LYRIC COMPANION Horace “Carpe Diem”

You shouldn’t try to find out—it’s wrong to know—what end the gods / have in store for me or for you, Leuconoe, and you shouldn’t tinker / with Babylonian astrology. Better just to bear what will be, / whether Jupiter has assigned us many more winters or this is the last // that wears out the Tyrrhenian Sea on the eroding cliffs. / Wise up, strain the wine, and since life is short, cut back / on long hopes. While we are speaking, envious Time is slipping / away. Seize the day, with minimum trust in tomorrow.

Horace Ode I.11, translated by Stanley Lombardo, “Horace Odes & Carmen Saeculare,” Hackett Publishing Co. 2018

FRAME of REFERENCE “…one has to be released from will to power into a different willing of life and its good. . . . The great religions did not always live the purgatory of their own will to power. . . . One of the religious lessons of secularization is that the distinction of politics and religion can enable us to see the difference of this purer service that must wander in the midst of the political powers and their deserts. “ William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 59.

Like many I read Horace in high school Latin class and some of the poems have been companions ever since. Indeed, “Horace” has paid the price of becoming commonplace in “Western” culture, a cliche like “carpe diem.” As my interest in lyric surged after my wife’s death, Horace became a personal companion yet again.

Horace’s odes are hard to translate. Much of their appeal is musical. The concepts rooted in Greek religion have lost their immediacy. His mode, as here, is often dialogical, and the reader must play her part. Modern readers with refined secular sensibilities may find that uncomfortable.

His mastery of the lyric narrative made Horace perhaps the most important bridge between the Greek lyric—from Sappho to Pindar—to his age, then to posterity. The abrupt opening here is a case in point. It economically sets the situation, both professional and intimate. It charges the mood of the poem with the values of friendship even as the ranking of the household is maintained. The moral lessons are part of the general wisdom of mankind, and some readers may yawn (including the servant girl).

Horace uses the heart-charging techniques of image and enjambment to maintain and heighten the attention of the addressee and reader. One subtle lyric technique is the blending of the reader/audience into the dialogical situation. The severity, touched with avuncular kindness, of the advice given at the close comes through in Lombardo’s translation. Short syllables emphatically convey the speaker’s urgency. Above all, Horace gets the condition within the judgement (in Hill’s phrase). We feel the difference in age between the speaker and the perhaps adolescent auditor (doubled in highschool transmission?) and GET how that relationship colors the whole poem. Realism replaces idealism in Horace, another good reason to read him, er, religiously.

The image of the universal impermanence that shines in the names and functions of Horace’s pantheon is elemental and transcends the particularities of the cult. Because of its brevity and rhetorical compactness, lyric communicates values often forgotten in times like these.

%d bloggers like this: