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Horace Satires and Epistles

English Translation by John Conington

More of this Feature
Introduction to the Satires and Epistles of Horace
Carmen Saeculare
Satires I by Horace
Satires II by Horace
Epistles I by Horace
Epistles II by Horace
Art of Poetry by Horace
Notes to the Satires and Epistles of Horace

Related Resources
Primary Texts Index
Horace Links

The Satires, Epistles, and Art of Poetry of Horace

Translated Into English Verse
By John Conington, M.A.
Corpus Professor of Latin in the
University of Oxford.


The Rev. W. H. Thompson, D.D.
Master Of Trinity College, Cambridge,
Etc. Etc. Etc.
In Gratitude for Many Kindnesses
Received From Him and Other Cambridge Friends,
And in Acknowledgment of the Compliment
Paid by Cambridge to Oxford
In the Appointment of the Oxford Latin Professor
As One of the Electors to Her Latin Chair.


In venturing to follow up my translation of the Odes of Horace by a version of the Satires and Epistles, I feel that I am in no way entitled to refer to the former as a justification of my boldness in undertaking the latter. Both classes of works are doubtless explicable as products of the same original genius: but they differ so widely in many of their characteristics, that success in rendering the one, though greater than any which I can hope to have attained, would afford no presumption that the translator would be found to have the least aptitude for the other. As a matter of fact, while the Odes still continue to invite translation after translation, the Satires and Epistles, popular as they were among translators and imitators a hundred years ago, have scarcely been attempted at all since that great revolution in literary taste which was effected during the last ten years of the last century and the first ten years of the present. Byron's Hints from Horace, Mr. Howes' forgotten but highly meritorious version of the Satires and Epistles, to which I hope to return before long, and a few experiments by Mr. Theodore Martin, published in the notes to his translation of the Odes and elsewhere, constitute perhaps the whole recent stock of which a new translator may be expected to take account. In one sense this is encouraging: in another dispiriting. The field is not pre-occupied: but the reason is, that general opinion has pronounced its cultivation unprofitable and hopeless.

No doubt, apart from fluctuations in the taste of the reading public, there are special reasons why a version of this portion of Horace's works should be a difficult, perhaps an impracticable undertaking. It would not be easy to maintain that a Roman satirist was incapable of adequate representation in English in the face of such an instance to the contrary as Gifford's Juvenal, probably, take it all in all, the very best version of a classic in the language. But though Juvenal has many passages which sufficiently remind us of Horace, some of them light and playful, others level and almost flat, these do not form the staple of his Satires: there are passages of dignified declamation and passionate invective which suffer less in translation, and which may be so rendered as to leave a lasting impression of pleasure upon the mind of the reader. Like Horace, he has an abundance of local and temporary allusions, in dealing with which the most successful translator is the one who fails least: unlike Horace, when he quits the local and the temporary, he generally quits also the language of persiflage, and abandons himself unrestrainedly to feeling. Persiflage, I suppose, even in ordinary life, is much less easy to practise with perfect success than a graver and less artificial mode of speaking, though, perhaps for that very reason, it is apt to be more sought after: the persiflage of a writer of another nation and of a past age is of necessity peculiarly difficult to realize and reproduce. Nothing is so variable as the standard of taste in a matter like this: even on the minor question, what expressions may and what may not be tolerated in good society, probably no two persons think exactly alike: and when we come to inquire not simply what is admissible but what is excellent, and still more, what is characteristic of a particular type of mind, we must expect to meet with still less unanimity of judgment. The wits of the Restoration answered the question very differently from the way in which it would be answered now; even Pope and his contemporaries would not be accepted as quite infallible arbiters of social and colloquial refinement in an age like the present. Whether Horace is grave or gay in his familiar writings, his charm depends almost wholly on his manner: a modern who attempts to reproduce him runs an imminent risk first of losing all charm whatever, secondly of missing completely that individuality of attractiveness which makes the charm of Horace unlike the charm of any one else.

