An Ode for the Road

For reasons that will emerge, I’m intrigued by the practice of travelling with a copy of your favourite classical author in your pocket; and I’m struck by the fact that Horace seems to be the most commonly chosen travelling companion. In Horace’s fifth satire, when he describes setting off on a journey with Heliodorus, there’s a theory that Heliodorus is a book (it was the name of the author of a book called The Wonders of Italy, or possibly The Wonders of Medicine) rather than a flesh-and-blood companion, so that’s kind of appropriate for starters.

It isn’t always Horace. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński did all his foreign reporting accompanied by a gift from his editor, “a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, THE HISTORIES.” Europeans trudging through Afghanistan in the nineteenth century cited chapter and verse on Alexander’s itinerary with such accuracy that I can’t help but suspect they had copies of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Histories of Alexander the Great secreted somewhere about their persons.

Virgil is another favourite, and with him the unhealthier aspects of this practice come to the fore. Abraham Cowley was the author, among other things, of an epic, The Civil War, which he wrote as the English Civil War unfolded in the 1640s (and which mutates from an epic into a satire as Cowley’s favoured side, the Royalists, lose ground.) According to John Aubrey he “alwaies had a Virgil in his pocket”, and his reverence for the Aeneid is very obvious in The Civil War: he even imitates Virgil’s “half-lines”, lines left unfinished by Virgil at his death (he died before the Aeneid was completely finished), but which Cowley thought were deliberate, and expressive.

But Cowley’s devotion to Virgil didn’t stop at the odd half-line.  Aubrey recounts a story of Cowley using his pocket Virgil to consult the “Virgilian lots” (sortes Vergilianae) with the future Charles II, opening the pages of the Aeneid at random as a way of predicting the future. And predictably enough, Cowley and the prince happen on Dido’s curse of Aeneas at the end of Aeneid 4, where the queen of Carthage prays that Aeneas will see his friends fall before his eyes, make peace on unjust terms, and die before his time: Virgil was telling them what would happen to the prince’s father Charles I.

That is a story with many variants, and it doesn’t always involve Cowley. But we can establish that Cowley had a habit of consulting the sortes Vergilianae. Dr Johnson quotes a letter written by Cowley in which he discusses the prospects for an alliance with the Scots. Cowley is confident of a positive outcome to negotiations: “The Scotch will moderate something of the rigour of their demands; the mutual necessity of an accord is visible; the king is persuaded of it. And to tell the truth (which I take to be an argument above all the rest) Virgil has told me something to that purpose.” Virgil has told me… The text in the pocket has become the intimacy of a direct word in the ear.

Well, Virgil can play with people’s heads: Cowley’s consultation of the Virgil in his pocket is a bit like Jackson Knight’s consultation of a medium (supposedly channelling Virgil himself) when he was writing his Penguin translation of the Aeneid (just in case anyone thought Morrissey’s inclusion in the Penguin Classics was the maddest thing to happen to that series).

Chaps with Horace in their pockets are a more stable bunch all round, I like to think. But if that’s true, it has a lot to do with the focus of Horace’s poetry. His most famous and quoted poems are the Odes, and the concerns of these short lyric poems weren’t the profound mysteries of existence delved by Virgil (a figure further amplified by the strange mythology that built up around him after his death). Horace is all about the demands of this life we’re living, the inevitability of aging and death, the pleasure of the present moment. His genius is to give incomparable expression to simple principles of living. Carpe diem, etc.

As he set off to travel on foot to Constantinople in 1933 Paddy Leigh Fermor packed an Oxford Book of English Verse and, a gift from his mother, “the Loeb Horace, Vol. I”, containing the Epodes and Odes; and as he walked across Europe he memorised his favourite odes. That special relationship with Horace featured in Leigh Fermor’s most famous exploit, when he captured the German General Karl Kreipe, commander on Crete, and had him smuggled out to Cairo. As they climbed Mount Ida, Kreipe muttered the first line of Horace’s ninth ode, Vides ut alta stet niue candidum Soracte, “You see how Mt Soracte stands white with deep snow,” and Leigh Fermor responded with the rest of the poem:

The general’s blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” “Ah, yes, Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

Horace, whom both Germans and British had managed to convince themselves was the perfect encapsulation of their respective gentlemanly codes, established a mutual understanding between these two officers. Between them, for example, they managed to piece together the superb conclusion to the Regulus Ode (3.5), where the Roman general Regulus, heroically insisting on going to meet his death at the hands of the Carthaginians, leaves Rome as nonchalantly as a man heading off for a relaxing weekend at his country house.

