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What’s Really Going on in «Persicos Odi»?

Art Beck on Horace

This piece is about 14 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Art Beck and Jacket magazine 2007.


paragraph 1

Horaces’ Ode, book 1:38, often referred to as Persicos Odi, is one of the most translated pieces of Latin poetry. It’s a common textbook exercise — short, simple and famous. The scene is an arbor where Horace is relaxing, attended by a serving boy.


Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,
displicent nexae philyra coronae;
mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
      sera moretur.

Simplici myrto nihil allabores
sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
      vite bibentem.


Father Owen Lee’s 1969 translation combines a fairly literal rendition with some of the gracefulness of the original and serves, I think, better at this point than a word for word prose map..


My lad, I hate Persian pomp,
Garlands woven on linden bark offend me.
Stop searching through all the places where
             The late rose may linger.

My special care is that you add nothing,
In your labor, to simple myrtle. Myrtle disgraces
Neither you as you serve, nor me as I
           Drink beneath the trellised vine.


Gerard Manley Hopkins (coincidentally another cleric) waxed more poetic — as someone of his stature had a right to. Despite Horace’s admonition to keep it simple, he added the image of drinking glasses being sheltered from the sun to the second stanza. That image isn’t too intrusive and helps his rhyme scheme. I actually have more problems with the way his first stanza muddies Horace’s clear, flowing  Latin. I just can’t visualize Horace’s original scene in Hopkins stilted first stanza..


Ah child, no Persian-perfect art!
Crowns composite and braided bast
They tease me. Never know the part
Where roses linger last.

Bring natural myrtle, and have done:
Myrtle will suit your place and mine:
And set the glasses from the sun
Beneath the tackled vine.


Another 19th century translator, William Trent, manages to rhyme and still stay pretty close to literal.


I hate your Persian trappings, boy,
Your linden-woven crowns annoy,
Cease searching for the spot where blows
             The lingering rose.

To simple myrtle nothing add;
The myrtle misbecomes, my lad,
Nor thee nor me drinking my wine
           ‘Neath close-grown vine.”


The problem, of course, with the 19th century translations, is that — to our ears — they have more in common with the sensibilities of Victorian poetry than with Horace’s snaky, samba-like rhythms and the culture that spawned the poem.


But 19th century commentators and translators recognized their shortcomings, as all translators do. The frustration of trying to capture Horace with Victorian verse rings loud and clear in Eugene Field’s parody..


Boy, I detest the Persian pomp;
      I hate those linden-bark devices;
And as for roses, holy Moses!
      They can’t be got at living prices!
Myrtle is good enough for us —
      For you, as bearer of my flagon;
For me, supine beneath this vine,
      Doing my best to get a jag on!



So where am I going with all this? My purpose in quoting the various versions above, isn’t to compare and reconcile them, but to give some sense of just how ubiquitous the translations are and to raise the question: Why has this poem endured?


At face value, Persicos odi is a trifle. A little song about wine and roses and lecturing a slave boy on moderation. The poem ends Horace’s first volume of Odes and follows the spectacular Cleopatra Ode — a poem that urges the reader to roll out the wine and celebrate the defeat of besotted Cleopatra. Because of this, Persicos Odi is often considered a further denunciation of Eastern luxury.


I’m not going to try to approach Persicos Odi with classicist credentials that I don’t have. This won’t be a scholarly exercise. Like hundreds of poets before me (and no doubt many more to follow) I’m going to approach the translation of this poem as a poet. This essay is intended to bemuse as much as edify.


And by way of further warning, I’d better say up front that my reading of this poem differs radically from every other that I’ve seen. What follows is, I think, pretty well uncharted territory in the Persicos Odi canon. I’m going to try to make the case for and translate Pericos odi as a sex poem.



Why do I think it’s a sex poem? Let me back up a bit and draw a distinction between two types of poems. Those that mean something specific and those that primarily are.


“Smaller” poems, “trifles”, tend to have a clear point. Larger poems are often fraught with an essential ambiguity. They may not be especially obscure, but they resonate at a number of levels and they never quite resolve their tensions. The more closely we examine them, the more elusive they become. Let’s revisit the Cleopatra Ode that Persicos odi is often linked with. Horace’s Cleopatra Ode is sometimes considered a primarily political poem, written to curry favor with the triumphant Augustus. It portrays Cleopatra as an utter danger to the state, a primal anarchic force. The Ode begins with an exhortation to celebrate and describes Augustus toying with Cleopatra the way a hawk toys with a dove. But in the end, the wild woman shrugs and serenely bares her heart to the poisonous asp -  cheating Augustus of his prey. The Cleopatra Ode ends with one of Horace’s great phrases:... non humilis mulier triumpho. “A woman un-humiliated by triumph”.


