Versions of Horace

Need for Translations

I was once asked if it could be ‘fair’ to look at other translations before beginning one’s own work. Not only fair, was my reply, but essential, and not simply to glance at previous versions but study them carefully. Translation is not a competition, but a fraternity of interests where each practitioner learns from others, as happens in all the sensible professions. Originality can be overdone, and in a world awash with translations what is often needed is a wise eclecticism that recasts previous attempts in the crucible of imagination and proper understanding of poet and period. Many authors are now adequately translated, and further efforts, unless they most significantly improve on their forebears, are a waste of everyone’s time.


The qualities that make the Odes of Horace worth attention are by their nature difficult to translate for a contemporary poetry audience. In this brief analysis of selected poems in eight books of translations:

John Conington 1863 {1}
Edward Marsh 1941 {2}
James Michie 1963 {3}
David Mulroy 1994 {4}
J.D. McClatchy (ed.) 2002 {5}
Tony Kline 2003 {6}
P.E. Knox and J.C. McKeown (eds.) 2013 {7}
Colin Holcombe 2014 {8}

I look at matters critically from six viewpoints: 1. Fidelity to the Latin, 2. Attitude to reader: tone, 3. Stanza shaping, 4. Verse texture, 5. Aesthetic qualities, and 6. Accessibility to a modern audience.

Being an inflected language, Latin allowed skilful poets to create concise beauties of phrasing well-nigh impossible to replicate in English. The Odes of Horace range from public utterances in the grand manner to songs and pleasing trifles, moreover, which in turn call for an unusually lapidary translation style. Roman poetry also had different aims to our serious poetry today, which adds another layer of difficulty. I will develop these points briefly as the analysis and comparison proceeds on three odes, chosen because they are characteristic and important examples of Horace’s art, and because the translations are (largely) freely available over the Internet. These eight can only be small sample, as complete renderings of the Odes into English exceeded a hundred even fifty years ago, and there have been many since, in free and strict verse forms.

Comparisons: Odes 2.2 Translations

This is the first ode in one of Horace’s favourite measures, the Sapphic, which runs:

– u – – – / u u – u – u x
– u – – – / u u – u – u x
– u – – – / u u – u – u x
– u u – x

Where – is a long syllable, u is a short syllable, and x is a space for a long or short syllable. The caesura is designated /. As might be expected, the first ode in Book One was dedicated to Horace’s patron, and the second was to Augustus, the victor in the late Republican civil wars of Rome and now its safeguarder of peace and continuing greatness. The Latin of the first eight lines is:

Iam satis terris niuis atque dirae
grandinis misit Pater et rubente
dextera sacras iaculatus arces
terruit Vrbem,
terruit gentis, graue ne rediret
saeculum Pyrrhae noua monstra questae,
omne cum Proteus pecus egit altos
uisere montis,

And a nearly word-for-word rendering is:

now enough on earth snow and fearful
hail hurled Father and red
sacred right hand being hurled at hill/citadel
terrified city,
terrified nation important not return
generation of Pyrrha renew complaining portent
everyone with Proteus flock driven height
would see mountain

John Conington 1863

John Conington (1825-69) was a distinguished classical scholar who managed in his short life to produce celebrated translations of Persius, Virgil and Horace that are still read. His Horace, Odes and Carmen Saeculare was published in 1863, and republished twice with minor alterations. As was usual in the period, his Horace renderings were in rhymed verse, and Conington echoed the Latin measure by lines of varying length, here in stanzas of 4 4 4 2 stresses to their iambic lines. As in all the examples that follow, I give the first two stanzas only, but the whole translation can be freely accessed on Gutenberg.

Enough of snow and hail at last
The sire has sent in vengeance down:
His bolts, at His own temple cast,
Appall’d the town,
Appall’d the lands, lest Pyrrha’s time
Return, with all its monstrous sights,
When Proteus led his flocks to climb
The flattened heights,

Conington’s renderings are miracles of condensation, and little content is lost in this rendering, which is given a pleasing stanza shaping.

