Here is a wonderful poem by two men who are hardly read nowadays - Horace and his translator, Housman. A E Housman was a classical scholar, and in Tom Stoppard's marvellous Invention of Love (read it immediately if you don't know every line!), he has Housman lecture on Horace: "Diffugere nives goes through me like a spear. Nobody makes it stick like Horace that you’re a long time dead – dust and shadow, and no good deeds, no eloquence, will bring you back. I think it’s the most beautiful poem in Latin or Greek there ever was.” The poem is simple in form, describing the renewal of life in the spring, and lamenting that we cannot share in it, that our decay is for ever (where "Tullus and Ancus are" in the extract below, that is, dead and in Hades). Finally, it describes Theseus’ failed attempts to free his lover Pirithous from the chains of hell.
I have regretted, in an earlier post, that Horace is so little read now the classic tradition in education is almost dead. But this poem, Ode 7 from Book 4, will surely reaffirm the value of reading him. The fourth stanza by itself is vaut le voyage! This is the stunning translation by A E Housman of Horace's Diffugere nives.
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.