erit satis] largus ‹spes novas donare› efficaxque ‹amara curarum eluere›.
Si ad quae gaudia properas, cum merce tua velox veni! Ego non meditor ‹te immunem› meis poculis tingere—ut dives in domo plena.
Verum, moras et studium lucri pone. Igniumque nigrorum memor. Dum licet, stultitiam brevem consiliis misce! Est dulce in loco disipere. [revised March 28, 2015]
En français: http://agoraclass.fltr.ucl.ac.be/concordances/horace_OdesIV/ligne05.cfm?numligne=96&mot=comites#debut
Iam vēris comitēs, quae mare temperant,
impellunt animae līntea Thrāciae;
iam nec prāta rigent nec fluviī strepunt
hībernā nive turgidī.
nīdum pōnit, Ityn flēbiliter gemēns,
infēlix avis et Cēcropiae domūs
aeternum opprobrium, quod male barbarās
rēgum est ulta libīdinēs.
dīcunt in tenerō grāmine pinguium
custōdēs ovium carmina fistulā
dēlectantque deum, cui pecus et nigrī
collēs Arcadiae placent.
adduxēre sitim tempora, Vergilī;
sed pressum Calibus dūcere Līberum
sī gestīs, iuvenum nōbilium cliēns,
nardō vīna merēbere.
nardī parvus onyx ēliciet cadum,
quī nunc Sulpiciīs accubat horreīs,
spēs dōnāre novās largus amāraque
cūrārum ēluēre efficax.
ad quae sī properās gaudia, cum tuā
vēlox merce venī; nōn ego tē meīs
immunem meditor tingere pōculīs,
plenā dīves ut in domō.
vērum pōne morās et stūdium lucrī,
nigrōrumque memor, dum licet, ignium
misce stultitiam consiliīs brevem:
dulce est dēsipere in locō.
:: Latin books by James Rumford ::
For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetized, for $11.50 at
For a Latin translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at $12, click here:
To find out more about Carpe Diem go to the blog of March 26, 2015;
for more about Pericla Thomae Sawyer, go to the blog of November 22, 2016.