Horace and him. And maybe me, too.


Horace and MeHorace and Me, subtitled Life lessons from an Ancient Poet, is a recent book by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013) about his efforts to connect the dots of his modern life to meaning via the ancient circuitry of a classical Latin poet. It attracted me because these past few years I have been reading such classics – albeit without the classical education or Latin learning of Eyres and other writers who have recently returned to the Latin and Greek authors. Any help I can get along the way is welcome.

Horace – more properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus – was a Roman poet (among other things) who lived 65-8 BCE – during Rome’s turbulent transition from republic to imperium when Julius Caesar rose to power, was assassinated, and the civil war that saw Octavius emerge victorious and become the emperor Augustus. Horace wrote several books including the more famous Odes and Epodes, and two books of satires. His reputation has fluctuated through the millennia, from adoration to dismissal (Byron wrote “…farewell, Horace, whom I hated so….”)

He seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival of appreciation these days.

Horace as a guide to modern life? Why not? We can find meaning in anything if we look hard enough. Robert Pirsig offered something similar, more than 40 years ago, when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The notion that within the microcosm lie all the answers to the questions of the macrocosm. A tea ceremony. A chalice and wafer. Our lives are filled with such symbolism.

My own journey involves weaving my yet rather thin strand of appreciation of classical philosophy – in particular the Stoics to whom I seem to gravitate more – into my tattered cloth of understanding life and What Really Matters. Most of my reading has not been terribly focused all of the time. In time, I trust, that meagre thread will be stronger, tougher.

Before Eyres, I had only modest, glancing association with Horace and other Latin poets. Looking through my bookshelves, I found only one collection of his works, a 1960 translation by Clancy I have only ever browsed in a desultory fashion. A few individual poems of his are found in anthologies I occasionally still read. But I’d not given him serious consideration (I have remedied my collection somewhat by ordering some additional books of his poetry, but they are not yet arrived).

I have a longstanding affection for poets in general, and constantly am moved by the depth and beauty I find in them. I continue to buy and read books of poetry (most recently Neruda, Dickinson and Yeats). But like Herodotus and Xenophon, both of whom I am currently reading, a classical author requires footnotes and annotation, something to explain the associations and references to a layperson. Without them, Horace is murky, even opaque at times. Or better yet, I need a Virgil like Eyres to walk with me through the canon.

Most readers will know the phrase ‘carpe diem‘ – seize the day, made famous in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. It comes from a poem by Horace (Ode 1, number 11):*

Leuconoë, don’t ask, we never know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.

Which on the Wikipedia page is translated thus:

Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.

And in my Clancy (University of Chicago press) translation:

Don’t ask, Leuconoë, the forbidden question, how long
the gods have given to you and to me: don’t imagine
fortunetellers know. Better to take what is coming,
whether Iuppiter allows us more winters, or this that now
wearies the Etruscan sea as it beats on the cliffs
is the last. Be sensible: strain the wine: in a little life,
take no long looks ahead. As we talk, time spites us
and runs: pluck today: save no hopes for tomorrow

And here’s one from a blog called Lost in Translation:

You should not seek – to know is a sin – which end (of life)
the gods have given to me, which end to you, Leuconoe, nor
should you test Babylonian numbers. How much better to suffer
whatever will be, whether Jupiter assigns many winters, or the last (day),
which now the Tyrrhenum sea weakens with the opposite
pumice (stones). Be wise, strain the wine, and cut back hope
for a long life in a short time. While we talk, envious time will
flee: seize the day, trusting as little as possible to the future.

Niall Rudd, whose recent translations of the Odes and Epodes I have just ordered, does it thus:

Do not inquire (we are not allowed to know) what end the gods have assigned to you and what to me, Leuconoe, and do not meddle with Babylonian horoscopes. How much better to endure whatever it proves to be, whether Jupiter has granted us more winters, or this is the last that now wears out the Etruscan Sea against cliffs of pumice. Take my advice, strain the wine and cut back far-reaching hopes to within a small space. As we talk, grudging time will have run on. Take the fruit of today, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

On Latin in Translation it comes up:

Let you not have asked–it is bad to know!–what end to me, what to you,
The gods have given, Leucippe, lest you may have tried the Babylonian
Calculations. How much better whatever will be is to be endured,
Whether Jove has assigned many winters or one final,
Which now softens the Tyrrhenian sea upon rocky shores:
Be wise, strain wines, and cut short far-reaching hopes, for the
Short space of life. As long as we speak, a grudging lifetime will
Be gone: enjoy today, with tomorrow trusted as little as possible.

