Horace: The Epistles
Book II: Epistle II
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved
This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.
- BkIIEpII:1-25 An answer to Florus’ complaints
- BkIIEpII:26-54 I prefer dozing to writing!
- BkIIEpII:56-86 There are so many obstacles to poetry
- BkIIEpII:87-125 Be your own harshest critic
- BkIIEpII:126-154 Seeking truth is better than writing
- BkIIEpII:155-179 We own nothing, Death takes all
- BkIIEpII:180-216 Live as you ought, or give way to others
BkIIEpII:1-25 An answer to Florus’ complaints
What if by chance someone wanted to sell you a slave,
Like this: ‘Here’s a handsome lad, lovely from head to toe,
Eight thousand sesterces and it’s done, he’s yours,
Born in-house, quick to obey his master’s orders,
Trained in Greek letters, adaptable to any task,
Wet clay that can be moulded however you wish:
He’ll even sing as you drink, artlessly but sweetly.
Extravagant claims knock confidence, if a dealer
Who’s eager to push his wares overdoes them.
Nothing’s pricking me though: I’m poor but in funds.
You’ll not get an offer like this: no one will easily
See the like from me. He’s only skipped once, as they do,
And hid under the stairs fearing the strap on the wall.
Give me the cash, if that lapse of his don’t bother you’:
Let’s suppose he secured full price: you’ll have bought
Knowing the goods at fault: the condition as stated:
Will you sue him then, and accuse him on false grounds?
I said I was lazy when you were leaving, I said
I’m quite useless at such things, to stop you scolding
If never a letter of mine reached you in reply.
What was the point, if you still attack me, when I’m
In the right? And on top of that you even complain
That I lied, failing to send you the poems I promised!
BkIIEpII:26-54 I prefer dozing to writing!
One of Lucullus’ soldiers, with effort, had gathered
Some savings, but lost every penny one night, as he
Snored away, exhausted. Like a fierce wolf, enraged
By self and foe alike, angrily bari ng his teeth,
He single-handedly drove a royal garrison
From a strongly defended, richly stocked site, it’s said.
Now famous, he garnered rewards and honours, winning
Twenty thousand sesterces in cash as well.
By chance, soon after, the general wanting to storm
A fort, began by ur ging on this same man, with words
Guaranteed to have inspired a coward with courage:
‘Go, my fine lad, where virtue calls, and good luck,
Go where you’ll win great rewards for your work!
What stops you?’ Peasant though he was, the crafty man
Replied: ‘He who’s lost his cash, he’ll go where you wish.’
I happened to be raised in Rome, and to be taught
How much the anger of Achilles harmed the Greeks.
A little more learning was added by kindly Athens,
And so I was keen to distinguish crooked from straight,
And to search for truth in the groves of Academe.
But turbulent times snatched me from that sweet spot,
The tide of civil war swept me a novice into that army
That proved no match for Augustus Caesar’s strong grip.
As soon as Philippi brought about my discharge,
Wings clipped, humbled, stripped of my father’s estate
And farm, the courage of poverty drove me to making
Verse: but now I lack nothing, what amount of hemlock
Could ever be sufficient to purify my mind,
If I didn’t think dozing were better than scribbling verse?
BkIIEpII:56-86 There are so many obstacles to poetry
The passing years steal one thing after another:
They’ve robbed me of fun, love, banquets, sport:
They’re trying to wrest my poems away: what next?
Everyone can’t love and like the same things, after all:
You enjoy lyric art, he delights in iambics,
Another Bion’s pieces with their biting wit.
It seems to me it’s quite like three guests who disagree,
Seeking wide variety for their varying tastes.
What to serve or not? You object to what he orders:
Your choice is sour and hateful to the other two.
Anyway, do you think I can write poems in Rome,
Among so many anxieties, so many duties?
One man begs me as sponsor, another to forget
Business and hear his works: he’s ill on the Quirinal,
He’s on the distant Aventine, I’ve to visit both:
You see how sweetly kind the distance. ‘True,
But the roads are quiet, nothing to stop you thinking.’
A fiery builder rushes past with mules and workmen,
A huge crane hoists a beam, and then a boulder,
Weeping funerals jostle with lumbering wagons,
A mad dog hares this way, a mud-spattered pig that:
Now go and meditate on some tuneful verse!
The whole choir of poets loves woods, and hates the city,
True followers of Bacchus, loving sleep and shade:
Do you want me to sing, and follow the poet’s
Secluded path, amongst this racket, night and day?
A genius, who’s chosen peaceful Athens for himself,
Devoted seven years to his studies, and grown old
With books and care, walks round often as not dumber
Than a statue, and makes people shake with laughter:
Am I, here, in the storms and breakers of the city,
Capable of weaving words to stir the music of the lyre?
BkIIEpII:87-125 Be your own harshest critic
Two friends at Rome, a lawyer and an orator,
Only ever heard mutual compliments spoken:
Does some lesser madness vex our tuneful poets?
I compose lyrics, he elegiacs. Wondrous to see,
Work engraved by the Nine Muses! First take note
With what pride, what self-importance, we gaze
Round the temple, left vacant for Roman poets!
And next, if you’ve time, follow, and hear from afar
What each brings, with what he weaves himself a crown.
We’re beaten about, trading blows we weary our foe,
Like ponderous Samnites duelling till lamps are lit.
I end up Alcaeus according to him: and he to me?
Who else but Callimachus? If he seems to want more
He’s Mimnermus, and swells at the name I’ve chosen.
