The Dark Side of Horace: Black Care Pursues Him

“Post equitem” by Sir John Tenniel

I love Horace.  His elegant odes about love, wine, and nature are syntactically complicated but charming. Readers of his most widely anthologized odes may have the impression that the author of the  phrase carpe diem (“Seize the day, “Ode I.11 ) was mellow, jolly, and thoroughly congenial.

But Horace, a veteran of the civil war in 42 B.C., is often very dark.  Critics underplay his uniquely Roman attitudes in their introductions to translations for non-Latin readers.  The classicist David West wrote, “Those who know Horace well find that of all dead writers there is none who is a closer friend, who speaks more usefully in easy and in difficult times, and none whom they would more happily sit down to drink with.”

Much as I love Horace, I never regard him exactly as a friend. I feel closer to Catullus and Ovid, because they are very, very funny, lighter in tone, and less respectful of authority.  Horace’s experience is terrifying, and his philosophy is often harsh.  Although he describes the drowsy peace on his Sabine farm,  given him by his patron, Maecenas, there is always a sense that he is still fleeing the terror and trauma of the war.  Having fought on the wrong side of the war, he knows how to keep his head down.  And he knows it was necessary to pay constant homage to Augustus in his poems.   In  his odes, he praises Augustus unctuously (as did Virgil and Ovid, though Ovid got banished anyway).

It is better to be in the middle, Horace writes, than to be too rich or too poor.  In Ode III.XVI, he  personifies Cura (“Care”) and Fames (Greed) as figures who hunt down the rich.   He writes, “Care  and Greed pursue increasing wealth.   For that reason I have shaken with horror at the thought of raising my head too conspicuously high…  As a poor man, I seek the camp of those desiring nothing and want as a deserter to leave the party of the rich.”  In his description of his flight from Cura (“Care”), he uses military language:  “camp” (castra, a military camp) and “deserter” (profuga, often used to describe fleeing soldiers or deserters).

In the first of six gloomy harsh Roman Odes in Book III, Horace personifies Fear, Threats, and Care as forces that pursue the rich as well as the poor.  “But Fear and Threats climb to the same place as the master, nor does  Black Care (or Anxiety) leave the bronze-plated trireme, and it sits behind the horseman.”

We must translate not only the elegant Latin poetry (untranslatable:  the Latin rhythms and figures of speech and word order cannot be approximated) but ourselves to a place blitzed by decades of civil war, now ruled by a dictator with a soft hand but absolute power.  The times we live in are harsh,  and I finally understand Horace’s harsh descriptions of Black Care and Fear.  In the 21st century, as Black Care pursues so many, we, too,  drink our cheap wine, live simply, and quake at the thought of raising our heads too high.

Horace vs. Stephen King: Which is the Better Horror Writer?

Horace is rarely compared to Stephen King.  In fact, he is never compared to Stephen King.  I am the first to make the comparison.  And I don’t read Stephen King, because his books give me nightmares.

Although my “Truth in Wine” series of posts depicted Horace as an adorable oenophile who conversed with a wine jar, there are serious, even stern, facets to his character.  The six poems known as the Roman Odes (the first six odes of  Book III) are very disturbing. His descriptions of the wrath of Juppiter, Juno, and other gods are as blood-curdling as any passage in Stephen King. Yes, we are patriotic, but I am always disturbed by Horace’s famous line,  dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (Carmina III.2).  It gave me flashbacks to writers’ conferences where the war veterans submitted disturbingly violent short stories in which the teachers had to find positive elements to praise in order to support the men psychologically.  And of course Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet, wrote his own response to Horace in the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Wilfred Owen

  Here’s the dulce et decorum bit of Wilfred Owen’s poem
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Life was one long war in the first century B.C. in Rome.  Horace  had fought (on the wrong side) of the civil war between Octavian (later called Augustus) and Antony.  In his poetry, Horace alludes to the peace established by Augustus, who became a benign emperor, though never called that, in the wake of three civil wars.  Horace praises the cardinal virtues, the morals, and the old Roman religion:  Augustus wanted to reform the decadent society.   Some consider Horace’s Roman odes propaganda, but others point out the ambiguities that sometimes undercut the surface.

