Apr/May 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Horace of the 21st Century

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Satires of Horace.
A. M. Juster.
University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. 160 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8122-4090-0.

In an obscure little volume, Horace and his Lyric Poetry, published in 1945, L. P. Wilkinson considers how best to translate the hexameters of the subject poet:

Now English blank verse, at first sight the obvious choice because it is nearer to common speech, is not adequate to the task. It can indeed be heroic, but only when the words themselves are heroic; there is nothing inherently stately in it as there is in the hexameter. The peculiar blend of every-day matter and elevated form, which Horace learnt from Lucilius, escapes it. And more important, it can give little help to epigram. It is not because of the metrical form that stray lines and phrases of Shakespeare stick in the memory.

But English has in rhyme a device which does give to commonplace matter just the fillip that the hexameter gives to Horace's talk, as can be seen in the poetry of Crabbe. Where the couplets are enjambed, the effect is so slight that the colloquial tone is not lost; where they are self contained, as in Pope, they can be as epigrammatic and memorable as you please. I would suggest, then, that the best medium for translating Horace's hexameter poems is rhymed couplets, which should normally be enjambed, but should drop into the style of Pope wherever the original becomes vigorous or epigrammatic enough to justify it. The single line sententiae should generally be given a couplet to themselves.

After a mere 60-some years, Wilkinson's paragraphs have become as dated as Horace's Ars Poetica and its thousand year old observation that poems are good inasmuch as they "entertain and instruct." It is a rare reader who knows George Crabbe's loving portrayals of the life of the common Englishman of the late 18th century. Perhaps equally rare is the reader who could identify a "style" in the poetry of Alexander Pope if he or she'd had occasion to read any portion of it.

Nevertheless, Wilkinson's (and Horace's) advice still has the ring of sterling, and, knowingly or not, A. M. Juster has taken it at least in part. Juster's new translation of The Satires of Horace is rendered in couplets. He gives his own reason as part of a four-page "Translator's Note" that begins the volume:

I have chosen to use rhyme, even though the Romans did not, because it is so embedded in our expectations of humorous poetry. The combination of rhyme and meter creates rhythms that lead to the expectation of a punch line, and the anticipation of a punch line is a key element of humor.

His "punch line" is Wilkinson's "epigram," or thereabouts. Beyond such tactical considerations, the translator sought to provide "a faithful version of the Satires that was fun to read."

Moreover, Juster sought to accomplish this in strict iambic pentameter couplets. Substitute feet were kept to an absolute minimum. An effort was made to employ exact rhyme in all instances possible. As restrictive as these requirements may seem, his Horace can be quite engaging in spite of them:

You praise a three-pound mullet, idiot,
although you always have to divvy it
up into single servings. In my view,
it is appearance that is hooking you.

They are the standards of the dominant school of contemporary Neo-Formalism, and A. M. Juster has written lyric poems so exceptional because he writes with such wit while he meets them so well. It is his acquirement, his forte.

The iambic pentameter (or "heroic") couplet has a diverse tradition from which to draw. While the form goes back well beyond Chaucer, its first great English language practitioner, it began to take on more "modern" traits late during the reign of Elizabeth I and had the great good fortune to be the form of choice in the poetry of John Dryden, who gave the English language its first fully modern poetry. It is with Dryden, as well, that the couplet becomes a surprisingly sophisticated tool for translating from Latin hexameters.

As great a satirist as was Dryden, in his own right, his Latin translations came primarily from Virgil and Ovid, neither given to the genre. The issues arising from those translations have remained the issues of all modern translation. Romans did not write in rhyme, and rendering them in couplets, no matter how capably, entails a substantial change in tone. Names and proper nouns where substituted for with modern equivalents were not true to the original; where not were strange, perhaps intimidating, to the reader. Still more controversially, Dryden often took liberties with the original text in order to tailor it to the expectations of contemporary readers. Dryden's Virgil was, when all was said and done, as much a 17th century British author as he was a Roman.