Without however enlarging further on the peculiar difficulty of the task, I will proceed to say a few words on some of the special questions which a translator of the Satires and Epistles has to encounter, and the way in which, as it appears to me, he may best deal with them. These questions, I need hardly say, mainly resolve themselves into the metre and the style. With regard to the metre, I have myself but little doubt that the measure in which Horace may best be represented is the heroic as I suppose we must call it, of ten syllables. The one competing measure of course is the Hudibrastic octosyllabic. This latter metre is not without considerable authority in its favour. Two translators, Smart and Boscawen, have rendered the whole, or nearly the whole of these poems in that and no other way: Francis occasionally adopts it, though he generally uses the longer measure: Swift and Pope, as every one knows, employ it in three or four of their imitations: Cowper, in his original poems perhaps the greatest master we have of the Horatian style, translates the only two satires he has attempted in the shorter form: Mr. Martin uses it as often as he uses the heroic: perhaps Mr. Howes is the only translator since Creech who employs the heroic throughout. Some of my readers may possibly wonder why I in particular, having rendered the AEneid in a measure which, whatever its vivacity, may be thought deficient in dignity, should turn round and repudiate it in a case where vivacity, not dignity, happens to be the point desired. I can only say that it is precisely the colloquial nature of the metre which makes me stand in doubt of it for my present purpose. Using it in the case of Virgil, I was sure to be reminded of the need of guarding against its abuse: using it in the case of Horace, I should be constantly in danger of regarding the abuse as the law of the measure. Horace is scarcely less remarkable for his terseness than for his ease: the tendency of the octosyllabic metre in its colloquial form is to become slipshod, interminable, in a word unclassical. Again, few of those who use it apply it consistently to all Horace's hexameter poems: most make a distinction, applying it to some and not to others. In point of fact, however, it does not seem that any such distinction can be made. Horace's lightest Satires or Epistles have generally something grave about them: his gravest have more than one light passage. To draw a metrical line in the English where none is drawn in the Latin appears to me objectionable ipso facto where it can reasonably be avoided. That it can be avoided in the present case does not really admit of a doubt. The English heroic couplet, managed as Cowper has managed it, is surely quite equal to representing all the various changes of mood and temper which find their embodiment successively in the Horatian hexameter. Cowper's more serious poems contain more of deep and sustained gravity than is to be found in any similar production of Horace: while on the other hand there are few things in Horace so easy and sprightly as the Epistle to Joseph Hill, nothing perhaps so absolutely prosaic as the Colubriad and the verses to Mrs. Newton. There is also an advantage in rendering the Satires of Horace in the metre which may be called the recognized metre of English satire, and as such has always been employed (with one very partial and grotesque exception) by the translators of Juvenal. Lastly, I may be allowed to say that, while very distrustful of my powers of managing the graver heroic, where so many great masters have gone before me, I felt less diffidence in attempting the lower and more colloquial form of the measure, as not requiring the same command of rhythm, and not exposing a writer to the same amount of invidious comparison with his predecessors.

In what I have said I have implied that Cowper is the right model for the English heroic as applied to a translation of Horace: and this on the whole I believe to be the case. Horace's characteristics, as I remarked just now, are ease and terseness, and both these Cowper possesses, ease in metre, and ease and terseness in style. Pope, on the other hand, who in some respects would seem the better representative of Horace, is less easy both in style and metre, while his terseness is what Horace's terseness is not, trimness and antithetical smartness. Still, while making Cowper my pattern as a general rule, I have attempted from time to time to borrow a grace from Pope, even, when the original gave me no warrant for the appropriation. If Cowper's verse could be written by Cowper, it would probably leave nothing to be desired in a translation of this kind: handled by an inferior workman, it is in danger of becoming flat, pointless, and insipid: and Horace has many passages which, if not flat, pointless, or insipid in themselves, are painfully liable to become so in the hands of a translator. I have accordingly on various occasions aimed at epigram and pungency when there was nothing epigrammatic or pungent in the Latin, in full confidence that any trifling additions which may be made in this way to the general sum of liveliness will be far more than compensated by the heavy outgoings which must of necessity be the lot of every translator, and more particularly of myself. [Footnote: Cowper himself has some remarks bearing on this point: "That is epigrammatic and witty in Latin which would be perfectly insipid in English; and a translator of Bourne would frequently find himself obliged to supply what is called the turn, which is in fact the most difficult and the most expensive part of the whole composition, and could not perhaps, in many instances, be done with any tolerable success. If a Latin poem is neat, elegant and musical, it is enough; but English readers are not so easily satisfied. To quote myself, you will find, in comparing the Jackdaw with the original, that I was obliged to sharpen a point which, though smart enough in the Latin, would in English have appeared as plain and as blunt as the tag of a lace." --Letter to Unwin, May 23, 1781 (Southey's Cowper, ed. 1836, vol. iv. p. 97).] All translation, as has been pointed out over and over again, must proceed more or less on the principle of compensation; a translator who is conscious of having lost ground in one place is not to blame if he tries to recover it in another, so that he does not consciously depart from what he believes to be the spirit of the original: the question he has to ask himself is not so much whether he has conformed to the requirements of this or that line, most important as such conformity is where it can be realized without a sacrifice of higher things, as whether he has conformed to the requirements of the whole sentence, or even of the whole paragraph; whether the general effect produced by all the combined elements in the English lines answers in any degree to that produced by the Latin. Often and often, while engaged on this translation, I have been reminded of Johnson's words in his Life of Dryden: "It is not by comparing line with line that the merit of works is to be estimated, but by their general effects and ultimate result. It is easy to note a weak line and write one more vigorous in its place, to find a happiness of expression in the original and transplant it by force into the version; but what is given to the parts may be subducted from the whole, and the reader may be weary, though the critic may commend. That book is good in vain which the reader throws away." [Footnote: Compare his parallel between Pitt's and Dryden's Aeneid in his Life of Pitt.] I will only add that if these remarks are true of translation in general, they apply with special force to the translation of an original like the present, where the Latin is nothing if it is not idiomatic, and the English in consequence, if it is to be anything, must be idiomatic also.