In Book III, Ode 6,  the dulce et decorum sentence is the crux of the fourth stanza,  which falls in the middle of Horace’s eight-stanza poem.  And the placement of the stanza emphasizes Horace’s  view of war and death.  Here is the entire stanza (the Latin below the English):

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit imbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.               15

It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.
Death chases even the man who flees
and does not spare the peace-loving youth:
it gets him in the back or the knees.

* “peace-loving” is often translated “cowardly”

Horace says that no one can escape war or death. They’ll get your back or knees if you turn away.    And does this knowledge of the inevitability of death make it easier for the survivors of war and the parents of the dead?  I am not a member of a military family.  I have never faced this situation. Would the Romans have found comfort in this philosophy?

Truth in Wine, Part 3: Horace’s Nature-and-Wine Cure

This is the third in the “Truth in Wine” (veritas in vino) series, inspired by reading ancient lyric poetry. The Greek and Roman poets, from Archilochus to Horace, wrote of the empyrean pleasures of drinking wine. And though I do not drink wine, which makes me very sleepy, Horace’s wine in moderation becomes a metaphor for tranquility in daily life.  His Epicurean odes encourage us to live in real time, rather than in our anxieties about the future.

If you worry, as I do, about politics, war, air pollution, the still-distant goal of equal pay for equal work, nuclear power, and the practice at staring at phones instead of the sky–in short, everything–Horace’s “Nature-and-wine cure” is the perfect remedy.  In this charming ode (Carmina II.XI), he tells his friend, Hirpanus Quinctus, to stop worrying about enemy tribes (the Cantabrian and the Scythian) and drink wine and sit under a tree.  So Happy Memorial Day weekend!  Once you get past the first difficult stanza, you will love the ode. And you can read my other posts on truth in wine here and here.   N.B.  “Quenching the cups of burning wine” refers to mixing the wine with water.

Here is my translation:

Horace, II.XI

Hirpanus Quinctus, stop worrying about what
the warlike Cantabrian or the Scythian are scheming:
the Adriatic sea separates the Scythian from Rome.
Don’t fret about the needs of life:

the demands are few. Smooth youth and grace
flee behind us when dry old
age drives away playful loves
and easy sleep.

The same charm of spring is not always
on the flowers, nor does the blushing moon
shine with one face. Why do you fret your
inconsequential mind with endless plans?

Why do we not loll carelessly
and drink under the tall plane or pine tree,
our white hair fragrant with roses,
and anointed with Syrian

balsam oil, while we may? Bacchus
drives away our gnawing cares. What boy will
more quickly quench the cups of burning Falernian
with flowing water?

Who will call the inconstant courtesan
Lyde from home? Bid her to come with
her ivory-decorated lyre, her disheveled hair bound
in a knot in the style of the Spartan.

Truth in Wine, Part II: Horace’s Ode to a Wine Jar

I do hope Livia (Sian Phillips) is drinking wine, not poison (I, Claudius)

Yesterday I posted a piece called “Truth in Wine?  On Not Drinking Wine & Reading Ancient Poetry.”  As promised, I am posting my literal translation of Horace’s “Ode to a Wine Jar,”  Book III.XXI.  And I have an extra  treat: John Conington’s translation, 1882.  Mine will give you the gist, while Conington provides the poetry.

FIRST TRANSLATION

“Ode to a Wine Jar  (Horace III.XXl, translated by Kat)

O born with me in the consulship of Manlius,
Whether you bear lamentations or jokes,
whether strife and insane loves,
Or easy sleep, O sacred wine jar,;

For whatever purpose you keep
Fine Massic wine, worthy of a festival,
Climb down from the storeroom when Corvinus orders
me to bring mellower wines.

