Horace ODES III 12




We turn to a short poem which has received more critical attention for its rare ionic a minore metre than for its artistic value. Look at the commentaries and you will find hardly a word of interpretation or insight, which makes this an interesting study for an entirely different approach. I am going to deal with this poem as if I were working with a film scenario, supplying an audio-track which comes directly from suggestions in the text, a set of visual shots from various angles (again text- based), and accompany this with a detailed plot and word- commentary. This interpretation will certainly be seen as a very unusual piece of Classical Commentary, I hope not a voice crying out in the wilderness.

miserarum neque amore dare ludum neque dulci
mala vino lavere aut exanimari metuentes
patruae verbera linguae

tibi qualum cytherae puer ales, tibi telas
operosaeque Minervae studium aufert, Neobule
Liparaei nitor Hebri

simul unctos tiberinis umeros lavit in undis
eques ipso melior Bellerophonte, neque pugno
neque segni pede victus

catus idem per apertum fugientes agitato
grege cervos iaculari et celer arto latitantem
fruticeto excipere aprum




With the first words one hears the background beat (short- short-long-long),which persists throughout the poem. This is the "audio track", a separate sound sequence which accompanies (through the mind's ear) what the mind's eye is observing. We see a girl sitting spinning wool, a scene familiar enough to Romans but one which in our world of man-made fabrics has been relegated to the museum.. But any one who has observed a weaver at the preparatory task of spinning wool into thread, will recognize the rhythmic pattern of the foot driving the wheel. (Catching the treadle at 2:00 o'clock, the foot gives a second push at about 4:00, after which the wheel picks up inertia at 6:00 and coasts on its own, spinning up to and over the top.) These very different pushing and coasting motions, evoked in the metre as two shorts followed by two longs, divide each turn into two rotatory segments. Sappho knew this motion well, it was who she made it famous as the metre which known in every Greek hamlet as women spun out the thread of livelihood. The "Sapphic Ionic a minore" metre was no bit of formal Classical experimenting, but a rhythm taken from daily life.

The first stanza is drenched in the sadnesses of young girls, specifically in terms of the things girls cannot do, making love and drinking at a symposium, while on the other hand they shudder at an evil uncle's lashing tongue urging them to work. The uncle in antiquity is the surrogate controlling the family when the father dies or is absent, he has as bad a name as the malicious stepfather often has in our society. (The first word in the poem emphasizes their feelings: miserarum..) Sadness under duress runs through this first stanza, while the pump of the wheel inexorably drones on.

Visualize this scene in an archaeologically correct work-room, perhaps like one of the rooms on the first floor in the Greek collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The walls are plastered, painted in a mild rufous hue, the window is large, shutters are folded back during daylight, there are of course no panes and no glazing, so the view is unobstructed. Through this window we are led to the outside scene, which is the business of the next stanza.

We have been looking at Neobule, overcome by the onerous burden of loom and shuttle and everything that a typically Roman Minerva-oriented production world symbolizes. But she suddenly looks through the window and sees the "brightness" of a boy, resplendent in athlete's olive-oil and youth, who bears the shiningly exotic name of "Hebrus". He comes from the bright South, from the island of Lipare just north of Sicily. (How suitable that the town-island of Lipara or Lipare is identical in form with the Greek adjective liparos "oily, oiled".) Indeed he is no dull, run-of-the-mill Roman athlete, but a smooth Magna- Grecian, and Neobule's spirit rises (the wheel spins on automatically),while she watches him with all her heart and soul.

Now we shift our gaze through the window with a medium- speed zoom, to see the boy close at hand, moving quickly, engaged in one kind of athletic exercise after another, swift, beautiful and above all "free". (This is all still through the eyes of the girl in the foreground, sitting framed in the window, watching.) Four short shots are set up in fast sequence. There he is, now swimming, now riding a horse, now boxing, now running swiftly - - - the images flash one after another. In the foreground, through the eye of the camera, we still see Neobule as she watches, her wheel spinning endlessly, while outside at a distance, as in vignette, this handsome lad Hebrus exercises.

The exacerbated physicalness of the athletic youth, demonstrating four hyper-activities in three compact lines, is a almost visual montage. Behind the alternating scenes we still hear the insistent beat of the spinning-wheel rhythm, reminding us that this is all seen through the eyes of the tired girl at the window, drearily spinning wool, in the spirit of a Roman "good girl", who was commemorated for Romans in the traditional epitaph: DOMI SEDIT LANAM FECIT

The last stanza introduces two scenes of hunting. In the first scene the boy is "sharp, watchful" (catus) watching while the deer flee whirling in a frenzied herd. In hunting in the ancient world, the deer were driven toward the hunter, who stands waiting for the kill, an effective if not quite a sporting proposition. The deer herd whirls as unseen beaters move them forward, while Hebrus stands motionless in a freeze shot, as the scene fades. The wild boar, that most dangerous of Mediterranean animals, is hidden invisible in a dense thicket, hiding and waiting. Hebrus is standing poised before the thicket, also waiting. With one brilliant visual stroke Horace conducts us swiftly from a woman's static world, in which the only movement is the motion of the spinning wheel, by way of a young man's hyper-athletic arena of frenzied activity, a to the total immobility of a hunter watching a boar invisible in the bushes.

The scene is frozen, but in the audio track the metre drums out its beat. Here in intense outline are woman's world vis a vis man's world, both are weft and warp in the Roman social fabric, but in spirit and fact entirely different. All this is shown through the web of interlocking words, sounds and scenes in this finely executed and compressed little vignette.

In closing I must note that the ancient Greek and Latin poets used their art as a way of conveying visual imagery, something we often miss from our print-culture base. Reading has become for many of us a fast scanning process, weeding the meaning out from the chaff of words. And we have such a wealth of available visual materials from the Eastman camera and cinematic film to four-color high quality printing, that our visual needs are well satisfied, perhaps even sated. But in the Greco- Roman world, where the colors were those of nature, a few bright dyes, the metals and some earth-based colorants, the best visual imagery rested in the eye of a man or woman reading vital poetry carefully, with relish. Poetry was not mere verse, but an eye into the world's visual treasure house.

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