335. (Horace)

Here is David Ferry’s translation of Horace, Ode III.4:

Come down from heaven, Calliope, and play

Upon the flute a lingering melody,

Or unaccompanied sing, in clearest voice,

Or accompanied by the strings of Apollo’s lyre.

Companions, do you hear her too, or does

Some pleasing day dream play with me? Do I,

As I think I do, wander upon a sacred

Landscape where the quiet sound of hidden

Waters can be heard, and breezes stir?

When I was a child, I strayed out to the slopes

Of Mount Voltore, out beyond the limits

Prescribed for me by Pullia my nurse,

And when I was tired of playing and fell asleep,

Why then the guardian doves spread over me

A blanket of fallen leaves, and all the dwellers

In the village around—high Acherotnia,

Bantia in the woods, and low Forentum—

Were full of wonder, I slept so unafraid,

Covered with bay and myrtle, safe and sound

From any harm from my bears or vipers.

These days I take myself, your child, O Muses,

Up to the lofty heights of my Sabine hills,

Or over to cool Praneste, or Tibur’s side,

Or sunny Baiae, wherever I choose to go.

Companion of your waterfalls and choirs,

I could go anywhere: I came away

Unscathed from Philippi, and the falling tree,

And the giant wave near Palinurus Head.

So long as you are with me I will gladly

Set foot on board as a fearless sailor on

The furious Bospours, or gladly wander

Over the burning sands of Syria,

Safely visit the inhospitable Britons,

The Geloni with their arrows, the Scythians

Who drink the Don, or the Concanians

Who are said to love to drink the blood of horses.

It is you, O Muses, who refreshed our Caesar

With the waters of some cool Pierian grotto,

When having sent away his weary troops

To settle in their towns, he took his ease.

You goddesses who give the gentlest counsel

And take delight in having given it,

And know the story of how the Titans and

Their monstrous cohort were struck down by the lightning-

Bolt of the god who rules the massy earth,

The windy sea, all cities, and the realms

Of shadow underground; for he alone

Is final governor of gods and men.

That upstart gang waving their many hands

Brought horrifying war on Jupiter

As did the brothers determined to pile up mountains,

Mountain on top of mountain, making chaos,

Pelion on Ossa on Olympus.

But what could Typhoeus do, or monstrous Mimas,

Porphyron grimacing, Rhoetus, or

Enceladus hurling trees torn up by the roots,


What could they do against the chiming shield

Of Pallas Athena? Vulcan was there beside her,

Avid for victory, Juno was there, and Apollo,

Whose bow is ever ready at his shoulder,

The god who bathes is unbound flowing hair

In the stream that flows out from the Castalian spring,

The god who haunts the wood of Lycia and

The hill on the isle of Delos where he was born.

Strength without wisdom falls by its own weight;

The strength that wisdom tempers, the gods increase;

The gods abhor that strength whose heart knows nothing

But what impiety is, and it is punished.

Hundred-handed Gyas has reason to know

The meaning of what I say, and so has Orion,

Who sought to tempt the chaste goddess Diana.

She therefore struck him down with her chastening arrow.

Earth lying upon their fallen bodies groans

And mutters in her grief for her monstrous brood,

Sent down to ghastly Orcus by Jupiter’s lightning,

Nor has the fire finished eating its way

Through Aetna’s innards yet; nor has the vulture

Who watches over Tityos’ tortured lust

Finished its meal of his liver; and he who sought

To take Proserpina still lies in chains.

The ode moves from an invocation to the Muse, Calliope, to a recollection of Horace’s childhood, to an affirmation of his present freedom of movement in Italy, which we can take, I think, to be at once a statement about poetic license and political rights; that relaxed gratitude to enjoy the calm of Italy then is emboldened into a statement about the Empire, with Horace claiming Calliope will protect him even were he to travel to its harshest and most embattled frontiers; and thus the poem becomes political, and Caesar’s entry to the field has been prepared. But Caesar Augustus enters not to conquer, but to retire, his retirement sweetened by the Muses, as his soldiers have received their allotments of land. We are now ten stanzas into the poem, and Horace turns suddenly to what will be his subject for the final ten stanzas: the folly of overstepping the limits set by the gods, told first by way of the attempt of the old Titans and giants to overthrow Jupiter and the new gods, but with glancing reference to Orion (a giant, but not a Titan) and Pirithous (a king and friend to Theseus), in the final line of the poem.