Although austere Corvinus is
Steeped in Socratic conversations,
He does not neglect you:
It is said that often with unmixed wine
The virtue of Cato the Elder was warmed,

You bring a gentle compulsion
to generally unresponsive genius;
You take care of wisdom and reveal
arcane counsel while Lyaeus* jests (* Bacchus, the god of wine)

You bring back hope to anxious minds
And give strength and the horn* to the pauper (*the horn is a symbol of power and confidence)
who trembles neither at the angry crowns of kings
Or the weapons of soldiers, after you.

Bacchus and, if she is happy,Venus, will be there
and the Graces slow to loosen the knot
And burning lamps will shine
Until returning Phoebus routs the stars.

*******************************************

SECOND TRANSLATION

Horace’s “Ode to a Wine Jar,” translated by John Conington’, 1882

O born in Manlius’ year with me,
Whate’er you bring us, plaint or jest,
Or passion and wild revelry,
Or, like a gentle wine-jar, rest;
Howe’er men call your Massic juice,
Its broaching claims a festal day;
Come then; Corvinus bids produce
A mellower wine, and I obey.
Though steep’d in all Socratic lore
He will not slight you; do not fear.
They say old Cato o’er and o’er
With wine his honest heart would cheer.
Tough wits to your mild torture yield
Their treasures; you unlock the soul
Of wisdom and its stores conceal’d,
Arm’d with Lyaeus’ kind control.
‘Tis yours the drooping heart to heal;
Your strength uplifts the poor man’s horn;
Inspired by you, the soldier’s steel,
The monarch’s crown, he laughs to scorn,
Liber and Venus, wills she so,
And sister Graces, ne’er unknit,
And living lamps shall see you flow
Till stars before the sunrise flit.

Truth in Wine? On Not Drinking Wine & Reading Ancient Poetry

Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine & Roses

In vino veritas (there is truth in wine)

Is there truth in wine?

My first boyfriend was an alcoholic, and there wasn’t much truth in wine for him.  He did the things that alcoholics do:  he conducted his social life in bars, drank on the job, lost his job, passed out on lawns, fraternized with bar owners, and was warned by our doctor that he would die if he kept it up.

I left him, dear Reader, many years ago, but it did affect my attitude toward drinking. I avoided wine, because every night he downed bottle after bottle with friends who slurred their words as they deluded themselves about the possibility of sex with beautiful women, or laughed about wild parties where someone did something inbecilic, hence hilarious.  This drunken revelry was not for me: I  sat in the bedroom, doing homework and, on occasion, reading Zola’s L’Assommoir. 

So why do I love ancient poems about wine? Well, wine humanizes the poets, whether you drink wine or are a teetotaler: the ancients drank a lot of wine, and the lyric poets don’t seem falling-down-drunk types.  The  witty Catullus may have written the first comical “Bring Your Own Bottle” poem (a dinner invitation in which he tells a friend that he will dine well if he brings the dinner, wine, and wit).  And Horace wrote many poems about wine:  my favorite is his ode to a wine jar, in which he informs the jar of his appreciation “whether you bring lamentations or jokes, whether strife and insane love, or easy sleep.” And he adds that his serious philosophical friend Corvinus, though “steeped in Socratic dialogues,”  appreciates the fine Massic wine:  even Cato the Elder did!

In addition to Horace, I have been reading Harry Eyres’s light, charming, intelligent book Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet.  Though I didn’t go to Eton, and  enjoyed Horace at a university, Eyres and I have something in common.  Like me, he is returning to Horace after many years and is overjoyed by the discovery of the layers of meaning in each measured poem

Eyres is also a wine merchant’s son.  He writes,

You could say there is nothing more central to Horace’s poetry, and philosophy than wine… The centrality of wine often passes relatively unnoticed, or is overlooked because “it is just a convention” or because wine is surely not serious as a subject.

The prominence of wine in Horace’s poetry was not overlooked by me, for good and obvious reasons.  I was the son of a wine merchant; I grew up among bottles and boxes of the restorative fluid.  Wine was central to our family economy and to my father’s philosophy. Wine was also what drew me to Horace in the first place, what forged a connection I couldn’t miss.  Though there was much I couldn’t and didn’t understand about Horace, I immediately understood what he felt and expressed about wine, how he grasped wine’s deeper power even as he also relished different vintages and crus as a Roman connoisseur.

