Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Long Hope :: Solvitur Acris Hiems :: I:4

This ode is addressed to Lucius Sestius, who was appointed consul suffectus in 23 BC by Augustus (even though Sestius had fought in the republican ranks against the emperor . . . alongside Horace, I might add).

This beautifully constructed ode begins with the loosening of winter’s grip upon the land at the coming of spring. It ends with a reminder about the shortness of life and the fate that awaits us all. 


sharp winter loosened 
by the welcoming turn of spring 
and the winds from the west;
machines dragging out 
the dried up hulls of ships;
the cattle unhappy now in the barn, 
the farmer too by the fire, 
the fields no longer white with frost,
for it is now that Venus Cytherea 
leads the chorus out, moon above, 
the Graces, as they should, arm in arm,
stamping the earth, 
first with this foot then the other,
with Vulcan, glowing, looking in 
at the heavy workshops of the Cyclopes.

now’s the time to weigh down 
the glistening head with green myrtle
or with the flowers they’ll bring 
from the loosened land;
now’s the time to prepare the sacrifice 
for Faunus in shady woods;
perhaps he’ll ask for a female lamb, 
perhaps he’ll prefer a male. 

pale Death kicks in the huts of paupers 
just as it does the towers of kings,
o lucky Sestius, 
the pinnacle of brief life 
stops us from hoping it will be long.
and night presses in on you—
the stories, the ghosts,
the bleak house of Pluto, 
where, once you arrive,
you won’t be chosen 
by a throw of the dice 
wine king of the party,
you won’t be able to 
admire tender Lycidas—
for him all youth now burns
and soon the girls untried.
                                                                                              revised translation © by James Rumford 2013

I have a different take from most scholars on some of the lines in this ode. For instance, take line 15:

vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam 

According to Jeffrey Kaimowitz in his excellent The Odes of Horace (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), it means:

lifes’s brief span forbids us to enter hope far-reaching

A translation by the poet Ernest Dowson [1867–1900], who gave us ‘days of wine and roses’ and ‘gone with the wind,’ is everywhere on the web:

The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long

A French translation has: 

le cours de la vie est bref et 
nous défend les longues espérances

I suppose that I might agree with these translations. Summa can mean all of these things: span, sum, and course [cours]. But what if summa means, as it can, ‘height,’ ‘chief point,’ ‘perfection’? Wouldn’t this make more sense? The ode is about spring. Spring doesn’t last forever. There will be summer and fall and winter and death. It is the high point of life—youth—that is brief, surely. So I translate this line as: 

The pinnacle of brief life
stops us from hoping
that it will be long.

But there are more problems with this line. Does brevis modify summa or vitae? Does longam modify spem or is it a noun meaning ‘a long one,’ referring to life?  And if longam does modify spem, what does ‘long hope’ mean? In ode I:11, Horace talks about pruning back long hope:

spem longam reseces

And in III:21, he talks about reducing it:

tu spem reducis

Clearly, to Horace, hope has the dimension of length; whereas, in English, its dimension is one of magnitude: great white hope, great expectations, big hopes. Hope is often in the plural in English. Moreover, hope is something that we can build upon. We say ‘she built her hopes on his return.’  

This allusion to building is interesting, too, because in today’s ode, Horace uses the verb incohare with spem longamIncohare means ‘to start’ or ‘to lay the foundation of a building.’

Slowly, painfully, things are starting to make sense. Literally (and awkwardly) line 15 must read:

The short pinnacle of life stops us 
from laying down long hope.

Idiomatically, from an English point of view, line 15 must read:

The short pinnacle of life stops us
from building up great hopes.

Other nettlesome lines are the last two:

nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuventus [19]
nunc omnis et mox virgines tepebunt 

Most take these lines to mean:

and you won’t look at tender Lycidas, 
for whom all the boys are burning 
now, and soon the girls will be warm.

I suppose that scholars see a kind of parallelism here. If the girls are warm, then it stands to reason that iuventus, [youth, young persons] must mean boys. And given the sexual mores of Roman society, why not? But I don’t see the parallelism. Instead, I take iuventus to mean ‘the age of youth.’ Like spring, youth heats up the body, and it won’t be long before the girls are warmed by this tender boy named Lycidas. 

and you won’t look at tender Lycidas,
in whom youth now burns entirely,
and soon the girls will be warm.

My interpretation depends upon two things. First, omnis, with its short i to fit the meter, could mean 'completely, entirely.' Second,  q is the ablative of quī and can mean ‘by whom.’ But ablatives can also express location, as in this line from Virgil: 

Celsā sedet Aeolus arcō   
Aeolus is seated on a high citadel.

Or ablatives can express what grammarians call ‘respect or specification,’ as in this line from Horace:

Ex corde et genibus tremit.
He trembles both in heart and knees.

