This poem is a recusatio, a word we rarely use in English except in legalese: the judge recuses himself. In Latin poetry recusatio was a clever way for the poet to refuse the invitation to write about a subject he didn't think appropriate or worthy of his skills or beyond his abilities.
In today's ode, Horace doesn't want to write about the Empire for some reason or another, claiming that poetry is for love and beauty and sex. He chooses some woman named Licymnia and sings of her beauty. Much better, Horace thinks, than using poetry to echo the shouts of the crowd when they see the head of some savage chieftain dragged through the streets of Rome.
Who this Licymnia was no one knows. Some think it was a code name for Maecenas' wife. Since the ode is addressed to Maecenas, this seems likely, but more likely, as others point out, is that Licymnia was a fictitious character because no one in his right mind would write, "Mycenas, I'm not going to write about what you write about. Instead, I'm going to write about your wife!"
Recusatio as a form of poetry seems odd to us these days, but in a more repressed society, perhaps this is the only way to say what was really on one's mind. The faint attack using one's wit is better than a direct thrust of words that might cause irreparable damage. Recusatio began with Callimachus, a noted Greek poet and librarian of the fourth century before Christ, who refused to write lyric poetry for his patron and figured out a very literary and sophisticated way to tell him so.
Emily Kratzer at UCLA writes in her paper "The Didactic Role of Recusatio and the Horatian Persona," that Horace refused to write about a lot of things because only he knew what was best for poets to sing about. He was the poet of good taste.
Along with Horace's use of recusatio comes arrogance, I believe, and it is this smell of arrogance that I catch a whiff of every now and then from reading Horace. Horace tells us that he will last a thousand years. He and the rest of the great poets will sing to the dead in the underworld and their power is enough to quiet the cerberus. He alone could write of Cleopatra as having the highest moral values while the rest of Rome reviled her. He alone could say that he had communed with the gods, and that they had saved him for great things.
A few notes:
Numantia [Spanish: Numancia], an ancient Celtiberian settlement in the north-central Spanish province of Soria. In 134 BC, Scipio Aemilianus lay siege to the city. Most of the inhabitants committed suicide rather than surrender. Today Numanicia has been turned into a tourist site complete with a reconstructed Celtiberian town and fortifications.
Lapithae [Λαπίθαι], uncivilized mountain people of Thessaly who fought with the centaurs at the wedding of their king Pirithoüs.
Hylaeus [Ὺλαῖος], a centaur.
Achaemenes [Άχαιμένης, هخامنشی], the ancestor of the old Persian kings and used poetically to mean fabulous wealth from Asia.
Mygdon [Μύγδων], a mythical king of ancient Phrygia (now central Turkey).
You wouldn't wish long Numantia wars
nor cruel Hannibals nor Sicilian Seas
purple with Punic blood to be fitted
to the soft rhythms of the cithara,
nor wild Lipithae and Hylaeus on
too much wine, and Tellurian giants
tamed by Hercules' hand, when danger
shook the gleaming house of old Saturn.
But you, Maecenas, can tell better in
prose the histories of the battles of
the emperor and of the necks of once
threatening kings dragged through the city streets.
For me: the Muse wants to sing me sweet
songs of the lady Licymnia, about
her eyes flashing with the light of truth and
her heart loyal to love well returned;
about her who did not disgrace the group
dancing nor telling jokes nor locking arms
playing with the elegant maidens on
the thronged festival day of Diana.
Wouldn't you switch what rich Achaemenes
had or the Mygdonian wealth of fat
Phrygia or the Arabs' stuffed houses
for just one lock of Licymnia's hair,
when on fire she turns her neck for kisses
or with easy cruelty tells you no,
kisses when begged she loves to be stolen,
kisses she sometimes steels right from the start?
translation © 2010 by James Rumford
Nolis bella longa Numantiae ferae nec Hannibalem durum nec mare purpureum Siculum sanguine Poeno modis mollibus citharae aptari nec Lapithas saevos et Hylaeum nimium mero iuvenesque Telluris manu Herculea domitos, unde domus fulgens Saturni veteris [ob] periculum contremuit.
Tuque proelia Caesaris ‹collaque regum minacium per vias ducta› historiis pedestribus melius dices, Maecenas.
Me, musa me voluit dicere: cantus dulces dominae Licymniae, oculos lucidum fulgentes et pectus amoribus mutuis bene fidum. Quam nec dedecuit choris pedem ferre, nec [dedecuit] ioco certare, nec [dedecuit] ludentem bracchia virginibus nitidis [in] die sacro Dianae celebris dare.Num tu velis quae Achaemenes dives tenuit aut opes Mygdonias Phrygiae pinguis aut domos plenas Arabum [cum] crine Licyminiae permutare, cum [ea] ad oscula flagrantia cervicem detorquet aut [cum] saevitia facili negat [oscula] quae gaudeat eripi magis poscente, [negat quae] occupet interdum rapere? [revised March 27, 2015]
English translation: http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/horawill.shtml
Nōlis longa ferae bella Numantiae,
nec dūrum Hannibalem nec Siculum mare
Poenō purpureum sanguine mollibus
aptārī citharae mōdīs,
nec saevōs Lapithās et nimium merō
Hȳlaeum domitōsque Herculeā manū
Tellūris iuvenēs, unde perīculum
fulgēns contremuit domus
Sāturnī veteris; tūque pedestribus
dīcēs historiīs proelia Caesarīs,
Maecēnās, melius ductaque per viās
rēgum colla minācium.
mē dulcēs dominae Mūsa Licymniae
cantūs, mē voluit dīcere lūcidum
fulgentıs oculōs et bene mūtuīs
fīdum pectus amōribus;
quam nec ferre pedem dēdecuit chorīs
nec certāre iocō nec dare bracchia
lūdentem nitidīs virginibus sacrō
Dīānae celebris diē.
num tū quae tenuit dīves Achaemenēs
aut pinguis Phrygiae Mygdoniās opēs
permūtāre velis crīne Licȳmniae,
plēnās aut Arabum domōs
cum flāgrantia dētorquet ad oscula
cervīcem aut facilī saevitiā negat
quae poscente magis gaudeat ēripī,
interdum rapere occupet?
:: 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.