Horace, The Odes, translated by Colin Sydenham

REVIEW IN PROSE in Modern Poetry in Translation, 3/5, 2006

Horace, The Odes, translated by Colin Sydenham. New verse translation with facing Latin text and notes. G. Duckworth & Co, London, 2005. ISBN 0 7516 3431. 287pp, unpriced.

‘Horace has been translated more often into more languages than any other author, [outside]…the Bible,’ says the foreword to this book. ‘Generations of schoolboys’ can be added to the tally.

Horace’s personality is better-known than most of his writings. Colin Sydenham has come to share that personality: convivial, reflective, humorous. The Horatian Society, his brainchild, dines annually in force. His book is a work of deep and lifelong love. He was fortunate to study under D.P. Simpson and others at Eton, and L.P. Wilkinson at King’s, Cambridge. (Rex Henricus, sis amicus /nobis in angustia, /cujus prece nos a nece /salvemur perpetua.) He says he is neither scholar nor poet. Housman said at Trinity: ‘Gentlemen! This college has seen Wordsworth drunk and Porson sober. I stand before you, a better scholar than Wordsworth, a better poet than Porson.’ Sydenham could say the same. His scholarship is impeccable, never too heavy. In his text there is fine poetry and exceptional craftsmanship. Here is Europa: ‘One moment she was in the fields, intent /on plaiting for the Nymphs a promised wreath, /next all she dimly saw was stars above /and waves beneath’. Almost all his Odes rhyme, in moderation, and all scan, thus matching but not mimicking Horace’s discipline. His rhymes are, as he puts it, genuine. His line-lengths reflect those of Horace, in their great variety. Nearly all his text is iambic, or trochaic; dactylic lines come in just where they are well-suited. A translator into verse may as well use familiar English metres: the task is already difficult enough.

Sydenham’s book is ‘principally designed for the inexpert’ reader. His object is ‘to produce a version which can be read with pleasure.’ He has succeeded. Likewise his exemplary Notes are not for the few real experts. Others, though, will cherish this book, especially if they have some Latin. And for newcomers to Horace, here is the way in.

Horace’s great feat was to adapt Greek lyric metres to the more ponderous Latin tongue, writing beautiful poetry. Sydenham argues that a translation into free verse would not convey what is fundamental to Horace’s lyrics, his metrical discipline. We would not discard, say, Ted Hughes’ free verse Ovid or E.V. Rieu’s prose Homer on such grounds. Ovid and Homer were equally unprecedented technical masters, and also have great sweeping narratives. But Sydenham uses rhyme and metre extremely well.

As we know from the rules of copyright, any poem, however short, is a complete work. It follows that the philosophy of the Odes need not be consistent. The speed of Horace’s thought, the many confusions and allusions, are unobtrusively clarified in the text or notes. Sydenham tells how the moralising first stanza of Integer vitae has even been sung at funerals, even though Horace soon subverts the high tone. The good man needs no darts and poisoned arrows: he has heaven’s protection, worldwide: he can go about unarmed and carefree. A wolf fled from Horace – Lalage was there. Extremes of climate can be ignored – with Lalage. She will shield him, says Sydenham, adding the word to make it clear. To what has sometimes appeared incomprehensible, he brings insight and vigour. I see Horace as not mocking, but upholding, virtue; he is also good company for the reader. He smiles about dropping his shield at Philippi, but only because he fought on the wrong side. He and Lalage were free agents: he was integer vitae scelerisque purus.

Sydenham matches diction to context. Here, the stately: ‘Of lovely mother daughter lovelier still…’ Elsewhere, ‘the verbal avuncular cosh’. A pleasing passage is quam… / verris obliquum meditantis ictum /sanguine donem: ‘I’ll gladly sacrifice /… a young boar, practising /his sidelong slice.’

All the Odes come into focus. Book Three travels from the six severe alcaic odes, the extreme honour of long-dead Regulus, to the the merriment of the wine-jar. Book Four, which looks so obsequious, now reveals its merits. Housman’s favourite is recognised, corruptible Lollius is immortalised, Caesar idolised:

    ‘longas o utinam, dux bone, ferias
    praestes Hesperiae!’ dicimus integro
    sicci mane die, dicimus uvidi,
        ut sol Oceano subest.

    ‘Long be the carefree time that Caesar grants
    to Italy.’ This prayer is on our lips
    (dry in the morning, moistened later, as
        the sun in Ocean dips).

Late love strikes hard; I’m no Pindar; Lyce looks old. Drusus wins battles. Virgil, a jar! ‘Now’s the time to season /prudence with folly; it’s a joy to take /a holiday from reason.’ dulce est desipere in loco.

This volume is a delight, beautifully written and presented. For light relief, the multiple versions of Franklin P. Adams can be found on the Web.

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