Horace: The Epistles

Book I: Epistle II

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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BkIEpII:1-31 The value of reading Homer

Lollius Maximus, while you are orating, at Rome,

I’m at Praeneste re-reading Homer’s Trojan War:

Where he tells us what’s foul or fair, beneficial

Or not, more clearly than do Chrysippus or Crantor.

Listen to why I think so, if nothing prevents you.

The tale, which tells how Greece clashed in lengthy war,

With a foreign race, because of Paris’s amour,

Records the passions of foolish kings and clans.

Antenor suggests they return the woman who caused

The war: and Paris ? Nothing he says can compel him –

To manage his affairs in safety, and live content!

Nestor is keen to end the quarrel of Achilles

And Agamemnon: one fired by love, both by anger.

However the princes rave, the Acheans suffer.

In-fighting, cunning, and crime, lust, and anger,

There’s error inside and outside the walls of Troy .

Conversely, in Ulysses, Homer shows us a fine

Example of what virtue and wisdom can do,

A tamer of Troy, who studied with insight, the ways

And the cities of men, and endured many hardships

As he struggled to bring his men and himself back home

Over wide seas, un-drowned by waves of adversity.

You know of the Sirens’ songs and Circe’s potions:

If Ulysses had been foolish and greedy enough

To drink these last like his comrades, he’d have become

Brutish, mindless, in thrall to a whore of a mistress,

Existing like a vile dog, or hog that loves the mire.

We are the masses, born to consume earth’s produce,

Penelope’s idle suitors, or Alcinous’ young

Men, preoccupied with tending their appearance,

Who thought it a fine thing to slumber till midday,

And soothe their cares to rest, to the sound of their lutes.

BkIEpII:32-54 Sapere aude: dare to be wise

Brigands rise in the depths of night to cut men’s throats:

Won’t you wake, to save yourself? Just as, you’ll have to

Run with dropsy, if you won’t start now when you’re sound,

So, if you don’t summon a book and a light before dawn,

If you don’t set your mind on honest aims and pursuits,

On waking, you’ll be tortured by envy or lust.

Why so quick to remove a speck from your eye, when

If it’s your mind, you put off the cure till next year?

Who’s started has half finished: dare to be wise: begin!

He who postpones the time for right-living resembles

The rustic who’s waiting until the river’s passed by:

Yet it glides on, and will roll on, gliding forever.

Wealth you want, and a fertile wife to bear children,

And uncultivated woods to be tamed by the plough:

But he who’s handed enough, shouldn’t long for more.

Houses and land, piles of bronze and gold, have never

Freed their owner’s sick body from fever, or his spirit

From care: if he wants to enjoy the goods he’s gathered

Their possessor must be well. House and fortune grant

As much pleasure to one who’s full of fear and craving

As painting to sore eyes, poultice to gouty joint,

Or lute to ears that ache from accumulated wax.

Unless the jar is clean whatever you pour in sours.

BkIEpII:55-71 Limit your desires

Scorn pleasures: the pleasure that’s bought with pain does harm.

The greedy always want: set fixed limits to longing.

The envious grow thin while their neighbours fatten.

Sicilian tyrants invented no worse torture

Than envy. The man who fails to control his anger,

Rushing to scourge the hated and un-avenged by force. 

Will wish undone what resentful feelings prompted.

Anger’s a brief madness: rule your heart, that unless

It obeys, controls: and check it with bridle and chain.

Its master trains a tender-necked colt that will learn

To take the path its rider directs: a hunting dog

Works the woods from the first moment it barks

At a deer’s hide in the yard. While you’re still a boy,

And pure-hearted, drink in my words, trust your betters.

A jar will long retain the odour of what it was

Dipped in when new. But if you delay or rush onwards

I don’t wait for the slow, or play follow my leader!

End of Book I Epistle II