- The Odes of Horace
One might have thought genuine poetic pleasure in the Odes of Horace by now to be something vaguely comparable to a garter fetish: serious business only for a small group of specialists, of wider interest chiefly as a cultural phenomenon, but still a good joke if you tell it right. Those of us who teach a generation of sensibilities tuned to the frequency of Lucan’s baroque pathétique tend to explain away students’ disaffection for the Odes with the old lie about middle-aged Horace: that is no poet for the young; someday you’ll understand. A lie in this reviewer’s case, at any rate, but an honest one. Until now I had forgotten what it was like to work slowly to the end of a Horatian strophe and then suddenly feel my sixteen-year-old head explode like Salvador Dali’s Pantheon dome.
David Ferry’s translation of Horace put me in mind of first reading the original, in a way [End Page 169] that very few translations of any poetry, and certainly none of Horace, have ever done. An achievement well below what Ferry has given us would still have been cause for celebration. But here is something we simply had no right to expect: Horace singing to us, in the diction and syntax, the decorum and tones of twentieth-century American poetry—no fake sublimities, not even in the “Roman odes,” no exhausted tendernesses—and sounding, for all the world, like Horace, antiquity’s surrealist poet.
Horace a surrealist? As one twentieth-century American poet said about another, “Surrealism, I’m tempted to say, is syntax: not weird images, but the way the mind connects them.” 1 Connections—what Horace called callida iunctura (“cunning juxtaposition”)—are what make poetry happen in the Odes, what splay open the brain. Forget “poetry for people who don’t like poetry.” Forget “poetry of the commonplace,” though a slyly modest introduction reminds you of that. Definitely forget “poetry of talk.” Horace gives us that in the Satires and Epistles (the Horace invoked by Joseph Brodsky’s Letter and Robert Pinsky’s Explanation), but in the Odes nothing, not even Horace’s ever-present irony, is allowed to relax the rhetorical urgency of the old lyric. If Ferry’s Odes seem sometimes “conversational,” it is simply that the old lyric is a missing register in the instrument of contemporary poetic diction. (A problem to which Ferry’s solution is the Frostian one. When his poetry appears to be saying something nice, read it again: it’s singing something fierce.) Forget, if only for the length of the experiment, guilt by association with one ancient and at least one modern empire (though the honesty with which Ferry renders the poems to Augustus will work against you) and the other true lies of Horace’s critical reception. Just read some of these poems at random in Ferry’s translation, using it to gloss the facing Latin or not. Eventually some chain of uttered images—maybe involving the sands of Sidra, or Glycera’s body, or wine, or virtue, or money, or an emperor’s divinity, or a tree that missed falling on my head, or my father’s salt cellar on the table, or a place where they drink horse blood—will take on the appearance of “the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.” 2 Callida iunctura: the poetics of Horace’s Odes, and of Ferry’s as well.
Philologists will not call Ferry’s a strictly “literal” translation, though it is more than “reasonably close” to the original (xv). Where there is minor divergence from Horace’s propositional content (which, let it be admitted, is commonplace), this usually takes the form of omission or condensation, as in the final strophe of the Soracte ode (i.9). At the level of syntax (where the poetry is), what might seem at first glance to be “liberties” or “elaborations” are in fact attempts, often stunningly successful, to accommodate...