An aside on Horace

On one of the gates into Harvard yard there’s a quote from Horace. It’s the last section of Ode I-XIII and goes like this:

felices ter et amplius
quos irrupta tenet copula nec malis
divulsus querimoniis
suprema citius solvet amor die.

Noble sentiments to be sure – it reads roughly “three times happy are they and more, who are held by unbreakable bonds, and whose love, undivided by evil quarrels will be dissolved only at the final day.” A highly appropriate motto to be placed on the gates. It’s also the text of a song by Randall Thompson and the phrase felices ter no doubt echoes the equally sententious part of the Odyssey where Odysseus is sucking up to Nausicaa:

τρισμάκαρες μὲν σοί γε πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ,
τρισμάκαρες δὲ κασίγνητοι·

However, now consider the first part of the Ode:

Cum tu, Lydia, Telephi
ceruicem roseam, cerea Telephi
laudas bracchia, uae, meum
feruens difficili bile tumet iecur.
Tunc nec mens mihi nec color
certa sede manet, umor et in genas 5
furtim labitur, arguens
quam lentis penitus macerer ignibus.
Vror, seu tibi candidos
turparunt umeros inmodicae mero 10
rixae, siue puer furens
inpressit memorem dente labris notam.
Non, si me satis audias,
speres perpetuum dulcia barbare
laedentem oscula, quae Venus 15
quinta parte sui nectaris imbuit.

An anonymous translation from this site goes like this:

O Lydia, when you commend Telephus’ rosy neck, and the waxen arms of Telephus, alas! my inflamed liver swells with bile difficult to be repressed. Then neither is my mind firm, nor does my color maintain a certain situation: and the involuntary tears glide down my cheek, proving with what lingering flames I am inwardly consumed. I am on fire, whether quarrels rendered immoderate by wine have stained your fair shoulders; or whether the youth, in his fury, has impressed with his teeth a memorial on your lips. If you will give due attention to my advice, never expect that he will be constant, who inhumanly wounds those sweet kisses, which Venus has imbued with the fifth part of all her nectar. [thrice happy …]

Plenty of others have commented on the ambiguity of the last set of lines in relation to what comes before, but it’s a nice illustration of the importance of context and how easy it is to create and overlook a jarring juxtaposition. Or am I simply so over postmodernism that I can’t appreciate a nice piece of Latin anymore?


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