Horace: Carmina 1:34

An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002
(Notes to the Latin text are on an accompanying page)

A problem besetting the Horace translations of those who learned Horace in school is that schoolboys struggle through Horace word by word, wearing out the dictgionary but never getting their eyes off the ground. They labor over beginnings, and never reach the end. Since the end of a poem is often where the poem best reveals itself, these people are at risk of never understanding what the poem is up to.

The alleged poet Seamus Heaney has recently had the temerity to publish (Harper's, January 2002, and perhaps other transgressions) a version of Carmina 1:34 which construes it as being entirely about a storm. The "storm" is confined, in Horace's original, to the middle of the poem. The end of the poem makes it clear that no actual "storm" ever took place: the "storm" is a mock-impressive metaphor for an astounding event, in all probability some honor conferred upon Horace's "obscure self." What the alleged Heaney needs is six of the best in the headmaster's study, and then to be sent back to the classroom, and kept after hours until he finally gets to the last stanza of the text.

Horace was a votary of Epicureanism, one of whose classics, Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, had appeared in 055, when Horace was a lad of ten. Lucretius holds that alleged acts of the gods are merely events of nature. Why, he argues, do "Jove's thunderbolts" (lightning flashes) occur only when there are clouds, and not otherwise? The clouds give a natural explanation, and we do not need Jove. Now, if you saw lightning flash in a clear sky, that would suggest the existence of the gods. So went the Epicurean cliché of Horace's youth.

Just such an unimaginable "out of a clear sky" event has occurred to Horace. It seems to have been a promotion; at any rate, it elevated him out of obscurity to a position of some importance. He says, humorously, that now he will have to start believing in miracles, give up his skeptical Epicureanism, and return to the unquestioning faith of childhood. That is the extent of it.

Carmina 1:34
Alcaic (2x[5+6] + 9 + 10)

Certain pious and learned Victorian schoolmasters, in their notes on Horace, drastically miss the point of this poem. To Notes Ever alert for a sign of right religion in the venerated but pagan Horace, they treat the mock-serious "conversion" of the first stanza as a genuine religious experience, a moment of insight which in their view redeems Horace from the errors of skeptical science. Science, as personified by Darwin and Huxley, was in their own day the arch-enemy of faith.

Will people please not fail to get to the end of the poem? Slow readers, and the tedious Victorian approach has bred legions of them, should make a point of beginning at the end, so that their half-baked impressions won't contain no bread at all.


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