Horace’s Odes: 1.10 Hymn to Mercury
Mercuri, facunde nepos Atlantis
qui feros cultus hominum recentum
voce formasti catus et decorae
te canam, magni Iovis et deorum
nuntium curvaeque lyrae parentem,
callidum quicquid placuit iocoso
Te, boves olim nisi redidisses
per dolum amotas, puerum minaci
voce dum terret, viduus pharetra
Quin et Atridas duce te superbos
Ilio dives Priamus relicto
Thessalosque ignis et iniqua Troiae
Tu pias laetis animas reponis
sedibus virgaque levem coerces
aurea turbam superis deorum
gratus et imis.
Mercury, eloquent grandson of Atlas, (you) who, clever, formed the feral customs of recently (made) man by means of your voice and the custom of the honorable wrestling-pitch,
I will sing of you, messenger of great Jupiter and the gods and father of the curved lyre, clever (enough) to hide with humorous theft whatever pleases (you).
Once, Apollo, bereft of his quiver while with a threatening voice he frightened you, a boy, if you should not return the cattle stolen through a trick, he laughed at you.
Not only that, but also, with you being leader, rich Priam, with Ilium having been left behind, deceived (the senses of) the arrogant Atreides and the Thessalonian watch-fires and the camps hateful to Troy.
You place back the faithful souls to the happy seats and with your golden staff you restrain the weightless mob, (you) pleasing to both the higher ones and the lower ones of the gods.
*(Please note that this is a very literal and prosaic translation, intended simply to convey the value of the words. Their lyrical beauty and true meaning are better found in the actual Latin).
- This hymn is based off of a hymn to Hermes by Alcaeus, whose meters Horace regularly employs elsewhere. The opening of Alcaeus’s hymn survives, and appears to be in Sapphic strophes, the same meter which Horace employs here.
- This poem contains several feminine caesuras, (in lines 1, 6, and 18) which is an oddity for Horace, at least in the first 3 books of the Odes. These emphasize Mercury’s nature as a border-crossing god, nimbly flitting between the worlds of the living and the dead, as well as the world of the Olympian gods of order and the lower “trickster” gods, among other things.
- The feminine caesurae also accentuate Mercury’s far-famed speed.
- “facunde” and “voce” receive prominent position in the first strophe because Mercury as the skillful and inventive master of wordplay is particularly of importance to Horace as a patron of poetry. The patronage of Mercury may also refer the reader back to Ode 1.2, to think of Augustus and how he acts as a more literal patron for Horace.
- “nepos Atlantis” as an epithet emphasizes Mercury’s connection to the old “trickster” gods (i.e. the Titans). The allusion to Mercury’s relationship with Atlas is seen extensively in the Aeneid Book IV as well.
- By bookending the poem with “nepos Atlantis” and “deorum /… imis” in the first and last strophes respectivly, Horace enhances the trickster aspect of Mercury, subtly placing him simultaneously balanced as one of the old gods and as one of the Olympians.
- As with the phrase “aes triplex” in Ode 1.3, it is possible that Horace is alluding to Vergil with his use of “nepos Atlantis” as a particular epithet for Mercury, though in both cases this theory is impossible to confirm or deny.
- “…decorae / more palaestrae”: Mercury is the patron of wrestlers, which might seem odd at first. However, the virtues of a good wrestler include quick movements and tricky thinking, required both to evade an opponent and to execute difficult holds or throws.
- “curvaeque”: This adjective has an extended meaning of “twistedly clever” or “tricky”, and so by physical location in next to the word “nuntium” it colors Mercury with its description, even though it is syntactically only describing the lyre.
- “Callidum… / condere furto.”: The use of an epexegetical infinitive is an odd construction in Latin. Horace employs it to continue his motif of Greek poetic styles reforged with Roman ideas.
- The event referred to in the Third Strophe is part of the greater mythic tradition of Mercury/Hermes. Homer’s Hymn to Hermes and the hymn to Hermes of Alcaeus both recount how Mercury stole Apollo’s cattle on the very day that the tricky messenger was born. The Homeric hymn does not make any mention of Hermes stealing Apollo’s quiver.
- “terret”: The use of the present tense form of the verb here implies that Apollo was not actually able to frighten young Mercury.
- The Fourth Strophe is also drawn from Homer, recalling the Priam’s ransom of Hector’s body at the conclusion of The Iliad.
- “Ilio dives Priamus relicto”: This line is loaded with colorization, as the placement of “dives” after “Ilio” reminds the reader of the famous wealth of that city, while “relicto” following both the city and the wealth adds the effect that both of these things are abandoned by Priam (the treasure is “abandoned” when it is given to Achilles).
- The interlocking word order and polar doublets of the Fifth Strophe bring the poem to a well-balanced and attractive conclusion.
- This poem has some verbal allusions to other Odes, particularly 1.2 and its deification of Augustus Caesar as an incarnation of Mercury.
- The ablative absolute expression “duce te” recalls the final line of 1.2, “te duce, Caesar”, extending the praise given to Mercury towards Augustus as well.
- In both 1.2 and 1.10 Mercury is introduced by his relations (“…almae / filius Maiae” in 1.2 and “facunde nepos Atlantis” in 1.10)
Commentator’s note: Hopefully these notes are interesting to think about and insightful for understanding possible interpretations of the poem. I would just like to say here that this short commentary barely nicks the most precursory surface levels of understanding Horace’s poetry. There are countless books on his work, the most helpful of which I have found to be Nisbet and Hubbard’s A Commentary on Horace: Odes 1 and Daniel H. Garrison’s notes in the Oklahoma Horace Epodes and Odes.