Horace Ode II.14 on Indomitable Death

Translated by Steven J. Willett

Hades and Cerebus 2nd-century AD, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

Note: Hades was the eldest male child of Cronus and Rhea. His brothers were Zeus and Poseidon. He was later known to the Greeks as Pluton (Πλούτων), which the Romans changed to Pluto. He was married to Persephone the daughter of Demeter.

This is one of Horace’s most popular and emotionally charged odes due to its complex fugal control of syntax, verbal tonality and rhythm. The Lesbian strophe in its Sappho-Alcaeus, Horace and English versions is outlined below to give the readers some understanding of the meter. In the English alcaic strophe, I stick as closely as possible to the accentual Greek lyric meters that emerged in German from the late 16th century down to their greatest exploitation by Hölderlin. The most difficult part of this translation is the meter of personal names. In a few places I follow Hölderlin in slight single-syllable departures from the strict accentual meter.

x – u – × – u u – u – ||
× – u – × – u u – u – ||
× – u – × – u – – ||
– u u – u u – u – – |||
(where "–" is a longum, "u" a breve, and "×" an anceps)

– – u – – : – u u – u –
– – u – – : – u u – u –
– – u – – – u – –
– u u – u u – u – –

English (x=unstressed, /=stressed)
x / x / x : / x x / x /
x / x / x : / x x / x /
  x / x / x / x / x
    / x x / x x / x / x 
Alas, how swiftly, Postumus, Postumus,

The years glide by and piety can't delay

  All wrinkled skin and looming old age

    Bourne by a death that's indomitable,

Not even if you sacrifice every day,

My friend, three hundred bulls to assuage the stern

  God Pluto, who the triple-bodied

    Geryon now with the Tityos prisons

In gloomy waters, certainly all of us,

Who feed on bounty drawn from the pendant earth,

  Must sail across if ruling kings or

    Destitute laboring farmers we are.

In vain the bloody Mars we'll attempt to flee

And breaking waves of Hadria's hoarse-voiced roar,

  In vain each autumn we shall tremble

    Southern sirocco may harm our bodies:

We all must see miandering, sluggish flow 

Cocytus gives and Danaus' daughters who

  Were infamous and long the punished

    Sisyphus Aeolus' son to labor.

We must forsake the earth with our home and wife

So dear, and never one of these trees you tend

  Except the hated cypresses will

    Follow along with their short-lived master.

A worthier heir will drink off the Caecuba

A hundred keys have saved and a wine unmixed

 Will stain your pavements with its glory

   Better than served at the pontiffs' banquets.
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5 Responses to Horace Ode II.14 on Indomitable Death

  1. Deap says:

    …….and never one of these trees you tend
    Except the hated cypresses will
    Follow along with their short-lived master.

    I am not making sense of these lines — why is the cypress hated, which I assume would be the longest lived of all trees.

    Yet the “tended trees” …will never follow their master. (?????) I would assume these would be fruit trees, which are shorter lived. Except possibly the olive trees which can be ancient.

    Each word chosen so carefully, but on the surface without more deep diving on my own part, leaves me confused. Cypress trees do often mark memorial and burial sites .. is that why they are hated? They do mark death which is obviously not welcomed in the rest of this poem. Nor are any reminders of it.

    • Steven J. Willett says:

      Dear Deap,

      Your problem is that you seem unfamiliar with ancient Greek and Roman culture. Cypress trees are symbols of death. Throughout the Greek world cemeteries are planted with stands of cypresses within their walls. The Molyvos cemetery was visible in my Lesbos photo tour. They immediately stand out in every little Greek village and city. Because of their symbology, they follow the dead. Postumus has been cultivating trees that are not defined, only as “these trees you tend” (hārum quās colis arborum), but most likely on a rich estate are fruit and shade trees. They wouldn’t include olive trees. Horace’s subtle stab at Postumus is that his heir will waste the Caecuba wine that he should have been drinking and not locked away for safety—and price increase.

      I want to thank you personally for all your adept comments on my posts. They’re very enjoyable and useful for my translation work.

      • Deap says:

        Deap previously wrote: “Cypress trees do often mark memorial and burial sites …they do mark death …..which is obviously not welcomed by the rest of the poem…….”

        I remain confused about the selected passage, and have not expressed that well. i will work on my own translation of what I tried to say.

        Yes, many of my own memories of lonely cypress trees on hills beside an ancient memorial shrine across the Italian countryside, where I live for two and half years. Actually moved to tears once because the vista made my college art history course viewing these scenes only on canvas, suddenly became alive.

        I tend three cypress trees in my own intentionally “Mediterranean” back yard – Cupressus sempervirans. Although one of them right now is not living up to its name sake. I may be more sempervirans than it is at this point.

        Thank you for the ongoing poetic triggers, touching past memories.

        • Steven J. Willett says:

          There are great social, economic, psychological, cultural differences between the modern industrial world and ancient Greece or Rome. The contemporary attitude to cypress is just one example. How about physical training naked at the gymnasium and its adjacent palaestra? All boys went there at 18 for training, education and social life. Or naked competition in the four major games? New cultures who first came in contact with Greeks were deeply astonished and disturbed by naked training and performance. Rome adopted the Greek approach, but one can’t find any other culture that followed. Every time I see a dramatic enactment of ancient running at the Olympia Stadium, all the men have white shorts and light sleeveless shirts. That’s absurd and ludicrous, but we simply can’t endure naked training or competition. Anyway, the men would have white skin for not working out naked in the sun.

          I hope your ailing cypress recovers.

  2. Carey says:

    Thanks for this poem and translation. Certainly makes one think.. I thought the “hated cypresses” was interesting- knew that those trees were associated with death, but it sounds maybe deeper than that. It’s a lovely wood to work with; actually my favorite.


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