I can’t help myself. I’m reading this poem and I don’t see 40 BC but 2010 AD. It’s a holiday. A guy is watching the game on tv, telling his wife to bring him some more beer. His wife sits down to watch with him. By the time the game is over, they’re both a little drunk. Now the wife’s in the kitchen playing the radio. The husband comes in to see what’s cooking, one thing leads to another and—to return to the BC times— Venus is flying around her islands holding on to her long-necked swans.
What I just wrote is probably heresy to those who only see togas when they read Horace.
But Horace does evoke a vivid scene. It’s July 23, the day of the feast of Neptune. He and Lyde (a servant? a girlfriend?) have some wine and sing about the Nereides (nymphs) in the sea, Diana’s (Cynthia’s) mother Latona and about Venus, who holds sway over Knidos on Cyprus and the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea and whose chariot is driven by swans. They end the night with a nenia.
What is a nenia? It is a song, a dirge, a ditty, a lullaby, but these definitions don’t seem to fit, although most dictionaries quote this ode and say that what Horace means is a song, not a dirge. Porphyrio writes:
Nenia carmen est, quod in mortuos cantatur. Sed bene hoc carmen etiam nocti adcommodat propter tenebras et somnum, quae morti sunt proxima.
A nenia is a song which is sung for the dead. But well does this ‘song’ also fit the night on account of the darkness and on account of sleep, which are close to death.
I really don’t know what to make of this word. Is Horace talking about singing a dirge or a nighty-night ditty? Is he contrasting the death-like darkness of night with the bright noon of day? I have no answer. All I know is that Horace seems to use the last line as one would use the knurled adjustment on a pair of binoculars: to bring into focus what has already been seen.
To return to our modern drama, the husband and wife are lying awake at night. It’s dark and quiet and that nagging thought of death, like some tune impossible to stop playing, has taken over their thoughts.
What would I like to do on Neptune Day?
Lyde, run and get the Caecubum wine
hidden away and storm wisdom’s ramparts.
You see the noon sun heading down and, as
if the flying day was standing still, you’re
slow in getting from the wine cellar that
idle jar put up in Bibulus’s time.
We’ll take turns singing about Neptune and
the green-haired Nereides. With curved lyre you’ll
recall Latona and swift Cynthia’s
arrows. The last song? She who holds Knidos
and the shining isles of the Cyclades,
who visits Paphos on her harnassed swans.
Night too’ll be feted with a fitting air.
translation© 2010 by James Rumford
Quid potius die festo Neptuni faciam?
[O] Lyde, strenua, Caecubum reconditum prome, vimque munitae sapientiae adhibe!
Meridiem inclinare sentis ac, veluti dies volucris stet, parcis amphoram cessantem consulis Bibuli horreo deripere?
Nos invicem Neptunum et comas virides Nereidum cantabimus. Tu lyra curva Latonam et spicula Cynthiae celeris recines, summo carmine, quae Cnidon Cycladasque fulgentes tenet et oloribus iunctis Paphon visit. Nox quoque nenia merita dicetur.
[revised March 28, 2015]
Festō quid potius diē
Neptūnī faciam? prōme reconditum,
Lȳdē, strēnua Caecubum
mūnītaeque adhibē vim sapientiae.
sentis ac, velutī stet volucris diēs,
parcis dēripere horreō
cessantem Bibulī consulis amphoram?
nōs cantābimus invicem
Neptunum et viridıs Nēreidum comās,
tū curvā recinēs lyrā
Lātōnam et celeris spīcula Cynthiae;
sūmmō carmine, quae Cnidon
fulgentısque tenet Cȳcladās et Paphon
iunctīs vīsit olōribus;
dīcētur meritā Nox quoque nēniā.
:: 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.