My son and I saw two deer on the Sewanee bike-path this morning, and it reminded me of a Horatian ode. We were barreling along when a doe crossed far ahead of us. As we got closer, a younger deer suddenly appeared and, seeing us, scrambled after its mother. We laughed and pedaled on, but a few Latin lines began to buzz around in my head.
Now I love Horace, as do most classicists, and one of my married colleagues has even referred to him as “the other man in her life.” As it happens, though, I don’t teach him all that often, and when I do, it’s usually the “greatest hits” in translation. But the poem that came to mind on the bike-path–Ode 1.23, Vitas Hinuleo– is an old friend, so to speak, one I recall studying in high school. In fact, my senior year, I won a medal for my translation of it.
I no longer have the medal, and I can barely remember my version of it. A few of my lines were coming back to me on the bike, though, and making me wince. At any rate, Horace’s poem is below, with a translation following, and after that, some cursory discussion.
Horace, Odes 1.23
Vitas hinuleo me similis, Chloe,
Quaerenti pavidam montibus aviis
Matrem non sine vano
Aurarum et silvae metu.
Nam seu mobilibus veris inhorruit
Adventus foliis, seu virides rubum
Et corde et genibus tremit.
Atqui non ego te tigris ut aspera
Gaetulusve leo frangere persequor:
Tandem desine matrem
Tempestiva sequi viro.
Like a Fawn
Like a fawn you avoid me, shy Chloe, a young one
alongside her mother, astray in the hills,
whom the rustle of leaves or the sight of a lizard
in the first flush of spring is enough to give chills.
Both your knees and your heart are for some reason trembling.
You presume me a predator, falsely, and hide
as though from a lion, and run to your mother,
yet you’re ready for love and should come from her side.
One of the things I have always liked about Horace is the way he creates these interesting personae in even his shortest poems. The speaker here has his eye on Chloe and is filled with unconvincing reassurances about his intentions. He likens her to a young deer seeking a mother’s protection, and only half-heartedly denies his own comparison to a beast of prey. In the Latin, Atqui non ego te tigris ut aspera / Gaetulusve leo frangere persequor more literally means “And I, not like a tiger or Gaetulian lion, chase to break you.” Yikes. Even the simple natural images of the wind in the leaves and skinks in the shrubs are suspect. Springtime simply seems spooky in Chloe’s world.
I feel fairly certain that none of this was brought out in my high school Latin class, and if it had been, I am equally certain I was incapable of understanding it. But beneath Horace’s charming imagery, this courtship poem has an unmistakable predatory quality. I was glad to have a reason to re-visit the poem. “Animals are good to think with,” as Claude Lévi-Strauss once said.