Certainly, Augustus never got to parade Cleopatra through the streets of Rome in a formal Triumph. But she was also spared the humiliation that Horace implies would sooner or later have come to her from her own nature if she (and Antony) had triumphed. Her suicide is a triumph over both Augustus and herself. Is this a poem “against” Cleopatra? Or in admiration of Cleopatra? What does the poem mean? If Ode 1:37 is propaganda, it speaks volumes for the sophistication of the Augustus-Maecenas machine.


Or does the poem just exist, the way Cleopatra and Antony (who’s never mentioned in the poem) and Augustus and Horace once existed. The players are long dead, but the Cleopatra Ode is still here — retranslated every generation into just about every known language.


In translating a “small” poem — say, one of Martial’s more biting epigrams — the translator’s challenge is often to convey meaning across cultures and forms. And the task is successful if the “point” of the poem comes smoothly across.


With denser, larger poems, pieces with layered meanings, the translator has a larger challenge. The problem is not only to convey meaning, but to not foreclose alternate, multiple resonances of meaning. There are poems — as with, say, much of Rilke — where the melody line, as it were, is interchangeable with the harmonies. Where what’s not said is as important as what’s said. Lines where tone, echo and silence intersect.


Joseph Brodsky in a Boston Review piece entitled Letter to Horace, says something similar when he “talks” to Horace  about the “ general motion of your verse, its utter unpredictability, and, with this, the inevitable stretching — nay straining — of your syntax in translation. As a result, practically every line of yours is surprising.... In our line of work, tricks, naturally are de riguer. And the standard ratio is something like one little miracle per stanza. If a poet is exceptionally good, he may come up with a couple. With you practically each line is an adventure; sometimes there are several in one line. Of course, some of this has to do with having you in translation. But I suspect that in your native Latin, too, your readers seldom knew what the next word was going to be. It’s like constantly walking on broken glass or something: on the mental — oral? — version of broken glass, limping and leaping.”


So, the  first question to ask: Is Persicos odi one of those large., layered poems that Horace was right up there with the masters in creating? Or is it a little, toss off drinking song?


Start with the language. There’s a density, a gravitas here, and emotions not quite consistent with the lighthearted scene. Charged words like odi hate, displicent offensive — and in the second stanza dedecet dishonor, shame.


If you wanted to set this poem to music, the song would likely be in a wistful, minor key. Listen to the floating last notes, the “adonics”:  sera moretur-  late lingering (roses) and vite bibentem — drinking (under interwoven) vines. The Reverend Dr. Lee conjectured that Horace was rejecting the sad dying roses by embracing vite bibentum. But wine is a slow sedative and there’s more of a feel of drowning one’s sorrows than of praising the grape here. Horace, is after all, drinking alone, is in fact, making a point of excluding his servant, of putting the poor boy in his place.


A good rule of thumb with the old Latin masters is to presume they knew exactly what effect they wanted, and this poem has a feel of roots tunneling below the surface. It is what it is, and says what it says, but it plumbs a certain, unspoken depth.



But let’s get back to sex  And, while we’re at it — to slavery. Even a casual reader of the Odes will soon notice that sex in Horace’s poems is ambidextrous. I’m not going to presume to analyze Horace’s sexuality beyond what he tells us in the poems, but when the word puer — boy — occurs in a Horace poem, as often as not it refers to a household slave, a serving boy. And at times, the puer becomes an object of sexual convenience. In Horace’s Satire 1.2, he recites all the troubles men get into chasing married women, freedwomen, even whores and — in a notorious passage — offers a sensible Roman alternative:


Tument tibi cum inguina, num si
ancilla aut verna est praesto puer, impetus in quem
continuo fiat, malis tentigine rumpi?

When your loins swell with fire, and if
a slave girl is handy or a boy, yours for the taking,
would you rather abstain and explode?


There’s some complicated sociology and sexuality here. At least for us, because this is a different culture. Any observation across twenty centuries is questionable and scholarly debates are endless, but I like the distinctions Amy Richlin drew in her Garden of Priapus. Richlin’s  thoughts “feel” right in the context of Roman poetry and the Satyricon. I’m summarizing from memory, but she points out that Roman “boy love” doesn’t exactly match our concept of homosexuality. Sex between grown men was probably viewed as it is in much of the world today — accepted in many circles while still more or less taboo. (Virgil’s soldier-lovers and gay pirates in Greek novels, notwithstanding.) With a boy, there was a difference: It was queer to screw a boy after he was old enough to shave. Until then, adolescent boys were fair game for a virile man. Jupiter may have had his Ganymede, but none of the standard pantheon of gods were gay as we use the term.