Edward Marsh 1941

Too long hath Jove with vengeful visitations
Of hail and snow, and with his right red arm
Smiting our twin-peaked summit, struck alarm
Into the City and the nations.
It seemed that monstrous age was born anew
When Pyrrha from the stones saw marvels bred,
And landward from the deep old Proteus led
His herds the mountain tops to view.

Sir Edward Marsh (1872-1953) was a man of many gifts: a senior civil servant and private aide to Winston Churchill, the driving force behind the Georgian poets, and the accomplished translator of La Fontaine, Horace and Fromentin. His Horace translations are a very mixed bag, however, and this is not one of the best. The rendering is reasonably faithful to the Latin, but cumbersome (His herds the mountain tops to view), lacking the chiselled neatness of the Sapphic measure. The last line of each stanza should at least be short, which here it is not, and indeed all the lines seem have been padded out – vengeful, twin-peaked, deep old, etc. The diction is also very dated, surprisingly in a translator who produced an enviable naturalness in the La Fontaine and Fromentin renderings (which readers, unless they consult second-hand booksellers, will have to take my word for: Marsh’s works are not on the Internet).

James Michie 1963

Enough the ordeal now, the snow- and hail-storms
God has unleashed on earth, whose red right hand hurled
Bolts at the Capitol’s sacred summits, spreading
Fear in the City streets,
Fear among nations lest the age of horror
Should come again when Pyrrha gasped at strange sights:
Old Proteus herding his whole sea-zoo uphill,
Visiting mountain-tops,

James Michie (1927-2007) was part of the English poetry establishment: a conscientious objector during WWII, a friend of Kingsley Amis, editing with him the 1949 edition of Oxford Poetry, and a successful editor with Heinemann and then Bodley Head. He brought out several well-received collections of poems, and translations from Greek, Latin and French poets. Many of the Horace translations were fully rhymed, with a preference for couplets. This translation is reasonably faithful to the Latin, but has been coarsened, or, if you will, made more dramatic: age of horror, unleashed, gasped at strange sights, sea-zoo. The verse has a forward-driving, no-nonsense energy, but is remarkably deficient in the sound patterning that distinguishes verse from prose: indeed it’s not quite either. There is shaping in the shorter last line of each stanza, but the lines do not otherwise echo the lapidary precision of Horace or the Sapphic stanza generally.

J.D. McClatchy (ed.) 2002

It’s enough now, all this vicious snow and hail
Father Jupiter has sent to earth, enough
his striking sacred peaks with a smoldering hand
to terrify the town,

to terrify the people: what if the dismal age
of Pyrrha should return, when she quailed at strange
new signs, when Proteus drove his ocean herd
to visit mountain tops,

The translation is one by 35 leading poets in a collection edited by Professor McClatchy, who has five collections of poetry to his credit, and teaches at Yale. Professor Harold Bloom said, ‘J.D. MacClatchy’s extraordinary collection gives us th richest version of Horace’s odes ever made available in English’. A more critical review is on this blog. {9}

The translator in this instance, Rosanna Warren, was educated at Yale, and has published three collections of poetry, receiving the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets for the last, and being named a Chancellor of the Academy in 1999. She has won several other prizes, has translated Euripides’ Suppliant Women, and in 1989 edited The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field. Like the Michie piece, Warren’s translation is sensible and energetic, reasonably close to the Latin though (again like Michie) with emphatic words added: vicious, dismal, quailed. Her verse has continued the contemporary move towards to free-running prose: it holds no echo of the Latin measures but breaks the stanza into pleasing units that still end with the short last line.

