Tag Archive | Odes

Lalage, a life

In 1913, Aurel Stein, archaeologist and explorer, was preparing for his third expedition into Chinese Turkestan, modern Xinjiang. He made sure to pack, as he always did, a copy of Horace’s Odes, on this occasion the recently published Odes and Epodes translated by C.E. Bennett in the new series of Loeb Classical Texts from Harvard University. On the inside cover of the book Stein wrote In ripis Hydaspis MDCCCCXIII, “On the banks of the Hydaspes 1913”. Later in his expedition he added Gravi vulnere aegrotantis solatium fuit iste libellus in montibus Sericis Nan-shan, “This book was a comfort when suffering from a serious injury in the Chinese Nan-shan mountains.” Stein had been thrown by an excitable horse and spent some time recuperating in camp, his Horace to hand. These inscriptions in Stein’s Loeb were recorded by L. Rásonyi, Stein Aurél és hagyatéka [Aurel Stein and his Legacy] (1960), on page 30, most fortuitously so as since that time the cover of the book, bequeathed along with much else by Stein to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has been mislaid. I’m deeply grateful to Ágnes Kelecsényi of the Academy for all this information.

“On the banks of the Hydaspes” is a little Horatian joke on Stein’s part. He was in Srinagar, Kashmir, which lies on the river Jhelum or Vyeth, in Greek antiquity named Hydaspes, and so named in particular in one of Horace’s most popular odes, 1.22, Integer vitae:

I think I’ve now sent off a final text of Horace: A Very Short Introduction, which will see the light of day sooner or later, but I thought I might thread together some scattered references I make to this particular poem of Horace and its fairly remarkable life story. You can’t embed YouTube videos in a book, either, and it would be a shame not to share a couple of them.

Horace’s poem is a particularly satisfying exercise in playful misdirection. An apparently sombre and high-minded opening, claiming that the virtuous man should have no fear of any harm, a Stoic doctrine, is somewhat punctured by the appearance of an addressee for the poem, Aristius Fuscus, a literary type and friend of Horace who has been advertised as a man with a sense of humour in Satires 1.9 and would by implication be characterised as a Stoic with a sense of humour in Epistles 1.10. Greater damage still to the respectability of Odes 1.22 is done by the poet’s lover Lalage, whose name means “Chatterer”, “Babbler”. Horace is singing about her when the wolf runs away from him, but that seemingly incidental detail returns unexpectedly at the end of the poem to derail what we’re probably expecting to be a restatement of the opening: “No matter what inhospitable place I find myself in, my virtue will keep me safe” is instead “No matter what inhospitable place I find myself in, the answer is to sing about Lalage as I was doing when that wolf appeared.”

Philosophy gives way to a flippant love affair, then, and it’s possible also that the effect is reinforced by a move from poetry reminiscent of Alcaeus to a more Sapphic conclusion. The metrical form of the poem, the sapphic stanza, was shared between Alcaeus and Sappho, but there is a clear allusion to Sappho fr. 31 (and Catullus’ imitation of it) in the final image of Lalage, while specifically Alcaic elements in the poem have been argued for by Gabriele Burzacchini, QUCC 22 (1976), 39-58, and one might say (and once I did) that poetry focusing on an attractive young woman is itself intrinsically reminiscent of Sappho. I also suggested back then that the Mytilenean duo Sappho and Alcaeus offered Horace in his Odes a mini polarity between relatively serious and relatively unserious lyric poetry — always according to ancient stereotype.

That’s all as may be, but for our purposes what matters is that it follows from this account of Integer vitae that if you lop off the last four stanzas you have an apparently serious poem, and the remarkable truth is that historically 1.22 has probably been encountered far more often in this form, just the first or the first two stanzas, than as a whole. The reason for this is a melancholy musical setting by F.F. Flemming that became a standard at funerals in northern-European funerals. Here it is sung by a German collective, although somewhat inauthentically (I think) they sing the first three verses.

The other Latin author I’m currently working on, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, shares in his Latin-language newspaper a discussion of the poem between himself and a Finnish Classics professor in Helsinki, “F. G-n”, identified by my co-editor Michael Lombardi-Nash as Fridolf Vladimir Gustafsson, Professor of Latin at Helsinki University from 1882 to 1920 and according to Iiro Kajanto, “The Classics in Finland”, Arethusa 3 (1970), 205-226, a formative influence in the history of Classics in Finland. (This is a rich Classical culture under severe pressure at the moment, I’m sad to say: there are petitions worth signing relating to Classics at Oulu here and Turku here.) One thing that makes editing Alaudae such a fascinating activity are Ulrichs’ interlocutors across Europe and the US.

Gustafsson had attended a funeral of a friend at which Flemming’s Integer Vitae had been sung by the congregation, and the friend’s widow had asked him to translate the whole poem for her — an awkward dilemma, as Lalage is not especially funereal. What’s interesting is that Ulrichs, who is undoubtedly one of Horace’s very biggest fans, seems to agree with Gustafsson that the poem is unsatisfactory, a dignified opening spoiled by the entry and especially the reappearance of Lalage. “Someone once exclaimed, “How did Pontius Pilate creep into the Christians’ creed?” I exclaim, “How did Lalage into Integer Vitae?”” But both Gustafsson and Ulrichs will no doubt have attended numerous funerals where this strange hymn was sung, and the sombre associations were perhaps impossible to escape. They were not alone in wanting to lose Lalage, at any rate. The metrically identical socios, “fellows”, was another way of bowdlerizing away the love interest Lalagen in school texts.

The poem seems to have been favoured for musical setting also in the heyday of the frottola, the most widespread form of secular song in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy. Here you can find a setting by Bartolomeo Tromboncino, and here at 2:10 by Michele Pesenti.

A final outing for the poem now, accompanied by a request for any others you know of. (I have myself found and am pondering a parody of the poem in Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Club circa 1853, beginning Innocens vitis, cellar-isque purus, “Innocent of the vine, of the cellar pure”, and by (I believe) William Henry Hyett.) Below is the whole of the stunning film of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anthony Hopkins, an appropriately gothic take on a Goth-driven Revenge Drama. Titus is a very classically-aware play, with an overarching debt to Seneca, Ovid’s Metamorphoses a key prop in the plot, and a general determination to collect and stage the most ghastly myths from antiquity. Do watch it, but count to ten before you do. At 4.2.18 (around 1hr 37mins in the film, where Shakespeare’s text is slightly adapted), Titus Andronicus, having discovered the plot of Aaron the Moor to destroy his family, sends his best weapons to the two Goth sons of the empress Tamora, who under Aaron’s guidance have committed their ghastly crimes, and along with them a note containing a meaningful quotation of the first two lines of 1.22:


What’s here? A scroll, and written round about?

Let’s see:

[reads] Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,

Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu.


O, ’tis a verse in Horace, I know it well.

I read it in the grammar long ago.


Ay, just — a verse in Horace, right, you have it.

[aside] Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!

Here’s no sound jest. The old man hath found their guilt

And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines

That wound, beyond their feeling, to the quick.

Anachronistically, these depraved young Roman-era Goths were educated using the so called Brevissima Institutio, a Latin textbook composed during the reign of Henry VIII by John Colet, Erasmus, but mainly William Lily, and in continuous use in schools for centuries thereafter. The first stanza of 1.22 is used in Lily as the model for its metrical form, the sapphic stanza. The textual variant Mauri, present in Lily and in Titus Andronicus, allows a pun, targeting Aaron: “The man pure in life and innocent of crime/ needs not the javelins nor bow of the Moor.” Aaron, at least, gets the point of it.

A moral of this very short history of Odes 1.22 is that, however much you try to suppress Lalage, she has a habit of resurfacing, sweetly laughing, sweetly speaking — a dynamic that began with Horace himself. A final thought is whether there’s a hint of the same here in Titus. Titus Andronicus’ beloved only daughter Lavinia has been raped and maimed by the Goth princes, at Aaron’s instigation, who have cut off her hands and removed “that delightful engine of her thoughts,/ that blabbed them with such pleasing eloquence” (3.1.83-4), her tongue. Yet she has managed to communicate the truth of their ghastly crimes nevertheless, mainly by means of a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses opened to the story of Philomela, and Titus’ revenge on Aaron and the princes follows.

Titus is surely conveying by the citation of Integer vitae not just that he knows of the plot, but that Lavinia has communicated it, the beloved babbler still babbling.

Horace, top dog

As I ponder putting pen to paper for the first time in my Horace: A Very Short Introduction, it’s proving as daunting a challenge as I anticipated. Horace is both technically meticulous and hugely versatile, and trying to capture his essence in 100 pages is not straightforward. But I think Horace at least, the great miniaturist, would approve of the attempt.

In his Odes, poems composed within the tiny structures represented by his lyric stanzas, brevity is the key. Horace has various strategies to achieve it, but one of them is an astonishing precision in word selection. An ancient assessment by the critic Quintilian (10.1.96) identifies Horace’s inventiveness in figures of speech and felicitous boldness in word choice (a paraphrase of uarius figuris et uerbis felicissime audax) as a characteristic quality of his lyric poetry, and what follows is a brief illustration: a moment in the Odes where a word chosen with pin-point precision generates a remarkable richness of imagery from a minimum of text. This is a turn of phrase that I’ve loved for a long time, but I’d missed the full subtlety of it until a recent rereading of the Odes—and my hunch, I should add, found corroboration in Nisbet & Rudd.

Odes 3.29 is often (and, as it happens, rightly) considered Horace’s lyric masterpiece, the penultimate poem of his first collection of lyric poems, an address to his patron Maecenas which restates in powerful and memorable terms some core themes of his lyric.

As he rounds off this glorious poem, Horace explains what to do if Fortune turns against you, offering himself as a model for Maecenas and the rest of us (3.29.53-6):

laudo manentem; si celeris quatit
pinnas, resigno quae dedit et mea
virtute me involvo probamque
pauperiem sine dote quaero.

David West’s translation: I praise [Fortune] while she stays. If she shakes out/ her swift wings, I return what she gave, wrap myself/ in my virtue and look for honest Poverty,/ asking no dowry.

Even this one tiny stanza is fraught with implication. Fortune is as flighty as a winged thing; resigno, which is what Horace does with all Fortune’s gifts, makes of everything he has received from her just a temporary loan that he has always had to pay back; while quaero presents his calm acceptance of poverty as courting a potential wife, but Poverty, while a virtuous lady, will not bring any financial advantage with her.

But it’s the image in the middle I’m concerned with here, et mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, “and I wrap myself in the virtue that is my personal possession” (mea carries a lot of weight here: the virtue is really his, what he got from Fortune merely borrowed). Virtue is transformed by this metaphor into a cloak that protects the poet against the inclement conditions once Fortune has departed—and even left there, it’s a wonderfully rich effect achieved with impressive economy. For me, too, the repetition mea … me and the way the vowel of me blends with the initial vowel of inuoluo give an impression of things tightly wrapped, but I am known to overread.

But let’s press inuoluo itself a bit harder. Who wraps themselves up in cloaks in Greco-Roman antiquity?

An identifying feature of a Cynic, an illustration of the extreme self-denial to which adherents of this philosophical tradition subjected themselves, was the simple kit, the sum of their possessions, that they carried around with them: a staff, a leather pouch, and a rough cloak known as a τρίβων/tribōn (Arrian, Epict. diss. 3.22.10). Antisthenes, often regarded in antiquity as the founder of the school, “was the first, according to Diocles, to wrap his cloak twice around himself (πρῶτος ἐδίπλωσε τὸν τρίβωνα) and be content with that one garment” (Diog. Laert. 6.13); according to others it was Diogenes, the most famous of the Cynics and a rival for the role of founder, who first doubled up his τρίβων (Diog. Laert. 6.22). Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, incidentally, is just the best text: Diogenes was called “the Dog”, Κύων; by the poet Cercidas, the οὐράνιος κύων, the heavenly dog Sirius (Diog. Laert. 6.77; Cercidas fr. 54 Livrea).* But Antisthenes was “the Absolute Dog”, ʽΑπλοκύων (Diog. Laert. 6.13).


Dogs aside, the key idea here is that the τρίβων, the rough-and-ready outer garment which was also all in the way of clothing that the Cynics allowed themselves, was a visible expression of their ascetic philosophical principles: Cynics regarded virtue as alone sufficient for a flourishing existence (eudaimonia), and exactly like Horace in this stanza scorned such superficial human comforts as fickle Fortune might bestow.

Our poet, wrapping himself tightly in the virtue that is all that remains to him, but also everything that he needs, assumes the character of a Cynic preacher, the last word in austere self-sufficiency. But what we have to remind ourselves of, and what poses me a problem in my very short introduction, is that if, as we read, we find ourselves thinking of bitingly cold weather, cloaks wrapped tight, and Cynic mendicants, it’s essentially with the single word inuoluo that Horace has conjured up all these associations.

And there are another 70,000 or so meticulously chosen Horatian words where that came from.

Think about it…

*J. L. López Cruces, “A heavenly son of Zeus (Diog. Laert. 6.76 = Cercidas, fr. 54 Livrea)”, CQ 68 (2018), 91-6.