Spring Celebration with Horace and Housman

In Ode 4.7, Horace uses the return of Spring as a focal point for reflecting upon life, death, the uncertainty of human life and the certainty of death. A.E. Housman composed an excellent translation of it. According to one of his former students, Housman discussed all of the knottier technical and philological points and then invited his students to consider the poem purely as poetry. He read both the Latin and his own translation, and then left the room immediately after proclaiming, “That I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature.”

Diffugere Nives, A.E. Housman’s Translation:

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.
Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o’er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithöus in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.

Horace’s Original, Odes 4.7

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
arboribus comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt;
Gratia cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet               5
ducere nuda chorus.
Inmortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
quae rapit hora diem.
Frigora mitescunt Zephyris, ver proterit aestas,
interitura simul               10
pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
bruma recurrit iners.
Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae:
nos ubi decidimus
quo pater Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus,               15
puluis et umbra sumus.
Quis scit an adiciant hodiernae crastina summae
tempora di superi?
Cuncta manus avidas fugient heredis, amico
quae dederis animo.               20
Cum semel occideris et de te splendida Minos
fecerit arbitria,
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
restituet pietas;
infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum               25
liberat Hippolytum,
nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
vincula Pirithoo.

One thought on “Spring Celebration with Horace and Housman

  1. My favourite part of this magnificent little poem is a phrase which no-one ever seems to mention: “ver proterit aestas”. As a listener, rather than a reader, you are expecting “ver” to be a nominative (since the preceding phrase has introduced the theme of spring taking over from winter), but with “aestas” you suddenly realise that “ver” was an accusative, and you’ve already jumped forward in time to summer. And this “blink and you’ll miss it” effect is perfectly designed to bring home the message of the poem.

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