Look Who’s Here!

In the famous Ode II.13, Horace tells how he was nearly killed by a falling tree. In the portion translated below, Horace imagines what (and whom) he would have seen had he died and gone down to the house of the dead.

Note that Horace ascribes Orpheus-like powers to two great poets in an imagined encounter, but he seems to say the themes of one hold more appeal than those of the other. 

Horace Odes II.13.21-40.

I almost saw dark Prosperina’s kingdom,
Aecus passing judgment,
the blessed ones’ separate dwelling,
and weeping to the Aeolian lyre

over her band of girls, Sappho!
And you, Alcaeus, singing richer matter
with the golden pick: the misery of ships,
exile’s awful misery, war’s misery too.

Shades gape at both their songs
in fitting, holy silence, but the throng
packed tight prefers its ears imbibe
the tales of battle and tyrants expelled.

Amazing, no? As the songs spread enchantment
Cerberus, the hundred-headed beast, droops
his black ears, and snakes writhing
in the Furies’ hair simmer down.

Even Prometheus and Tantalus,
Pelops’ father, are distracted from torment
by the sweet sound; and Orion, the hunter,
does not care to trouble lions or timid lynxes.

quam paene furvae regna Proserpinae
et iudicantem vidimus Aeacum
sedesque discretas piorum et
Aeoliis fidibus querentem

Sappho puellis de popularibus
et te sonantem plenius aureo,
Alcaee, plectro dura navis,
dura fugae mala, dura belli.

utrumque sacro digna silentio
mirantur umbrae dicere, sed magis
pugnas et exactos tyrannos
densum umeris bibit aure vulgus.

quid mirum, ubi illis carminibus stupens
demittit atras belua centiceps
auris et intorti capillis
Eumenidum recreantur angues?

quin et Prometheus et Pelopis parens
dulci laborem decipitur sono,
nec curat Orion leones
aut timidos agitare lyncas.

Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.
Newport Jazz Festival, 1970.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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