Friday, March 25, 2011

Count to Ten :: O Matre Pulchra :: I:16

I had no idea that there was a special type of poetry for writing nasty comments about someone in Ancient Greece. This slam-poetry of the ancients was called iambic poetry, or poetry of the goddess Iambe, who apparently liked off-color humor and hurling insults. Over time, the preferred meter for this type of poetry was the da-dum variety and the da-dum came to be called the iamb. Of the ancient poets, Archilochus, who lived between 680 and 645 BC, was a master at iambic poetry. His nasty (mean) verses were either loved or hated or banned. He was, scholars say, a brilliant poet nonetheless, but his poetry, alas, has only come down to us in fragments. It seems that Horace, who had lived in Greece and who must have read much of the works of Archilochus, developed a liking for the ancient poet’s style. 

So we have today’s ode, which talks about iambic poetry and anger. 

We don’t readily admit to anger these days. Anger is not something we want to talk about, especially on such a scale as Homer did in the Iliad. Anger is something we want to leave behind us with the cave man. The God of Dies Irae can be angry; we cannot. Anger is childish. We hide anger behind words like ‘day of infamy’ or behind the rhetoric used in the war with Iraq. I wonder: if anger were part of the discussion of Meet the Press, for example, would the world’s stage be no better than a pre-school playground or would we descend even further into a world of overheated, vulpine news commentary? 

Horace believes that the anger that wells up inside of us is the greatest among all the animals, for we have the heart of a lion gone insane and can do what Atreus did, who killed his nephews and served them for dinner to their own father Thyestes. But unlike animals, our anger fuels revenge and we won’t quit even after the fight is over. We level the walls of our enemies’ cities and with our plows plant crops where once stood mighty towers. We create Versailles treaties, erect Dachaus, utterly destroy the Dresdens of the world, and push on until we have unconditional surrender. 

But come on, now. I think I have been taken in by Horace’s rhetoric. Maybe he is joking. All this talk of anger turns out to be a spat between lovers: amorous anger—something altogether different, isn’t it? Surely, somewhere in the netherworld Horace has a twinkling in his eye, perhaps a wink, as if to say, “Gotcha!”

* * * *

Lines 1–12 all go together in one giant, complicated sentence, that I might simplify by taking out all of the examples. (It’s Horace’s use of one example after the other that usually complicates things: I get lost in them and forget what he is trying to say!)

Liber mentem non quatit—
ut irae quas ensis ne deterret.
Bacchus doesn’t rattle the mind—
like anger which a sword may not deter.

Now these lines seem simple bacause the structure is clear. What if I simplified the entire poem? The word ‘evisceration’ comes to mind; so I had better not. Instead, here is my translation:

Lovely daughter, lovelier than the mother, 
get rid, however you want, of the nasty 
iambic lines, either by flame or, 
if you wish, by the Adriatic Sea.

No Dindymene, no dweller of Pytho’s
inner shrine, not even Liber, can rattle the 
minds of priests, Corybante priests 
don’t so clash their violent copper cymbals

as does sad anger, which a Noricus sword 
can not deter, not the shipwrecking sea,
not wild fire, not even Jupiter’s 
rain rushing down with tremendous lightning.

Prometheus, forced to add parts cut out from 
everywhere to the primal mud, is said 
to have placed within our stomach-heart  
the violence of a raging lion. 

Anger flung Thyestes down in terrible 
ruin and remains the ultimate cause of 
why lofty cities wholly perish 
and an enraged army drives the hostile 

plow over its walls. Rein in the mind. Me as well
boiling passion in tender youth put to the 
test, and sent furious me hurried 
iambic lines. Now I seek to exchange

my ill-humored words for more palatable 
ones, if only you will be my girl once the 
nasty words are taken back and you 
restore a sense of rationality. 
translation © 2011 by James Rumford


Corybantes [Corybas]: priests of Cybele, known for their wild religious services.

Dindymene: Cybele, the goddess of Mount Dindymon [either Murat Dağı or Kaz Dağı] in modern Turkey.

Pythius: Pytho, that is: Delphi.

Liber: Bacchus

Noricus: Noric from Noreia in Styria [Steiermark in southern Austria]. After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following WWI, Norische Republik was a name proposed for what was to become Austria.

