Speech to the Horatian Society
(honouring the Latin poet Horace)
26 September 2012 at Lincoln’s Inn, London: edited
Mr President, my lord, ladies and gentlemen —
conticuere omnes, intentique ora tenebant. ‘Everyone fell silent, gazing intently.’ That’s Virgil, not Horace, as you know.
The after–dinner speaker on that occasion was Aeneas. He described in great detail the fall of Troy, starting with the horse, and his difficult journey from Troy to Carthage. Unlike me, he was given no time–limit!
Mr President, I live close to where Housman lived before he was a Professor of Latin. It’s where he wrote A Shropshire Lad. At school he must have translated no end of English verse into Latin verse, in the metres of Virgil, Ovid and Horace, and into Greek verse, just as I did, and so did several of us here.
I now compose rhyming verses, although mine are translated from modern languages. I also compose lipograms: texts written under constraint, as when Nestor of Laranda rewrote the Iliad, avoiding in the first book the letter Alpha, and so on.
Housman took eleven years to return to the classics: nóstimon êmar idésthai en endekatôi eniautôi. I’ve taken forty–eight years: and this is my nóstimon êmar, the day of my return.
‘Clint Eastwood in High Plains Translator’, somebody said. diffugere nives. non sum qualis eram.
Let us go, then, you and I, in medias res.
This year is the centenary of Captain Scott. Here’s a fragment in Horace’s alcaic metre, which I wrote when I was twelve years old.
it Roma victrix per medias nives,
victrix per aeternas Decembres,
perque hiemem prius insolentem.
Rome victorious thro’ the snows,
thro’ limitless Decembers goes,
thro’ winters overweening.
It’s the bicentenary of Robert Browning. Here’s the Mayor of Hamelin, at his table:
Save when at noon his paunch grew mutinous
For a plate of turtle, green and glutinous.
pinguius haerentem glauca testudine lancem
saepe die media querulum poscebat omasum.
It’s the bicentenary of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow. Here’s Victor Hugo, France’s greatest poet:
Il neigeait. On était vaincu par sa conquête.
Pour la première fois l’aigle baissait la tête.
Snow fell. By his own conquest overpowered,
For the first time the eagle’s head was lowered.
nix ruit. inde aquilae, sua quam victoria vicit,
demittitur demum caput.
Sombres jours! l’empereur revenait lentement,
Laissant derrière lui brûler Moscou fumant.
In slow retreat the Emperor (dark days!)
left in his wake charred Moscow still ablaze.
dux tardo reditu regalia fragmina linquit
incendiis. atras dies!
Victor Hugo’s last book of poems, L’Art d’être Grand–Père, was also my first book, How to be a Grandfather, a translation into rhyming verse. The new Complete Edition is now available.
Augustus too had the great military disaster of Quintilius Varus. But Horace didn’t live to see it. The wars of Augustus in his time were minor wars. There was no Hannibal ad portas, no Horatius at the Bridge. There was even no civil war for 100 years after Actium.
vix una sospes navis ab ignibus, says Horace of Cleopatra’s fleet. It was the defeat of a great and cultured city.
This is the centenary of Lawrence Durrell. Here’s a line of Cavafy’s poem ‘The God Abandons Antony’:
ki apokhairéta tên, tên Alexándreia pou kháneis.
And say farewell to her, the Alexandria you are losing.
urbs Megalexandri, mater adempta, vale!
— a line which takes after Catullus, not Horace, as you know.
This year is also the bicentenary of Edward Lear. Lear and Horace had much in common. They were not tall or thin, they were close to the head of state, they lived modestly, they wrote about food and drink. Above all, the alcaic metre is very close to the limerick. T.E. Page says in the Little Red Schoolbook ‘It is especially used when a lofty and dignified tone is assumed.’
There was an Old Man in a boat,
Who said ‘I’m afloat! I’m afloat!’
When they said ‘No! you ain’t!’
He was ready to faint,
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.
‘heus, nonne no? no! nat mea trabs,’ ait
vir lintre vectus; praetereuntium
cui turba: ‘tu non nas.’ recessit
deficiens miserandum in alveum.
There was an Old Person of Diss,
Who said, ‘It is this! It is this!’
When they said, ‘What?’ or ‘Which?’
He jumped into a ditch
Which absorbed that Old Person of Diss.
Icenus, annis nempe senilibus
marcens, ’id hoc est’, inquit, ‘et hoc id est.’
cum ‘quid, quod?’ aut ‘quod, quid?’ rogarent,
desiluit capiturque fossa.
There was an Old Man of the Wrekin
Whose shoes made a horrible creaking;
But they said ‘Tell us whether
Your shoes are of leather,
Or of what, you Old Man of the Wrekin?’
raucis cothurnis, improbe Cornovi,
crepide crocis. ‘num corio crepis?
quonamve?’ sic horrent canoras
Today, as Housman said, the Roman and his trouble are ashes under Uricon.
Anyone who wants no more of these alcaic limericks will avoid the Brindin website.
My last bicentenarian is Dickens: he spent a few days very near my house. Here’s A Tale of Two Cities:
optima tempora, pessima tempora erant. melius nunc
hoc facio, quam quod prius ullo tempore feci.
Here’s the Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart’s metre: ‘Consider yourself at home…’
[published online in Vates] It’s time for me to say farewell with Horace’s farewell ode,
intellige te / domi // incolumem cum / familiaribus
amplectimur te / maius // pro certo comites erimus.
intellige te / gratum // partemque puta / te supellectilis.
non pullulat hic / pondus // contenti cuncta dividimus.
forsan habebimus aspera jejunia,
forsan egebimus: quid tum?
scilicet aderit optimus munificus;
quam benigne bibendum!
intellige te / carum: // discrimina nolumus:
iam nuntiamus id quod intelleximus:
noster es fraterculus!
exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius…
As Mr Chairman has it, in his very admirable book: [Colin Sydenham: Horace, The Odes]
It’s done, my monument more durable
than bronze, and loftier than the pyramids.
There are different ways of honouring Horace. I’ve made the farewell ode into a lipogram.
Let’s see whether he needed the letter E.
sculpsi quod potui. stant mihi carmina
sicut durus onyx: ardua pyramis,
inconfundibilis, quam furiosius
non atrox Aquilo diruat irrito
sub flatu. rabidis non dabor imbribus;
annorum haud jugulat tardius ocius,
vastatrix hominum, turba fugacior.
si circumspicias, hoc modo cogita:
non omnis moriar; plurima pars mihi
vitabit Libitinam; urna morabitur
constans, incolumis, plus Capitolio.
dicar, qua rapidus volvitur Aufidus:
primus Castalium barbiton Italis
adduxi auriculis. filia Apollinis,
adsta, magnificam da mihi gloriam:
cingas, Musa, caput frondibus inclytis!
[Timothy says: The President (Oxford University’s Public Orator) kindly spoke of ‘breathtaking virtuosity’. It’s what my father would have wanted!]
More Latin Works
More Latin works, some by Colin Sydenham, some by Timothy Adès, can be found on the Brindin website, under ‘Quirky’.