In the current scandals of the Catholic Church, they’re using the term, ephebophilia — the attraction to youths. Pope Alexander, the Borgia pope, prohibited priests from being alone with altar boys. And there’s a certain St. Cassian, a martyr of the early Church whose execution is described in the Martyrology of the Dominican order. Cassian was a schoolmaster “and his persecutor gave him up to his students who had reason to hate him. Their hands were weak, but this only served to prolong his final agony.” One wonders why those young boys hated him so much. (And given its prevalence among the priesthood, you might idly wonder if perhaps the contagion lurks in the study of Latin?)


From time to time, the defenders of the practice imagine an old, Greek, Batman/Robin “ward” ideal, where the adult lover was supposed to mentor his Ganymede and wean him to manhood. But Horace’s lines above seem more upfront and descriptive of the social situation in the Augustan world. A man didn’t cultivate the young son’s of his peers (at least if he was free). One used one’s slaves, according to one’s tastes and inclinations, for sexual convenience. And in the quirkiness that attends any culture’s sexual mores, “passive’ homosexuality was the real disgrace. The urge to bugger was understandable. A man’s desire to be buggered was disgraceful. As often observed, it was better to give than receive. And in Horace’s poems, pederasty seems no more frowned upon than a taste for veal might be frowned upon today.



Still, this is Horace, we’re talking about, not, say Petronius or Martial. Things aren’t so simple with Horace. He tends to see things, as witness Cleopatra, from more than one angle. His father, was, after all, a freedman — a former slave. Horace, himself, didn’t have it all that easy coming up in the world. Without his father’s selfless help, Horace could have been that slave boy. Slavery was a fluid thing. A matter of luck. Slaves were as human as anyone: skilled workers, clerks, essential household servants, an extended family of sorts. And Horace seems only too aware of his being an attendant on the great, and of his own social boundaries. In one of the last Odes ( Book 4, 11) he says “you need to always, if you’re going to keep your dignity, discriminate in life between what you can and can’t ever get.” The cavalier treatment of servants in Satire 1.2 isn’t typical of Horace’s poetry.


As for sexual convenience, his heart seems as much, if not more, taken by these boys as by the various women in his poems. That same, book 4, 11 Ode, is an invitation to a party addressed to “Phyllis” (a stock name for an actress) and Horace is quite taken with her.


Est mihi nomum superantis annum
plenus Albani cadus; est in horto,
Phylli, nectendis apium coronis;
est hederae vis

multa, qua crinis religata fulges...

I have a jar of Alban that’s at least
nine years old, and in my garden, Phyllis,
the parsley and wild ivy are winding into crowns
to tie your dazzling hair...


But it’s a “neglected, smoldering” relationship that never worked out. Phyllis dumped Horace for “Telephus”. And “Telephus” in turn, has now been “taken, like a spoil of war, by a young girl. Hope tumbles to earth like burnt up Phaeton.”


The poem ends as sadly as most of Horace’s affairs seemed to end.


...Age iam, meorum
     finis amorum,

(non enim posthac alia calebo
femina) condisce modos, amanda
voce quos reddas; minuentur atrae
     carmine curae.

...Well then,
come — last love of my life, because,

truly, no other woman will ever set me
on fire again — but stop — to memorize this —
so I can hear it in your voice. Poetry
can ease the murky pain.


The Phyllis Ode comes near the end of Horace’s final book of Odes. But that same Book 4 begins with another “farewell to sex” poem. The often translated Intermissa, Venus in which Horace begs the goddess to spare him from her new assault. He’s turning fifty, he can’t handle these disruptions, etc. It’s not a woman, but the boy “Ligurinus” who’s causing the pain. And in the poem’s last three stunning stanzas, Horace makes it crystal clear that Ligurinus isn’t just an interchangeable receptacle, the handy puer of Satire 1, 2.


Me nec femina nec puer
      iam nec spes animi credula mutui
nec certare iuvat mero
      nec vincere novis tempora floribus.

Sed cur heu, Ligurine, cur
      manat rara meas lacrima per genas?
Cur facunda parum decoro
      intrer verba cadit lingua silentio?

