Horace Odes, Book I.9


Let me first give the poem just as it stands, since dissection is destruction and comment on subsequent pages following the poem is bothersome. I will then repeat it and add comments part by part.

We should remember that the "stanzas" are something quite modern, configurated in the l9th c. according to Meineke's Law, and they do not appear in the manuscripts on which out editions are so carefully based. Whether Horace's reading copies had stanzas is very questionable, on the other hand we read the poems "stanza'ed" with no hesitation, so our use may well be the deciding factor.

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte nec iam sustineant onus
silvae laborantes, geluque
flumina constiterint acuto.

dissolve frigus ligna super foco
large reponens atque benignius
deprome quadrimum Sabina
o Thaliarche, merum diota:

permitte divis cetera, qui simul
stravere ventos aequore fervido
deproeliantis, nec cupressi
nec veteres agitantur orni.

quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere et
quem Fors dierum cumque dabit lucro
appone, nec dulcis amores
sperne puer neque tu choreas,

donec virenti canities abest
morosa. nunc et campus et areae
lenesque sub noctem susurri
composita repetantur hora,

nunc et latentis proditor intimo
gratus puellae risus ab angulo
pignusque dereptum lacertis
aut digito male pertinaci.




Some years ago I published a semi-translation of this ode in a local Vermont newspaper in the dead of winter, and was surprised how easily it went into our 20th c. circle of consciousness. For Soracte I substituted "Ripton", a hillside town further up in snow country, and since Thaliarchus is described as "puer", I substituted my young son James for him, and asked him to bring me a glass for my bourbon. The rest was natural enough, the logs crackling on the fire, and thoughts of springtime at the highschool where my son would be eyeing the girls and they him in a preview of warmth of the spring evenings. The poem went off well and several people called and told me they were surprised that the author wrote some two thousand years ago. There are differences however. The similarities between ancient and modern are always interesting, but the difference are what makes reading ancient documents worthwhile.

On a cold January midnight in 2003, when the temperature was below zero and too cold in the house to sleep, a gentleman in N. Dakota asked if I had a copy of this newspaper published poem from years back. I had not kept a copy, but reworked it anew and I think it turned out a little better perhaps. Only a few words were changed, and the feeling of th original comes through fairly well:

You see how the snow stands deep in Ripton's woods
The snow and frozen hail have cracked the trees
Half to the ground, the river's hard as land,
Inside we stoke generously the fire. Bobby,
Bring that new cider and sit with me at the fire.
The chill is off. The rest we leave to God
Who strews the winds to fight the sea off Maine,
While oak and hemlock grimly stand it out.
Seek not to dare to ask as tomorrow's gift
That extra day fate fails to take away
But add it to the Credit columnn. And don't forget
Loving and dancing, son, these years are fast hastening.
Soon with spring it's the open fields, the square at eveningtime
When whispers gently caress the appointed ear,
And from a dark corner of the alley behind the stores
A laugh (the betrayer) gladly given, marks
A bracelet snatched as pledge from wrist, a ring
Slipped from a finger that gladly gives the thing.


I find it interesting that this gem of a little poem has been subjected so strenously to the Procrustean bed of the scholar-critics. The first word (vides) has been taken by some to mean that Horace is writing from a vantage point within sight of Soracte, but surely the verb is used in a broader sense. The "you" does not mean that this is actual viewing, or dramatic poetry, but just a touch of a poetic distancing which includes us as readers in what is going to be a very personal poem. There may be more of a problem with the river icing over in line 3-4, since in Italy's milder climate main rivers did not freeze, but these are the tributaries, I suppose. But is that a problem, is that worth mentioning? To dispose of that last scholarly ineptitude, sure enough someone has objected that in the fifth stanza, the youthful courting is done in deep snow since it clearly says "nunc", i.e. right now in winter. Enough of this....... perhaps far too much

The first stanza sweeps over the hillside, the view of a town in the distance, then the evergreens bowed with wet snow and arched over, the stream frozen solid, all outdoor setting for what follows:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte nec iam sustineant onus
silvae laborantes, geluque
flumina constiterint acuto.

Now we are indoors, in a warm country lodge, where there is plenty of logs to heap on the fire. Note that Italy was early virtually deforested, probably as the result of universal cremation of the dead as well as the use of wood for firing kilns in the cement-works. There was no firewood available in Rome then, any more than in New York now, you have to go to the countryside for a good old-fashioned blaze.

