Horace ODES I, 5




Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
  grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?
    cui flavam religas comam

simplex munditiis? Heu quotiens fidem
mutatosque deos flebit et aspera
  nigris aequora ventis
    emirabitur insolens,

qui nunc te fruitur credulus aurea,
qui semper vacuam, semper amabilem
  sperat, nescius aurae
    fallacis. Miseri, quibus

intemptata nites. Me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
  suspensisse potenti
    vestimenta maris deo.

If in question about the meter, just be sure you know the rules for longs (by nature or by position before two consonants...) and read by the longs out loud, until it all sounds right.(Then you can forget that these stanzas are Fourth Aesclepiadeian, composed of two asclepiadeans, a pherecratean and a glyconic clausula !) Latin verse tempers the Greek long/short syllable system sub rosa with its own prose accentual rule (accent third from end unless second is long, then accent that), so hammering out the longs and short mechanically creates a rocking-horse effect which is ridiculous. Read the syllables as you would read music notes, some are actually longer and get a trifle more accent, but it is basically duration we are dealing with. I would refrain from thinking about the traditional methods of "scanning" a line with little clutches of -u-'s and -_- "s, which imply that the verse is written to the spec.'s on the blackboards, where it is exactly the other way around.

Horace says that he was the first to bring the Aeolic lyric meters into Latin use (Odes III, 30,13 f.), which is not exactly true. But he was the master of this adaptation of 7th BC Greek lyrics to Roman poetry, and he does this very well indeed with flawless craftsmanship. I mention this not as a point in literary history, but to insist that we read these poems aloud again and again, the only way to appreciate their finish and patina. Never translate Latin, especially these complex poems where the free word-order of the Latin is entirely different in spirit from the fixed (Subj.-- Verb -- Object) word-order of English.

If it doesn't seem too outlandish, spend fifteen minutes with Schenker's "Five Graphic Studies", a remarkable music analysis system which links discrete and separate parts of several sample music scores, to show with what complex inner associations Bach, Handel and Chopin linked tones meaningfully in their compositions. This is exactly what Horace is doing here, not with tones but with words. Much of the art of this poem depends on the linking of non-adjacent words with each other, a device impossible in English. Schenker is possibly the best preparation for Horace!

In the first line the central word "te" is the girl Pyrrha, literally and verbally embraced by some gracilis....puer, the both of them flounced in a bed of roses: multa.....................in rosa, and the question-sentence is itself bracketed between the Latin quis and our typographical ? at the end. I find urget very difficult to translate, it is something like "he is making out with her", sexual in intent and aggressive, but that is slang and Horace is never slangy. The usual word for perfume is unguentum, specifically perfume in a grease base, since the Romans did not have the distilled alcohol vehicle which we use for perfumery. But here our slick young fellow is literally drenched (perfusus) with "flowing perfumeries", as overdone as the odoriferously unpleasant fragrances which barbers used to slap on my head as a boy, final touch to a haircut. And the whole mise-en-scene is in a mock-cave, the sort of garden decoration which the Romans loved and the l8th c. Europeans imitated as "classical".

She ties back her hair in a neat pony-tail, which goes well with that curious phrase simplex munditiis, which Milton three centuries ago translated so aptly as "plain in they neatness", no doubt thinking of the Puritan girls of his early years. And the Romans had a strong vein of puritanism in their souls, but it probably looked different and we are still not sure what these two words really connoted to a Roman. The point is clear, however: She looks plain but she sure isn't, like the WW II posters warning soldiers against VD with a image of a picture- pretty girl-next-door.

Now in the second stanza,everything starts to change, alas!. We have to read algebraically: "changed (faith + gods)", a neat way of avoiding repeated adjectives. As the tears flow, we move on to flowing waves and the kind of storm which suddenly appears in the Adriatic Sea, as he is left wide-eyed (e-mirabitur) and completely shocked by something so unexpected (insolens, which must never be confused with Engl. insolent, although both are from Lat. soleo)

In this third stanza (so printed in all editions on the basis of l9 th c. "Meineke's Law", possibly not Horace's notion) the storm is gone and all is peace and quiet, again te...........aurea (in abl.) "the golden girl", which is doubly apt since she is "precious" and also blond = flava. The Romans were much impressed by the Germanic genes already heavily into north Italy giving the recessive characteristics of blue eyes and blond hair, and the l920's book "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" seemed to point to a general male preference until the blonde bimbo appeared in the l950's. Could the Romans have had a notion of the tricky blonde, as here...? But that one word credulus stands alone, he is lost in her lovely ambiance, gullible, and certainly noted with a slight sneer --- this poor fool, who misses the lying breath.

Shifting to the plural miseri, we see a long succession of would- be lovers who also missed their mark, for whom she was bright and brilliant, so long as they didn't get too near. Hands off! Now we come to that last stanza which is the dispair of students reading the text with dictionary in hand. All of a sudden the words seem as jumbled as the Adriatic Sea above, they don't fit together and above all they don't make sense. Read them over and over......exactly, that is the point. Horace is playing around with your powers of comprehension, and for a good reason. He has been in line with those gullible fellows gaping at the lovely Pyrrha, he wants to tell you about it but there is a certain shamefulness to such an admission, especially being in such credulous and silly company. So he shuffles his words around a bit, adds a word here and there, and introduces a motif which the Roman would have recognized immediately, as would many a modern Catholic in he Mediterranean world. But elsewhere it is not known........

Thinking of the churning seas in the second stanza, Horace puts together bit by bit the words which describe a shipwreck (the Romans were poor sailors, often shipwrecked by clinging to the shore) from which he crawled away alive, placing a votive silver figure on the nearest temple wall. "I foundered on this hard place here too, and did escape, my thanks to God,for my salvation!" The admission is perhaps the main purpose of the poem, slyly injected with a mild, self-deprecating and almost Jewish humor.

But now look at the interwoven texturing of the words:
tabula......(sacer)........ votiva.....(paries) and then another set:
uvida......(potenti)...vestimenta...... (deo).
Draw mental music-ties between these words and you see why I mentioned Schenker at the beginning. We can understand these inner relationships fairly well in music, if with an effort; in English they just don't work.

Also note the alternating moods of the four stanzas. The first and third are calm and overly smooth, the second and fourth are sea-scenes with danger and complex word-weaving. And within each stanza are special inner relationships of meaning, yet we have not even touched upon the assonances and consonances of the sounds heard as musical tones, the underbody of the artistic iceberg, which you will have to discover for yourself by careful readings aloud, accustoming yourself to the fine detailing typical of most ancient poetry.




William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris