The vulgar crowd


HoraceProfanum vulgus. The vulgar crowd. Not, however, as you might suspect, an apt description of the remaining few supporters of The Block that rules Collingwood Council. While perhaps appropriately described, to me that small handful are better described as naïve, gullible and even intellectually vulnerable, moreso than merely vulgar. But that’s not what this post is about.

Odi profanum volgus et arceo. The words open the first ode in Horace’s third book (Carminum Liber Tertius): I shun the profane crowd. Or the uninitiated crowd. The rabble, or mob. As A.S.Kline translates it:

I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,
I sing a song never heard before,
I sing a song for young women and boys.

True, the poem has a subtle political context that might make one think of the Block and their disingenuous election campaign, as Kline translates:

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards
over wider acres than will his neighbour,
that one candidate who descends to
the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger
crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts
the fates of high and low with equal
justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

The poem is really about the equality that death brings everyone and the pointlessness of our base pursuits. That roomy, capacious urn at the end of the line is where we all eventually end up regardless of our status and wealth. Horace also contemplates how little riches and rank offer in comparison to his small Sabine farm, and says how content he is with his lot.

But as usual, Horace isn’t that simple; the poem has more to contemplate than just one notion. I’m trying to understand it all and the choice of words in the translation matter.

The various translations I have in books and have read online approach the profanum vulgus in different ways and the translator’s choice deeply colours the reader’s (and my) approach to the rest. For example, as translated by Peter Saint-Andre it is:

I loathe and shun the uninitiate crowd,
I keep a sacred silence: for I am
A priest of the Muses and I sing songs
Never heard before to virgins and boys.

Not sure why he doesn’t make it ‘uninitiated’ aside from the scanning. The word ‘uninitiate’ seems clunky. But regardless of the adjective, it’s a tautology: the crowd is always uninitiated, the mob always vulgar. Horace shuns the common taste, the pop culture of his day.

Niall Rudd (Loeb Classical Library No. 33, 2004) gives us:

I shun the uninitiated crowd and keep it at a distance. Pray silence!

There’s a big difference between loathe and shun. Emotionally what one shuns may simply be for dislike, or distaste. Loathe is a powerful word, a person thoroughly repelled by the object. But as Hollander translates it (see below), it may even be stronger than that: hatred, which conjures up even darker emotions: one may loathe without hating something.

And while we today might occasionally use the verb “pray” in a secular sense, it once carried more theological weight and suggested more reverential behaviour. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) used the same phrase in his pretty little poem Upon a Child:

Here a pretty baby lies
Sung asleep with lullabies;
Pray be silent, and not stir
Th’ easy earth that covers her.

One can easily hear in his voice the reverence for the sleeping child; that innocent, the like of whom Horace desired as an audience for his songs. Herrick later added a second poem, touchingly called Upon a Child That Died, which is so steeped in emotion it makes me wonder if there is personal tragedy behind his sad words:

Here she lies, a pretty bud,
Lately made of flesh and blood:
Who as soon fell fast asleep
As her little eyes did peep.
Give her strewings, but not stir
The earth that lightly covers her.

Herrick read and often copied the Roman poets. So much so that he was later called the “English Horace” because he wrote on similar themes and in similar style. Herrick is also the author of the famous “carpe diem” poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Herrick sometimes translated Horace and once sent a poem conflating several of the Odes in a letter to a friend. It opens with the familiar lines from II.14 I previously wrote about:

Ah Posthumus! Our years hence flye
And leave no sound; nor piety
Or prayers or vow
Can keep the wrinkle from the brow.

There are intriguing connections between these two poets I must explore at a later date. Mea culpa: I digress. Back to the Ode.

John Hollander (Horace: The Odes, ed. J.D. McClatchy, Princeton U Press, 2002) gives us:

I hate and keep away the unholy crowd.
Hush then!

Unholy is not exactly the same as profane, and both are different in my understanding from uninitiated or vulgar. The site polyaplatinlit gives us:

I hate and spurn the profane crowd.

Joseph Clancy (The Odes & Epodes of Horace, U of Chicago Press, 1960) has it as,

I scorn the secular crowd and keep them out.
Be silent.

Secular isn’t a synonym for unholy or profane. Why the religious overtones in some translations? It’s because Horace calls himself a priest of the Muses (musarum sacerdos). To some translators, it must seem Horace is invoking a religious theme. Portrayed as nine women, the Muses were, as Wikipedia tells us, “… inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology” later adopted into the Roman pantheon. But Horace never seemed worshipful of them.

While I can find literary invocations of the Muses even unto modern times, and metaphorical references to writers and musicians as their “priests,” I can find no reference to religious institutions or ceremonies around them. Nor can I find any indication there were specific Roman holidays or festivals for them. I suspect that Horace calling himself their priest is a literary conceit rather than an actual theological position. Perhaps he is being ironic, or tongue-in-cheek. Or simply respectful.

Personally, it seems to me Horace calls himself a priest to contrast that more learned state with the masses. He calls himself their priest not to emphasize a religious aspect of his life, but because priests were initiates to the secrets of the gods – in this case the literary Muses – and he is, I think, making a sarcastic comment on those who don’t appreciate poetry or culture. They don’t understand it, so they belittle or dismiss it. They clamour for more coarse entertainment. We might call such people Philistines today. Or perhaps locally we’d call them The Block because culture is as absent in their behaviour at the council table as ethics.

It is also at odds with the self-deprecating comments Horace made about his writing in the Satires: his “pedestrian” or ground-pounding muse (musa pedestri), described in more detail here. So it may be a bit ironic.

Horace mentions other gods in the Roman pantheon in his Odes, but refers to the Muses most often, and collectively. In only one Ode (4.3) he ascribes his own poetic inspiration specifically to Melpomene (the Muse of lyric poetry).

