Horace on living
A rapid post, this, and topical in a way I wouldn’t have chosen.
I love the Latin language. I struggle to explain why. Something to do with its brevity, and the scope an inflected language gives to shift words around for maximum effect.
No Roman poet exploited these inherent characteristics of Latin more effectively than Horace, and a poem like Horace, Odes 3.29 has it all for me, and not just for me: formal beauty allied to profound ethical truths. I like this poem so much that when I fell over an inscription of a line of it at a charity auction once, I parted with rather a lot of money. Latin and stone go so well together.
There is so much that’s great about 3.29: the way Horace expresses the unpredictability of life through an image of a river in spate, his description flowing river-like from stanza to stanza; the image he uses to express a proper indifference to misfortune: “I wrap myself in my virtue,” he says, mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, as if virtue were a warm and waterproof coat.
But my very favourite thing in 3.29 is a single word, uixi, “I have lived,” at line 43. It is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, and it represents the key principle of the poem’s philosophy.
Here are the two stanzas around it, with a translation much indebted to David West. Horace is explaining that what matters is the present moment, living life in the here and now. We cannot influence what the future will bring, but if we have lived life to the full when we can, what happens in time to come is of no significance.
… ille potens sui 41
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “uixi.” cras uel atra
nube polum pater occupato
uel sole puro. non tamen irritum 45
quodcumque retro est efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet
quod fugiens semel hora uexit.
A man will be in control of his life
and happy, if he can say at each day’s end
“I have lived.” Tomorrow Jupiter can
fill the sky with black cloud
or with pure sunlight, but he will not cancel
whatever is behind,
nor reshape or unmake
what once the fleeting hour has brought.
Horace’s poem is written in a verse form called alcaics, a metre in four-line stanzas which Horace had inherited from the archaic Greek poet Alcaeus, but given a character all his own. Horatian alcaics have a very clear dynamic: in broad terms, there are two identical lines followed by a third that slows the flow of the poetry, and a much faster fourth. What creates the impression of drag in the third line is mainly its contrast with the previous two. The first two lines normally have a word break, a pause or caesura, after the fifth syllable, but while the third line starts off as if it is going to follow the same pattern, it then pushes on without a break. The second stanza here is typical: uel sole puro//, quodcumque retrost// in the first two lines, but diffinget infectumque in the third, no break until after the seventh syllable.
In slightly more technical terms, here is an alcaic stanza, with _ marking a long syllable, u marking a short, and // marking the normal/expected location of word breaks:
_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _
_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _
_ _ u _ _ _ u _ _
_ u u _ u u _ u _ _
The things to notice are the identical shape of the first two lines, and the way the third line also begins the same way, but has no break after the fifth syllable. Horace has a habit of placing in the middle of the third line a word needing emphasis, or suiting in other ways this expansive position. Here is an example from earlier in Odes 3.29 (ll. 9-12), where Horace urges Maecenas to abandon his obsession with the city of Rome, and join him for drinkies in the country:
fastidiosam// desere copiam et
molem propinquam// nubibus arduis,
omitte mirari beatae
fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.
Leave behind cloying abundance and
that pile that reaches to the high clouds,
the smoke and riches and racket of wealthy Rome.
In the first two lines there are word breaks after the fifth syllable. The word set in that expansive centre of the third line is mirari, “admire,” “wonder at,” and the placement is very effective: we dwell on Maecenas’ obsession with the city as he indulges his obsession. Meanwhile the frantic fourth line well suits the distracting sensory chaos of the big smoke. Given that practically all of Horace’s alcaic stanzas follow this dynamic of expansive third line and skittery fourth, of course, any exception becomes eye-catching.
At l. 43, dixisse uixi. cras uel atra, there is just such an exception to the rule, and it’s gorgeous. What we have in 43 is a third line that doesn’t expand, but stops short just like the first and second line. The word uixi not only introduces a pause after the fifth syllable, where we don’t expect it, but brings a very strong pause: Horace ends a sentence where we were anticipating continuation. The effect on the word uixi is to underline and isolate it.
I’ve suggested that “I have lived” is the essence of this poem. If you can say this to yourself today, Horace tells us, it simply doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. I find that a beautiful sentiment in itself, but Horace has made it more beautiful, in the subtlest of ways, by detaching it from the rest of the poetic line by means of that unexpected pause. Vixi, “I have lived,” stands alone. Because there is nothing else that needs to be said.
Charlotte Easton died far too young. I only met her once, though we chatted from time to time on Twitter. She lived life to the full, with her love of cycling, her delight in teaching, her passion for Latin and Greek. If I love Latin, its chiselled clarity, the people I rate highest in the world are those who keep the study of this language I love alive, sharing my enthusiasm for it, but possessed of a precious capacity to communicate the joy of it that I can only wish I had.