Johnson translated this ode of the Roman poet Horace as a school exercise, probably some time in his mid-teens. In itself, this was not a sign of his being very precocious; all students in English schools in this era would have done many translations of Latin poetry, and Horace was particularly popular. Still, it’s an interesting poem, not only for what Johnson does to the Horatian original, but because it is about the desire to become a famous writer; even at a young age, Johnson was ambitious. Johnson would continue to be fond of Horace’s Odes and would translate them into English verse from time to time for the rest of his life.
The poem was never published in Johnson’s lifetime. The manuscript is now in the Hyde Collection of Johnsoniana at Harvard University; the first page is reproduced below. The poem was not published until 1941.
Horace, Odes Book II.XX (Johnson)
Now with no weak [expand title=”unballast” targclass=”highlight”]unballast: referring to a ship that does not have the ballast, or weights, designed to stabilize it; “unballast” was already an archaic spelling by Johnson’s time[/expand]wing
A poet double-form’d I rise,
From th’envious world with scorn I spring,
And cut with joy the wondering skies.
Though from no princes I descend,
Yet shall I see the blest abodes,
Yet, great [expand title=”Maecenas” targclass=”highlight”]Maecenas, a Roman nobleman, was a patron of many poets, including Horace[/expand] shall your friend
Quaff nectar with th’immortal Gods.
See! how the mighty change is wrought!
See how what’re remain’d of man
By plumes is veil’d; see! quick as thought
I pierce the clouds a tuneful swan.
Swifter than Icarus I’ll fly
Where Lybia’s swarthy offspring burns,
And where beneath th’inclement skis
The hardy Scythian ever mourns.
My works shall propagate my fame,
To distant realms and climes unknown,
Nations shall celebrate my name
That drink the Phasis or the Rhone.
Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flours my hearse.
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.
[Hear an audio recording of Johnson’s version] Audio file
Here is a version of the poem in a modern translation by A. S. Kline
A poet of dual form, I won’t be carried
through the flowing air on weak or mundane wings,
nor will I linger down here on earth,
for any length of time: beyond envy,
I’ll leave the cities behind. It’s not I, born
of poor parents, it’s not I, who hear your voice,
beloved Maecenas, I who’ll die,
or be encircled by Stygian waters.
Even now the rough skin is settling around
my ankles, and now above them I’ve become
a snow-white swan, and soft feathers are
emerging over my arms and shoulders.
Soon, a melodious bird, and more famous
than Icarus, Daedalus’ son, I’ll visit
Bosphorus’ loud shores, Gaetulian
Syrtes, and the Hyperborean plains.
Colchis will know me, so will the Scythians,
who pretend to show no fear of Italian
troops, and the Geloni: Spain will learn
from me, the expert, and those who drink Rhone.
No dirges at my insubstantial funeral,
no elegies, and no unseemly grieving:
suppress all the clamour, not for me
the superfluous honour of a tomb.
And here (for the truly hardcore) is the original Latin by Horace
Non usitata nec tenui ferar
penna biformis per liquidum aethera
uates neque in terris morabor
longius inuidiaque maior
urbis relinquam. Non ego pauperum
sanguis parentum, non ego quem uocas,
dilecte Maecenas, obibo
nec Stygia cohibebor unda.
Iam iam residunt cruribus asperae
pelles et album mutor in alitem 10
superne nascunturque leues
per digitos umerosque plumae.
Iam Daedaleo ocior Icaro
uisam gementis litora Bosphori
Syrtisque Gaetulas canorus
ales Hyperboreosque campos.
Me Colchus et qui dissimulat metum
Marsae cohortis Dacus et ultimi
noscent Geloni, me peritus
discet Hiber Rhodanique potor.
Absint inani funere neniae
luctusque turpes et querimoniae;
conpesce clamorem ac sepulcri
mitte superuacuos honores.
1. Maecenas was Horace’s patron.