Ach so, Herr Major

Nicholas Horsfall

  • Horace: Odes and Epodes edited by Niall Rudd
    Harvard, 350 pp, £14.50, June 2004, ISBN 0 674 99609 7

At Mrs H.G. Wells’s funeral on 22 October 1927, Virginia Woolf was surprised that HGW’s ‘typewritten sheets’ were read by ‘a shaggy, shabby old scholar’, T.E. Page. In 1981, Niall Rudd wrote a short biography of the scholar and controversialist, who taught classics at Charterhouse, was once seen by Osbert Lancaster accompanying Lady Asquith down Bond St, and died a Companion of Honour and a trustee of the Reform Club. Page was an admirable Latinist, independent, commonsensical, and sharply aware of a world outside books. Even when wrong, he was sensible. This was the man whom James Loeb, a retired banker and huge benefactor of cultural causes and institutions, appointed in 1910 co-editor of his new Classical Library. His aim, Loeb wrote, in his prefatory ‘Word’ in the first 20 volumes, published in 1912, was to remedy the failure of schools to teach the young enough Latin or Greek ‘to enable the student to get that enjoyment out of classical literature that made the lives of our grandfathers so rich’; the ‘average reader’, he said, therefore now needed help. Whether the top-heavy prose (or risible verse, if the translator had ambitions that way) and poor reliability of many of the earlier volumes really helped the good cause is open to doubt. Page’s supervision was in some cases patently slack.

But twenty-five years or so ago, the series began to show signs of a revived vitality and sense of purpose, over and above the joyless phase of Englishing roughly the ‘dirty bits’, previously translated into Anglo-Italian. Odd gaps in the range of authors covered began to be filled, some very distinguished scholars were signed on (e.g. for the Elder Seneca, Valerius Maximus, the early Greek epic fragments, Aelian and Chariton) and the brave but necessary decision was taken to redo completely some of the early volumes, such as Virgil and Horace. Now that 450 words (really, that many?) of Latin are to be required of the GCSE candidate and the complete extinction of Latin in state schools is expected in 12 years because there will be no teachers, the need for good translations is more pressing than ever. Publishers seem to understand this, as witness a new Oxford edition of Horace’s Odes (1997) by David West, and a Penguin Aeneid from the same hand (1990), while A.J. Woodman’s edition of Tacitus’ Annals is eagerly awaited. But a Loeb edition is rather more: some volumes have full introductions and ample annotation, even a new critical text of the Latin or Greek, and a translation of real importance, giving the considered view of a serious scholar on the sense of a difficult text. This is certainly true of George Goold’s Aeneid, which I am careful to consult often and thoughtfully.

Loebs are sometimes useful, too, as providing a text (of sorts) for authors not otherwise easily available, and as giving rapidly the context in, say, some long, sticky passage of Plutarch’s Moralia, before you get down to the hard, precise business of puzzling out what the crucial three lines, or words, really mean. Sadly, though, too many dons in a hurry continue to believe, however frequently the contrary is pointed out, that the Loeb translation is in general good enough to cite. All too often, particularly in the earlier volumes, it is not, and if these versions are cited incautiously as the basis for ‘scholarly’ argument, the results can be pretty horrible. That said, the squarish, cleanly printed Loeb, consistent in format over the decades, remains easy on the eye, and on the pocket; there is something comfortingly familiar about the jacket for Latin, ruddier than the cherry. There are ample grounds for gratitude to James Loeb for his inspiration and generosity. If you are going to Corfu and think you have nearly enough Greek to invite Odysseus and Nausicaa back to share your Phaeacian sand, then it is wonderful to be able to stick the Loeb Homer (unreadable though it is) in your beach bag.

Translations are peculiarly ephemeral. It is unnerving to think that a generation assumed that Jackson Knight’s Penguin ‘was’ the Aeneid. For Greek tragedy, Housman’s wildly funny ‘Fragment’ says it all, not so much about the Greek as about the extravagances of late Victorian versions of the tragedians. Murray’s Euripides was well enough suited to the London stage of 1900, but much less so for readers wanting a reliable guide to Euripides’ sense fifty years later, just as the thin brown Penguins by E.F. Watling were already dead and indigestible when I was told to read them at school.

