We Could All Use Horace’s Letter of Recommendation!

Have you ever spent a day reading Jane Austen and Horace?  It is a strange conjunction.

If you are more like Emma (Emma) than the modest Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), you will enjoy Horace’s witty letter of recommendation written in the form of a poem. If Emma had known Horace, she would have pasted it in her album.  She also would have persuaded herself it was  a love letter to her friend Harriet, for whom she was shamelessly trying to find a husband.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if Horace was heterosexual.

Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton (or do I mean Horace?)

Fanny would have found something improper about Horace’s letter.  God knows what, but that’s the way Fanny is.

You may know Horace for his famous odes, but he also wrote two books of Epistulae (Letters).  Epistula I.lX is a charming letter of recommendation for Septimius, who shamelessly bullied him until he wrote it.  Sometimes I love Horace, sometimes he is smarmy, but here  he is very smooth and funny-I can only imagine that Septimius got the job.

 Nobody reads Horace in English, because the Latin is concise and the English, alas, requires many, many, many more words. Here is my wordy English translation.

Dear Tiberius,  Septimius is the only one who understands

how much you think of me.  When he urges me

to praise and introduce him as a man worthy

of your intellect and honorable family,

he discerns and knows what I can do better for him

by the enjoyment of the  gift of being a closer friend.

Indeed, I have said many things to excuse myself

but I feared I would be thought to have pretended

 less power than I have, hiding the favorable assistance

I could give.

And so, to flee the reproaches of a greater fault,

I have stooped to the networking of bold men.

If you approve of the modesty set aside because of a friend’s request,

enroll this man in your company and trust that he is good and brave.

Carpe Diem! The Politics of Reading Horace

Horace
Horace and a Latin dictionary held together by duct tape.

“What do you make of it?” a thoughtful but nervous professor asked during a graduate Horace seminar.

This was, in my view, an odd question.  Did he know Horace’s odes?  Or was this a new approach to teaching?  Later, when I read his criticism, I was moved by his elegant prose and the depth of his knowledge of Roman poets. I truly think this kind-hearted professor was trying to create an atmosphere conducive to an experimental age. 

It was a time that had flipped everyone upside down. The anti-war protests were over and buildings were no longer seized by students demanding the cessation of funding from the military-industrial complex, but fulminations against “irrelevance” continued to hit enrollment in the liberal arts.  Students fulfilled their two-year language requirement with Latin, then disappeared.  When I was a T.A., some protested that the Latin sentences in Wheelock (the first-year textbook) were hawkish and sexist.  I countered by bringing in love poems by Catullus and Ovid.  And in my upper-level classes, both at the university and later when I taught high school, I taught poetry instead of prose. But Horace was too complex for all but the best students.

odes horace modern libraryHorace is perhaps the most challenging of Latin poets.  In retrospect, it is easiest to cozy up to Horace for coining phrases like carpe diem (seize the day) and aurea mediocitas (the golden mean). We prefer the love and nature poems to the political odes.  Certainly Horace’s political odes, which often celebrate the achievements of Augustus, are so steeped in history and politics that they may exasperate, even seem alien, on a first reading. After years of reading widely in Latin literature, we understand the trauma of the civil wars that tore Rome apart for most of the first century B.C., until Octavian (later known as Augustus) defeated Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and  became Princeps (“Chief Citizen,” though he was actually emperor). Some readers accuse Horace of brown-nosing to Augustus, but I believe he genuinely admired him.   Of course flattery was necessary and writers learned to tread lightly. The poet Ovid was banished to an island for carmen et error (a poem and an error). Horace made no such error.

It was the “personal” poems of Horace that most appealed on a first reading. And we were delighted by Horace’s advice to relax with wine rather than worry about the future.  (We worried about the future all the time.) Alas, the cheap Chablis we bought at the grocery store was barely potable. Still, we understood the symbolism of wine. And here is my translation of two charming stanzas about wine from Horace’s Ode II.X. (You can read the whole translation at my blog Mirabile Dictu.)

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?

