»  Horace's ode "Eheu fugaces"


The ode "Eheu fugaces"

by Horace, 65–8 b.c.


•  Background

Looking over the index page for these readings, I was surprised to see that I have got this far without including anything of Horace's. He is an old favorite, whose outlook I find very appealing. Some years ago I wrote a column confessing (more like defending, actually) my own incompetence as a linguist. Of the Latin I studied for four years at a good English boys' school, I wrote: "My Latin is, well, dead. From time to time, just because I like the sound of the old boy's voice, I take down my Loeb Horace and mutter an Ode to myself … but with one eye on the parallel text to remind me what it means, a thing I can no longer figure out unaided." All of that still applies.

William Young Sellar, who knew a thing or two about Latin poetry — enough, at any rate, to have contributed the articles on Catullus and Horace to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, the "scholars' Britannica" — has this to say in the Catullus contribution:

The great age of Latin poetry extends from about the year 60 b.c. till the death of Ovid in a.d. 17 There are three marked divisions in this period, each with a distinct character of its own: the first represented by Lucretius and Catullus, the second by Virgil and Horace, the last by Ovid. Force and sincerity are the great characteristics of the first period, maturity of art of the second, facility of the last.

That first sentence is very striking. Just a single lifetime!

Of Horace himself, in the Britannica article thereon, Sellar remarks:

The aim of Horace's philosophy was to "be master of oneself," to retain the mens aequa ["undisturbed mind" — J.D.] in all circumstances, to use the gifts of fortune while they remained, and to be prepared to part with them with equanimity; to make the most of life, and to contemplate its inevitable end without anxiety. Self-reliance and resignation are the lessons which he constantly inculcates. His philosophy is thus a mode of practical Epicureanism combined with other elements which have more affinity with Stoicism … Still there was in Horace a robuster fibre, inherited from the old Italian race, which moved him to value the dignity and nobleness of life more highly than its ease and enjoyment.

The first three books of the Odes were published in 23 b.c., when Horace was 42 years old. They had been written at various times in the preceding eight or nine years. A fourth book was published ten years later, at the request of the emperor Augustus. That fourth book contains the ode Diffugere nives on the return of Spring, Horace's best-known poem.

This is Ode 14 from Book 2. Its meter is the one called "Alcaic," the commonest in the Odes but somewhat against the grain of English speech rhythms. Britannica has a definition here, explaining that, for example, the third line of each stanza is "an iambic dimeter hypercatalectic consisting of nine syllables." There's a more approachable Wikipedia entry here. I do my best with all this, but my rhythms are, I'm sure, much more English than Latin. Only the fourth lines come easily, I find, being two dactyls (DAH-duh-duh DAH-duh-duh) followed by two trochees (DAH-duh DAH-duh):  "AHD-fe-ret EEN-do-mit- EYE-que MOR-ti. 

I've presented the Latin with C.E. Bennett's translation for the 1914 Loeb edition alongside.

•  Notes

"Postumus" — some unknown friend to whom the poem is being addressed. A "regular" Roman name had three parts: praenomen, gens, cognomen. (The ancient Greeks referred to the Romans as "the people with three names.") So for example Gaius Julius Caesar was given the praenomen Gaius by his parents, to distinguish him from his siblings; he belonged to the Julian gens (roughly a clan — in this case a fine old aristocratic one); and to the Caesar subdivision of the Julians. The progression, left to right, is from least to most colorful. The number of praenomines was very limited; that of gentes much less so; the cognomen was a kind of settled-in nickname, and might be anything at all. The cognomen Caesar means "bushy-haired." Horace's own cognomen, Flaccus, means "flabby." "Postumus," which means "last in line," was used both as a praenomen and as a cognomen. To thoroughly confuse everyone, there was also a gens Postumia. Here is it most likely a praenomen. See here.

"Pluto" — god of the underworld.

"Geryon" — one of an ancient race of giants, imprisoned under the earth as punishment for rebelling against the gods. He is supposed to have had three bodies. The tenth labor of Hercules was to steal Geryon's cattle.

"Tityos" — another rogue giant from Greek mythology.

"Cocytos" — a river in the underworld.

"Danaus' daughters" — they killed their husbands: see here.

"Sisyphus" — for his sins was condemned to push a large rock up a hill, from which it always rolled down. See here.

"the hated cypress" — all the Mediterranean civilizations associated the cypress tree with death and mourning, I don't know why.

"Caecuban" — a north Italian wine.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume
labuntur anni, nec pietas moram
    rugis et instanti senectae
        adferet indomitaeque morti;
Alas, O Postumus, Postumus, the years glide swiftly by, nor will righteousness give pause to wrinkles, to advancing age, or Death invincible —
non, si trecenis, quotquot eunt dies,
amice, places inlacrimabilem
    Plutona tauris, qui ter amplum
        Geryonen Tityonque tristi
no, not if with three hecatombs of bulls a day, my friend, thou strivest to appease relentless Pluto, who imprisons Geryon of triple fame and Tityos,
compescit unda, scilicet omnibus,
quicumque terrae munere vescimur,
    enaviganda, sive reges
        sive inopes erimus coloni.
by the gloomy stream that surely must be crossed by all of us who feed upon Earth's bounty, be we princes or needy husbandmen.
frustra cruento Marte carebimus
fractisque rauci fluctibus Hadriae,
    frustra per autumnos nocentem
        corporibus metuemus Austrum:
In vain shall we escape from bloody Mars and from the breakers of the roaring Adriatic; in vain through autumn tide shall we fear the south-wind that brings our bodies harm.
visendus ater flumine languido
Cocytos errans et Danai genus
    infame damnatusque longi
        Sisyphus Aeolides laboris.
At last we needs must gaze on black Cocytos winding with its sluggish flow, and Danaus' daughters infamous, and Sisyphus, the son of Aeolus, condemned to ceaseless toil.
linquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum, quas colis, arborum
    te praeter invisas cupressos
        ulla brevem dominum sequetur.
Earth we must leave, and home and darling wife; nor of the trees thou tendest now, will any follow thee, its short-lived master, except the hated cypress.
absumet heres Caecuba dignior
servata centum clavibus et mero
    tinguet pavimentum superbo
        pontificum potiore cenis.
A worthier heir shall drink thy Caecuban now guarded by a hundred keys, and drench the pavement with glorious wine choicer than that drunk at the pontiff's feasts.