Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end
—Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet LX
Eheu Fugaces is addressed to a man named Postumus or one called that because he had been born after his father had died. The name sets the tone, for this ode is about inevitable death and fleeting time and ends with a glimpse into the future, past our death to what is to come of all our efforts, of what we thought so important when we were alive.
Horace makes no earth-shattering revelation about death. There is none to be made. It happens—period. What he does do is tell us what he thought about it. Death, symbolized by Pluto, is illacrimabilis, incapable of tears, and powerful enough to hold back the three-bodied giant, King Geryon [Γερυών].
Death is a time of punishment for those like Sisyphus Aeolides [Σίσυφος Αἰολίδες], cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, or like Tityos [Τιτυός], whose liver was constantly fed on by a vulture, or like the ninety-nine Danaid daughters who, having slain their husbands, were forced for all eternity to fetch water in leaky pots. It is a time to cross the black Cocytos [Κωκυτός], literally 'the stream of wailing,' and leave everything behind. You'll be covered with cypress branches, sacred only to Pluto, and that will be that.
The only mercy in death is that you will never know what happens to your 'stuff,' once you're gone—how it was squandered and scattered. Pretty grim words. No Omar Khayyam with his constant می نوش [mei nush], 'drink wine.' Horace's first word, eheu, 'oh shit!' says it all—that and his use of a curious Latin construction: the gerundive.
The gerundive is an adjective-like, verb-like rarity that has made the lives of students of Latin miserable for centuries. From today's ode, we have:
undā enavigandā: with the wave that must be sailed upon
visendus Cocytos: the Cocytos that must be gazed upon
linquenda tellus: the earth that must be left behind
We don't have any construction in English that carries the full force of the gerundive. I suppose we might say 'a wave to be sailed' as we might say 'a chocolate mousse to die for,' but somehow the facet of inevitablity is missing from any English translation of this Latin grammatical jewel—a jewel because so much can be said with so little.
Oh hell, they are flying by, Postumus.
Postumus, the years are slipping away.
Doing right by the gods will not put off
the wrinkles, the old age, or even death
standing steadfast by.
No, friend, even if you with every
passing day appease tearless Pluto with
three hundred bulls, he will still keep at bay
three-bodied Geryon and Tityos
with a wave of grief
which we, yes, all of us who eat earth's gifts
must ride—be we kings or farmers dirt poor.
It's useless our avoiding bloody Mars,
the crashing tides of the rough Adriatic;
useless being scared
every autumn that the southern wind will
harm our bodies: we will be forced to look
at the black Cocytos winding like a
river languid, or at the infamous
Danaid clan, or
Sisyphus damned to labor unending.
We'll have to leave earth, home and pleasing wife.
Not any of the trees that you plant will
follow you, brief master, beyond the scorned
cypress tree—not one.
An heir more worthy than you will drink up
the Caecubum you locked away under
a hundred keys and with this superb wine,
better than at a high priest's table he'll
stain your lovely floor.
translation © 2010 by James Rumford
Eheu, [o] Postume, Postume, anni fugaces labuntur, nec pietas moram rugis et senectae instanti mortique indomitae afferet.
[O] amice, si quotquot dies eunt, [tu] Plutona illacrimabilem trecenis tauris non places, [Plutona] qui ter amplum Geryonen Tityonque unda tristi compescit, [unda] scilicet [nobis] omnibus, quicumque munere terrae vescimur, enaviganda, sive reges sive coloni inopes erimus.
Frustra, [a] Marte cruento fluctibusque fractis Hadriae rauci carebimus. Frustra, per autumnos Austrum nocentem corporibus metuemus. Cocytos ater, flumine languido errans, [nobis] visendus [est] et genus infame Danai Sisyphusque, Aeolides laboris longi damnatus.Tellus linquenda [est] et domus et uxor placens. Neque ulla harum arborum quas [tu] colis, praeter cupressos invisas, te, dominum brevem, sequetur. ‹Heres [tui]› Caecuba, centum clavibus, servata dignior absumet et mero superbo, cenis pontificum potiore, pavimentum tinguet. [revised March 27, 2015]
Ēheu fugācēs, Postume, Postume,
lābuntur annī nec pietās moram
rugīs et instantī senectae
afferet indomitaeque mortī,
nōn, sī trecēnīs quotquot eunt diēs,
amīce, plācēs illacrimābilem
Plūtōna taurīs, quī ter amplum
Geryonen Tityonque tristī
compescit undā, scīlicet omnibus
quīcumque terrae mūnere vescimur
ēnāvigandā, sīve rēgēs
sīve inopēs erimus colōnī.
frustrā cruentō Marte carēbimus
fractīsque raucī fluctibus Hādriae,
frustrā per autumnōs nocentem
corpōribus metuēmus Austrum:
vīsendus āter flūmine languidō
Cōcȳtǒs errāns et Danaī genus
infāme damnātusque longī
Sisyphus Aeolides labōris.
linquenda tellūs et domus et placēns
uxor, neque hārum quās colis arborum
tē praeter invīsās cǔpressōs
ūlla brevem dominum sequētur;
absūmet hērēs Caecuba dignior
servāta centum clāvibus et merō
tinguet pavīmentum superbō,
pontificum potiōre cēnīs.
:: 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.