Aging Women in Horace & Bridget Jones

Horace loebToday, a perfect gray fall day for curling up with a good book, I read Horace’s Odes and Epodes and mused about the women in his poetry.

Horace dislikes older women, which is perhaps not unusual, though we don’t often read about it in poetry.

In the elegant, if angry, Ode I.XXV, Horace addresses an aging woman, Lydia.  He says that young men bang less often on her shutters than they once did; they no longer deprive her of sleep.  Does Lydia miss this, I wonder?   Now “the door loves the threshold, while before it often moved on its hinges.” That is a sexual metaphor in Latin poetry.  Whenever they talk about doors…

I wonder whether the windows and doors are really open for women today in the age of “hook-ups,” or whether choices are narrower and cause more anxiety.   In the late twentieth century men never banged on our windows, though they banged on the door sometimes. Once my boyfriend and I were sleeping when a strange man turned on the light.  Oh, sorry, he was looking for my roommate.

My roommate was really more the Lydia type than I. Men might have serenaded her, as the young men do in Horace’s Lydia poem, in the days before the Pill, if we had been adults then;  I was as far from Lydia as one could get, the type who hung out at the coffeehouse, chatted nonstop, sat through Days of Heaven again and again, and went jogging.   One day my roommate informed me that I “owed” her and must attend a champagne breakfast and go out on a boat with her and two of her men friends.

This spawned my famous dating advice, “Don’t get on the boat.”  Once you are on the boat, you are likely to be bored for hours, because there you are, with nothing to do but drink beer…  The champagne is gone.  You have little in common with the guys.  Sure, they are nice, and I appreciate the invitation, but…

Horace doesn’t give dating advice.  He complains instead about impotence with older women.  I would now, according to his calculations, be an older woman,  because I am  older than Lydia, who might not have lived to be very old back in Rome of the first century B.C.

In Epode XII, an early, rude poem, he complains about a woman’s wrinkles and smell.  This is David West’s translation.

The sweat and nasty smell get worse all over
her wrinkled body, as my penis droops
and raging passion cools
and all the while the powdered chalk
and crocodile shit run on her face as she ruts away…

And one can see why we didn’t read Horace’s early poems, the Epodes, in grad school.  About one-third of us were women, and we would have been terribly offended.  I am not shocked by poetry nowadays.   One can see the greatness of his poem about Lydia, the second-rate-ness of the Epode.  Did one come from the other?

And in Epode II, he again is impotent, and again complains.

You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut,
what makes me impotent?
And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced
in age that wrinkles plough your forehead,
your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s
between your wizened buttocks.

Not quite the gorgeous language one would expect in poetry.

Ode I.XIII is another graceful poem about Lydia, or at least a Lydia (I’m not sure if it’s the same one, and I have no reference books about Horace).  Again, what a difference between the Odes and the Epodes.  The following literal translation is my own, and captures the shortness of the lines, though certainly not the grace.

When you, Lydia, praise Telephus’
rosy neck, Telephus’ wax-
white arms, oh, my
liver swells with angry passion.

And something else perhaps swells too.  That is the way Roman poetry works.  That is what the word tumet (swells) implies.  Catullus, Horace, and Ovid used it, as critics tell us.  The poets were  risqué.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting, quiet day of Latin, not answering the phone, and considering the way women live now and the way we don’t.

N.B. Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy is being trashed online by both men and women, partly a copycat effect, I think.  Bridget is condemned for being an older woman with a sex life.  This charming novel, which should be passed around instead of reviewed, is making me laugh out loud.

What do you think of views of aging women in our times?

4 thoughts on “Aging Women in Horace & Bridget Jones

  1. Horace — the good Horace and the not-so-good Horace — is outside my experience. He is a character in John Williams’ novel Augustus where he seems to be ok, but no examples are given of his poetry.

    About the boat. No, never get in the boat unless you are operating the thing. I learned that with my first husband. He would promise “just two hours” of fishing. Then, when we didn’t catch anything (usual), we would stay and stay and stay. My children learned also to avoid that boat.

    I am a generation older than you so appreciate the problem older women have. They are not allowed to relax and enjoy sex or cheerfully say goodbye to it, depending on their hormones and dispositions. No, they must be responsible for whatever difficulties men are having in that area.What makes Horace think that sagging male bodies (including drooping penises) continue to be attractive to women of any age!


  2. Nancy, I am old enough to be an older woman. Poor Bridget Jones is only 51!

    Yes, I’m sure Horace was a good person, but these early poems are disgusting. Yes, the bodies change for men and for women, but of course we always hear that they age better than we do. Perhaps their hormones don’t change as much, though they do change eventually.

    And certainly I choose to be gray or white-haired; I’m not quite sure which it is; because I’m afraid any other color would look strange with my weathered face. That is fine nowadays to be gray, but it is a choice I might not be able to make under other circumstances.

    Even in the Odes to Lydia Horace fulminates though at least holds back a little.

    Other Roman poets do this kind of thing, too. So many of Horace’s poems are beautiful, but I can just imagine being at one of Horace’s poetry readings and feeling horrified by poems like these.


  3. I too choose to be gray/white despite the fact that I could probably look a look younger if I went back to hair dye – but I don’t, because I am what I am. Horace was a rude man, and probably just as repulsive to the older ladies as they were to him. If there is love between older people then the body stuff is ok. Trouble is, nowadays we’re all expected to go to the gym, have surgery and botox and try to look like we’re 20 years younger. Why? The people I’ve seen who do that look stupid. Frankly, I have enough trouble with my hormones without worrying about the way I look……


  4. Karen, I agree! It is extremely difficult to look young when one is middle-aged or old, (not quite sure when “old” starts: it looks farther away the older I get:)), and I can’t help but think Botox, etc., is bad for people. Yes, I’m sure Horace looked no better than the women! I try to avoid mirrors because I FEEL unchanged. Health is the thing!


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