Poets of every generation and school of thought rediscover Horace’s odes and recast his work through their translations. Hundreds of superb poets have taken the plunge, including Milton, Crashaw, Congreve, Swift, Pope, Dryden, Cowper, Byron, Housman, Kipling, Pound, Lowell, and J. V. Cunningham.
Despite this continuing interest in Horace’s odes, few poets of the past century have taken on his satires and few people today read the handful of translations by classics scholars. Why have poets relinquished this ground? Wit, wordplay, and humor, which tend to rely on ephemeral nuances of language and current events, are harder to translate than more personal poetry. Moreover, our mainstream literary culture doesn’t value comic poetry, so only a few eccentric holdouts still write it. Indeed, today’s translators of Horace’s Satires lack even one contemporary model for a book-length comic poem.
Academics hate to admit it, but the ghosts of Pope and Swift still haunt our expectations of comic poetry, especially our expectations of longer comic poetry. I believe we should embrace these friendly spirits, not exorcise them, so I set out to publish a fun and faithful version of Horace’s Satires into rhyme and meter for the first time since the Conington translation of 1874.
This excerpt is the opening of Book II, Satire VI, a section which gives us a sense of the stresses of Horace’s daily life after he joins the circle of the legendary power broker and philanthropist Maecenas. Unlike Horace’s earliest satires, in which he struggles with issues of his craft and class, this piece is the work of a more polished and confident poet.
As Horace matured, he increasingly relied on the self-deprecatory humor used in this satire. This approach had the practical value of avoiding the legal and political retribution that Horace discusses with the famous lawyer Trebatius in the opening of Book II, but it had artistic advantages as well. Self-deprecation tends to be disarming. For example, President Reagan’s quip in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale that he was “not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience” effectively eliminated questions about Reagan’s own age and health from campaign debate. This kind of wit also creates a presumption that the speaker is humble, sincere, and self-aware, which in turn makes the speaker’s message more credible. Since Horace’s messages were often unwelcome, credibility and likeability were important features of his art.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 3, on page 41
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