Iuppiter: symbol for rainy skies

Thyestes: Greek king who slept with his brother’s wife and angered him so much that in revenge his brother killed Thyestes’ sons and cooked them and fed them unknowingly  to Thyestes.  Clement Lawrence Smith (The Odes and Epodes of Horace, 1903) says that Horace in his line irae Thyesten exitio gravi stravere is referring to a part of the myth that has not come down to us. Thus, I suppose, what Horace wrote is open to interpretation. Either anger threw Thyestes down because of grave mischief (referring to the fact the Thyestes had slept with his brother’s wife) or anger threw Thyestes down into serious destruction. Everyone, however, prefers the latter possibility. Niall Rudd translates the line as ‘It was anger that laid Thyestes low in dire destruction.’ The French translation is ‘La colère poussa Thyestès à une ruine terrible.’ The Dephin Ordo rephrases this line as: ‘Iracundia Thyestem perdidit execrandâ strage.’ Strage comes from the same root as does stravere and can mean ‘defeat.’ I suppose that execrandâ  is exsecrandā. The meaning is ‘Anger destroyed Thyestes through a cursed defeat.’
insolens: according to early commentators: iratus commotus.

in prose:

O filia ‹matre pulchra pulchrior›, quemcumque modum voles, iambis criminosis pones, sive flamma, sive libet mari Hadriano. 
Non Dindymene, non incola [in] adytis Pythiis, non Liber aeque, mentem sacerdotum quatit, non Corybantes aera acuta sic geminant—ut irae tristes quas neque ensis Noricus deterret, nec mare naufragum, nec ignis saevus, nec Iuppiter ipse tumultu tremendo ruens. 
Prometheus, coactus ‹particulam undique desectam› ‹limo principi› addere, fertur [se] et vim leonis insani stomacho nostro apposuisse. 
Irae Thyesten exitio gravi straver[runt].
Et [irae] urbibus altis causae ultimae steter[unt] cur funditus perirent exercitusque insolens aratrum hostile [in] muris imprimeret. 
Mentem compesce. Fervor pectoris me quoque in iuventa dulci temptavit et iambos celeres [me] furentem misit; nunc ego quaero mitibus tristia mutare, opprobriis recantatis, dum mihi amica fias animumque reddas. [revised March 27, 2015]

original ode:

Ō mātre pulchrā fīlia pulchrior,
quem crīminōsīs cumque volēs modum
   pōnēs iambīs, sīve flammā
        sīve marī libet Hādriānō.
nōn Dindymēnē, nōn adytīs quatit
mentem sacerdōtum incola Pȳthiīs[Pȳthius],
   nōn Līber aequē, nōn acūtā
        sīc geminant Corybantěs aerā,
tristēs ut īrae, quās neque Nōricus
dēterret ensis nec mare naufragum
   nec saevus ignis nec tremendō
        Iuppiter ipse ruēns tumultū.
fertur Promētheus addere principī
līmō coactus particulam undique
   dēsectam et insānī leōnis
        vim stomac apposuisse nostrō.
īrae Thyesten exitiō gravī
strāvēre et altīs urbibus ultimae
   stetēre causae, cūr perīrent
        funditus imprimeretque mūrīs
hostile arātrum exercitus insolēns.
compesce mentem: mē quoque pectoris
   temptāvit in dulcī iuventā
        fervor et in celerıs iambōs
mīsit furentem. nunc ego mītibus
mūtāre quaerō tristia, dum mihi
   fīās recantātīs amīca
        opprobriīs animumque reddās.

:: 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. Great translation!!
    I like the idea of "amorous anger" being unique. Do you have any additional insight into Horace's further thoughts on the nuances of anger?

  2. Thank you for your comment. I have nothing more to add, but I did search through Horace's odes to find other instances of the word 'anger': iracunda fulmina (Ode I:3, blog Jan 24 11); iracunda classis (Ode I:15, blog May 22 11), and ira caedis (Ode III:2, blog Dec 2 09). Etymologically, the word "ire" is related to other Indo-European words having to do with passion, as in the Greek hieros (sacred: hieroglyph). My favorite is the Greek oistros, meaning "a gadfly"! Interestingly, my blog above suggested that we try to hide anger these days. Not so sure that, after Jan 20 2017, that this will still be the case.