Poems: Horace, Alexander Pope, William Gladstone, and an Ungreat Unknown

Alexander Pope's Version of part of Odes IV

Lest you should think that verse shall die,
Which sounds the Silver Thames along,
Taught on the wings of Truth, to fly
Above the reach of vulgar song;

Tho' daring Milton sits Sublime,
In Spencer native Muses play;
Nor yet shall Waller yield to time,
Nor pensive Cowley's moral Lay—

Sages and Chiefs long since had birth
E're Caesar was, or Newton nam'd,
These rais'd new Empires o'er the Earth,
And Those, new Heav'ns and Systems fram'd.

Vain was the Chief's, and Sage's pride!
They had no Poet, and they dyd.
In vain they schem'd, in vain they bled!
They had no Poet, and are dead.


Gladstone's Translation of the Entire Ode

To Lollius 

Think not these words are doomed to die 
Which, wedded to the tuneful string, 
With newborn arts of minstrelsy 
From sounding Aufidus I sing. 

If Homer on the throne be set, 
Stesichorus is stately still, 
Alcaeus brave; and Pindar yet, 
And Cean song their places fill. 

The sportive tales Anacreon told 
Years have not blurred. Love cannot die, 
And warms to-day, and warmed of old 
Th' Aeolian maiden's poesy. 

Were there like Spartan Helen none 
That loved the trim adulterer's hair, 
The gold upon his vestments spun, 
His train, his port, of royal air? 

Was Teucer first to learn the use 
Of Cretan shafts? Was Troy subdued 
At once? Fought huge Idomeneus, 
Or Sthenelos, in solitude? 

War is the Muse's theme. Not first 
Deiphobus, or Hector's rage, 
For their pure spouses dared the worst, 
Or did for children battle wage. 

Ere Agamemnon saw the light 
There lived brave men: but tearless all, 
Enfolded in eternal night, 
For lack of sacred minstrels, fall. 

Test hidden baseness, buried worth; 
'Tis little odds. So, Lollius, I 
Will set thy deeds and virtues forth ; 
Too many and too great to die, 

And moulder, dark Oblivion's prey. 
Thou hast a soul for high affairs, 
Art formed to hold unchanged thy way, 
When Fortune smiles, or Fortune scares. 

O scourge of greed and trick, O freed 
From Money's all-absorbing sway, 
Who, whensoe'er the State had need, 
No consul of the year or day, 

Took'st not the useful for the good, 
Flung'st back the guilty gift with scorn, 
Through adverse hosts along thy way 
In Virtue's arms triumphant borne. 

Not him wilt thou for happy bless, 
Whose goods are large. Far happier he, 
Who shall for wisdom's use possess 
The bounties that the gods decree. 

And pinching poverty can bear, 
And baseness more than death can dread. 
For love of friends, or country's care, 
That man will gladly give his head. 

A Scholarly Translation by John Conington
Think not those strains can e'er expire,
Which, cradled 'mid the echoing roar
Of Aufidus, to Latium's lyre
I sing with arts unknown before.
Though Homer fill the foremost throne,
Yet grave Stesichorus still can please,
And fierce Alcaeus holds his own
With Pindar and Simonides.
The songs of Teos are not mute,
And Sappho's love is breathing still:
She told her secret to the lute,
And yet its chords with passion thrill.
Not Sparta's queen alone was fired
By broider'd robe and braided tress,
And all the splendours that attired
Her lover's guilty loveliness:
Not only Teucer to the field
His arrows brought, nor Ilion
Beneath a single conqueror reel'd:
Not Crete's majestic lord alone,
Or Sthenelus, earn'd the Muses' crown:
Not Hector first for child and wife,
Or brave Deiphobus, laid down
The burden of a manly life.
Before Atrides men were brave:
But ah! oblivion, dark and long,
Has lock'd them in a tearless grave,
For lack of consecrating song.
'Twixt worth and baseness, lapp'd in death,
What difference? You shall ne'er be dumb,
While strains of mine have voice and breath:
The dull neglect of days to come
Those hard-won honours shall not blight:
No, Lollius, no: a soul is yours,
Clear-sighted, keen, alike upright
When fortune smiles, and when she lowers:
To greed and rapine still severe,
Spurning the gain men find so sweet:
A consul, not of one brief year,
But oft as on the judgment-seat
You bend the expedient to the right,
Turn haughty eyes from bribes away,
Or bear your banners through the fight,
Scattering the foeman's firm array.
The lord of boundless revenues,
Salute not him as happy: no,
Call him the happy, who can use
The bounty that the gods bestow,
Can bear the load of poverty,
And tremble not at death, but sin:
No recreant he when called to die
In cause of country or of kin.
Finally, a Sonnet on a similar theme by an unknown modern poet

      Digging the Past

           Great nations have existed without rhyme,

           and lullabied by warhoops apes have laid

           their heads on silk, mute till their files of crime

           are scrabbled by the antiquarian's spade.

