Back to Horace


During the pandemic lockdowns, I heard a lot of people bemoan their inability to travel; on vacation, to visit relatives, to shop, or just to get out of their homes and see new places. People felt isolated, some went stir-crazy. We are a not merely a culture easily bored with staying in one place: our entire species has wanderlust.

Two millennia ago, the poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus — aka Horace — wrote a letter (Epistle I.XI) to his peripatetic friend, Bullatius, a man who travelled the known world looking for contentment. Horace chided him, saying,

You can change the colour of the sky not the colour of your mind/By jetting over oceans; a sort of busy idleness wears us out./We think the best way to live is to buy a yacht or an SUV. (Trans. Harry Eyres).

Eyres (author of Horace and Me, reviewed in 2016) is fond of modernizing his Horace, who never once mentioned jet-setting or SUVs in his poems. But for today’s audience, this small conceit works well. Many of us do believe that money can buy happiness. And we are bombarded by advertisements that suggest owning more and more and more can also make us happier.

This piece of the Ode has also been translated as:

He only changes his scene, he doesn’t change/His mind, who rushes to go abroad. How many/Are busy going elsewhere getting nowhere. (Trans. David Ferry)*

And as

It is their climate, not their mind, that men change when they rush across the sea. A busy idleness harasses us; with ships and four-horse chariots we seek to live well. (Trans. John Davie).

And again, in a more modern phrasing:

Emigrants only change their scenery, not their outlook./We are worn out by the strain of doing nothing; we search for the good life with yachts and cars. (Trans. Niall Rudd).

And from Poetry in Translation:

Those who rush to sea gain a change of sky not themselves./Restless idleness occupies us: in yachts and chariots/We seek the good life. (Trans. A.S. Kline)

You get the drift. Horace is advising his friend that happiness can be found within, wherever you are, not through travel, not through material goods. It’s a Buddhist-like sentiment (although Horace would have fitted more closely with the Stoics). Wikipedia titles this epistle “On Contentment,” although Horace himself never gave his pieces titles. A commentary on the letter from Oberlin College notes,

It is ultimately a question of one’s mindset/ratio and not the environment that determines how happy or blessed we truly are. Fortune may smile or frown on us, we may reside in Rome or a backwater town, but our attitude is our own.

Horace ends by telling his friend he can find contentment if he has a well-balanced mind (also translated as a healthy attitude) wherever he is. And in Ode III.I, he wrote similarly:

And he for whom enough is enough will never/Be troubled by raging sea/Nor by bad weather… (trans.  David Ferry)

It’s a tough sentiment, though, for our consumer-obsessed society to swallow. Be content where you are with what you have is certainly NOT the message we’re being sent by the relentlessly greedy billionaires and CEOs, by the endless stream of ads on social media, or by the box stores stacking Xmas ornaments and gifts on shelves before Halloween has even arrived.

I recently started re-reading Horace (and re-reading Eyres’ book about him), a poet I have long admired, shortly after my last post about Robert Frost. I have written about Horace in the past and keep finding in him a source of both inspiration and empathy. He also offers up the sort of bon mot epigram that I sometimes put on social media in a shareable meme. For example, I came across this line in Rudd’s translation of the Odes, Book I, XXVIII:

But one night waits for all and the road of death is to be tread only once.**

Horace might have known the works of Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher whose writing only survives in fragments today. But many today are aware that Heraclitus wrote “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” Horace’s words seem to echo that sense of impermanence.

Horace had many things to say about death and impermanence. At the end of his third book of Odes (also called Carmina, or songs) III.XXX, he wrote that his poetry would outlast him, outlast even bronze (suggesting statues), even longer than the pyramids. And through his poetry, he would achieve some sort of immortality:

I shall not wholly die, and a large part of me will elude the Goddess of Death. (trans. Niall Rudd)

And, of course, there is his famous Ode II.XIV, which begins, Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume. Easily my favourite of all his works:

Ah, Postumus, Postumus, the fleeting years slip by… (trans. Niall Rudd)

And who can forget that memorable phrase, “carpe diem” — often translated as seize or pluck the day — from Ode I.XI (“carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” or, literally, “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.”). That sentiment is repeated in Ode II.III, which Rudd titles as “Enjoy the fleeting hour!” and in which he ends:

We are all driven to the same pen; for all alike is the lot shaken in the urn; sooner or later, out it will come, and put us aboard the skiff for eternal exile.

Perhaps a bit gloomy, I admit. Ferry ends it thus:

…and so we are chosen to take/Our place in that dark boat,/In that dark boat, that bears us all away/From here to where no one comes back from ever.

And yet despite his memento mori words, Horace is ever realistic and joyful in the present. He encourages us to appreciate what we have, now, because inevitably it ends for all of us. Drink that Falernian wine you’ve been saving now, he says in that same Ode, because if you don’t, it will just end up being passed along to your heirs to enjoy.

I often find something pithy in one translation, then search through my other translations to see how others have composed it in English. As you can see from the few examples above, there are many ways to express Horace’s words in our language. Horace is difficult to translate. As J. Kate wrote in the Harvard Review in a piece titled Getting Horace Across: “It is generally acknowledged that his poetry is about as untranslatable as you can get. Therefore, in the perversity of human endeavor, Horace is probably the most translated poet in the Western world…” He adds:

The flexibility and fluidity of Latin word order was exploited by writers of both prose and verse, but perhaps by none with such versatility as Horace….Far from being untranslatable, Horace’s poetry is almost infinitely translatable.

Which is why I tend to get several editions to compare: no single volume or sole translator satisfies entirely (although, overall, I tend to appreciate Rudd’s efforts more than that of some others). I prefer to cross-reference translations where possible, to get the fullest sense of the poet’s intent.

So I turn again to the comfort of that long-dead poet on this rainy, cool fall day. A cup of tea, a comfortable chair, and a book or two of Horace’s poems shall sustain me this afternoon.

* Latin: “Strenua nos exercet inertia: navibus atque quadrigis petimus bene vivere.” From Tuft’s classical library.

** Latin: “Sed omnis una manet nox et calcanda semel via leti.” From the Loeb bilingual edition of the Odes and Epodes.

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