William Matthews & Horace


William Matthews

Translating Horace’s Satire II, vi

QUINTUS HORATIUS FLACCUS (65-8 BC) published his second book of satires, eight of them, in 30 BC. There’s internal evidence in II, vi — a reference to Maecenas’s stewardship of Rome during Octavian’s travels in 31 BC — that suggests it might have been the last satire Horace wrote. In any case, II, vi has been the most widely admired of his satires, and, because of its fable of the country mouse and the city mouse formed an episode in Disney’s “Fantasia,” the only one much known out of the precincts of literature.

I’ve translated all of Horace’s satires now. I did this one next to last. Thus a number of decisions that perplexed me when I was translating the first satires I undertook had already been made (and remade, when necessary) long before I got to this one.

Because I haven’t tried to translate a line of Horace with a line of English, my versions are some lines longer than their Latin originals. In this case the Latin runs 117 lines and my translations uses 131. But Horace wrote in hexameter, and my line is blank verse; if we were counting syllables, my version would be shorter than the original.

I decided to incorporate footnotes into the text of my translations whenever possible. Thus where Horace apostrophizes the “son of Maia,” whom Roman readers knew to be Mercury, I finesse the American reader’s likely need for a footnote by rendering Maia nate as “Mercury.”

There are other passages where the exact references of the Latin are unlikely to be known to the general reader, but where the context of the poem’s development makes it clear what’s under discussion. For example, who’s “Roscius” in line 42? Obviously enough, someone whom the beleaguered Horace, seen here in his urban manifestation, must meet in the morning. Who are The Thracian Bantam and The Hulk, in line 53? Probably gladiators. “What’s up in the Balkans?” (lines 62-63). It doesn’t matter. The point is that Horace is close enough to Maecenas that people are trying to pry inside information from him. It would be pedantic to footnote such passages; their effect is clear enough.

Just as the poem has two mice, it has two Horaces. The country Horace contentedly writes the very poem we read. The city Horace is a frenetic figure, sped up and comic, like a Keystone Kop.

The poem is beautifully structured around these two figures’ worlds. It starts on the Sabine Farm (1-28), switches to the city Horace and his urban dither (29-76), returns us to the comparative ease and simplicity of the farm (76-110), and then takes the two mice back to the city to be terrified and chastened (110-131).

Each of these sections has a characteristic tone and pace in the Latin, and a good translation must register them in English. The first passage is both thankful and prayerful; the reader must hear Horace’s gratitude and contentment. The second passage is crowded and sped up, and then begins to slow its pace (70-76) until, after “bacon” in line 76, we’re back on country timing. The fable of the two mice (91-131) starts off at a relaxed and anecdotal pace, but at the point where the mice enter the city (110) the diction grows more literary. “And night / had reached the halfway point of heaven” (112-113) is meant to suggest a more sophisticated narrator than Horace’s neighbor Cervius; a reader who hears the extra loftiness in the language may well suppose that a gentle parody of the descent-into-the-underworld motif is now in progress. The sweetly comic play-acting of the mice serves as a lull, and then the poem speeds to its end and rueful moral.

Horace called these poems sermonae, meaning not “sermons” in the modern sense but suggesting a tone-informal, personal, instructive and entertaining. A similar tone in modern writing is more likely to be found in a “personal essay” (cf. “prosey muse” in line 22) than in a satire. E. B. White’s essays sound to me more Horatian than most contemporary poetry I can think of.

All translators strive for accuracy, of course, by which we mean fidelity to the text, and to what we can know from it of what the author meant. Horace poses a challenge because he is both a classical author, thus requiring of his translators more than casual knowledge of Roman life and poetry, and a classic, the most quoted author of antiquity. He is alike playful and thoughtful, passionate and ironic, and the poise these balanced attributes create is something to which a translator must also be loyal — Horace didn’t sound like a classic to his contemporaries.

Sometimes what the translator knows about the cultural background of the originals must serve the freshness and accessibility of the translation, yet go unnoticed by the reader of the translations. For example, consider this brief passage from another (II, viii) Horace satire.

