''Horace'' has been translated before; in fact, the complete Odes have appeared more than 100 times in English. But previous translations were mostly for those who had learned Latin in school and should have been reading him, as T.S. Eliot would say without blushing, ''in the original.''
And one recalls Mr. Pappenhacker of the Twopence in Evelyn Waugh's ''Scoop.'' In his youth he had ''delighted'' in addressing his toy train in Latin Alcaics - Alcaics being one of the learned Greek meters that Horace Latinized. But the world of ''Scoop'' is no more.
Raffel's translation is in incorrigibly plain American English. It does not nod or bow or even snarl at the tradition of Horace in English. Nor does it echo Raffel's contemporaries. ''The Essential Horace'' is uncompromising in both its American independence and its American urgency about the importance of reading Horace. In a time when poets seem most interested in themselves and other contemporary poets, Raffel's translation of Horace comes as a shock.
It appears that Raffel had at some point decided that Horace could think, and had gone ahead to translate the major poems with that in mind. A gutsy, not to say foolhardy, decision - which one would be comfortable with only in a writer of modest talent. And from the title of this nicely produced Northpoint Press book down to the sometimes cheeky but brilliant essays byW. R. Johnson, a professor of Latin at the University of Chicago, one is left with no illusions as to the seriousness of this version of Horace's work.
Which is not to say that the impression one always had of the Roman poet as a genial, if not quite sober, chap is rudely dispelled. In this volume genial Horace and Horace the uncompromising poet fuse.
In the Satires, written before Horace was 30 while he worked as a government clerk, we are introduced to the Urbane Friend - a role developed with some care, since the author had fought on the wrong side at Philippi - i.e., for the idealist Brutus, not for Caesar's heir, and Horace's eventual patron, Octavian. In the last Satire of Book I, which Raffel chose to leave out for some reason, the poet criticizes his Roman predecessors for their complacence over matters of style and subject matter. The campaign is on. In the second book of Satires, Horace drops this role and speaks indirectly through fanatics of various persuasions; the results are often very funny. Raffel's translation of Satire II , 6 - the satire is famous for its version of the fable of the city and the country mouse - succeeds in making us feel Horace's bemused contempt for even the chaste epicurianism of that fable. It is all very instructive and fun at the same time.
The Satires were well received by the new regime; Horace was set up in a country estate. Freedom from the drudgery of his civil service post allowed him to concentrate on the Odes. Leisure was required for the task Horace set himself - nothing less than taking the best of Greek lyric and making it new in Latin. In one Ode he writes, ''And I, beloved by the Muses, . . . '' and it is clear from the origin of the word Muse that he means the same ones that occupied Alcaeus, Sappho, Pindar, and the rest of his Greek models. Horace had fulfilled his program, as set out in the Satires, to purify Latin poetry of its provincialisms. In doing so he achieved a flexibility and emotional verisimilitude equaled only perhaps by Montaigne. Raffel's translations of the Odes catch the varied moods, moods that change within poems, within stanzas, as in I,9: ''Stop wondering after tommorrow: take/ Day by day the days you're granted,/ Take love while you're young and you can,/ Laugh, dance.'' Here in the space of four lines we move from textbook moralizing to the rising energy of the dance floor.
When the poet offered the Odes in 22 BC, five years after Octavian had settled three decades of civil war by means of purges and proscriptions, the weary and perhaps suspicious public turned up its nose. Soon Horace had returned to the meter of the Satires and composed nonlyric poems enriched by his decade of service to the Greek muses. These philosophical epistles are known now for lines like these: ''Myself, I'd rather be silly, and dull, as long/ As my faults were pleasant (or at least invisible - to me): I hate/ A snarling writer.''
It is perhaps in these letters that Horace the artist and Horace the moralist become most one. Horace is, here, the Roman Henry James. But Raffel's book takes a startling turn with the last poem, ''The Art of Poetry.'' The translation explodes. Raffel turns himself loose. As a translator, he had been in the Odes at least faithful to the shape of the Latin poem as well as to its meaning. Now the unit is no longer the line of verse but the thought. There are anachronisms (''jangling drummers/ banging out Beethoven's Fifth'') and Steinian effects (''a clinker/ is a clinker/ is a clinker''). He even adds lines and images, playing with white space in the best modern tradition. It's pretty wild.
And he gets away with it. While messing with the surface, Raffel does not betray the inner form of the poem. In fact, his ''Art of Poetry'' is a revelation, an ars poetica for our time. Horace's poem, which meant so much to the great English lyric poets between Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvel, bears little resemblance to the image of congeniality that dominates the romantic and Victorian vision of Horace. There is such raw anger. And with good reason: ''I'm serious: good sense is everything, in art./ Plato is the best guide to the best poems of all:/ Words wag on the stick of substance.''
W. R. Johnson's comment in the afterword explains both the poetry of Horace and this translation by Burton Raffel: ''Freedom and discipline are more or less the same thing after you have learned to fly.''