I also am very much enjoying Eyres’ translations of Horace.  They are not quite translations–rather, they are modern versions–in which he updates the classical references to, say, the war in Iraq, or, instead of using the Roman name Corvinus, he substitutes the common name Jim.   It’s a little strange at first, but effectivel Too often the literal English translation cannot be  understood without many looks at the Latin, and that wreaks havoc of the point of translation.

I will try to post one of my translations or one of Eyres’ translations in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Carpe diem! (Seize the day!) Nunc est bibendum. (“Now it must be drunk…”)

Look for poetry another day….

Ellie & Horace

There are many ways to interpret the life and work of Eleanor Winsor Leach (1937-2018), a classics professor at Indiana University.   I see her as a character in a modernist novel by Hermann Broch, not The Death of Virgil but The Death of a Virgil Scholar.

She was one of my professors.

In Bloomington, Indiana, where we all ran 10Ks and drank pints at Nick’s, I was a graduate student in classics.  I was there to read as much poetry as possible, so I took Ellie’s Horace seminar.  There was Ellie, an alumna of Bryn Mawr and Yale, teaching in the heart of Indiana, sitting with a group of silent graduate students, most from the Midwest and South. Ellie’s manners were impeccable, but she did not yet understand the culture.  Very few of us–dare I say none of us?–participated in the scholarly chats about Horace.  Once I spoke to fill a silence, and was teased about it.  “Well, could you have done better?” I learned to be silent, but I vigorously translated in class and parsed grammar and syntax.

Ellie was a kind soul.   She invited us to a dinner party (maybe more than one) at her house in the country.  It was a rickety one-story house, reminiscent of a converted chicken coop, and furnished with dusty books and old furniture, perhaps antiques.  She wanted us to feel at home, not just in her house but in the small classics department.  When I  received a high pass on the Ph.D. Latin exam, she congratulated me warmly.

She was still teaching at the age of 80.

Ave atque vale, Ellie.  (“Hail and farewell”–Catullus 101)

Horace and the Death of a Professor

Google is a two-edged sword.  Sometimes the news is good, other times it depresses us.  And when we learn a friend or colleague of the older generation has died, it is painful.

Eleanor Winsor Leach

I was saddened to learn that Eleanor Winsor Leach, a classics professor at Indiana University, died last winter at the age of 80.  She was a Virgilian scholar whose graceful writing took my breath away.  She kept teaching till the very end, a Ms. Chips of the 21st century.  According to the IU newspaper, students loved her parties on Horace’s birthday (Dec. 8), at which time they also decorated her Christmas tree.

I tried to find a poem to celebrate her life and was deep into Horace’s Ode 2.XIV before I realized it was inappropriate.  Horace’s attitude to death is not comforting, not what I wanted to read after learning about her death alone in her house, found six days after her death.  But here goes anyway:  it is a tribute to Leach’s generation that we are still reading the Roman poets.  Here is my  translation:

This ode is addressed to a man named Postumus.

Ah, Postumus,
the fleeting years glide by, and piety will
not delay wrinkles, or
old age, or indomitable death;

Not if you sacrifice
three hundred bulls a day, my friend,
to pitiless Pluto, the god who confined
three-bodied monster Geron and Tityon

with the Stygian wave, the water certain for us all
who enjoy the gifts of Earth;
the waters must be crossed, whether
we are kings or poor farmers.

In vain we will escape bloody war
and the crashing waves of the Adriatic;
in vain we will fear the illness the South wind
brings in autumn.

We must behold the black wandering river
Cocytus, and Danaus’s infamous daughters,
and Sisyphus condemned to long labor,

The earth and home and your
lovely wife must be left, and none of the trees
you fostered will follow their short-lived master
except the hated cypresses.

A “worthier” heir will drink the Cacuban wine
you locked up with a hundred keys, and he will
stain the floor with unmixed wine
superior to that served at the haughty
banquets of priests.