Horace, almost killed by a falling tree, imagines what he would have seen in the underworld had he died: the poetess Sappho and Alcaeus singing their songs to the dead, beguiling them into forgetting their miseries and causing even the cerberus to take notice and the snakes entwined in the hair of the furies to start writhing.
I get the impression that Horace is talking about a real dead poets' society—not like the one in the script for the 1989 film written by Tom Schulman—but about the umbrae [shades] of poets strumming their lyres in the underworld. A pretty fantastic poem, but all part of Horace's belief in the power of poetry to transcend everything, even death.
So, I suppose that Horace is down there now with his buddies. I wonder if he has anything to do with the Persian poets of his era. Those guys lost out big time. Their poetry didn't survive the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, when Iran's past was obliterated in one fell swoop of the sword, only to survive, much transformed, in the poems of Ferdowsi and Gorgani. Horace's poetry would have suffered a similar fate, had Europe's history been slightly different.
As it is, the centuries are not kind to poets. Languages die, and when they do, their poetry lags not far behind. Today Latin is on the brink of collapse and Horace is almost forgotten. Look at the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. All that remains of her much admired work are but a few tattered lines.
A few notes:
Colchis [Κολχίς], either a country on the eastern shore of the Black Sea or Medea, or as Horace used it, a barbarian.
Robur is an oak and was also the name of a prison in Rome built by Servius Tullius.
Aeacus [Αἰακός] a mythical king, grandfather of Ajax and Achilles, and after his death judge in Hades.
Sappho [Σαπφώ], the poetess from the Island of Lesbo has an irregular accusative form: Sapphō
The furies were either known as Eumenides [Εύμενιδες ] 'the gracious ones' or the Erinyes [Έρινύες ] 'the angry ones.' They wore a wreath of snakes and their eyes dripped blood. They were female gods of vengeance for those who had died unjustly. They were also symbols of regeneration and the potency of creation. Perhaps Horace is alluding to this in his use of recreantur.
Pelops [Πέλοψ] was a mythical king of Phrygia. When he was a boy, his father Tantalus killed him and served him up to the gods to eat. Hermes restored Pelops to life, and replaced his shoulder, which Demeter had unfortunately eaten, with an ivory one.
Whoever first planted you that cursed day
and with unholy hand raised you, tree, to
the curse of grandsons and
to the shame of the countyside,
I fancy that one snapped his father's neck,
in the dead of night spattered the house shrine
with the blood of some guest,
he into Colcha poisons,
and every thinkable evil, he who
put you—sad piece of wood—in my field,
to crash down upon the
blameless head of your master.
What one avoids is never precaution
enough: the Punic sailor is frightened
of the Bosphorus, yet
does not fear blind fate elsewhere,
like soldiers of arrows and the Persian's
swift flight, like Persians of our chains and the
Robur; death's unforeseen
strength has snatched and will snatch all.
How I almost saw the kingdoms of dark
Proserpina, Aeacus in judgment,
the seats saved for the good,
on her Aeolian lyre
Sappho moaning about the Lesbos girls,
and you, Alcaeus, on your golden lute
singing of the hardships
of sea, evil exile, war!
The dead are stunned into awed silence at what
both say, but the crowd shoulder to shoulder
drinks in more the battles
and the oustings of tyrants.
No wonder to these songs, the centiceps
monster turns its black ears and the entwined
snakes in the hair of the
Eumenides are revived.
The sweet sound even distracts Pelop's
father and Prometheus from their woes;
Orion scorns the lions,
the hunt for the timid lynx.
translation © 2010 by James Rumford
Et ille quicumque primum die nefasto te, [o] Arbos, posuit, et manu sacrilega in perniciem nepotum opprobriumque pagi produxit.
Crediderim illum et ‹cervicem parentis sui fregisse› et ‹penetralia cruore nocturno hospitis sparsisse›. Ille venena Colcha tractavit et quidquid nefas [quod] usquam concipitur. [Ille] qui te, lignum triste, [in] agro meo statuit—te, in caput domini immerentis caducum.
Quid quisque in horas vitet, cautum homini numquam satis est.
‹Navita Poenus› Bosphorum perhorrescit, neque fata caeca aliunde ultra timet. Miles sagittas et fugam celerem Parthi [timet]. Parthus catenas et robur Ītalum [timet]. Sed vis improvisa leti gentes rapuit rapietque.
Quam paene regna Proserpinae furvae et Aeacum iudicantem vidimus!—sedesque discriptas piorum [vidimus] et Sappho fidibus Aeoliis de puellis popularibus querentem et te, [o] Alcaee, plectro aureo dura navis, dura mala fugae, dura belli plenius sonantem.Umbraeque utrum ‹digna silentio sacro› mirantur dicere, sed vulgus, umeris densum, ‹pugnas et tyrannos exactos› magis aure bibit. Quid mirum! Ubi illis carminibus stupens, belua centiceps aures atras demittit et angues intorti [in] capillis Eumenidum recreantur? Quin et Prometheus et parens Pelopis laborem sono dulci decipitur, nec Orion curat leones aut lyncas timidos agitare.
[revised March 27, 2015]
Ille et nefastō tē posuit diē,
quīcumque prīmum, et sacrilegā manū
prōduxit, arbōs, in nepōtum
perniciem opprobriumque pāgī;
illum et parentis crēdiderim suī
frēgisse cervīcem et penetrālia
sparsisse nocturnō cruōre
hospitis, ille venēna Colcha
et quidquid usquam concipitur nefas
tractāvit, agrō quī statuit meō
tē, triste lignum, tē, cadūcum
in dominī caput immerentis.
quid quisque vītet, nunquam hominī satis
cautum est in hōrās: nāvita Bosphōrum
Poenus perhorrescit neque ultrā
caeca timēt aliunde fāta,
mīles sagittās et celerem fugam
Parthī, catēnās Parthus et ītalum
rōbur; sed imprōvīsa lētī
vīs rapuit rapietque gentıs.
quam paene furvae regna Proserpinae
et iūdicantem vīdimus Aeacum
sēdesque discrīptās piōrum et
Aeoliīs fidibus querentem
Sapphō puellīs dē populāribus
et tē sonantem plēnius aureō,
Alcæe, plectrō dūra nāvīs,
dūra fugae mala, dūra bellī.
utrumque sacrō digna silentiō
mīrantur umbrae dīcere, sed magis
pugnās et exactōs tyrannōs
densum umerīs bibit aure vulgus.
quid mīrum, ubī illīs carminibus stupēns
dēmittit ātrās bēlǔǎ centiceps
aurıs et intortī capillīs
Eumenidum recreantur anguēs?
quīn et Promētheus et Pelopis parēns
dulcī labōrum dēcipitur sonō
nec cūrat ōrīōn leōnēs
aut timidōs agitāre lyncās.
:: 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.