Oh Gracilis Puer! Translations of Horace Ode 1.5

Horace’s Ode to Pyrrha can be interpreted in many ways, but I’ve always detected a note of jealousy over a woman and a love that eluded him. He has put aside his relationship with the woman who is now engaging in a tryst with a man he, rather condescendingly, calls a gracilis puer (simple boy.) He then accuses Pyrrha of being vain and shallow and believes that only those who truly know her realize that her beauty is skin deep. If he doesn’t care for her anymore, if he is so relieved to be free of her, then why protest so much? Why insult her?

I offer here two translations, one is my own and one is by a fellow classicist. We had great fun exchanging and critiquing (arguing over) one another’s translations. I won’t identify them, but one translation is very traditional, closer to the grammar of the original text and the other is more colloquial and captures the spirit of the poem without being as literal.

Translation #1:

So who’s that pretty boy, soaked in cologne,
grinding against you in the rose bushes
near that pleasant grotto, Pyrrha?
Is it for him that you do up your blonde hair,

stylishly simple? Ah, how often
he will be in anguish over fickle faith
and fate, and be caught off guard – astounded –
as if at the sea abruptly churned up by a dark gale.

He may be enjoying you now – your radiance –
always believing in your easy-going love, unaware
of the deceptive way the wind blows.

Miserable are they who’ve never basked in your glow.
As for me – see my dripping clothes hanging on the holy temple wall as an offering
for the powerful god of the sea? Well, they show that I’ve survived that particular storm.


Translation #2:

What simple boy, having doused himself in perfume,
hems you in on a bed of roses under cover of a pleasant
cave? For whom do you, Pyrrha, simple in your
elegance, arrange your golden locks?

Ah, how many times will that boy cry over fickle
faith and fickle fortunes and, in his insolence,
will stand aghast at the oceans made rough by
black storms;

That trusting boy, who now enjoys
you in all your magnificence and who always hopes you
are available and always hopes you are loveable,
is ignorant of your false charms.

Wretched are those to whom you appear glamorous
without knowing your true self. A sacred wall shows that
I have suspended my wet clothes there as a votive
prayer for the powerful god of the sea.

Which do you prefer?

(As a side note I showed both of these translations to my students and it sparked an interesting and lively debate about the art of translation. They were able to pick out which translation was my own. They are my Vergil students, most of whom I have had for five semesters of Latin, so they are all too familiar with my style, quirks, approach to translation, etc.)


Filed under Classics

14 responses to “Oh Gracilis Puer! Translations of Horace Ode 1.5

  1. What an interesting post! I suspect version 2 is closer to the original, but I felt reading them both gave me a better understanding of the poem. Maybe I would give the edge to #1 because the image of the sea and drenched clothing was clearer (to me) there

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fun. Thanks for sharing these!

    To answer you question: I prefer the first, though both have their points. I simply can’t resist the energy of “that pretty boy, soaked in cologne,
    grinding against you in the rose bushes,” — though I think the second version has a more satisfying and profound final stanza. (My opinions, sadly, have nothing to do with translation and everything to do with the translations as English poems, because I had the misfortune not to be in your Latin class in highschool.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Robert! I suspected that the first one would be more popular. It is a rather witty rendition of the poet and reflects the wit of the translator’s personality.


  3. Josee Posen

    Both are wonderful and I agree, thanks for sharing them.. the first appeals more–it’s just easier for us moderns to understand and relate to, because the language used makes it seem almost modern. In any case, it’s clear some things don’t change over the centuries……


  4. Well, I prefer the second, because I like my classics to sound like classics and not modernised. Nevertheless, I can understand that some would prefer their reading to be more contemporary, and I get the point that reading both enhances the understanding. But nevertheless, I think the second is elegant and rather beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, there are elements of both translations I like: the free looseness of the first, and its disdainful tone, and the tightness of yours, in its sentence-structure, which I imagine matches the original more closely (I haven’t looked it up, I’m afraid). I do enjoy these posts…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Totally fascinating… yep, the poem’s narrator does seem to still harbour feelings of unfathomable depths for the lady with long hair. Your analysis has opened my eyes some more so, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Neill Colledge

    Thank you for publishing your translation. It respects the words of the original while remaining succinct and readable.

    I have recently returned to the Pyrrha ode after a long absence, and was searching the net for updates to the Storrs collection. The first translation on your blog uses very contemporary language, but it also puts in some elements which are not present in the original, e.g. pretty boy, easy-going love, in anguish. In addition, the last three lines fail to explain that the clothes are on the temple wall in fulfilment of a vow made during a storm. But poetry is always about what we put in, not what we take out.

    You believe that Horace’s poetic persona accuses Pyrrha of being vain and claiming that her beauty is only skin deep. My reading of the text suggests that Pyrrha is only accused of being changeable or moody, no more worthy of blame than the weather is. Certainly, Horace picks up the metaphor of Catullus 8, but he leaves behind Catullus’ pain and intensity of feeling. The adjectives vacuam and amabilem applied to Pyrrha reflect her new lover’s hopes that she would always be available and loving; Horace’s persona may be assumed to have held the same hopes before Pyrrha disappointed him, but he does not provide any details and he does not accuse her of deception (which is not the same thing as leading him on). The breeze is deceptive, but not necessarily Pyrrha.

    Hence Horace’s persona does not insult Pyrrha and does not “protest so much”. He is certainly relieved to have escaped from a stormy relationship, but the text does not imply that he still has strong feelings for her. It is entirely possible to look back on a past relationship as a mistake or a misunderstanding without retaining any of the original emotions. If anything, Horace’s persona feels a condescending pity for his gullible (credulus) successors in Pyrrha’s affections, who do not know what they are in for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughts, but I have to respectfully disagree with you. Horace is very insulting to her and the third stanza feel like a warning to her new lover about her fickleness and lack of fidelity. Why bring up the breeze if not as a comparison of her deception? It recalls Catullus’s poem with the same metaphor. That “now” in the line is very telling, an important detail. He may enjoy you now, but…

      You say that Pyrrha disappointed him. How do lovers disappoint each other? Horace gives us the answer as a warning to her new lover—“How often he will be in anguish…” Anguish, to me, suggests it’s much more than just her being “moody.”

      Finally, I still see it as Horace protesting too much. If he didn’t care then why be so insulting to Pyrrha and her lover from the first stanza? “Pretty boy” “Grinding against you” “soaked in cologne” are insults. If it were truly just a warning to the puer or a whimsical look back on an old relationship then I think the language were be kinder and gentler.

      As for the two translations, I explain that they are very different. It really depends what one is looking for in a translation. Chapman’s Homer is no where near literal but certainly a work of art in itself that captures the essence of Homer.

      Lots of ways to interpret a poem in Latin or any language. Lots of ways to approach a translation as well. I use my blog to share my interpretations of translations and texts.


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