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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The most beautiful poem in ancient literature

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For many connoisseurs and lovers of Latin literature, Virgil is the first poet due to his epic poem the "Aeneid". The second poet would be the lyrical Horace.

For many connoisseurs and lovers of Latin literature, Virgil is the first poet due to his epic poem the "Aeneid". The second poet would be the lyrical Horace.

For some of these people the best poem written in Latin is precisely the Oda number 7 from the book IV by Horace. Naturally, about the likes, nothing is written; after all any artistic assessment is just a personal judgment because it is not only affected by the cold rational assessment.

In any case a particular value should have this poem for the famous philologist, scholar and english poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859 - 1936), extraordinary professor of Latin at Cambridge from 1911 to 1936, who considered this the most beautiful poem of old literature.

G. Highet tells in his book “The Classical Tradition. Greek and Roman influences on Western literature”, the following anecdote, related to Housman:

In May, 1914, in the burgeoning spring, he was commenting the poem to his students at Cambridge and surprised them with a personal confession (absolutely unexpected in such a serious teacher): “This, said hastily, almost like a man who betrays a secret, is for me the most beautiful poem in ancient literature”, and he left the classroom excited. Naturally also the most serious and severe teachers have a sensitive heart.

It is the Epicurean thought what encourages this composition. In this poem the return of spring, already heralded with irresistible force, and the succession of the seasons, warn us that everything passes; but as the years are renewed cyclically, this don’t happen to men; when our sunset comes (we don’t know when) we do not return to life, we are only dust (in the urn) and shadow (in the afterlife), not even the gods can resurrect men; so that we have to seize the moment.

The snow is fled: the trees their leaves put on,
The fields their green:
Earth owns the change, and rivers lessening run
Their banks between.
Naked the Nymphs and Graces in the meads
The dance essay:
“No 'scaping death” proclaims the year, that speeds
This sweet spring day.
Frosts yield to zephyrs; Summer drives out Spring,
To vanish, when
Rich Autumn sheds his fruits; round wheels the ring,—
Winter again!
Yet the swift moons repair Heaven's detriment:
We, soon as thrust
Where good Aeneas, Tullus, Ancus went,
What are we? dust.
Can Hope assure you one more day to live
From powers above?
You rescue from your heir whate'er you give
The self you love.
When life is o'er, and Minos has rehearsed
The grand last doom,
Not birth, nor eloquence, nor worth, shall burst
Torquatus' tomb.
Not Dian's self can chaste Hippolytus
To life recall,
Nor Theseus free his loved Pirithous
From Lethe's thrall.

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882.)

           
Notes to better understand the poem:

Graces and their sisters: are the three Graces, goddesses of beauty,
  charm and attractiveness.
Nymphs: beautiful deities of nature, of the springs, of the rivers,
  trees, and caves.
Zephyr: west wind, soft and fruitful that blows in Spring.
Tullus, Ancus: Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Marcius, two of the legendary kings of Rome, they represent the greatness of the past.
Minos: One of the judges of the lower world, the world of the dead
Torquatus: the person to who Horace dedicates the poem.
Diana: is the goddess of the hunt, forests, virgin and therefore goddess of shyness
Hippolytus: son of Theseus, his stepmother Phaedra fell in love with him and blamed him falsely, he is devotee of Diana and not of Venus
Theseus: mythical king of Athens, friend of Pirithous, the two descended into hell in search of Persephone, but only Theseus came back with the help of Heracles.
Lethe: one of the rivers of Hades or Hell ("lethal" derives from Lethe)

                        
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Diffugere  nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
    arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia  ripas
    flumina praetereunt;
Gratia  cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet
    ducere nuda choros.
Inmortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
    quae rapit hora diem.
Frigora mitescunt zephyris, ver proterit aestas
    interitura, simul
pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
    bruma recurrit iners.
Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae;
    nos ubi decidimus,
quo pius Aeneas, quo Tullus dives et Ancus,
    pulvis et umbra sumus.
Quis scit an adiciant hodiernae crastina summae
    tempora di superi?
Cuncta manus avidas fugient heredis, amico
    quae dederis animo.
Cum semel occideris et de te splendida Minos
    fecerit arbitria,
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
    restituet pietas;
Infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum
    liberat Hippolytum,
nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
  vincula Pirithoo.

   
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