Horace’s references to wine have fascinated generations of critics.  Harry Eyres, author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet, the son of a wine merchant, ponders these allusions at length.  Though he does not agree with Boris Johnson that Horace was “a wine snob,” he admires Horace’s knowledge of wine.  Eyres writes,

I think Horace was more than a wine snob; he was a true connoisseur, who knew and cared about wine’s intimate secrets, the different crus and vintages, which mattered as much to the Romans as they do to us….  He was a wine lover, who saw beyond wine as a status symbol to the divine power of wine as a consoler and inspirer of humanity.

ship of state horaceHorace was a master of adapting Greek meters to Latin poetry, translations and adaptations of Greek lyric poetry into Latin verse, and creating an elegant web of syntax that must be unraveled with a spider-architect’s care.  Rex Warner, a classicist and translator, wrote that Horace inspired “enduring affection” in readers but he added,  “This is not to say, however, that he is an easy poet for everyone.  I should suggest too that he, or rather his readers, have often suffered from a too ready acceptance of one or more rather prevalent misconceptions of his aims, his character, and his methods.” 

Carpe diem, open a bottle of cheap wine, and enjoy the odes.

A Little-Known Colette Novel and a Famous Ode of Horace

I like to read eclectically.  This weekend I read Colette’s short novel, The Other One, and Horace’s Ode I.Xl,  which urges us to live in the present and carpe diem (seize the day).  

I know perfectly well that you will all prefer reading about Colette, so I’ll start with that.  But I also tacked on my  prose translation of the ode at the bottom of the post.  

The Other One, one of Colette’s lesser-known books, is included in a 1951 omnibus, Short Novels of Colette, which has a 57-page introduction by the novelist Glenway Westcott.  Westcott’s introduction is the liveliest essay I’ve read on Colette,  just as wonderful as Judith Thurman’s biography.

Westcott declares Colette “the greatest living” French writer. (She died in 1954.)  He writes, “I know that in critical prose, as a rule, the effect of the superlative, greatest, is just emotional…. Greater than Mauriac?  Greater than Martin du Gard, Jules Romain, Montherlant, Sartre?  Yes, of course.  But I have not had the zeal to read or re-read that entire bookshelf for the present purpose; nor do I imagine that the reader wants any such thorough and fanatic work.  Let me not pretend to be able to prove anything.  Let me peaceably point to… Colette’s merits, here and there in her work.”

The heroine of The Other One is the intelligent, sensual, lazy Fanny, who has been married for 12 years to Farou, a well-known playwright.  The novel appropriately unfolds rather like a play, characterized by pitch-perfect dialogue, vivid women’s chit-chat, and reactions to a letter.  The letter triggers the subsequent events.

During the unbearable heat of a  summer in the country, Fanny spends her days reading novels, napping, and eating gooseberries.  She is teased about her overeating by her friend Jane, who helps manage the household and is Farou’s secretary.  Meanwhile, Fanny’s stepson, Jean, has spent the summer quietly stalking Jane, on whom he has a crush.

The women are waiting for a letter from Farou, who is in Paris working with the director.   Fanny reads the letter aloud and is amused by his references to an actress:  she gathers he is having an affair, one of many.  A sophisticated woman still loved by her husband, she  dismisses the dalliance as insignificant, but Jane is tense and brittle: her reaction seems over-the-top. Later, Jean confirms Fanny’s  fear that Jane and Farou have had an affair.  It is a nightmare for Fanny.

The most important aspect of a Colette novel is never the plot:  it is the lyrical style, the details of women’s lives, the little things one never knows one has noticed. It resonates when Fanny feels stung seeing Jane lounge in a chair reading a novel.  (“It’s my novel,” and she proceeds to list the other things Jane has stolen:  her husband, her stepson. etc.) In The Other One, there are also pages and pages of good-humored dialogue, delineating the women’s friendship.

This may seem a trivial situation, and Colette has written better about this elsewhere, but the emotional pain is universal. Nothing Colette writes is ever cliched. And the 1931 translation is by Viola Gerard Garvom is smooth, if not great English.

Horace, Ode I.11.  The first time I encountered the phrase carpe diem (seize the day) was in this ode by Horace.   Horace, or the persona of the poem, urges Leuconoë to stop worrying about about the future and seize the day.  I’d  remembered this poem as upbeat, and was disconcerted by the gloom.  Horace wrote several more cheerful poems about seizing the moment, but this is the first in which he uses the phrase Carpe diem.  

And here is my literal prose translation.

Do not seek–it is impious to know–what end the gods have given me, what end to you, Leuconoe.  Don’t try Babylonian astrology, either.  How much better to bear whatever will be!  Whether Jupiter allots more winters, or whether this is the last, which now weakens the Tyrrhene sea crashing against opposite cliffs, be wise, strain clear the wine, and cut back the hope of a long life in a short time span.  While we speak, envious time has fled.  Seize the day, trusting in the future as little as possible.