A. Z.Foreman’s translation:

Don’t ask (we’re not to know) what end, Cassandra,
the gods intend for you, for me; nor squander
your mind with horoscopes. Do better: let
what will be, be. Jove may grant winters yet
or deem this year’s your last that wears the wide
Tyrrhenian sea out on the brawny side
of cliffs. Be wise: have wine and prune the bough
of long hopes to short minutes. Even now
as we speak here, devouring time speeds on.
Harvest this day and take no stock in dawn.

And on the Poetry Foundation:

Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate,
Not you, not me: don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
More, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
And forget about hope. Time goes running, even
As we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.

And by Canadian professor Jack Mitchell:

Don’t ask – for it’s a kind of sin to know –
What doom the gods on each of us bestow,
Leuconoe; don’t try the ouija boards;
Better to take whatever Fate affords;
Whether great Jove shall grant us many winters
Or just this winter only, which now splinters
Tyrrhenan seas upon the jutting rock:
Instead be wise, the cellar’s wines unlock,
Cut back fat hope to fit this little space;
For even as we’re talking, there’s a race
With Time we’re losing; seize today
And trust tomorrow no more than you may.

Steven Willett’s translation:

Stop these efforts to learn—knowing is banned—what will be my, and your,
final god-given end, Leuconoe, cease Babylonian
divination by stars. Better by far: all that will come, endure!
Whether Jupiter grants many a long winter, or this our last,
which now tires, against pumice-strewn shores lying below us, that
vast Tyrrhenian Sea. Learn to be wise, strain out the wine, and prune
lavish hopes to the quick. While we converse, envious time will have
vanished: harvest Today, placing the least credence on what’s to come.

One simple phrase- carpe diem – is variously translated as seize the day, seize the present, seize today, pluck today, take the present, take the fruit of today, harvest today, enjoy today, harvest the day. So yes, the translation makes a huge difference to the result. There’s a huge difference in emotion and direction between seize and pluck, between seize and enjoy. Seize has energy, vitality, a command; pluck and enjoy are laid back. Which did the poet mean?

Like me, you can understand the basic notion of taking enjoyment from life’s short passage and not worrying about what little time we’re granted. Who Leuconoe (Leucon, Leucippe and even Cassandra) is, isn’t clear, but it seems a Greek nickname that means “Empty Head.” Affectionate or condescending?

Those Babylonian seers refers to astrologers (horoscopes); Jove and Jupiter are the same god, just different names for the hairy thunderer of the sky. The Tyrrhenian Sea, is off the west coast of Italy; there is no Tuscan or Etruscan sea (today), but there is a Tuscan Archipelago northwest of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The translations vary significantly and such details – even minor ones – can affect the reader’s understanding and appreciation quite differently and significantly. Hence my need for annotation, as well as to read multiple versions for comparison.

Eyres translates in his own voice: he translates carpe diem as “taste the day” and Leuconoe oddly becomes “Prudence” as in the Beatles’ song. His take on Horace is more liberal-modern and even eccentric than most I’ve so far read. That’s not bad, but it does colour the result in a particular way.

Whether Eyres is the most suitable guide is not the question. I’m not a scholar, merely an autodidact: the academic studies and commentaries are often beyond my depth and learning. I need someone who writes for the attentive layperson like me.

In his opening, Eyres writes:

For a long time now, no one sophisticated has taken … the archaic virtues of frugality and simplicity particularly seriously. God has been turned into money… Growing affluence appears to breed only an insatiable hunger for more, a desolate sense of something always lacking.

