Friday, August 6, 2010


Until recently I hadn't actually read many of Horace's non-lyric poems, but with one of his Satires set as an HSC text for 2011, I thought I should acquaint myself with them a bit better. Luckily enough, at a second-hand bookstall I recently found a beautifully-bound edition of his Satires, with a superbly comprehensive commentary, for the knockdown price of $8. Reading it has been an education and a joy.

One of the passages that appealed to me most was the portion of the first satire of the first book in which Horace mordantly criticises the hypocrisy of those who constantly complain about their professions, stating that others are so much more congenial. There are echoes of this in his well-known "Alfius" poem, the ultimate lead-the-reader-up-the-garden-path production.

But back to Satires I.I:

'o fortunati mercatores!' gravis annis
miles ait, multo iam fractus membra labore.
contra mercator navem iactantibus Austris:
'militia est potior. quid enim? concurritur: horae
momento cita mors venit aut victoria laeta.'
agricolam laudat iuris legumque peritus,
sub galli cantum consultor ubi ostia pulsat;
ille, datis vadibus qui rure extractus in urbem est,
solos felices viventis clamat in urbe.

"'Oh, lucky merchants!' says the soldier, worn down by the years, with his limbs now broken down from a lifetime of work. The merchant, on the other hand, with the South Wind lashing his ship, says 'A soldier's life is better. What's the big deal? Battle is joined: in the space of an hour either a swift death comes, or joyous victory. The expert in law and statute envies the farmer, when the client bashes at the door before the cock crows. But the farmer, when he's given his surety and is dragged off to the city from his farm, exclaims that only those living in the city are happy."

Horace, Satires I.I.4-12

Looking more closely:

Line 4: the spondaic beginning (quite reminiscent of Virgil's o fortunati quorum iam moenia surgunt, in fact), gives the line a sense of gravity and depth of feeling, which is of course turned on its head later when Horace alleges that such people would never change their circumstances, even given the chance. The phrase "gravis annis" is evocative, given the soldiers' duty to carry their heavy packs on their back; they are weighed down by a combination of age and ceaseless marching.
5: another nicely-chosen phrase in "fractus membra", with membra an accusative of respect; his limbs are broken down, but there is also the suggestion that he is the archetypal "broken man".
6: another very spondaic line with "a" sounds predominant, perhaps echoing the whistling winds (or the cries of terror) during a treacherous sea journey?
7: the choppy, telegraphic phrases here work superbly as a crass over-simplification of the soldier's lot, and the dismissive "concurritur" provides a perfect example of how the structure of Latin can provide poetic opportunities denied to English (and many other languages). The impersonal passive ("running together happens") denies agency to either side in the conflict, and condenses all the preparation, tactics, emotion and chance of war into a single word. Not that the merchant has a simplistic idea of soldiery, of course!
8: "momento" is a word which doesn't exactly equate to the English "moment", which would be better rendered in Latin by punctum. But the etymology of the word, arising from the verb moveo, adds an extra dimension to the meaning: "in the movement of an hour", an apt description for action on a battlefield.
10: "sub galli cantum" is a nice touch; even before the annoying cock-crow, there is the even more annoying sound of a client not knocking, but beating ("pulsat", in the emphatic final position) on the door.
12: the humorous hyperbole of "solos felices" is again part of a very spondaic and hence portentous-sounding line, with the farmer's sudden certainty about his new opinion reinforced by the use of "clamat" rather than "dicit" or some other such word. Horace certainly knew how to draw characters with an economical use of words!

No comments:

Post a Comment