But Horace is a very special case. For a start, what he said and how he said it really matters, tremendously. David West quite rightly begins the introduction to his translation of the Odes with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful story, in A Time of Gifts, of himself and General Kreipe reciting the Soracte ode while gazing up at Mount Ida, during the general’s removal from Crete after his capture. Kreipe’s eventual ‘ach so, Herr Major’ immortalises Horace as a foundation of shared European culture: ‘We had both drunk at the same fountains long before,’ Leigh Fermor explains. In Classics Transformed (1998), Christopher Stray reveals (citing a letter from Leigh Fermor) that they went on to discuss heatedly their rival pronunciations of Latin. That shared culture may actually be dead, and that story’s significance may live on only in the eye of sentiment, but I feel bound to carry on regardless, believing that Horace said, matchlessly, a lot of sane and valuable things. When Horace takes you over, it is serious, but people who claim to understand the Odes before the age of 40 are to be viewed with scepticism. The real enthusiast, like Kipling, was never to be satisfied by a mere four books of Odes, and went on to write (in English) part of a fifth, over and above a splendid body of adaptations, translations and marginal notes. His friends piled in, and a Liber quintus was published in 1920, with enchanting Latin versions by A.D. Godley and others, and exhilarating touches of spoof learned apparatus: not a specially rare book, and one that deserves wider currency.

Horace was a major player in the intellectual life of Augustan Rome; in the ‘order of service’ for the Secular Games of 17 BC, which survives on an inscription, we are told that ‘Q. Horatius Flaccus composed the hymn.’ ‘Secular’ from Latin saeculum, a period of 110 years. Clearly not to be rendered, with Rudd, ‘Hymn for a New Age’, for ‘new age’ now carries all manner of inappropriate associations. We are often served up with a ‘life of Horace’ that derives, more or less, from Suetonius. For Horace, Suetonius did burrow in the archives, to some effect, but for the most part, he took Horace’s own accounts of his life very literally. While Suetonius, who even alleges that Horace had mirrors on his bedroom ceiling, repeats details that floated from one literary biography to another (very like the miracles of saints), Horace dressed up his past with an eye on literary models: even his own father we see through the filter of Demea, the ‘good father’ in Terence’s Adelphi; Rudd’s introduction is not the place for a critical review of the ‘facts’, but they were not credibly correct when first committed to paper and have become less so with every repetition. The select bibliography shows no great enthusiasm for recent work on Augustan society, and two details deserve a brief comment: Horace was no more a client than Maecenas was his patron. That was not the terminology used by them or by contemporaries. They were amici, friends. Every word Suetonius writes about Augustan patronage inevitably misleads; a century and more had passed, and both the nature of patronage and the language in which it is expressed had changed. You need to go back to contemporary texts, as Peter White did in his excellent Promised Verse (1993). The exact relationship of Horace, Maecenas and Augustus is quite tricky enough without having to read the details through a distorting lens. It might be worth adding that what are normally called the Odes and Epodes of Horace were not names used by the poet: he called them carmina (‘songs’, a good Latin word, unlike the heavily Hellenic odes) and iambi (‘iambs’, the Greek name for the metre and the genre). Maybe just another little pedantry, but certainly yet another distorting filter to be avoided.

The Odes (even more than the Epodes) are a peculiarly severe challenge to the translator: failed attempts used to clog second-hand bookshops; now they are more mercifully pulped. What Matthew Arnold set out so splendidly for the translator of Homer has not been tried for Horace, but it is easy enough to isolate some essential characteristics of the original which any serious translator is bound to try to recapture: the writing is lean, spare and economical; words often have to do several jobs; grammar and syntax push the language to its limits, and some way beyond. Choice of words tends rather to the lofty and poetic; the occasional refined colloquialism is there for a purpose and the Epodes’ occasional wallow in the familiar gutters of anatomical abuse is a traditional feature of the genre. The tone varies from the mandolin solos of some of the short love poems to passages for massed brass band in the ‘Roman Odes’ and in Book 4. The language is, superficially, Latin, but this is Latin rich in echoes, often of Greek usage, and sometimes requiring knowledge even of Etruscan etymologies. If we discovered wordplays involving Punic, Sabine and Oscan, work on Virgil has taught us that we should not be surprised. Horace’s remarkably tricky word-order and minimalist use of the well-known lumbering constructions of narrative prose can hardly be rendered, but as a general rule, the more successful the translation, the less the word-count of the English will exceed that of the Latin, even if that sometimes makes for less than easy reading. The best English translations and adaptations (Milton’s, for example) are 17th-century; the English poets closest to Horace in range, character and flavour are perhaps Marvell and Herrick. One word of cliché, easy modernism, familiar jargon, mediaspeak or updating will ruin a poem. Horace can seem simple, can be (very) coarse; but banal, never for one word.