I suppose that’s a common enough perspective, and I recently wrote about the grindingly selfish “bucket list” that so many people pursue in order to fulfill their otherwise meaningless lives. Horace – indeed no one writing 2,000 or so years ago – doesn’t have the answers, but maybe he has some empathy, can shine a light where I couldn’t see. After all, if anything my reading the classics has taught me that most of our questions, our problems, our issues are still essentially the same, generations and even millennia apart.

And it’s not just an analysis or review of Horace: Eyres has written a personal memoir-travelogue-commentary on his own life, on modern affairs and how Horace dovetails with his own existence.

Philip Womack, reviewing the book in The Telegraph, was cautiously laudatory:

Eyres displays a beautiful, serene understanding of the nuances of Horace and of life. Where this memoir falls a little short is the vein of self-aggrandisement that runs through it with regard to Eyres’s personal relationship with Horace: he seems, rather unwisely, to want to cast himself as a latter-day incarnation of the poet. Yet the connections he finds are often tenuous. What’s more, Eyres’s translations, scattered through the book, don’t quite sing off the page.
That, though, can be forgiven. This is an empathetic treatment of both a poet and a life. And it makes the reader want to pluck down a copy of Horace from the shelves, and savour its delights.

Peter Conrad, in his review in The Guardian, was far less impressed, calling the book “…laced with sentiment and snobbery”. He added:

Horace and Me is a little like Withnail & I for toffs, not thesps, with the love that dare not speak its name adopting the respectable cover of a dead language… it’s hard to judge the claims Eyres makes for the Latin poems, because our access to them is through his own slangy translations, which brashly wrench Horace into contemporary relevance… It’s all desperately sincere, but Eyres’s emotive testimony can get mawkish… When not blubbing, Eyres is mostly wine-bibbing, since one of the life lessons he has absorbed from Horace has to do with the spiritual advantages of mild intoxication. Socially, however, Harry and Horry are in this department an awkward fit.

Awkward to him, but not to me, since I don’t share the same haughty cultural or social platforms from which Eyres writes and Conrad criticizes, so the comments seem less snobbish than explanatory. I want contemporary relevance, not just the ossified words on a marble tombstone. As for wine imbibing: well, that just gives me common ground with the author (although mine is more likely homemade plonk). And since when was an autobiography any less than self-congratulatory?

I like the writing style. It’s easy, breezy and a little jocular. I never feel I’m being lectured. But I do agree that Eyres’ translations are somewhat odd at times, at least in comparison with some of the more literal ones I’ve read. That just makes me want to seek out other versions for comparisons. Which in turn further opens my eyes.

All in all, it just makes a more interesting and more personal learning experience. And after all, that’s what it boils down to: we continue to learn, to explore, to add to our understanding until the end of our days. When we stop doing so, when we stop learning we start dying. The world is already full of dead people, people whose fixed and immutable ideologies chain them to their own small patch of intellectual ground. I don’t want to be one of them.

I’m not looking for the deep academic explanations or the strictly literal. In medieval times, writers penned “mirrors for princes” – books of rules and moral tales to guide their rulers: how to behave, how to be just, how to be good. I suppose today they’d write titles like “Classical Wisdom for Dummies.”

That’s what I need. I find myself searching through modern titles for a suitable “mirror for dunderheads” to help me over the lumps and bumps on the road of my lacking education. I need a guide to help me, as a novice, understand and appreciate the schools of philosophy and the classical writers. I’m soaking in as many podcasts on the subjects as I can, but a good book still beats all. After all, I can read it at bedtime in the quiet luxury of the day’s end and share it with others who might appreciate its message.

Horace and Me seems to fit that bill quite comfortably.

* The Latin Library shows this in its original as:

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

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  1. Reading Rudd’s translation of the Odes and Epodes (Loeb Classical Library, 2004) provides an interesting insight: he doesn’t translate the poems into verse, but rather into prose (unlike my Clancy translation). I didn’t think I’d like that, but it works very well. I only wish he offered more fulsome annotations to explain the references (people, places, wines, gods, and so on).

    I’ve ordered a couple of additional translations for comparison, however, including Horace’s Epistles and Satires. One thing I like about the Loeb is that it includes the Latin text as well. Not that I can read it beyond some familiar words, but it helps me understand how Horace laid out his poetry. Maybe it will spur me back to learning Latin.

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