Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Epistles of Horace

After reading Alexander Pope's variations on Horace, I went to my bookshelf and pulled off a book that had been on it for a while: David Ferry's translations of Horace's Epistles. There's a reason people have been reading Horace for two thousand years: the poems are absolutely splendid. Knowing no Latin, I cannot judge the accuracy of the translations, but the English poems Ferry has produced are simply brilliant.

People are punished for whatever maddens their kings. (Book 1, Epistle 2)

I could quote dozens of lines and passage that struck me; some of which seemed uncannily timely, like that one. This is poetry that counsels, advises, amuses, mocks, entreats, entrances, and generally thrills its reader.

... The man who puts off
The time to start living right is like the hayseed
Who wants to cross the river and so he sits there
Waiting for the river to run out of water,
And the river flows by, and it flows on by, forever.

Often, Horace exemplifies the poet as dispenser of wisdom in elegant and memorable forms:

Between hope and encouragement, fears, and angers, and such,
Treat every day as the last you're going to have,
Then welcome the next as unexpectedly granted
. (1:4)

But the wisdom does not just take the form of counsel about how to live your life; it can also take on more amusing forms:

But look what drinking can do! It reveals what's hidden;
It tells you that you'll get what you always wanted;
It pushes the coward right out into the battle;
It lifts the anxious burden from troubled hearts;
It helps you do what you couldn't do before.
Who hasn't been made more eloquent by drink?
However confined in poverty, tell me, who hasn't
Been freed for a while from feeling that he's unfree?

The Epistles share with other classical texts the fascinating feature of revealing things, whether inadvertently or intentionally, about the shared knowledge of all those who lived in that world, information that one might feel the need to provide footnotes for today, though in the following case, it really isn't necessary:

The man who doesn't know the difference between
Wool dyed with Sidonian purple or just with dyes
From Aquinum isn't as badly off as the man
Who isn't able to tell the true from the false
. (1:10)

This one struck me particularly because a few days before I read the passage, Miles's second-grade homework included "Why was purple the color of kings in the ancient world?" as the "Question of the Week" that they do every week, so along with him, I had learned about Sidonian purple! But the text gives you all the information you need without a footnote or a quick Wikipedia check.

Of course, reading Horace also leads you to passages that seem somehow familiar, because you've heard the story before, or perhaps even read references to it before, without knowing (or registering) that the story came from this source:

The stag was a better fighter than the horse
And often drove him out of their common pasture,
Until the horse, the loser, asked man's help
And acquiesced in taking the bit in his mouth.
But after his famous victory in this battle
He couldn't get the rider off his back
And he couldn't get the bit out of his mouth.

What a joy it must be to translate lines that are that good!

Horace does have a thing about wine, or perhaps I do, as I am the one who kept noting passages where he talks about it:

No point in even asking about the wine.
At home I'm used to putting up with whatever;
But when I go away I want to have
Something a whole lot nicer, smooth and mellow,
Infusing hopefulness into the heart and veins,
Good for banishing care and promoting a flow
Of eloquence to make some lady think
That I'm still young when it's perfectly clear I'm not.

The playful tone here appears throughout the epistles and keeps their morality from becoming moralizing, as when, a few lines later, he comments on the idea of moderation:

I'm just like that. When there isn't a lot to be had,
I'm very good at praising moderation;
But when there's something better and richer offered,
Why then I'm very good at praising how
You rich men live it up in your splendid houses
. (1:15)

Or as he puts it two epistles later:

But if you want to be a little kinder
Both to yourself and your friends, be willing to go
To dinner once in a while at a rich man's house
. (1:17)

That's assuming you can get an invitation, of course. And if you do, then the wine you drink will put you in good company, that of the Muses:

... Ever since Bacchus
Enrolled us poets among his fauns and satyrs,
There's been a hint of the memory of wine
On the morning breath of the Muses
. (1:19)

And, as this implies, Horace naturally spends a lot of time talking about poetry:

If poetry, like wine, improves with age,
Then tell me, I'd like to know, ho
w do you know
Exactly in what year a particular poem
Turns into a good one?

Horace wrote this in an epistle to Augustus; has anyone written criticism in poetic form for any American President or British PM? :-)

Even the spread of poetry beyond the professionals to just about anyone gets a detailed comment:

But times and tastes have changed. Now everyone
Is seized with the desire to write a poem;
Grave elders and their offspring crowned with wreaths
Dictate their verses to one another at dinner;
And as for me, I'm lying in my teeth
When I solemnly swear I've sworn off scribbling lines.
No sooner do I wake up than I call for a pen
And paper, and off I go. A man who knows nothing
About how to sail a ship won't do it; he's scared to.
Doctors do doctor's work. Carpenters handle
The tools it takes a carpenter's skills to use.
But skilled or unskilled we all feel free to write poems.

Before you think that Horace sounds like a critic of creative-writing courses, you have to read what follows:

And yet in the end there's something to be said
For this craze. It's relatively harmless,
And, more than that, it even has its virtues
. (2:1)

The last epistle (2:3) is the Ars Poetica, and it has far too many wonderful bits in it to quote them all. This one reminded me of Yeats:

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if it was as easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he'd sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).

At the same time, though, Horace contradicts the bit of Yeats that that passage reminded me of ("Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught"):

Withhold your favor from any poem that doesn't
Show signs of the time spent upon it ...

And there are familiar bits here, too, of course, that you might vaguely remember came from some Roman or Greek:

Poetry wants to instruct or else to delight;
Or, better still, to delight and instruct at once.

Pope referred to Homer's nodding, and I thought, "Oh, that comes from Pope!" But it doesn't, it comes from Horace:

... It's true that it bothers me
When Homer nods, but, after all, it's true
That writers of such long works
must drowse sometimes. (2:3)

And, of course, I don't always agree with Horace:

... A poem's
Created to yield delight to the heart and mind.
If it falls a little short of doing that,
It falls right down to the bottom, all the way down.

This comes quite close to the idea that any poem that is not a good poem is not a poem after all, a conception of poetry (or of art in general) that seems utterly unproductive to me. One has to be able to say that a particular work of art is bad; it is unnecessary to banish the bad art from the realm of art entirely.

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