So Horace turns his voice to the young boys and girls who are not tainted by adult bigotries and opinions, who aren’t too busy chasing wealth or status to listen to his songs. Who aren’t among the vulgar crowd, yet. Favete linguis he writes to the vulgar crowd: be silent while I sing my songs to these innocent (he called his Odes ‘carmina‘ – translated as both songs or poetry). Horace makes poetry sacred in comparison and contrast to the profane or mundane; not as a religious activity. It’s the same definition that Emile Durkheim used:

Most things we come across in life can be distinguished as quite ordinary. If you think about the everyday things a person does – driving a car, going to work, checking your email – these things are all quite ordinary and are included as an ordinary element of everyday life. Durkheim would term these things profane – those routine aspects of our day-to-day existence. We cannot deny that we consider some things as sacred; however, those things we set apart as extraordinary, inspiring awe and reverence.

Horace returns to the notion of baseness or impiety in the fifth verse, when, as Kline translates it:

Sicilian feasts won’t supply sweet flavours
to the man above whose impious head hangs
a naked sword, nor will the singing
of birds or the playing of zithers bring back
soft sleep.

The hanging sword is well known even today: it was hung by a thread at a feast above the head of Damocles by Dionysius of Syracuse (thus the Sicilian feast), able to fall at any moment and kill the person below; meant to illustrate the precarious nature of our lives. Rudd calls it an “unholy neck” and West uses impious but I’ve also read it as evil, doomed, bended (Ferry) or simply naked neck. Again it’s a word I would suggest is meant as a contrast rather than a religious connotation. Impious in contrast to his self-declared piety as the priest of the muses. I think he’s being clever, and slightly mocking, not theological.

The point he’s making here is, I believe, that nothing in life is permanent and we need to pay attention to the here and now. Very Stoic and very Buddhist. Bu,t he maintains, poetry is part of that present. There are finer things in life that matter beyond what the crowd pursues. Gather ye rosebuds, as Herrick would later write.

The 19th century author Charles Stuart Calverly (The Complete Works of Horace, Modern Library, 1936) has this for the opening:

I scorn and shun the rabble’s noise.
Abstain from idle talk!

Whereas David Ferry (The Odes of Horace, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) translates:

I scorn the profane crowd and therefore I
Forbid them to come near. Be reverently

David West (Oxford World Classics, 1997) has:

I hate the profane mob and keep them at a distance.
Maintain a holy silence.

And W. G. Shepherd (Penguin Classics, 1983) has:

I shun and keep removed the uninitiate crowd.
I require silence…

So there’s no clear consensus on the terms among translators. I tend to like rabble and mob because, at least in modern parlance, these words are also associated with uncultured and unthinking people, with common taste and pop culture, and they avoid the religious suggestion.

Horace takes a poke at elitists, too. As Peter Saint Andre translates:

Yet gentle dreams do not shun peasant homes,
Shady riverbanks, and breezy valleys.
One who desires no more than his needs
Is not disturbed by stormy seas

And Kline:

…gentle slumber doesn’t despise
the humble house of a rural labourer,
or a riverbank deep in the shade,
or the vale of Tempe, stirred by the breeze.
He who only longs for what is sufficient,
is never disturbed by tumultuous seas…

Peace, tranquility and comfort are not the property of the rich who are sung to sleep by the singing of caged birds and the playing of citharas (zithers). They are for everyone, to be enjoyed regardless of your station in life. There’s that equality thing again, and that gentle scolding about base pursuits.

At the end of the poem, Horace asks (Kline trans):

Why should I change my Sabine valley,
for the heavier burden of excess wealth?

His “Sabine farm” was a real place, now a famous archeological ruin near Licenza (Tivoli), Italy. Horace mentions it lovingly in many poems, so often it has become a metaphor for both bucolic peace and for simple living. It’s the focal point in his famous tale of the two mice, in his Satire II.6. Horace described the farm’s flowing water in an analogy with his own poetic outpouring.

The farm also symbolized his independence because it allowed Horace to live outside the circle of sycophants and hangers-on who followed the rich in Rome looking for handouts or patronage. It was a place where he could think, ponder philosophical questions, and write undisturbed. He made wine there too, although he disparaged it as mere, humble plonk, and commented a few times on better vintages.

The land and buildings were given to Horace as a gift by his friend and patron Maecenas in response to his early writing. The gift is described in Horace’s Satire VI which opens:

I OFTEN wished I had a farm,
A decent dwelling snug and warm,
A garden, and a spring as pure
As crystal running by my door,
Besides a little ancient grove,
Where at my leisure I might rove.

Or as Kline translates it:

This was my prayer: a piece of land, not of great size,
With a garden, and a permanent spring near the house,
And above them a stretch of woodland.

Horace favourably compared his rural life with urban life (to which he eventually returned), and with the pursuit of riches and power, many times. You can read a scholarly commentary on the role of the farm in his work here. Suffice to say it played a central role in both his writing and his outlook.

A good description of Horace is found at

As a lyricist, Horace is unique among Roman poets and rare among world writers in speaking with a voice of reason that is utterly controlled. He frequently admits to his 40 years, looks with ironic tolerance on his and others’ enthusiasms, whether amorous or political, and calls for temperate pleasures, rejecting both extravagant passion and totally dispassionate, impersonal preoccupation with monetary matters. Not a poet of youth, Horace instead catches the complex problems of the middle-aged and upholds an ideal of rational contentment.

The more I read, the more I delve into his writing, the more I appreciate Horace and his wisdom; that “rational contentment” he espoused. And I am glad I have more than one translation to help me with it. But what I need now is a guide, a commentary, a companion to Horace.

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