If this is what Horace meant by the ablative of quō, then perhaps my interpretation is correct.

in prose:

Hiems acris iam vice grata veris et Favoni solvitur. Machinaeque carinas siccas trahunt. Ac neque iam pecus stabulis aut arator igni gaudet nec prata pruinis canis albicant. 
Iam, luna imminente, Venus Cytherea choros ducit, Grataeque decentes iunctae Nymphis pede alterno terram quatiunt, dum Vulcanus ardens officinas graves Cyclopum visit. 
Nunc decet caput nitidum aut myrto viridi aut flore ‹quem terrae solutae ferunt› impedire. 
Nunc decet Fauno in lucis umbrosis immolare, seu agna poscat sive haedo malit. 
Mors Pallida tabernas pauperum turresque regum pede aequo pulsat. 

O Sesti beate, summa brevis vitae nos vetat spem longam incohare. Iam nox Manesque fabulae et domus exilis Plutonia te premet, quo simul mearis, nec regna vini talis sortiere nec Lycidan tenerum mirabere, quo iuventus omnis nunc calet, et virgines mox tepebunt.
[revised March 26, 2015]

original ode:

Solvitur acris hiems grātā vice vēris et Favōnī
   trahuntque sīccās māchinae carīnās,
ac neque iam stabulīs gaudet pecus aut arātor ignī
   nec prāta cānīs albicant pruīnīs.
iam Cytherēa chorōs dūcit Venus imminente lūnā
   iunctaeque Nymphīs Grātiae decentēs
alternō terram quatiunt pede, dum gravıs Cȳclōpum
   Volcānus ardēns vīsit officīnās.
nunc decet aut viridī nitidum caput impedīre myrtō
   aut flōre, terrae quem ferunt solūtae;
nunc et in umbrōsīs Faunō decet immolāre lūcīs,
   seu poscat agnā sīve mālit haedō.
Pallida Mors aequō pulsat pede pauperum tabernās
   rēgumque turrıs. ō beāte Sestī,
vītae sūmma brevis spēm nōs vetat incohāre longam.
   iam tē premet nox fābulaeque Mānēs
et domus exīlis Plūtōnia, quō simul meāris,
   nec regna vīnī sortiēre tālīs
nec tenerum Lycīdan mīrābere, quō calet iuventus
   nunc omnis et mox virginēs tepēbunt.

:: 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. Translation of poetry can never be exact. Your translation is very good.

  2. Fascinating: illustrative of how complex translation (of poetry) can be. But from a non-academic point of view poetry has meaning when it speaks directly to the reader: one is moved or not, and being moved is all.

  3. Thank you for your comment. Translation is pretty much impossible. I try to stay as close as possible to what I think Horace is saying, but, in the end, all I can hope to do is put in English what I felt as I read the poem in Latin.

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  5. James! Excellent to remove the homosexual allusion. The ode is full of Platonic universals, I think you are right. The chastity of your conclusion allows tepebunt to cross ring against solvitur acris. What does canis mean? For my Chinese students I have:

    Winter's harshness dissolves
    Giving way to spring breezes
    And spring goddesses.
    Their dancing, under the moon
    Shakes the earth.
    The farmer doesn't cling
    To the fireside, and the animals
    Don't linger in the stall.
    Dry boats are pulled up, from the lake,
    Into frosty fields; Vulcan
    Checks out the workshop where thunderbolts are made.

    I think this hits the mark. It should go smoothly into Chinese. Like English, where it does multiple parentheses and semantic hierarchical dependencies, the clarity seems at the expense of the texture. I tried a musical setting fairly seriously a decade ago; but lost my way and had to give up.
    This is more modest and would be better as a starting point.
    In these three Scenae - the winter landscape; the mythological mirror; and the pragmatic Epicurean corollaries, Horace has almost enough for an opera. Multum in parvo, indeed.
    For me perhaps the most telling detail is the dry keels. I don't take the view that they have been pulled up onto the beach to escape the January storms; but think they have been there a long time. They'll only be lowered back into the water when it's time to send goods by river again. Where do you think this was written? I guess in Latium, near a small river. Thanks - Martin. I am sure the late David West - a good and old friend of mine (with whom, however I never discussed it) would love both your translation and its justifications. Very fine work indeed!

  6. Thank you for your very kind comments and your mention of such a scholar as David West.

    I liked your Chinese-style poem very much. I wonder: if Horace had been Chinese, would his poem have begun with these words?


    Where do you teach? And do you know Chinese?

    I do not know where Horace’s poem was written, but I suspect somewhere along the coast south of Rome. His villa in the hills would still have been in the grip of winter. But was this a plein-air verbal painting or just the musings of a poet in a hot Italian summer?