The following ode by Horace begins as a paean to spring. But, as is often the case, Horace uses a precisely-observed opening scene as a prelude to a wide-ranging meditation on the human condition. This is what makes him so lovable, and his poetry so beguiling and delightful: who knows where he will take us next?
The snows are gone, and grass returns again,
New leaves adorn the widow trees,
The unswoln streams their narrow banks contain,
And softly roll to quiet seas:
The decent Nymphs with smiling Graces join'd,
Now naked dance i'th' open air,
They dread no blasts, nor fear the wind
That wantons thro' their flowing hair.
The nimble hour that turns the circling year,
And swiftly whirls the pleasing day,
Forewarns thee to be mortal in thy care,
Nor cramp thy life with long delay:
The Spring the Winter, Summer wastes the Spring,
And Summer's beauty's quickly lost,
When drunken Autumn spreads her drooping wing,
And next cold Winter creeps in frost.
The moon, 'tis true, her monthly loss repairs,
She straight renews her borrow'd light;
But when black Death hath turn'd our shining years,
There follows one Eternal Night.
When we shall view the gloomy Stygian shore,
And walk amongst the mighty dead,
Where Tullus, where Aeneas went before,
We shall be dust, and empty shade:
Who knows if stubborn Fate will prove so kind,
And join to this another day?
What e'er is for thy greedy heir design'd,
Will slip his hands, and fly away:
When thou art gone, and Minos' sentence read,
Torquatus, there is no return;
Thy fame, nor all thy learned tongue can plead,
Nor goodness shall unseal the urn:
For chaste Hippolytus Diana strives,
She strives, but ah! she strives in vain;
Nor Theseus' care, and pious force reprieves
His dear Pirithous from his chain.
Horace (translated by Thomas Creech), Odes, Book IV, Ode 7, in Thomas Creech, The Odes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1684). "Unswoln" (line 3) is the spelling as it appears in Creech's original translation.
The ode is addressed to Torquatus (line 30), a member of a well-known Roman family who was a lawyer by profession (hence the reference to "thy learned tongue" in line 31). Tullus Hostilius (line 23) is traditionally identified as the third king of Rome. Minos (line 29) was the judge of the dead in the Underworld. Hippolytus (line 33) was falsely accused by his stepmother Phaedra of attempting to seduce her. He was killed by order of his father Theseus before Diana was able to disclose Phaedra's deception to Theseus. Pirithous (line 36), accompanied by Theseus, went down to the Underworld to claim Persephone as his wife. Theseus was able to escape with the aid of Hercules, but Pirithous remained forever imprisoned.
Lucien Pissarro, "Rade de Bormes" (1923)
Even if A. E. Housman had not been a classical scholar and a professor of Latin, one suspects that Horace's ode was the sort of thing that would catch his fancy, given his temperament. And, sure enough, it did.
"I attended [Housman's] lectures for two years. At five minutes past 11 he used to walk to the desk, open his manuscript, and begin to read. At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room. He never looked either at us or at the row of dons in the front. One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.' This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm.
Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said: 'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.' Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. 'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room.
A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. 'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said. 'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'"
Mrs. T. W. Pym, Letter to The Times (May 5, 1936), in Richard Gaskin, Horace and Housman (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), page 12.
Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)
Here is the translation that Housman read to his students in Cambridge on that May morning in 1914.
The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.
Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.
But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.
Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.
When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.
Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.
Horace (translated by A. E. Housman), in A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936). "Shaws" (line 1) are groves or thickets of trees. Ancus Marcius (line 15) (whose name Creech omits from his translation) is traditionally identified as the fourth king of Rome.
Lucien Pissarro, "The Thierceville Road, Early Spring" (1893)
We thus come to Housman's "loveliest of trees," which has appeared here before, but which is always worth revisiting at this time of year. Reading it (well, reading any of Housman's poems) in conjunction with Horace's ode, one can understand why the ode provoked such an emotional response in Housman.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
A. E. Housman, Poem II, A Shropshire Lad (1896).
Housman wrote the poem between May and July of 1895. Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997), page 320. The date of Housman's translation of Horace's ode is unknown. However, it was first published in a periodical in 1897. Ibid, page 426.
Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)