Alas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *
For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.
Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.
I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.
(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)
For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.
And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.
Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?
I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.
Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.
But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
The line in the first paragraph above is from the site Lost in Translation which gives us this whole first stanza:
Alas! Postumus, Postumus the swift years
slip away, nor does piety bring delay for
wrinkles and looming old age
and fierce death;
Even the name of the person Horace alleges to speak to – Postumus – is part of the poem’s emotion. Postumus as a name means “born after the father’s death” and also late or late-born, but other Roman writers linked it to old age and death. We get the word posthumous from it. Repeated, it helps create intensity and has an incantatory effect.
Samuel Johnson translated the opening thus:
Alas, dear Friend, the fleeting years
In everlasting Circles run,
In vain you spend your vows and prayers,
They roll, and ever will roll on.
Stephen Edward de Vere’s translation (The Everyman Complete Works of Horace, Modern Library, New York, 1936):
Alas, my Postumus, our years
Glide silently away. No tears,
No loving orisons repair
The wrinkled cheek, the whitening hair
That drop forgotten to the tomb.
And on Authorama it is translated into prose:
Alas! my Postumus, my Postumus, the fleeting years glide on; nor will piety cause any delay to wrinkles, and advancing old age, and insuperable death.
And by David Ferry (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1997), whose translations I generally like quite a lot:
How the years go by, alas how the years go by.
Behaving well can do nothing at all about it.
Wrinkles will come, old age will come, and death.
Indomitable. Nothing at all will work.
There’s a good commentary on this poem by James Rumford on his Horace et al blog, and he gives us this:
Oh hell, they are flying by, Postumus.
Postumus, the years are slipping away.
Doing right by the gods will not put off
the wrinkles, the old age, or even death
standing steadfast by.
This Ode is the last one referred to in the final chapter of Harry Eyres’ excellent book, Horace and Me (my review and comments here). Eyres translates the first stanza as:
Oh the years, the years just slide by, dear Postumus,
My friend, and no pious observance
Puts paid to wrinkles, or the advance
Of age, or to indomitable Death.
Thanks to Eyres and his writing about the poet, I’ve really put some effort into reading Horace of late, picking up several different translations to help be best appreciate his sentiments. I only wish he would put some effort into publishing a full translation of Horace, not leave us with the small handful he does offer up.
Compare this sentiment – not the wording itself, but the understanding behind them – to the famous 51st verse in the first Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat:
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
1st Translation: 51
Similar, I would say. The Rubaiyat remains one of my favourite poems – or rather, like the Odes, a collection of short poems on the same central themes that engaged Horace.
Adding to the similarity, Omar Khayyam refers to wine and drinking wine several times in his work, as does Horace, even in this ode. And I suppose that, like Horace, I enjoy my wines hence some empathy. In vino veritas, although that’s not a Horatian line, but rather a proverb older than he and referenced somewhat later by Pliny the Elder. Horace did write, however, “nunc vino pellite curas” which means “drive away your cares with wine” (Ode 1.7)**
Horace wrote his songs – the carminas, which we call the Odes today – more than two millennia ago. They were compiled over a period of eight to nine years. He finally published them in three books – scrolls copied and shared among friends; not quite in the same sense of publication we have today – in 23 BCE. He was 42 years old. His fourth book didn’t get released for another decade, and then only because the emperor Augustus encouraged him to do so.
Before he published the Odes, he also wrote a series of poems we call the Epodes and the Satires. After the first three books of Odes, he wrote his Epistles, and various other pieces, then his fourth book of Odes. His final piece seems to have been the Ars Poetica, a style guide on writing poetry circa 8-10 BCE. Ferry has also translated the Epistles, by the way and made them much more accessible (to my uneducated reading) than Rudd’s prose translation.
Horace died on Nov. 27, 8 BCE, at age 56. I read that like I read the modern obituary of any contemporary younger than I. Why so young? What took him from us when others – like me – plod along through the years? What could he have accomplished, what more could he have written, had he lived another decade, or more? I am drawn, when I consider the mortality of others to think on Hamlet’s words (Act 5, Sc. 1) on finding the skull of his late jester (after some sharp comments on the skulls of others they dig from the ground):
…I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…
Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Sentiments similarly voiced at the end of Ode 2.14.
The very worst, I suppose, that comes from having read Horace – and indeed I am still awaiting two additional translations from online booksellers – is that it gives me this excuse to ramble on in this manner. And I suspect over the next year or two, I will extend that excuse to comment further on additional poems as they strike me.
But as for mortality… of course I ponder it. All old men and women do. But if genetics are on my side, I have another 30 or more years left in me. Time enough to read more Horace, I suspect. And perhaps write about him anon.
* The actual first stanza reads in Latin:
Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,
labuntur anni nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti…
Alas, O Postumus, Postumus, the years glide swiftly by, nor will righteousness give pause to wrinkles, to advancing age, or Death invincible —
In which he translates pietas as righteousness, rather than piety, and I don’t agree they are synonymous. One can be righteous without being pious – the parable of the Good Samaritan makes that distinction clear. They are separated in the Qur’an, too as birr and taqwa. Righteous is “…the fulfillment of all legal and moral obligations.” Piety is about religious devotion. But the various Latin dictionaries often translate pietas as not only piety but also responsibility, sense of duty; loyalty; tenderness, goodness; pity, compassion, kindness, dutifulness, dutiful conduct, piety, devotion. So the translator has to decide which fits the context. Personally, having read the poem in several translations, I lean towards piety.
You often find “eheu fugaces labuntur anni” – Alas, the fleeting years glide swiftly by – quoted alone (as in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five) without reference to Horace. Eheu is often translated as “alas” but Eyres dedicated some thought to it as a “sigh more than a word.”
** Pliny the Elder also wrote, “in proverbium cessit, sapientiam vino adumbrari” which means, “it has passed into a proverb, that wisdom is overshadowed by wine.” The Babylonian Talmud states succinctly: wine in, secrets out. But, as Horace wrote in Ode 1.37: “Nunc est bibendum’ or, Now is the time for drinking.