Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Like as the Waves :: Eheu Fugaces II:14

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

in prose:

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-Poetizedfor $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.


  1. hi ! really helpful article! i just wanted to point out one thing that danaid had 50 daughters, all but one killed their husbands!

  2. I loved your translation of Horats. I was looking for alternative translations of the interj. "eheu!", mostly translated "alas!". "Oh hell!" is very good! Thanks!

    1. Aloha, e Ole, Thank you for your comment. 'Oh hell!' might be a bit too much, especially since I had to guess about the kind of feeling Horace wanted to put into this poem. My first thought was to make the interjection even stronger!

  3. Heh, glad to find this! I was looking for the author of

    What Horace says is
    "Eheu, fugaces
    anni labuntur, Postume, Postume":
    "The years fly past and are lost to me, lost to me."

    I didn't and still haven't, but I'm a-gonna bookmark your blog and, maybe (now that I've *just* retired), go through it bit by bit. Or, maybe, buy your book and go through it poem by poem. (But not till after packing, moving, and unpacking.)

    1. Aloha, e thnidu, Thank for your comment. I, too, have just tried to find the source of that translation. I suppose that 'lost to me' might be a good translation of 'labuntur.'

  4. Actually, as I have but recently learned, "postumus" doesn't mean 'after [the father's] death'. That's from a folk etymology. "Postumus" means 'last' and is the superlative of... umm, whatever "posterior" is the comparative of. No reference, eheu: see previous comment.


    Ah, thank you, Perseus!:
    postŭmus , a, um,
    I.sup., v. posterus, III. B.

    1. Aloha, e thnidu,
      Yes, you are partly right about 'postumus.' It is the superlative of 'posterus.' And, as you point out, in the Middle Ages, an h was added due to folk etymology. But this folk etymology was based on the fact that 'postumus' meant both 'last' and 'posthumus' in Horace's day, and, as a consequence, the word was used in names to signify not only the last born but also the boy child born after the death of his father. Varro writes 'qui post patris mortem, Postumus [diceretur]. (Book 9, ¶60). Thank you for sending me on an interesting etymological hunt!

  5. It's not just a matter of good translation,but also making the translation-doggerel work. I suspect that at least half the point of this quatrain of macaroni was "Oh, look, I've managed to [slant]-rhyme 'Postume'!"

    (Speaking of macaroni and other twisty things that can get tied in knots, like fingers typing multilingually: "posthumous" with a U in English.)