Rudd has chosen his time well; in 1970 and 1978 there appeared the Nisbet-Hubbard commentaries on Odes 1 and 2, and in 2004, Nisbet-Rudd on Odes 3,[*] less than a year after that of Nisbet’s pupil Lindsay Watson on the Epodes.[†] I hear that a young Eton master has Odes 4 in hand. So almost all the information a translator requires was to hand, or at least not more than a couple of phone calls away. You have to face the reality that this is dense, difficult, allusive writing. Horace’s nexus of names drawn from history, geography, myth and his fancy are not small details to be got up from the dictionary for A-level, but the nuts and bolts of his intellectual frame of reference. He is a man of formidably wide and varied reading, like his friend Virgil: they shared, for example, a taste for that recent bestseller, Sallust’s Histories, to which Horace turned for the identification of the Canaries as the Isles of the Blessed and from which Virgil drew his view of the creation and tidal phenomena of the Strait of Messina, along with characterisations of public life and interesting details of cavalry warfare. Educated ancient readers not only spotted the allusions but recognised the (almost) quotations.

The commentator’s duty is to try to overhear the poets as they talk shop while waiting for their papyri to be brought in the Palatine library; the translator, who has at most a few lines of footnote per ode to spend on ‘detail’, can only try to digest all the exegesis available and distil and reflect it in the final version. In the Loeb, the reader gets rather less help with the detail than is quite desirable, and not all of it is quite correct; it is perhaps also ungenerous to say so very little to introduce the poems, not all of which will be familiar even to the reader who could confidently swap the better-known stanzas with General Kreipe. Though Rudd states that the titles here printed for each poem are his, not the poet’s, or even some obscure monk’s, they are sure to cause confusion. Loebs have never gone in for extensive commentary or explanation but nowadays many readers of this book will regret that not yet flexible policy, and may find West’s scant half-page of explanation per ode in the Oxford edition very welcome.

Thirty years ago, it was easy to recommend with some enthusiasm Rudd’s Penguin version of the Satires to pupils, but now the general reader perhaps requires a word of warning. It is forty years since Rudd began publishing on Horace and naturally enough, most of the time, he offers a clear, sound, fair translation. But the pulse is rarely quickened and some aspects of Rudd’s technique as translator and annotator are hardly satisfactory. It is arguable whether occasional spurts of verbosity in the interests of an easier read are ever justifiable; certainly, readers who cannot turn to the Latin to explain the English might fairly prefer a bit of helpful verbiage in the hard parts, but, in a poet who never wasted a word, that is not an excuse to be advanced lightly.

It probably does not matter very much, but Rudd’s sense of geography in the notes and index is rather hazy, and that blurs the reader’s attempt to come to grips with the idiosyncratic world-map in Horace’s head. The sources of the Tiber are not at Arezzo, but in modern Romagna, north of Pieve Santo Stefano; I once went and looked. The Romans’ ‘Sabelli’ are what we call Samnites. Alba Longa was never a town, but at most a cult-centre. Part of the area known as the Campus Martius was built up by Horace’s time and to call it ‘the Park’ is misleading. The accumulation of this sort of inexactitude casts doubt on the translator’s commitment. And there is something else odd: some names Rudd has decided to update, and indeed translate; no one would think of saying that the Eurostar stopped at Island rather than Lille, or that lager came from Theremouth rather than Dortmund. But in Rudd’s Horace the Albanian range of Acroceraunia becomes ‘Thunder Peaks’ (which has a marked soap opera flavour), while Hesperia, the poetic name for Italy which Roman poets inherited from their Hellenistic forebears, turns into ‘Westland’, unhelpfully suggestive of helicopters and political scandal. Even the Greek cover-names of the elusive demimondaines of whatever gender – and the attentive reader will find boys, girls and the rather ambiguous – who people Horace’s love poetry are not immune: the Rhode of 3.19 becomes ‘Rosy’. Horace is for today, not of today: ‘it burns me up’, ‘rattles on about’, ‘beauty queen’, ‘in charge of operations’, ‘heart-throb’, ‘snap of my fingers’, ‘sex god’ and ‘sex appeal’ are the indefensible pinchbeck of modernity, invariably out of place, and wisely avoided by David West.

For Virgil, we have wonderful, ancient manuscripts, and a pretty fair idea of what he actually wrote. None of that comforting certainty for Horace: since the time of Richard Bentley, whose edition was published in 1711, there has been real discussion at the highest level about what his words actually were, at hundreds of uncertain points. Rudd uses the late 19th-century text of E.C. Wickham, with scattered updates. That may do for a Loeb, but perhaps readers should be given a clearer sense that they are here on a deep pond, in winter, with the ‘skating dangerous’ signs removed. This Loeb translation is no rival to the recent Oxford version; only the convenience of a facing Latin text (however disputable in details) speaks in its favour. But Horace may even survive both the imminent death of school Latin and the issue of such a disappointing Loeb.

[*] Oxford, 420 pp., £70, May 2004, 0 19 926314 0.

[†] Oxford, 622 pp., £89, October 2003, 0 19 925324 2.