It is no surprise, then, to find A. M. Juster addressing the same issues in his brief "Translator's Note":

My first rule for this translation was to preserve as many meanings and images from the original text as possible. My second rule was to inject nothing into the translation that wasn't arguably in the original.

As for names, he keeps the originals as well, and without trying to derive from them more familiar—more comfortable—English variants. Concise endnotes are provided to aid the reader who will wish to know more about unfamiliar pronouns.

Dryden's translations from the great Roman poets of the reign of the emperor Augustus served as impetus toward what has since come to be labeled the "Augustan Age" of English poetry. Dryden's successor, the greatest poet of the ensuing Augustan Age, Alexander Pope, went still further afield, at times, in his Latin translations. So far, in fact, that he could only scruple to call his translations from Horace "imitations."

Still, Pope was imbued to the soul with Horace. Rarely has a poet so identified with a classical model, made that model so contemporary to his own times both through imitations and his own original poetry. This to the extent that the 4' 6", scoliotic terror of polite society could not always separate himself from his subject. For just one example, Pope renders the ending of the first satire, from Horace's second book of satires, in which the poet is advised to abandon the genre for his own good:

F. It stands on record, that in Richard's times
A man was hanged for very honest rhymes.
Consult the statute; quart. I think it is,
Edward sext. Or prim. et quint. Eliz.
See libels, satires—here you have it—read.

P. Libels and satires! Lawless things indeed!
But grave epistles, bringing vice to light,
Such as a king might read, a bishop write,
Such as Sir Robert would approve—F. Indeed!
The case is altered—you may then proceed:
In such a cause the plaintiff will be hissed,
My lords the judges laugh, and you're dismissed.

The F with whom P (Pope) is speaking is a Mr. Fortescue, the then Baron of the Exchequer. In Juster, Horace remains Horace and his interlocutor remains Trebatius, a famous lawyer of the time. More to the point, the text hews to the original:

TREBATIUS: "...If a person slights
another with vile verses, there are rights
of action he can use and remedies."

HORACE: "Sure, if they're vile... What if they are good and please
the critic Caesar? Say he barks at one
who earned abuse, while he himself earned none?"

TREBATIUS: "They'll wipe all your official records clean,
And laugh as you, unpunished, leave the scene."

Juster has been faithful to Horace's original text and even concludes with a piquant end-stopped couplet. Pope, on the other hand, has been faithful to everything of Horace but his text. It can fairly be said that Pope has out-Horaced Horace, not the proper aim of translation, by anyone's standards, but an impressive and an entertaining fact nonetheless.

Returning to A. M. Juster's "Translator's Note," other translators of The Satires are mentioned. Of the few names that have translated them more or less in their entirety, he informs us, John Conington's 1874 translation into couplets "was the standard for many years." The reader who chooses to bring up the volume on Google Books (or bring it down from their shelves) will discover also Connington's "Introduction," which happens to remain, to this day, perhaps the most insightful commentary on translating The Satires of Horace.

Conington speaks more at large than Wilkinson and specifically about The Satires. Epigram is just one of many tools, available to the translator, in order to achieve a requisite tone throughout:

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...


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 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.

All the possibilities of the couplet must arrive at persiflage: Horace's personal tone of persiflage, in particular, which, not coincidentally, belonged to the "good society" of his time. Horace, grandson of a freed slave, valued nothing so much as having become a landed member of good society, accepted and valued in company. This he accomplished without a trace of the snobbishness of the parvenu.

Horace, it should be added, was quite capable of being vulgar in the mouth of low born characters drafted into his satires. This was a strategy which Shakespeare frequently borrowed to good use (seasoned with fractured neologisms ala Plautus) in his comedies, and with nearly an identical tone. In Satire II.7, Horace gives his slave, Davus, permission to speak freely and Juster makes the best of the opportunity:

When nature's urges prime
me for some sex, whoever at the time
lies naked in the lantern-light and takes
the pounding of my swollen tail, and makes
me be her stallion while she wildly mounts
me from the top until her buttocks bounce,
will do. She then declares I've had my turn...