           The chronicles of Nineveh and Tyre,

           the riddled tablets of the Tigris mud

           reburied rest in journals, while the lyre

           of David rouses angels in our blood.


There is no history of Assyrian sheiks,

           whose deeds were droned by scribes on the evening news;

           they live as fallguys for the well-greaved Greeks,

           or footnotes to the sufferings of the Jews.

           They ate, drank themselves sick, and drew up plans

           for Babel's tower--such Good Americans.

Some Probably Unnecessary Notes

Marcus Lollius, consul in 21 BC, suffered a disastrous military feat but, trusted by Augustus, was sent as 
governor to Syria, where he died or committed suicide.

Aufidus, a river near Horace's home town of Venusia.

Stesichorus, a great writer of early lyric verse in epic vein.  Quintilius says he sustained the weight of 
Homeric epic on his lyre and was often regarded as second greatest ancient Greek poet.

Alcaeus, powerful lyric poet from Lesbos, contemporary of Saphho "the Aeolian maiden."

Anacreon of Teos celebrated wine, women, and song.  Until fairly late, he was known to moderns only in inferior 
imitations, though he was in fact an exquisite writer of lyric verse.

Ceos, home to two great poets, both Simonides and his nephew Bacchylides

Teucer, Greek Homeric hero who employed the bow.

Deiphobus, a Trojan hero.

"The Great Unknown" was a nickname applied to the author of Waverley

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    Hmm, methinks the reference to good Americans betrays the identity of the author, no?

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    Of course the poem is quite profound in it’s truth, “Great nations have existed without rhyme”, “while the lyre of David rouses angels in out blood”. Who will we be the fall guys for, and who will bother to write the footnote?

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    Perhaps I should post something here instead of in the forum, so it will get more “circulation”. To be brief so as not to bore everyone, on the tombstone of one of my great grandfather’s first cousins, buried in Savannah, who died back in the early 30’s, there appear a few lines of poetry in French. Intrigued by this, I searched the first few words online and discovered that they were from a song written by the Belgian poet, Leon Montenaken. I tried to find out something about this writer but could not find much at all, at least not in English, and my French is paltry. Meanwhile, I learnt four new French words so I could read and understand the lines.

    It turns out that several English translations of the song, some wildly erratic and off base, were popular in America about a century or more ago. I won’t post any of the translations because some differ too much from the original and others come out dark and morbid. The most accurate translations don’t seem to capture it, and sound rather flat. The original French, on the other hand, is not that way at all. It’s poignant, perhaps sad, simple but eloquent, at least in my opinion:

    La vie est vaine,
    Un peu d’amour,
    Un peu de haine,
    Et puis—Bonjour!

    La vie est brève:
    Un peu d’espoir,
    Un peu de rève
    Et puis—Bon soir!

    I mentioned that my French was paltry and I had to learn four new words just to read it. So cousin Dorothea, dead long before I was even thought of, who was born, not just in the last century, but in the century before that, has reached out from beyond the grave, across the decades, into yet another century, and, with the help of a Belgian poet dead longer than herself, and in the best spirit of family helping family, has taught me four words of French. Quite unintentionally, of course.

    It’s not just that it’s neat that she would have such a passage put on her tombstone, no, there’s more to it than that. On the stone, the lines are in two columns, side beside, with the first lines transposed, and all other lines also transposed and therefore mixed together, line by line, clearly intentionally, so that you have to already know the poem before you can figure out that you must skip your eyes back and forth diagonally, in the correct order, in order to read it correctly. This was a quite humorous trick to play on the unwary, but here again, by means of this device she forced me to pay attention, which is no small feat.

  4. Patrick Kinnell says:

    I enjoyed these especially translation by William Gladstone. It reads well I thought.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    I like the poet who wrote of people drawing up plans collectively for another Tower of Babel ——bigger and better than any previous tower but this time only for winners.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    I think the unknown ungreats are our best hope now because the contemporary knowns who have replaced them are pathetic.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    On behalf of the ungreat unknown, thanks.

  8. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes, I intended to thank you. I wish you would collect your poems into one book. But I honestly don’t know of any significant civilization past or present that existed without music or verse.