The Knife is having a crack at the Odes of Horace, which are undoubtedly best read in the Latin, which I can’t really do. There is no ‘best translation’, and there are at least three separate volumes of translations by many different authors: an 1899 compilation published by Pearson (an eBay bargain), a Penguin gem “Horace in English” and a recentish effort with quite a few modern poets chipping in their versions. I suspect that a lot of them won’t be classics scholars and are merely updating one of the earlier translations, such as the well regarded Dryden version. This review makes interesting reading.
A Guardian review sums Horace up nicely: As to the matter of the poetry itself, that’s timeless. Horace knew it himself – there are plenty of little addresses to the contemporary reader (“credite, posteri”). The Horatian message is extremely beguiling, and unmistakeably his: relax, sit down, have a drink, money isn’t everything, hot today, isn’t it? Thank goodness for this nice fountain. And then, every so often, there’s a snarl. He may have liked an easy life, but he wasn’t soft.
Harry Eyres, who writes the Weekend FT’s “Slow Lane” column, is a Horace addict, to the point of writing his own homage to his hero. His book is the object of a different, inadvertently hilarious and grumpy Guardian review (with corrections).
Having pointed out the difficulties, there is a translation which is highly readable for the modern brain, not stuffed with archaic convolutions, and as a bonus, most of it rhymes beautifully, which the Latin doesn’t. It’s the one by a true expert, James Michie, which as it’s out of print is best bought second hand (it doesn’t work on Kindle).
Michie himself was a poet and a very interesting man, with a Horatian ambition to live well, coupled with wide interests and great literary gifts. His obituaries are wonderful (he died in 2007), notably from Boris Johnson, who had been his editor at the Spectator, but also numerous others. He had a bit of a preoccupation with death, (matching Clive James ‘ peerless recent works), which leads me to two pieces.
Firstly, Michie’s own “Bath Death Wish” from 1991:
Five foot eleven, twelve stone, sixty-three,
I lie in the bath and look at the apple tree
And the apples dawdling into rubicundity
To blend with the old brick wall’s well-weathered red
Already, and all ready, I feel dead.
and from Michie’s translation of Odes (Book II, number 3):
Maintain an unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius. Whether you pass a lifetime
Prostrate with gloom, or whether you celebrate
Feast-days with choice old brands of Falernian
Stretched out in some green, unfrequented
Meadow, remember that your death is certain.
I don’t want to be too gloomy, and nor is Horace, but that delicate balance throughout life, of good living with an awareness of mortality – distant or imminent – is a specialty of the great man.
No wonder he’s the originator of the eternally wise admonition: carpe diem.