The two halves of the poem can be variously contrasted: the first half centered on Horace, and his life, the second on myth; the first half concerned with the sanctioned liberties of the poet, the second with the impieties of the gods; the first half a quiet boast of safety and protection, and the second a prolonged testimony to the sufferings inflicted by the vengeance of the gods. The transition from the first ten to the second ten stanzas of the poem is what the Muses know, in the stanza that begins, “You goddesses who give the gentlest counsel”

[The goddesses are the Muses of the previous stanza, of whom Calliope is chief].The gentlest counsel would seem to be the counsel afforded to Caesar Augustus himself, in the previous stanza, refreshed after he has ceased his wars of conquest. The Titans of the poem’s second half transgress their proper limits, impious in their challenge to the gods. That transgression is to be contrasted with Horace’s, in the third to fifth stanzas, from “When I was a child, I strayed out to the slopes” to “From any harm from any bears or vipers.”

The contrast is with the second to last stanza where, describing the Titans punished by the gods, Ferry’s Horace writes: “Earth lying upon their fallen bodies groans | And mutters in her grief for their monstrous brood.” Again, there is a range of contrasts in the two halves: young poet, old Titans (old gods); protection of Muses, punishment by gods; leaves, earth.

Because each half of the poem is so entirely absorbed in its subject, it is not possible to say that either half is really about the other; they are united by virtue of their contrast. And yet the argument of the poem seems plain enough: life sanctioned by the gods is protected, and knows no boundaries that would leave it vulnerable; or piety is the only limit. In the sixteenth (fourth to last) stanza, we are told that “Strength without wisdom falls by its own weight.”

The poem is conspicuous in its oblique approach towards the target of the advice: Caesar. In the symmetry of the poem, the ninth stanza introduces Caesar refreshed from war, and the eleventh introduces the figure of Jupiter, “final governor of gods and men,” a warning to the emperor, but also a comparison with him.  And in the ease with which the design of the poem speaks to the design of the lesson it would impart, it might be felt that the delight is dampened; the game of finding contrasts and parallels is somehow too easy. For one reader, at least, there is a tantalizing hope that some design is buried deeper yet, that there is an apprehension of something not so fully and immediately articulated.

Unsurprisingly, it can be found; for among the contrasts of the two halves of the poem, there is one contrast that is not neatly contained in either, though one side of it as it were predominates in each of the halves: and that is the opposition of person to place, of activity to passivity. The scenes of despair, horror, and punishment attach mostly to particular gods and person; the scenes of Horace’s ease, confidence, and inspiration attach to places (the first half of the poem). The exceptions are themselves telling, When Horace, in the first half, does invoke people, it comes in the eighth stanza, as he names bloodthirsty barbarians, outsiders to the Roman order as the Titans are to the gods; it also comes in the ninth stanza where he mentions Caesar. In the case of the Barbarians, Horace suggests that he could go even to the limits of the Roman borders—and beyond, into those whom Rome has not fully subdued. The are not known as a place because they are not contained within the Roman Empire; they represent the same sort of upheaval of place as the Titans; but the Muses permit Horace to visit, and to place them within his poem. In the ninth stanza, when Caesar is invoked, he is quietly praised for allowing his soldiers to settle in towns; to become attached to a place. In the second half, where places are invoked, most conspicuously it is on the occasion of the Titans attempted disordering of geography, their hopes of piling Pelion on Ossa on Olympus and then when Apollo’s haunt and home are named.

In flat terms, the poem does not only want to remind Caesar Augustus, and whomever else, to know his place in relation to the gods, but implicitly argues that to know one’s place (in the cosmological sense) means knowing a place (geographically), and conversely that knowing a place (geographically) allows one to know one’s place (cosmologically); it is the gift of the Muses to allow one to know many places, and to possess the freedom to place oneself in the world—that being the freedom of the imagination, of orientation and self-understanding that is always relational and grounded, however much it roams. Near the poem’s start, Horace asks whether he, in fact, wanders, as he thinks he does, “upon a sacred| Landscape where the quiet sound of hidden || Waters can be heard, and breezes stir?”  Calliope leads him to that place, which might be anywhere he happens to be, but which is only recognized as sacred, owing to the presence of the Muses. In the final line’s reference to Pirithous, who descended to the underworld never to return, we are perhaps invited to recall, by contrast, Orpheus—ill-fated but alone able to cross that boundary. Horace asks then, not that we respect, this place or that place, above others, but that we care for whatever place as a place; it is a poem that, especially in comparison to others by Horace, does not look out from a single geographic vantage point, but that nonetheless honors the stability afforded by such a vantage with the thought that it is a gift of poetry to ensure it can be known.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s