I endured much to soothe the sensitive tribe of poets,
When I scribbled, bidding humbly for popular fame:
Now I’ve finished my task and recovered my wits
I can cheerfully stop my hollow ears when they recite.
Whoever writes bad verses is laughed at: and yet
They enjoy writing and treat themselves with respect,
More, if you’re silent, they happily praise what they’ve done.
But whoever wants to write a genuine poem,
Will adopt, with his pen, the role of a true critic:
Whichever of his words are lacking in clarity,
Insufficiently weighty, unworthy of respect,
He’ll dare to erase them, though they’ll go unwillingly,
And they’ll still float about in Vesta’s sanctuary:
So a good poet can unearth and bring to the light
For us, beautiful names, long hidden, for things,
And now buried by hideous neglect and dull age:
He’ll admit some new ones, that usage has fathered.
Powerful and clear, indeed like a crystal river,
He’ll pour out riches, and bless Latium with a wealth
Of language: he’ll prune excess, smooth the coarse
With healthy refinement, striking out what lacks worth,
Make it seem like play, and yet be tormented, now
BkIIEpII:126-154 Seeking truth is better than writing
I’d sooner be seen as a crazy and lazy writer,
While my faults please me, or at least escape me,
Than see sense, but snarl. There was a man in Argos,
No pleb, who thought he was watching fine tragic acting,
Alone in the empty theatre, applauding happily:
Who otherwise handled life’s duties perfectly
Well, a very good neighbour, a charming host,
Kind to his wife, one who forgave his slaves’ faults,
Didn’t go mad if the seal on a bottle was broken,
Was able to keep from a cliff or an open well.
When he was cured, with his relatives help and care
Expelling sickness and madness with pure hellebore,
And had come to his senses he cried: ‘Ah, you’ve killed me,
Friends, not saved me, since you’ve stolen my pleasure,
And by force removed my mind’s dearest illusion.’
Of course it’s wise to see sense, and throw away toys,
And leave those games to lads that are suited to that age,
And not search out melodious words for the Latin lyre,
But learn by heart the true life’s rhythm and metre.
So, I say this to myself, and in silence repeat it:
If no amount of clear water could quench your thirst,
You’d see a doctor: well, the more you get the more
You want, is there no one you dare confess that to?
If you’d a wound that wasn’t soothed by the herbs and roots
You were given, you’d stop being treated with herbs
And roots that did no good: perhaps you’ve heard perverse
Foolishness leaves the man to whom the gods give riches:
If you’re no wiser then since you became wealthier,
Why do you still employ the same counsellors?
BkIIEpII:155-179 We own nothing, Death takes all
And if possessions did have the power to make you wise,
Made you crave less, and fear less, you’d still be ashamed,
Yes, if even one man on earth was greedier than you!
If what’s bought with scales and copper coin is yours,
Ownership comes by use too, if you believe lawyers:
Any land that feeds you is yours: Orbius’ steward
When he harrows the field that will soon give you grain,
Treats you like an owner. You give the money for grapes,
Poultry, eggs, a jar of wine: aren’t you buying that farm
Bit by bit, once purchased outright for three hundred
Thousand sesterces or it might be for even more?
What matter whether you paid for it just now or then?
Has still bought the greens he’s eating whatever he thinks,
He’s bought the logs heating his kettle on a chill night:
Yet he calls it his, right up to where poplars planted
Fix the boundaries and stall neighbours’ quarrels: as if
Anything were ours, that in a moment of fleeting time,
Changes owners, by gift on request, by force or fee,
At last by death, passing into another’s hands.
Since then no one’s granted perpetual use, and heir
Follows heir just as one wave will follow another,
What use are barns, or estates? What use our adding
If Orcus, unmoved by gold, reaps high and low?
BkIIEpII:180-216 Live as you ought, or give way to others
Jewels, ivory, marble, Etruscan figurines,
Pictures, silver plate, robes dyed Gaetulian purple:
Many there are who own, one who cares to own, none.
Why one man prefers playing, idling, oiling himself,
To Herod’s fine palm groves, while his rich brother
Works without cease, from dawn to evening shadow,
To tame his woodland tract with fire and metal,
The Genius only knows, companion controlling
Our natal stars, god of our human nature, mortal
With each life though, fickle in aspect, bright or dark.
Whatever I need, I’ll take and use from my modest
Store, without fear of how my heir might judge me,
Getting no more than he’s already had: yet also
I’ll seek to find the line between frank and carefree
Generosity, and waste, between thrift and meanness.
It does matter whether you scatter lavishly, or
While not unwilling to spend, not working for more,
You’d rather snatch enjoyment of brief sweet hours
Let my house be far from squalid poverty: and borne
By vessel large or small, I’m borne still one and the same.
Not driven by swelling sails, in following Northerlies:
Nor yet spending my life among hostile Southerlies,
In strength, wit, appearance, courage, rank, and riches,
Still behind the first, but always in front of the last.
You’re no miser: go on. Well? Has every other vice
Fled with that one? Is you heart free of worthless
Ambition? Free from horror, indignation at death?
Do you laugh at dreams, miracles, magical terrors,
Witches, ghosts in the night, and Thessalian portents?
Do you mark birthdays with thanks? Forgive your friends?
Are you mellower, and more decent, as old age nears?
What good does it do to extract just a single thorn?
If you don’t know how to live as you ought, give way
To those who do. You’ve fed, and wined, and played enough:
It’s time for you to leave: lest you drink too freely,
And lovelier impudent youth hits you, and mocks you.
End of Book II Epistle II