If Horace was an Englishman, or alternatively a German, he was a piece of home, wherever that was. I like the way a lot of these travelling Horaces are gifts from people back where the travellers started: it was Leigh Fermor’s mother who gave him the Loeb edition of Horace, and in the case of Raymond Asquith, who was to die on the Somme, it came from his wife. On November 1, 1915 he wrote to her (quoted in E. Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford, 2010), 60-61):

I have determined to devote 5 minutes a day to serious reading and began this day on the Odes of Horace, pleasantly surprised as I always am to find how astonishingly good they are. It was wonderfully clever of you, my sweet, to find that minute Horace for me.

In more peaceful times Gladstone took Horace on the train with him during a General Election “far back in the ‘sixties'”, writing translations of the Odes which he later published (my thanks to Emily Pillinger for pointing me to that one). Michael Gilleland on his wonderful blog describes a copy of Horace owned by Stendhal, “pierced by the tip of a sword or a bayonet” in Napoleon’s Jena campaign of 1806: how Stendhal came by the book is an interesting question. Gilleland also finds in Holbrook Jackson’s Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950) a reference to a devotion to Horace on the part of the French poet François de Malherbe (1555-1628) comparable to Cowley’s obsession with Virgil:

Malherbe, the father of French poetry, had for sole favourite Horace, whom he called his breviary; Horace was his companion when out walking, and he laid him on his pillow at night…

“For some,” as Gilleland comments, “Horace is a kind of holy book,” and that’s true. I could well be overstating the difference between Horace-carriers and Virgil-carriers. It’s worth pointing out that the Loeb edition of Horace’s Odes and Epodes that Leigh Fermor took with him was dedicated to Professor Hiram Corson of Cornell University, who used to “contact” the greats of English poetry: Tennyson assured Corson from beyond the grave that he shouldn’t worry about smoking a pipe. (That detail owed to Peter Wiseman’s great article on Jackson Knight in Talking to Virgil.)

I generally come back to Central Asia sooner or later in these blogs, and of course Horace accompanied the classically educated  men who extended, or attempted to extend, the Empire into the NW of India. On the title page of the most influential of travellers’ books in that period and part of the world, Alexander Burnes’ Travels into Bokhara (1834) is a well-chosen passage from Odes 1.22, another poem that Leigh Fermor and Kreipe found they had in common, in which Horace playfully claims that a morally pure man, integer uitae scelerisque purus, need fear nothing “whether he travels across the seething Syrtes or the inhospitable Caucasus or the lands lapped by the legendary Hydaspes.” The Hydaspes is the Jhelum, westernmost of the five rivers of the Punjab, and Burnes could interpret “Caucasus” as the Indian Caucasus, the Hindu Kush: he crossed both these physical barriers in his travels, but integer uitae he was not, and he paid the price for his immoral behaviour by dying at the hands of a Kabuli mob in 1841.

I don’t know if Burnes had a Horace in his pocket, and to be honest I hope not (it would tarnish the brand), but a later traveller in these parts did, a much better person named Aurel Stein. In 1900, during an expedition to investigate lost cultures in the Tarim basin (now in the Xinjiang “autonomous region” of China), described in Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan (1904), he was surveying the headwaters of the Yurungkash (White Jade) and Karakash (Black Jade) rivers in the Kunlun mountains. The survey took him through a landscape he found oppressive, arid and depopulated. But finding a stream and some rare sunshine Stein (to my surprise and delight when I first read Sand-buried Ruins) pulls out a copy of Horace:

I enjoyed the splash and sound of the water after those silent dead ravines, and sat cheerfully by its side until my baggage appeared at dusk. It was pleasant to read in the tiny seventeenth-century edition of Horace, which always travels in my saddlebag, of the springs that gave charm for the poet to another mountain region far away in the West. And then the question touched my mind: What is this vast mountain world in human interest compared to the Sabine Hills? It has no past history as far as man is concerned, and what can be its future?—unless destiny has reserved the prospects of another Klondyke for the auriferous rivers of Khotan.

