Saturday, August 21, 2004


Secular Psalter

In his essay on "The Odes of Horace" in Classical Studies (New York: Macmillan, 1926), J.W. Mackail compares Horace to Malherbe, Tennyson, and Gray, and then says (pp. 148-149):
But none of these poets, or of others, has given to the world, as Horace has, a secular Psalter for daily and yearly and age-long use.

As with the Psalter itself, the Odes have in them repetitions, inequalities, faults of matter and manner. Some of their contents seem unworthy of their place; mannered, uninspired, questionable in their use and actual present value. Some we may think (but we had better think twice and thrice) we could do well without. We have to make allowances in both for religious or literary conventions; for Jewish narrowness and vindictiveness, for Roman coarseness. But both volumes have been taken to the heart of the world, and have become part of ourselves. It is interesting to remark that both have this note of intimacy, that the Psalms and the Odes, or at least the most familiar among them, are habitually referred to, not by their titles (for they have none), nor by their number in the series, but simply by their opening words. We do not usually speak of the 95th or 114th, the 127th or 130th Psalms, if we wish to be understood, but of the Venite, the In exitu Israel, the Nisi Dominus, the De Profundis. And so with Horace one speaks familiarly of the Integer vitae, the Aequam memento, the Eheu fugaces, the Otium divos. This secular Psalter, like its religious analogue, has to be supplemented, enlarged, re-interpreted, possibly even cut, for actual use, for application to our own daily life. But both, in their enormously different ways, are central and fundamental; permanent lights on life and aids to living.
At my web site devoted to some of the Odes of Horace, you will find synopses, original texts, more or less literal translations, notes, and a collection of paraphrases, parodies, imitations, and translations of Horatian odes by English writers. It's my own version of the secular Psalter.

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