Pick, pluck or even savour the day

Enjoy the promotional video for this fantastic new exhibition in the Ashmolean, running until January 12. There’s a wonderful collection of artefacts on display, from Pompeii and elsewhere, and you can find me raving about it here, all thanks to a freebie from Sophie Hay. This piece, for example, combines at least three of my favourite things, Latin, Hercules, and piglets.

I have just one bone to pick, and it’s with the encouragement to “seize the day” at the end of the video. Not that you shouldn’t be prepared to commandeer a train if that’s what it takes to get to this show — my problem is simply with “seize the day” as an English translation of Horace’s motto carpe diem, which in the Latin is a much richer turn of phrase. As Tom Holland (another beneficiary of Sophie’s generosity) pointed out to me, furthermore, once properly appreciated the full meaning of carpe diem would serve well an exhibition largely concerned with Roman foodstuffs and sensory pleasures.

Carpe diem originates in one of Horace’s lyric poems, Odes 1.11, and it expresses a characteristically lyric sentiment: live for the moment. “Seize the day” captures that well enough, but “seize” does a poor job, really, of conveying the Latin carpe. To get a better sense of it, Nisbet & Hubbard cite approvingly (it is not always so) the ancient commentator Porphyrio: “the metaphor”, Porphyrio writes, “is from fruit, which … we pick (carpimus) in order to enjoy.”

Now, you might use carpere of picking or plucking a flower, too, and whether the day is a fruit or a flower it works well enough for Horace’s poem, where the instruction, addressed to a woman named Leuconoe, also carries an erotic charge. But I think conceiving of the day as a metaphorical apple or plum (or quince, if you prefer) works best. What an apple on a tree represents is something needing to be exploited in a very narrow window of time, when the fruit is ripe but before it spoils. Life is to be enjoyed now, Horace insists, because who knows what will happen tomorrow.

Needless to say, the notion that life is an apple, and there’s no time to waste before you sink your teeth into it, applies especially well to the unfortunate inhabitants of Pompeii in AD 79.

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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.

3 responses to “Pick, pluck or even savour the day”

  1. Tony Theaker says :

    Neil Young, the musician, used to sign off his letters with the phrase, ‘eat a peach.’ Neil. Which to me seems a fairly similar message to the above, just a different fruit.

  2. Bill Casselman says :

    I don’t suppose you’d like to see this botching of Horace explained 5 years ago in my published essay?
    https://casselmanual.blogspot.com/

    cheers,
    Bill Casselman

  3. Richard LaFleur says :

    For decades I encouraged my university students to realize that for Horace CARPE DIEM meant HARVEST (or PLUCK or PICK) THE DAY–so good for you!!

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