‘With you I would live, and die, happily’. But we get the impression that this is not the fate in store for Lydia and Horace, the two speakers of this moving poem. Horace’s infidelity broke them apart, and they have both now moved on. However, love is never predictable, and here the pair here reflect on what might have been, and on what still could be.
The poem is a dialogue where Horace speaks first. Although Horace is not named, scholars pretty much agree it must be him speaking. He is usually the narrator of his Odes, and the complaints that he is fickle and quick-tempered are faults Horace admits to in another poem. Also Lydia’s claim that she was famous is probably talking about poetry Horace had written about her. We have no idea who this Lydia might have been, she survives only in Horace’s poetry.
For as long as you loved me
and no other man, more dear, clasped his arms
around your white neck,
I was richer than the king of Persia.
While you desired no one else
and Lydia was not second to Chloe,
I, famous Lydia,
shone brighter than Ilia of Rome.
Thracian Chloe rules me now,
who knows sweet songs and plays on the lyre.
I’m not afraid to die
if the fates would only spare my darling.
I love he who returns my love,
Calais, son of Thurian Ornytus.
I would die twice over
if the fates would spare my beloved boy.
What if our love were to return,
and forced us again under a bronze yoke,
if I spurned blonde Chloe
and opened the door closed to Lydia?
Though he is fairer than starlight
and you are fickle and more quick-tempered
than the Hadrian sea,
With you I would live, and with you, die happily.
The two are competing with one another. Every claim made by Horace is topped by Lydia. In the first stanza Horace compares himself to a king of Persia, however Lydia compares herself to Ilia, mother of Romulus and Remus and goddess of Rome. Horace is ruled by Chloe, whereas Lydia pointedly states that her love is returned by Calais, and where he would die for Chloe, she would die twice over.
They also reveal very different personalities. Lydia is far more direct than Horace. While Horace is allusive and does not give his name, Lydia very assertively twice states her identity. She also gives us very exact information about Calais’ birth, boasting about his heritage. The language is different too. Horace uses social terms: the king, servitude to Chloe and her expulsion in favour of Lydia. Lydia however is far more fanciful, using natural imagery of the stars and the sea.
So an ill-matched pair? Perhaps Horace is right to wish for a bronze yoke, that might be what is needed to keep these two together. And yet when Lydia can’t resist a final dig at Horace in the last stanza, her unflattering candour is made up for by her final words. The statement that she would happily die with Horace is all the more touching for this and the poem ends with a great calm that is not disturbed by her earlier criticism.
In this light I do not think we are supposed to envisage Horace and Lydia throwing everything aside and running into each others arms. They are both older and wiser now. This is not a blind passion, but rather a reflection on what could have been. It is perhaps too late for these two, but there is no real anger in their sparring with one another. Rather I think their jibes suggest a familiarity and even a gentle humour at each other’s expense. Love is an unpredictable goddess and she is not always kind. Perhaps a gentle humour and a fond remembrance of times past is the best way to cope with what she has thrown in this pair’s way.
Further reading: Williams, G. The Third Book of Horace’s Odes (1969) and Putnam, M. Horace Odes 3.9: The dialectics of desire (1977).