Stein’s copy of Horace boasted an interesting provenance, having formerly belonged to his uncle Ignaz Hirschler, a pioneer of eye medicine who was also a campaigner for Jewish emancipation in Austro-Hungary, and an important inspiration for the young Stein: he had specifically requested this book of Hirschler’s at the latter’s death in 1891 (Jeanette Mirsky, Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer (1977), 11-12). In the Kunlun mountains Stein was probably reading Horace’s ode on the Bandusian spring, often thought to be at his estate in the Sabine hills east of Rome (though in fact a landmark of Horace’s youth, further to the south of Italy.) The supposed site of Horace’s estate has drawn foreign visitors in large numbers for at least three hundred years, and the reason is this peculiarly intimate appeal that Horace exerted for modern Europeans. When James Boswell, Dr Johnson’s biographer, visited the site of the villa, he “Saw ruins: fell on knees and uttered some enthusiastic words.” “Horace was an Englishman,” I wrote a long time ago. But Horace was also a German and a Frenchman and a Hungarian, a poet whose Latin lyrics expressed a widely shared ideal of gentlemanly conduct. To a British-Hungarian archaeologist (and gentleman) deep in unfamiliar territory Horace embodied humanity amidst desolation.

A treasured memory of my own is explaining to a British friend as we drove through the Hindu Kush why at difficult moments I repeat a tag of Horace to myself:

sperat infestis, metuit secundis

alteram sortem bene praeparatum


It is untranslatable, but it means that the best attitude is to be optimistic in hard times, but pessimistic when times are good. It comes in a poem (Odes 2.10) where Horace discusses, and gives a name to, the Golden Mean, aurea mediocritas, a life lived by the principle of moderation in all things.

And yes, I had a copy of Horace in my pocket when I travelled in Afghanistan, a gift from my wife.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

7 responses to “An Ode for the Road”

  1. darthnewdar says :

    Your blog made me consider what we lose in the 21st century, when we can take an entire library with us on our Kindle… I wonder if there is something special (or perhaps just obsessive) about the relationship between reader and author which emerges when one has no choice about what to read.

    I didn’t realise there was quite such an overt spiritualist element in certain literary circles: the practices of Jackson Knight and Hiram Corson are bizarre, to say the least. (Although I was aware of the increased interest in the supernatural during the Victorian period, and its association with literary figures such as Henry James).

    I have never read any Horace (sorry!) – what would you recommend as a starting point?

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Get hold of David West’s book Reading Horace; that’s where I started. Where I really started with Classics proper, to be honest. After that, West’s commentaries, texts & translations of Books 1, 2 & 3. He’s a great guide on how to read Horace, or was: died this year. I’d say, try to get your head around certain odes first, 1.7, 2.10, 3.5.

  2. Christian Koefoed-Nielsen says :

    The “English Patient” travelled with a copy of Herodotus…..which was my introduction to him. I don’t know if Almasy (on whom theEnglish Patient was supposedly based) did too, or whether this was Ondaatje’s invention.
    I do like the tangents yr blog flies off at – Tennyson’s advice on pipe smoking must have been greatly reassuring!
    Thx for yr advice on Herodotus (reply to another comment) will check it out

  3. philologicalcrocodile says :

    This is wonderful, sentimental in the best sense. I am minded to give Horace another go this slow Sunday . I enjoyed a farrago of the satires and epistles but have never really *got* him. Whether that’s because my classical education has been too deficient or because I have yet to travel somewhere truly exciting… I can not say.

    As an aside, because I do not think twitter a large enough medium to mention this. I think my recent(ish) interest in the central Asian…er expeditions, men like Aurel Stein, places like the Taklamakan dessert, etc etc, are in large part due to this blog. I have greatly enjoyed Hopkirk’s FOREIGN DEVILS ON THE SILK ROAD, and have been diving into what works of Stein and others I have found online.

    Anyway, as you (or Horace) say:

    sperat infestis, metuit secundis

    alteram sortem bene praeparatum


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