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After wrestling through several Latin translations of Horace and trying to come to grips with him as a poet, I decided the best way to get “into Horace’s head” would be to translate him myself. Though Mrs. Krepich, my high school Latin teacher, might have hoped otherwise, my Latin, poor to begin with, has atrophied. I am saved somewhat by my slightly better Greek, but I barely limp through the original for the most part. So I roped a local Latin professor into my venture and we’ve been meeting once a week, translating and debating the meaning of Horace. Later, with our discussion in mind, I will make a translation in hopes of “righting” whatever wrongs I feel has been done by modern translators.

I’m not really righting any wrongs, of course–just putting my own spin on things. But it’s been an interesting learning process. We were foolish enough to take on one of Horace’s most famous and translated Odes: i.5. Milton’s attempt is the most famous:

What slender Youth bedew’d with liquid odours
Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
Pyrrha for whom bindst thou
In wreaths thy golden Hair,

Plain in thy neatness; O how oft shall he
On Faith and changèd Gods complain: and Seas
Rough with black winds and storms
Unwonted shall admire:

Who now enjoyes thee credulous, all Gold,
Who alwayes vacant alwayes amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindfull. Hapless they

To whom thou untry’d seem’st fair. Me in my vow’d
Picture the sacred wall declares t’ have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern God of Sea.

Milton’s poem is famously “word for word” (as much as possible from the Latin) and captures Horace’s meaning clearly and accurately. Anthony Hecht did a more irreverent “imitation”:

What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,”
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

“Russian Leather” aside, Hecht translates Horace with the 20th century reader in mind, but perhaps loses Horace’s steady-minded, quietly passionate tone in this poem.

Some critics have called Ode i.5 a perfect poem. It has an almost “tossed off” feel, yet upon further study reveals itself to be intricately wrought. It is quite similar to the way Bishop’s craft has made her a “poet’s poet.” This sense of the poem is captured by a Latin phrase from the poem itself: “simplex munditiis.” Milton translates it “Plain in thy neatness”; Hecht translates it much more loosely and colloquially as the “something simple” that Pyrrha slips into. David Ferry makes my favorite translation–“elegant and simple”–a phrase that also describes this poem. In this case, the highest art conceals its artifice. Pyrrha has possibly spent hours getting her hair “just so,” if only so that she can brush off a compliment with “Oh, it was nothing. I just rolled out of bed from a nap and it looked like this.” It reinforces the double illusion that 1. she looks this amazing all the time, and 2. she does not spend hours on her hair. It is the artifice of elegance: that whatever beauty exists in the object has arisen almost naturally, without contemplation, it’s very being tapped into beauty itself.

It’s often the same way with a poem. On the one hand, poetry, particularly formal poetry, draws attention to itself as poetry by its choice to act (or not act) in a way we understand to be poem-like. On the other hand, we derive a special pleasure out of coming full circle and hearing a poem that appears utterly unintentional in its formality, whose execution of the form makes us forget the constructedness of the form itself, as if it’s possible for a sonnet to occur in natural speech at almost any moment. It elevates poetry from “techne” to something divine (and thus the poet inspired–literally God-breathed!).

Then again, perhaps I’m overstating the goals of an art which conceals its artifice (nor do I necessarily believe that it’s the ideal or highest). I say all this only to emphasize that the process of translation–of this ode, at least–is hopeless from the beginning. Horace is just too good a craftsman for a translation to do him any ultimate justice. Yet I believe translators hope for a sort of “good will” that can exist between between themselves and the poet. In this sense, we need not fret about the “treasonous” act of translation, and another poet’s interpretation has the validity of a friendly presumption because of this good will. This good will gives license to the translator’s creative will and frees the translator from attempting to supplant the original (for indeed, this is what a perfectly accurate translation would do, were it possible to achieve). I think it also gives readers some criteria with which to judge a translation by, nebulous though it might be to try and discern the how a translator’s “good will” plays out in the text of the translation.

This brings me to my translation of Ode i.5. When I began this translation, Horace was very much on my mind; that is, I was trying to get into his head. The opening lines, especially, seem important because they say so much about what a translator interprets the original. Later, after certain decisions have been made, the poem becomes more “yours” as a writer. You’ve made certain stylistic choices in the beginning that sets in motion the rest of the poem’s machinery. The first step itself narrows the scope and closes off an infinite range of other poems. Here is my translation as it stands now:

What eager fellow is it now,
Pyrrha, who–in a cloud of cologne–brings
you roses and courts you in
a secret hideaway? (Do you

do your hair still with the same
simple elegance?) How often will
his sweat drip over your faithlessness
and the possibility that Aphrodite might change

her mind again? And how will he
unknowing marvel at the callous
sea and the blackening clouds?
You see he actually still enjoys

your love’s golden glow, flatters
himself that you’ll stay true and tender. He
doesn’t know that whispering breezes
change, that it’s a fool who steers

by untried stars. But me?
You’ll see I’ve hung my dripping
cloak in honor of the mighty god
that saved me from disaster
_____and the open sea.

The first choice for me was how to render “gracilis” the adjective that describes the young man (“puer”) who is currently pleasing Pyrrha. The word choice here is incredibly important because it is the first means by which Horace indicates own feelings toward the new couple. “Gracilis” generally means thin or slight; it could also mean simple, as in unadorned (but in the total opposite way that Pyrrha’s hair is “simplex”). Heather McHugh memorably translates it as “What slip of a boy,” while Ferry says “What perfumed debonair youth.” McHugh captures Horace’s derision toward the young man, while Ferry captures Horace’s jealousy. This is the primary tension in the poem: Horace is at once mocking of the youth’s inexperience while also chewing through the furniture with jealousy and lust (albeit in a totally reserved, very Roman manner). One could even say that Horace is jealous of the youth’s inexperience, jealous of the fact that the youth has the innocence that allows him to delight in the pure joy Pyrrha’s love (before things get rough, that is).