Nocturnis ego somniis
      iam captum teneo, iam volucrem sequor
te per gramina Martii
      campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis


A few years ago, I gently set the Odes aside and stopped translating Horace because I couldn’t come close to translating these lines. It was the proximity of the last words — te per aquas, dure, volubilis... water, hard, flowing — that I didn’t want to give up, but that wouldn’t come into English. I don’t think any poem is untranslatable, but with the last stanza of Intermissa Venus, I recognized my limitations and respected Horace too much to try. So, I’ll illustrate my point about Horace’s sensitivities with excerpts from two other translations. First, W.G. Shepherd’s (Penguin Classics 1983) for a close to literal rendering followed by Burton Raffel’s (North Point 1983). Raffel’s translation is loose and leaves things out, but to my ear, it has the emotional tone implicit in the images.


     But me — neither woman, boy,
nor credulous hope of sharing souls,
     nor contests in wine,
nor garlands about my hair, can move me now.

     Then why, my Ligurinus, why
these unaccustomed tears on my cheeks?
     Why does my eloquent tongue
ineptly fall silent among the words?

     Each night in my dreams
I hold you captive or else pursue
     your obdurate flight
across the field of Mars, through swirling water.



O Venus no girl, no boy
Could delight me, now, I refuse to be tempted
By mutual love, I can’t drink
My share of wine, I’ll never bind flowers in my hair.

But why, Lirius, why am I
Crying? What holds
My eloquent tongue, stops its flight
Even as I stand pouring out words?

At midnight, I dream I’m holding you.
I dream I’m flying after you
Across the meadows, out over the sea,
Flying after you and your hard, hard heart.



Even though Horace, in a subsequent Ode (4.10) berates poor Ligurinus for his approaching manhood, his sprouting whiskers, his rose bud pink flesh getting hairy — the sad losses of his implied femininity: it doesn’t resonate. Horace has told us his dream and he can’t explain it away with cynicism. Any more than Humbert Humbert could.


Apart from NAMBLA, this sort of thing is universally denounced in our world by homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. And rightly so. If there’s any defense for Horace, it may be that for us, adolescence is a long process beginning around 13 and extending into one’s 20s. Legal definitions of the age of consent aside, most of us — especially those of us who are parents — instinctively question whether an 18 year old is an adult. Augustan males (and Augustus himself) achieved their majority at 15. The minimum marriage age for males was 14, for females, 12. We share a common, sometimes dark, humanity with our Roman ancestors, their language inhabits ours. But it’s a mistake to regard the ancient Romans as being “just like us.”


And there’s another defense. Poetry is a weed that loves to take root in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Where, in Yeats’ words, “all ladders start.” Who’s to say what Horace should exclude from his poetry — especially if it’s the poem that’s guiding him rather than Horace guiding the poem?



By now you can see where I’m headed with all this. I think the puer in Persicos odi, puer, apparatus... is the kind of boy that Horace is sometimes fond of screwing. One could argue for or against that, but neither “for” nor “against” explains the weight in the poem. The sense of tension at the roots. For that, I’d like to beg your indulgence one final time and back up to an earlier poem in the sequence, Odes 1.4. Because I think to read Persicos odi in context, we need to move a little more deeply into the sexual/social culture of the times. 1.4 takes us there.


1.4 begins innocuously enough, an innocent little set piece on spring, with Venus and nymphs and graces dancing under an overhanging (imminente) moon. But then it, ever so subtly, departs the idyllic fields for somewhere closer to Petronius’ Rome — and begins to dance on Brodsky’s “broken glass.”


Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni,
      trahuntque siccas machinae carinas,
ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni,
      nec prata canis albicant pruinis.

Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus immenente luna,
      iunctaeque Nymphis Gratiae decentes
alterno terram quatiunt pede, dum gravis Cyclopum
      Vulcanus ardens visit officinas.

Nunc decet aut viridi nitidum caput impedire myrto
      aut flore, terrae quem ferunt solutae;
nunc et in umbrosis Fauno decet immolare lucia,
     seu poscat agna sive malit haedo

Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
      regumque turris. O beate Sesti
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.
      Iam te premet nox fabulaeque Manes

et domus exilis Plutonia: quo simul mearis,
      nec regna vini sortiere talis,
nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuventus
     nunc omnis et mox virgines tepebunt.