Vibidius dum
querit de pueris num sit quoque fracta lagoena,
quod sibi poscenti non dentur pocula, dumque
ridetur fictis rerum Balatrone secundo,
Nasidiene, redis mutatae frontis, ut arte
emendaturus fortunam.

A dinner party is underway and fast becoming a disaster. A wall hanging has broken loose and fallen on the pretentious main course. Vibidius and Balatro are raucous guests. Nasidienus, the host, is at first driven from the room by the debacle, then comes back in determined to save the evening. I translate the passage thus:

asked the servants if the wine-jugs, too,
were broken, since the wine he clamored for
had not arrived. Balatro echoed him.
Anything seemed funny. Nasidienus,
meantime strode in, his shoulders squared: he would
tame chaos with art.

The phrase I translated as “with shoulders squared” is mutatae frontis, literally “with changed brow” or “forehead.”But here’s how three contemporary translators of Horace handle the phrase.

First, Smith Palmer Bovie:
“with a brand new look on your face. . . .”

Jacob Fuchs gives us
“You looked better, . . .”

And Niall Rudd, the formidable Horace scholar, offers
“Nasidienus re-enters wearing the face of a man
resolved. . . .”

Rudd comes closest to the sense of the passage, I believe. The brow was in Roman physiognomy the seat of will, and the fun of this passage is that our dithering host is about to apply will where only grace will get the job done.

But of course the brow is not the seat of resolve to an American reader, unless he or she has spent a lot of time staring at Roman bust portraiture. When we’re about to commit the mess Nasidienus makes, we square our shoulders. . . .  —New York City, July 29, 1996