My phrase “eager fellow” leans more on the mockery side, yet, I hope, doesn’t fall into outright derision. “Eager” suggests inexperience, of course, the kind that doesn’t realize it’s a head nosing around for a guillotine. To me, the word “fellow” has always suggested the sort of foppishness that is the exact opposite of Pyrrha’s elegance, the kind that poofs it up in a “cloud of cologne.” Whatever choice is made here in rendering “gracilis,” one thing is clear: the better looking Horace portrays the young man, the more Pyrrha’s enjoyment of her time with him and thus, the greater Horace’s jealousy. On the other hand, the more biting Horace’s description of the youth, the more bitter Pyrrha’s rejection becomes for Horace: you dumped me for that dandy?

The real trick is being able to make it work both ways, which Horace does with the original. “Gracilis” could slide on the scale of meaning toward the pathetic “skinny” or the handsome “slender.” Horace wins the day by understatement. Perhaps “slim” could be close in its ambiguity, yet it lacks the suggestion of inexperience.

There are other forms of understatement in the first stanza. The verb “urget” could suggest a wide range of actions, from the innocent “court” (as in persistently calling, plying with roses) to the probably too-strong “press upon” (as in, physically presses himself upon her). James Mitchie’s translation goes all the way and says “makes hot love to you now,” leaving little room for Horace’s imagination. But isn’t it Horace’s imagination that is running wild? Isn’t this what, partially, animates the poem? Indeed, the affair is happening in some secretive grotto, and in this case, out of sight is not out of mind for Horace. I suspect the wide range of action is purposefully suggested by “urget.”

But even subtler is the arrangement of the Latin itself: “multa gracilis te puer in rosa.” Snuggled in between the adjective “slim” (gracilis) and noun “boy/young man” (puer) is the pronouned Pyrrha (te). And that verbal couple is itself among “multa…in rosa”: many a rose. While the whole situation is never stated, it’s pretty clear that Mitchie’s translation “making hot love to you” has a firm basis in the Latin. But Horace’s expression of this is almost unconscious: expressing the very thing he cannot bring himself to say.

I rendered this “courts you in / a secret hideaway” because I the other translators I’ve read rendered the phrase strongly (Ferry: “urges himself upon you / In the summer grotto”; McHugh: “pressing on you now, o Pyrrha, in / your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms”), and I wanted to see what happened if I did not render it so strongly. I hoped that “secret hideaway” would imply the kind of intimacy that Horace fears between the new couple, that, indeed, one thing will inevitably lead to another in such a “secret” place, innocent courting or not. I also wanted the phrase “secret hideaway” to allude to Johnny Cash’s “Tear Stained Letter,” which, in my mind, parallels Horace’s poem in some ways:

I’m gonna write a tear stained letter,
I’m gonna mail it straight to you.
I’m gonna bring back to your mind,
What you said about always bein’ true.
Bout our secret hidin’ places;
Bein’ daily satisfied.

The allusion is probably a stretch, but it’s there in my mind, at least until I edit it out at some later point.

This brings me to the most difficult and revealing line in the poem, I believe: “Cui flavam religas comam // simplex munditiis?” To me the phrase “simplex munditiis” is not only a perfect expression of the whole poem’s art, but an emotional depth charge that reveals the feeling which animates the drama of the poem’s language. Despite the poem’s claim that Horace has “survived” the shipwreck of Pyrrha’s love, despite the staid language and reserved descriptions, the poet writhes underneath the poise of this poem. Pyrrha is the archetypal “saucy wench,” the “fickle woman” who fills men with passion and lust as well as self-loathing at their inability to control themselves. As an image, the singular, simple description of Pyrrha’s hair creates an emotional history that founds the whole poem. It’s the perfect example of how the choice and rendering of even a single detail can realize a whole world.

In my translation, I chose to render that line as a real question to Pyrrha (hence the parentheses, making it a sort of direct aside); the rest of the questions in the poem are merely rhetorical. I openly copped Ferry’s word choice (“For whom have you arranged / Your shining hair so elegantly and simply?”), but hoped that a more personal expression of the line would raise the latent longing in that line. I have to admit, though, that here Ferry is hard to beat. Emphasizing that line raises the profile of the detail. Yet its power as a detail is in its latency, its grudging (non-)admission.

There are other important moments that one wrestles with when translating this poem. One such place is the very end of the poem, in which a translator must decide how much to explain the final image: it was a tradition of Roman sailors who survived shipwrecks to hang their sea cloaks in the temple of Neptune with a votive tablet in order to honor him for saving their lives. You’ll see in my translation I pretty much laid that information out completely, though in truth there are places here and elsewhere in my translation where I’ve significantly departed from the Latin (partially out of creative impulse, partially out of lack of skill). As I said, the poem starts out as Horace’s and becomes more the translator’s as it continues.

I would like to comment on other translations I’ve done of Horace in the future. For those who know Latin better than I do, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback on my poems or on any versions of the poem that you enjoy. For those who don’t know Latin, I’d like to hear your feedback on the poem itself, which of the ones I’ve reproduced here seem best to you.

We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)


That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.

That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.

And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.

Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.

All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.

Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.

I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.

—Robert Kelly, February 2010

The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway.  For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.).  No one was going to out-sophisticate them!  Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his  “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency.  Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.

Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.

Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense.  The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn.  This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all.  What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate   imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed.  But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.

The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time.  It’s the execution that makes the poem special.

The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato.  Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds.  Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art:  the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.

It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending.  Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson.  The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold.  So much for sentimentality.  And so:

The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.”  This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.

One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:

If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.”  In other words:  real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.

—Bill Wadsworth