George Buchanan was perhaps the finest Latin poet to write after the close of antiquity. I’ve discussed him previously here, here, and here.
One of his most-loved works in verse is his Poetic paraphrase of the Psalms of David (Psalmorum Davidis paraphrasis poetica), the first complete edition of which appeared in 1565/6, the first edition that carried Buchanan’s own imprimatur in 1571,1 and a modern edition of which, edited by Roger P.H. Green, was published in 2011.
In transforming the Psalms into classical Latin verse, Buchanan frequently makes recourse to the lyric style, diction, and imagery of the Roman poet Horace. Their visions are by no means always in harmony with each other; but, often, they are.
One place in which that harmony can be observed is in the treatment of the great equalizer, Death.
Psalm 49 makes much of Death’s leveling power, as it comes without prejudice to the foolish and the wise, the rich and the poor. Consider, for example, vv. 10-12 (ESV):
For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names. Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.
Buchanan, writing in Alcaic hendecasyllablics2, renders this passage as follows:
Mors aequa stultis et sapientibus
intentat arcum; per manet exitus
vitae hos et illos; occupat improbis
ignotus haeres parta laboribus.
Villae superbae delicias breves,
luxuque structas regifico domos
linquunt; sepulchrique irremeabilis
tenebricosis sub latebris iacent.
Death aims its bow equally at the stupid and the wise: a similar end awaits the one and the other. An unknown heir takes over what was acquired by relentless effort. They leave the shortlived delights of their proud mansion, and the houses constructed with regal luxury; and they lie in the shadowy darkness of the tomb from which there is no return. (Tr. Green 2000, modified)
There is a lot going on in this passage, and in Buchanan’s version of the Psalm in general. But one of those things is a very apposite allusion to Horace, Odes 1.4.13, as Green notes. Speaking of Death, Horace writes:
Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
Pale Death kicks with equal foot at the doors of paupers’ taverns
and kings’ towers.
The echo of the phrase helps to cast a Horatian pall over Buchanan’s poem; but he deploys the image to a very different purpose. Where Horace uses the leveling force of Death to enjoin Sestius, his addressee, to live for the moment (this is clear if you read the rest of the poem)–the carpe diem motif (cf. Green, 97, on a different poem)–Buchanan uses it to meditate on a future life, the quality of which will depend not on worldly riches, but on the wisdom manifested in this life by the worship of the true God. As he says later in the poem,
stultis senectus robora deteret,
pro sumptuosis bustum erit aedibus;
at me benignus de barathri cavo
specu remissum suscipiet deus.
Old age will wear down the stupid,
they’ll have the tomb instead of luxurious houses;
but God in his kindness will revive me, sent back to life,
from the hollow pit of the abyss. (Tr. mine)
The motif of Death the Leveler became standard in Western poetry. One of my favorite examples from the Christian strain of that tradition is Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (the inspiration, incidentally, for the title of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd):
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.
- See Roger P.H. Green, “Davidic psalm and Horatian ode: five poems of Georgy Buchanan,” Renaissance Studies 14 (2000): 91, 93.
- Thanks to Stephen Coombs for the correction; an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the poem was in the First Asclepiadean meter.