There is yet something more to be said on the question of style. The exact mode of representing Horace's persiflage is, as I have intimated already, not an easy thing to determine. The translators of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the most part made their author either vulgar or flat, sometimes both. Probably no better rule can be laid down for the translator of the present day, than that he should try to follow the ordinary language of good society, wavering and uncertain as that standard is. I do not mean so much the language of the better sort of light literature as the language of conversation and of familiar letter-writing. Even some of the idiomatic blemishes of conversation may perhaps, in such a work, be venial, if not laudable. I have not always sought to be a minute purist even on points of grammar. Cowper, rather singularly, appears from his practice to proscribe colloquial abbreviations in poetry, though they were, I suppose, at least as usual in his time as in ours, and are used by Pope in his lighter works with little scruple. I have adopted them freely through nearly the whole of my version, though of course there are some passages where they could not be properly employed. Gifford says in the Essay on the Roman Satirists prefixed to his Juvenal that the general character of his translation will be found to be plainness: and if I do not misunderstand what he means by the term, it exactly represents the quality which I have endeavoured to attain myself. As a general rule, where a rendering presented itself to me which in dealing with another author I should welcome as poetical, I hare deliberately rejected it, and cast about instead for something which, without being feeble or slipshod, should have an idiomatic prosaic ring. Where Horace evidently means to rise, I have attempted to rise too: but through the greater part of this work I have been anxious, to use his own expression, to creep along the ground. No doubt there is danger in all this, the danger of triviality, pertness, and occasional vulgarity. Gifford's own work was attacked on its first appearance by a reviewer of the day precisely on those grounds: and though he seems to have made a vehement reply to his assailant, the changes which he made in his second edition showed that the censure was not without its effect. Still, where it is almost impossible to walk quite straight, the walker will reconcile himself to incidental deviations, and will even consider, where a slip is inevitable, on which side of the line it is better that the slip should take place.