Tony Kline 2003

The Father’s sent enough dread hail
and snow to earth already, striking
sacred hills with fiery hand,
to scare the city,

and scare the people, lest again
we know Pyrrha’s age of pain
when Proteus his sea-herds drove
across high mountains,

Tony Kline’s prolific translations are provided free on his Poetry In Translation website, and are deservedly popular with students wanting a close and literal rendering. There are the odd, rare slips in his Horace collection (mostly names: Parrhasius was a painter, not sculptor: IV 8) but matching the literal renderings with the Latin text may be the best way of approaching Horace for the non-classicist. The choice of syllabic verse often produces flat lines, and the literal renderings by their nature can be uninspired if not plain pedestrian. Here this rhythmically rather loose rendering may be an attempt to capture Horace's meter. Kline remarks: 'I have followed the original Latin metre in all cases, giving a reasonably close English version of Horace’s strict forms. Rhythm not rhyme is the essence. Please try reading slowly to identify the rhythm of the first verse of each poem, before reading the whole poem through. Counting syllables, and noting the natural rhythm of individual phrases, may help.' Here, however, I'd scan Kline's rendering as:

u - u- u x -
u - u - u - u
- u - u - u -
u - u - u

Which is clearly not the Sapphic:

– u – – – / u u – u – u x
– u – – – / u u – u – u x
– u – – – / u u – u – u x
– u u – x

English verse is essentially accentual-syllabic, and not quantitative, but if we set this aside, and count the longer English vowels as Latin long syllables, Tony Kline's stanza would be scanned as:

u - u - u - u -
u - u - u u u - u
- u u u - u
u - u u u

Which again is not the Sapphic. The same finding applies to all of Kline's lines, I've checked: it's an interesting experiment, but, as centuries of verse-writers have found, the classical metres cannot really be imitated in English. It's better to use English forms that echo in some way the Latin stanza shapes.

P.E. Knox and J.C. McKeown 2013

Father Jupiter has already sent enough fierce hail and snow, and his red right arm has struck this holy citadel bringing fear to the city

and fear to the nations. The cruel age of Pyrrha seemed to be returning, and the strange sights she had to bewail- Proteus driving his herds to visit the high mountains,

These translations of the First Book of Odes appear in the Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature (I don’t know the identity of the translator) and resemble the Kline translations in their unadorned simplicity. Strictly speaking, they are prose, as can be seen by running the lines together:

Father Jupiter has already sent enough fierce hail and snow, and his red right arm has struck this holy citadel bringing fear to the city and fear to the nations. The cruel age of Pyrrha seemed to be returning, and the strange sights she had to bewail-Proteus driving his herds to visit the high mountains,

The prose is an attractive one, however: lightly patterned with a hint of iambic verse beneath. The rendering is faithful to the Latin, the diction is appropriate, and the result should be accessible to students unfamiliar with the demands of traditional verse.

Colin Holcombe 2014

Such snow and hail has Jove hurled down
upon our sacred hills, defied
by his fierce hand, that this vast town
lies terrified.

And nation too, lest Pyrrha’s time
should come again with monstrous sights
when Proteus had his sea herds climb
the mountain heights.

Colin Holcombe’s version (i.e. mine) returns to Conington’s traditional style, and aims to catch the tone, the verbal felicities and the sonic and emotive overtones than distinguish poetry from prose. The Sapphic strophe is captured in 4 4 4 2 stanzas and tightly rhymed a b a b.

End Notes

1. Conington, J. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace Translated into English Verse. Gutenberg

2. Marsh, E. The Odes of Horace. Macmillan, 1941.

3. Michie, J. Sample text for Odes : / Horace ; with the Latin text ; translated by James Michie ; introduction by Gregson Davis 1963

4. Mulroy, D. Horace’s Odes and Epodes. Translated with an Introduction and a Commentary. Michigan University Press, 1994. Google Books.

5. McClatchy, J.D. Horace The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Princeton Univ. Press, 2002.

6. Kline, A.S. Horace. 2003. Poetry in Translation: Odes.

7. Knox. P.E. and McKeown, J.C. Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature. OUP, 2013. Google Books.

8. Holcombe, C.J. 2014 The Odes of Horace. Ocaso Press, 2014. Free ebook.

9. Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Review.

Originally posted November 2014 by Colin Holcombe on TextEtc.com blog