A gracious west wind

melts harsh winter into spring. Winches hoist up
dry docked ships. Sheep in their
stalls — the farmer at his fire — find they’re no longer
content. Meadows shed their grizzled

frost white fur and Cytherean Venus leads the dancing
singers under an imminent moon.
Nymphs and Graces, hand in hand, tastefully drum
the earth with alternating feet, while

Vulcan forges a blazing fire in One-eyed Cyclops’
ponderous factory. Now, it’s fitting
to wear a tangled green cap of shining myrtle
or flowers blossomed from the freed

earth. It’s fitting now, in the shadows or at dawn,
to sacrifice a ewe to Faunus’ needs —
or, if he prefers, a kid. — Ah, blessed
Sestius, pale, lovesick death

kicks at paupers’ huts and royal fortresses and doesn’t
care. Life’s too short for long hopes.
And night — with Pluto’s own deprived household of fabulous
ghosts — is closing in on you. Once

enrolled in that company, you won’t be able to roll
dice to play King of the Party, or admire
tender little Lycidas — who the boys are all on fire for —
for whom young girls will soon begin to glow.


This poem has all of Horace’s obsessions: music, sex, death and wine — and crowns made from plants. But where does it all finally focus, what’s Horace’s final, real image of spring. Tender little “Lycidas”, the slave boy with the sweet Greek nickname — quietly outgrowing the old lech Sestius and his household of pervs. Coming into his own day. It makes you want to stand up and clap.


There are two things about this poem keep in mind. One: It’s firmly rooted in its time and place. It couldn’t be written elsewhere or when. And two: Horace is a complex fellow.



Now let’s leap into the dark.


Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,
displicent nexae philyra coronae;
mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
      sera moretur.

Simplici myrto nihil allabores
sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
      vite bibentem.


I’m going to make some “arbitrary” presumptions:
      1 Horace has had sex with the boy.
      2 The “lingering roses” aren’t in the corners of the garden but in the post orgasmic corners of the flesh.
      3 Myrtle is being contrasted with roses because it’s sacred to Venus. Simple myrtle is simple lust.


What Horace is saying, in effect, to the boy is “let’s not make too much of this.” That’s the surface. But the roots are in what Horace may be saying to himself. “The poor child is showing affection, what’s he doing? And what am I doing to him? This was just a matter of taking what’s handy, of relieving the tensions. And now, look what’s happening...”


You could spin the translation this way, make the imagined scene obvious. But if this truly is a poem with layered meanings, it shouldn’t be “spun.” Because it’s important not to foreclose other meanings. The problem with the translations I quoted at the beginning is that they all spin to a surface conclusion that forecloses anything deeper. That isn’t the way the poem was written. Ideally, my translation should not only allow both my “conclusion” and a purely surface reading. It should also allow other conclusions I haven’t even thought of, as well.


What follows, spins a little in tone. That can’t be helped because that’s the way I read Horace’s rhythms and images. I expand Persicos...apparatus  to “peachy Persian-isms” because  - although peaches in Latin were named for Persia rather than vice-versa — I think for a contemporary Latin reader, Persia was “Peachland” — the name conveying an inseparable image, the way Iceland does for us.


But I resisted the urge to expand on myrtle. My translation is a few years old and I recently came upon a translation of the poem on the WEB by Margaret Graver in which the second stanza begins


Simple, un-worked, the myrtle’s all
my anxious care — love’s myrtle shames
not you, the pourer, nor me drinking...


I liked the use of “love’s myrtle”, but I’m glad that nothing suggested it to me and that I didn’t end up using something like that. The poem isn’t, after all, about love. And expanding myrtle with an explanatory adjective is just the kind of spin — and foreclosure — I don’t want to give. So, for better or worse, here’s my reading.


Peachy Persian-isms gag me, Boy. Braiding
flowers into little crowns is so offensive.
Stop searching for all those places where
the last rose lingers.

Plain myrtle. We want to be especially
careful not to belabor it. Myrtle’s no
disgrace, not to you serving, to me drinking
under tangled vines.



A lot of meandering just to come up with eight simple lines that you can read as little or as much into as you want. Am I reading too much into them? The only people who could tell me who I’d believe — one way or the other — have been ghosts for thousands of years. Have already passed — in Horace’s own words — into their aeternum exsilium. But their incantations still whisper with life.

Art Beck

Art Beck

Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who has published three books of original poetry — most recently Summer With All Its Clothes Off  (Gravida, 2005). And  selections from Luxorius and Rilke in two translation volumes. His work has appeared in a number of anthologies and journals, including Translation Review, Two Lines, Artful  Dodge, Alaska Quarterly and the 2004 anthology, California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present.. Centrum Arts features a profile:

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