A patent difficulty of course is to know what to do with local and temporary customs, allusions, proverbs, &c., which enter, I need not say, far more largely into satire or comedy than into any other form of writing. Here it is that the imitator has the advantage of the translator: a certain parallelism between his own time and the time of the author he imitates is postulated in the fact of his imitating at all, and if he is a dexterous writer, like Pope or Johnson, he is sure to be able to introduce a number of small equivalents, some of them perhaps actual improvements on the original, while he is at liberty to throw into the shade those points of which he despairs of being able to make anything. A translator has three courses open to him, to translate more or less verbally, so as to run the risk of being unintelligible to a reader unacquainted with the original, to generalize what is special, and to borrow something of the imitator's licence, introducing a modern speciality in place of an ancient. Here, as I have found on other occasions of the kind, to be allowed a choice of evils is itself a matter for self-congratulation. To be shut up entirely to one or other of these resources would be a serious misfortune: to be able to employ them (should it seem advisable) successively is no inconsiderable relief. The last of the three no doubt requires to be used very sparingly indeed, or one great object of translating a classic, the laying open of ancient life and thought to a modern reader, will be wantonly sacrificed. No one now-a-days would dream of going as far in this direction as Dryden and some of the translators of his period, talking e.g. about "the new Lord Mayor" and "the Louvre of the sky." But there are occasionally minor points--very minor ones, I admit--where a modern equivalent is allowable, if not absolutely necessary. Without transforming bodily a Roman caena into an English dinner, one may sometimes effect with advantage a trifling change in the less important dishes: a boar must not appear as a baron of beef, but a scarus may perhaps be turned, as I have turned it, into a sardine. In money again it would surely be needless pedantry in the translator of a satirist to talk of sestertia rather than pounds. I fear I have not always been at the pains to make the English sum even roughly equivalent to the Roman, but have from time to time introduced a particular English sum arbitrarily, if it appeared to suit the context or even the metre. Thus, where Philip gives or lends Mena fourteen sestertia that he may buy a farm, I have not startled the modern agricultural reader by talking about a hundred and twenty pounds, but have ventured to turn the sestertia into so many hundreds. On the whole, however, while I certainly cannot recommend any one to try to distil Latin antiquities from my translation as they are sometimes distilled from the original, I hope that I have not been unfaithful to the antique spirit, but have reflected with sufficient accuracy the broad features of Roman life.

Taken altogether, this translation will be found less close to the original than those with which I have formerly troubled the public. The considerations pointed out in the last paragraph will to a great extent account for this: generally too I may say that where the main characteristic of the original is perfect ease, the translator, if he is to be easy also, will be obliged to take considerable latitude. I trust however that I shall be found in most cases not to have translated irrespectively of the Latin, but to have borne it in mind even while departing from it most widely. I have studied the various commentators with some care, and hope that my version may not be without its use in turn as a sort of free commentary. I have omitted two entire satires and several passages from others. Some of them no one would wish to see translated: some, though capable of being rendered without offence a hundred or even fifty years ago, could hardly be so rendered now. Where I have not translated I have not in general cared to paraphrase, but have been silent altogether. I have in short given so much of my author as a well-judging reader would wish to dwell on in reading the original, and no more.

I have made acquaintance with such of the previous translations as I did not already know, though it seemed best to avoid consulting them in any passage till I had translated it myself. The few places in which I have been consciously indebted to others have been mentioned in the notes. Besides these, there are many other coincidences in expression and rhyme which might be detected by any one sharing my taste for that kind of reading, probably one or two in each poem: but as I believe them to be mere coincidences, I have not been at pains either to avoid them or to call attention to them. The only one of my predecessors in translating all the poems contained in this volume whom I need mention particularly is Mr. Howes. His book was published posthumously in 1845; but though it is stated in the preface to want the author's last corrections, a good deal of it must have been written long before, as the translation of the Satires is announced as nearly half finished in the introduction to a translation of Persius by the same author published in 1809, and some specimens given in the notes to that volume correspond almost exactly with the passages as they finally appear. The translation of Persius is a work of decided ability, but, in common I am inclined to think with all the other translations, fails to give an adequate notion of the characteristics of that very peculiar writer. The translation of the Horatian poems, on the other hand, seems to me on the whole undoubtedly successful, though, for whatever reason, its merits do not appear to have been recognized by the public. It is unequal, and it is too prolix: but when it is good, which is not seldom, it is very good, unforced, idiomatic, and felicitous. In one of its features, the habit of supplying connecting links to Horace's not unfrequently disconnected thoughts, perhaps I should have done wisely to follow it more than I have done: but the matter is one where a line must be drawn, and I am not without apprehension as it is that the scholar will sometimes blame me for introducing what the general reader at any rate may thank me for. I should be glad if any notice which I may be fortunate enough to attract should go beyond my own work, and extend to a predecessor who, if he had published a few years earlier, when translations were of more account, could scarcely have failed to rank high among the cultivators of this branch of literature.

Introduction to the Satires and Epistles of Horace
Carmen Saeculare | Satires I | Satires II | Epistles I | Epistles II | Art of Poetry
Notes to the Satires and Epistles

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