Satire II, vi

I prayed for this: a modest swatch of land
where I could garden, an ever-flowing spring
close by, and a small patch of woods above
the house. The gods gave all I asked and more.
I pray for nothing more, O Mercury, but
that these blessings last my life’s full term.
If I haven’t cobbled my property
together by a series of gray deals,
neither will I shrink it by squanderings
or neglect. I’m not one to mope: “O if
only I could acquire that neighboring
corner, that mars the shape of my small farm.”
Or, “O for the luck of the plowman who unearthed
enough buried treasure to buy the very
land he once had worked for hire, thanks to great
Hercules.” I have what I wanted and am
content, and so ask only that my herd
and all else I maintain, except my wits,
grow fat, and that you, steadfast Mercury,
remain my guardian. Now that I’ve fled
the city to my mountain retreat,
what else should I invoke my prosey muse
to help me praise? There’s no social climbing
here, no stifling sirocco to promote brisk
trade for the morticians. Father of Dawn,
or Janus, if you prefer, to whom morning
tasks by heaven’s will are consecrated,
I start my song with you. The days begin
at a sprint in Rome: you shoo me along
to court to testify for a friend. “Get
cracking or someone will beat you to it.”
The north wind harries Rome; the dark stays
longer every day; and I’m out early
nonetheless. What I say in court may well
come back to haunt me. Then I’m on the street,
stepping on some laggard’s heel. “You moron,”
he assails me. “Well, it’s Horace,” he says,
knocking anyone aside who might slow
his rush to get back to Maecenas’s side.”
That name is honey to me, I admit.
But once I reach the gloomy Esquiline,
the needs of others flood me. “Roscius
will meet you at Libo’s Wall tomorrow
morning before seven.” “Quintus, the clerks
remind you to go back to the Forum
today for an important guild matter.”
“Please have Maecenas set his seal to these
papers.” “I’ll try,” I say. “You can do it
if you want to,” I hear next. It’s seven
years now, almost eight, since Maecenas made
me his friend for company on trips
and small talk. Such as? “What time is it?” Or,
“Can The Thracian Bantam beat The Hulk?”
Or, “Dress warmly; the cold has filed its teeth.”
Chatter you can pour into a leaky ear.
For such intimacy our friend Horace
drew envy. Didn’t he and Maecenas
watch the games together; didn’t they play
toss on the Campus? “Isn’t he the son
of Fortune?” one and all asked. Is there a rumor on the air? Horace will know the story from his high-placed pals. “What’s up in the Balkans?” “I don’t know,” I admit, and hear a knowing snicker. Let the gods strike me if I lie. “About those land-grants Caesar promised his veterans, will they be on Sicily or on the mainland?” I don’t know, and my interlocutors treat me like the deep grave of state secrets. 60
While I waste my days on such piffle,
I pray under my breath: O farm of mine,
when will I see you next? When will I read
the classics, sleep late, laze thoughtfully through
days rinsed free from care? When will I taste beans,
Pythagoras’s cousins, and some greens
cooked with bacon? My lar presides over
nights and dinners the gods might envy, when
my friends and I eat well and there’s enough
left over for the noisy slaves. Each guest
drinks without protocol or fuss as much
or little as he likes at his own pace.
And then we talk, not about what others
own, or if Lepos is a great dancer
or a bumblefoot, but whether money
or virtue can buy happiness, whether
self-interest or a true heart draws friends,
and what it means to be or to do good.
Now and then my good neighbor Cervius
tells us a fable. If one of us should
forget the dreads of wealth, he’d tell this one:
“Once upon a time, a country mouse
welcomed his old pal, a city mouse,
to his sparse hole. It wasn’t much. He kept
a rustic larder, but he would open
it wide to guests. How wide? He’d give away
the last chickpea or long oat he’d stored up,
and tote in his teeth a raisin or bacon
scrap to prickle his urban friend’s refined
palate. He lay back on his couch of chaff,
eating spelt and darnel, and let his guest
dine on the treats. And then his guest spoke up.
‘What pleasures, friend, does this hardscrabble life
provide, perched on the edge of a steep wood?
What about people, and the great city?
Come there with me. We’re all slated for death,
whether we be grand or ordinary;
thus we should avidly pursue life’s joys
the whole of our short course on earth.’ These words
burned in the rustic’s heart, and happily
he left his bare home behind. The two mice
set out for the city, planning to wriggle
under the city wall at night. And night
had reached the halfway point of heaven
when they set paw in a rich man’s palace,
where crimson cloth gleamed from ivory couches
and leftovers from last night’s feast were piled
high in baskets. The city mouse installs
his pal on the plush covers and scurries
about like a deft waiter, serving course
after course and tasting each one first just
like a proper slave. The country mouse
knows how to play the pampered guest
and settles in to enjoy his changed lot.
Suddenly the doors bang open and the mice
tumble from their couches. Fear speeds the pair
the whole length of the room and the house
begins to vibrate with the harsh barking
of tremendous hounds. Then the country
mouse says, ‘I don’t need any of this, and so
good-bye to it. I long for my safe woods
and bare hole, and a small meal of vetch.'”

(Translated from the Latin by William Matthews)

Notes to Horace’s Satire II, vi

line 5: literally, Maia nate: son of Maia. Horace’s readers would know this was Mercury, god of luck and gain.

line 16: Hercules is god of, among other things, treasure troves.

line 25: Janus is invoked as “Father of Dawn” because dawn is when Horace is writing these lines. His peaceful writing regimen makes a sharp contrast to the blithering pace of Roman life at the same hour.

line 39: Maecenas, a wealthy Roman, close friend and adviser to Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), gave Horace his “Sabine Farm,” the very plot of suburban land this satire describes.

line 41: The Esquiline was once a cemetery (thus “gloomy”) where paupers, criminals, etc. were buried. Maecenas built some splendid gardens there.

line 43: Libo’s Wall: the site of the Roman exchange.

line 44: The Quintus addressed here is Horace. Horace was formerly a scriba, a bureaucrat in the Treasury.

lines 60-61: “is there / a rumor on the air?” Maecenas was in charge of Rome during Octavian’s absence in 31 BC.

lines 74-75: “beans, / Pythagoras’s cousins. . .” Pythagoras forbade eating meat because of his doctrine of the transmigration of souls. He also forbade eating beans, and here Horace wryly pretends to think that proscription is for the same reason.

line 76: “lar:” a household god.

line 80: at fancy Roman banquets, elaborate procedures governed drinking and toasts.

line 100: “spelt and darnel:” the culinary equivalent of millet.


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