The "boy" (garc,on?) is told to bring out wine --- aplenty, don't be stingy with it. Yet it is only four year old vintage, the common local Sabine variety but strangely bottled in a two handled jog (diota) of such rarity that the word occurs only here in all Latin literature. And it is to be drunk straight (merum), which means a serious drinking party, since the Roman normally used a 3 : 1 mixture for general purposes! And now that we have established "vin ordinaraire", in a jug extra-ordinaire, and not with the usual dilution, we come up with the name of the fellow "Thaliarchus", an extraordinary imported Greek name, actually meaning "Master of the Party".

It seems we were just going indoors after viewing a snow-scene, but with typical Horatian complexity, we have juxtaposed a surprising series of comfortable words and notions in only four short lines. Fire, fireplace, wine, a Valet:

dissolve frigus ligna super foco
large reponens atque benignius
deprome quadrimum Sabina
o Thaliarche, merum diota.

Now we can moralize for a moment, leaving it all to the turns of fate and deity. But a storm comes from heaven (another landscape scene but different from the snow scene above). The gods throw down wind to battle it out over the roiling sea, but the ancient ash and cypress (branches used for funerals, a sobering moment!) stand firm and weather it out.

Why the ancient trees with their deep roots standing firm? Is there another turn to this? Yes, but it is left unsaid, that Horace now middleaged can weather out bad times, but the Boy is bendable, flexible, less strength but far more promise of life and more latitude, which brings up the next set of thoughts:

permitte divis cetera, qui simul
stravere ventos aequore fervido
deproeliantis, nec cupressi
nec veteres agitantur orni.

Now the language becomes stiffer, the words come hard after each other, as the poet advises (the Boy or possibly all of us too...?):

"Don't even think of trying to find out what tomorrow brings
Whatever Lady Luck gives, write it in the ledger on the credit side....".

And now we switch completely from stern advice of Old Oak talking to Young Sprout, with a caution to attend to love affairs, singing and dancing, lively living..........and don't ignore your youthful days:

quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere et
quem Fors dierum cumque dabit lucro
appone, nec dulcis amores
sperne puer neque tu choreas,

But back again with sobriety for one line to this:
"While you are young and sour, grayhaired old age is far away"
.........and back again to a wonderful change of climate, season, springtime air and the eternal joyfulness of young people when winter is finally gone and life can resume with pleasure. Now we have the whole panoply of springtime living, with even a college-like Campus and open spaces to wander, gentle whispering voices in the night meeting at an anticipated date.........

donec virenti canities abest
morosa. nunc et campus et areae
lenesque sub noctem susurri
composita repetantur hora,

But as if this were all too open, too simple and apparent, Horace knots up the last stanza with complex word-separations, and ideas which do not release their meaning immediately, as a single picture becomes clear to you, revealing very slowly:

The girl hiding in the alleyway, whose (intentional)giggle reveals her hide-and-seek game to boyfriend who now catching her, playfully wriggles her ring, as keepsake of this warm and lovely evening, from her only half-resisting finger. And with this virtual "montage" the poem abruptly ends.

nunc et latentis proditor intimo
gratus puellae risus ab angulo
pignusque dereptum lacertis
aut digito male pertinaci.




But this is all couched in terms of advice to the Boy Thaliarchus:

"Don't lose a moment that fate give you to spend,
when spring comes be out there with the young ones playing.....

But that brings up another problem:

Is Thaliarchus in fact Horace's Ganymede? In this last generation of scholarship, it has been argued that Horace was homosexually involved with his "puer", and the indices of this are the wine poured out more liberally, drunk straight-up, and even the advice to the fifteen year old "slave boy" to go straight as he gets older, bearded, and less interesting to typical Roman masters. The Romans were used to same-sex affaires with slaves, they felt none of the Puritanic shock which our world felt when the Kinsey Report on male sexuality came out in l950 with its 1 : 4 homosexuality index for the American scene. For the Roman world homosexuality was not a locked-in situation, there was no closet you had to come out of, because the door was open both ways.

I read this poem first years ago as an undergrad, even a few years ago when I did the newpaper translation, I hadn't thought of a homosexual theme in it at all. But as I reconsider, I think it is perfectly possible, it would not have been un-Roman at all, and it doesn't really make a great deal of difference in the interpretation of the poem. Where the great difference appears is in the comparison of Roman lifestyle with modern Western lifestyles, which are undergoing accelerated unveilings, like peeling the layers off an onion again and again...... Perhaps the best approach with this poem is to read it as it stands, let the text speak, and then leave it alone. If it says something to you personally, that is probably all you need to know. But don't quibble on a cultural discrepancy, especially in a poem which reads so well as a fienly crafterpoem, even to a modern reader some two millennia later.

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