Coninngton knew quite well that Horace could occasionally be vulgar. He left this passage, and the continuation of it out, of his translation. Still, his observation holds for Horace in comparison with the run of satirists. One need only have read Aristophanes, Rabelais or Samuel Butler to understand his point.

Juster also rises, in Davus speech, to epigram:

O chronic slave, what type of brute absconds
and then returns perversely to his bonds?

But, surprisingly, he works hard, throughout his translation, at avoiding end-stopped couplets. Enjambment and run-on lines are overwhelmingly his tools of choice as he apparently attempts by virtue of them to highlight the frequently prosaic quality of Horace's extended hexameter passages and to mute the foreign intrusion of rhyme.

While this approach provides a successful couplet-correlative for unrhymed hexameter, and is, for this reason, faithful to the original text, it has another effect. Punch-lines are few and far between, epigrams fewer and farther. The translator has admirably accomplished one of the main goals he set out to achieve (faithfulness to the text) at the cost of limiting the degree of his success in achieving his primary goal (being "fun to read").

The 21st century translator begins a work such as The Satires with considerable disadvantages under which his or her predecessors did not necessarily labor. Pope, for example, personally knew all of the recognized British poets of his day and many, if not most, of his readers. They all converged on London, once a year, during the season, and attended one or more of the various overlapping party circuits. They presented their cards on visiting days at many of the same houses.

This aspect of literary life was little changed from Horace's time. He knew all of the recognized poets of his day and most of his readers. All converged on Rome. Thus Pope could choose from among his acquaintance a stand-in for Trebatius—someone with a similar position and personality and a similar relationship to himself—substitute pounds for sesterces and heroic couplets for hexameters and Horace was instantly familiar to 18th century readers. (More to the point, as Fortescue or as Trebatius, Pope's readers knew the character well from personal acquaintance.) Having expanded upon Horace's jokes, in order to keep The Satires fun to read (Pope's primary concern) at the distance of 1800 years, the matter was put right by simply calling his translations "imitations".

None of this was available to A. M. Juster. The poets and prominent citizens of his day are scattered over thousands of miles and share little by way of common acquaintance. The same is true of his readers, who are no longer drawn from the same small, educated upper class. Had he wanted to make any of the characters found in The Satires more familiar to his readers, he had no ready pool of common acquaintance from which to choose.

On top of that, neither the hexameter nor the couplet—nor, for that matter, any single verse form—is so familiar to the contemporary ear that the translator can indulge in it with the ease, confidence and command of a Horace or a Pope (respectively). There is no dominant form in contemporary poetry, and, therefore, none that a poet-translator knows through and through. Juster has had to reason his couplets out.

Given these limitations of translation and the times, A. M. Juster's own rigorous, self-imposed limitations do not always seem wise. A liberal sprinkling of slang—such as "bitch and moan," "let's get real" (very nice choice for an magis excors), "wimp," "chintzy," "gut," "guzzle," "geezer" and "gawk"—and 2000 year old jokes is not enough to make this Horace "fun" for the general reader. (While the observations are timeless the jokes that go with them are not always so.) It seems clear that, if there was a chance at all of accomplishing this goal, a willingness to wield the epigram regularly was essential. For all Juster had to be satisfied, in spite of his rigor, with a couple of dozen lines that do not scan, and a bit of syllabic filler and word inversion, here and there, in order to prevent more, he might have done himself a favor if he'd been willing to be intentionally more creative via metrical substitution, as well.

Alexander Pope's imitations of Horace are flat out funny but sufficiently inventive that even he couldn't call them "translations." Nevertheless, it is difficult to picture a "fun" Horace that isn't informed by them, or a Horace in couplets that isn't called upon to suffer comparison with the translations of Dryden and Pope.

What A. M. Juster's Satires of Horace is, on the other hand, is consistently interesting, at times amusing and always faithful to the text. Given all the disadvantages under which the 21st century translator of Horatian satire labors this describes a signal success. If there will be a new standard translation of Horace's Satires, I can think of no better choice, in poetry or prose, than A. M. Juster's.


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