Early in the summer a retired colleague said something to me I’ve struggled to forget since. She was describing all the heavy responsibilities she found herself bearing, out of the goodness of her heart, for aged friends and loved ones, and she concluded: “Don’t get old, Llewelyn.” It caught me at a slightly low ebb, suffering from something it’s taken the summer to work out is nothing significant, well, nothing more than one of those skeleto-muscular reminders that time is remorseless. Hence the disproportionate impact of a passing remark, no doubt, anyhow.
I am now in my fiftieth year, and to a Latinist one thing that means is that I’m roughly the same age as Horace when he wrote his fourth book of lyric poems, the Odes. If our comparable ages matter at all, it’s because age matters to Horace. His poetry is not in any straightforward way autobiographical, but he did construct a kind of parallel biography out of his poetry, matching the sequence of poetic genres he undertook to the stage of life at which he was writing, aggressive iambic and satirical poetry in his younger days, detached epistolary musings in his dotage. It was in middle age that Horace wrote the Odes (Horace was born in 65BC; Odes Books 1-3 were apparently published as a collection in 23BC), and again lyric was an age-appropriate choice. The male lyric voice is quite precisely defined in this respect: he’s not as young as he was, he’s seen a bit of the world and is wise to it (though perfectly capable of losing his head, just quicker to regain it than his younger self), but above all he’s sensitive to his years, regretful of the passing of time and acutely aware of his mortality.
The persona Horace adopts in Odes 1-3 is all of those things. Already in these books Horace spends a lot of time contemplating his inevitable death and pursuing activities to mitigate that gloomy prognosis, mainly involving alcohol and serial monogamy. His most famous motto, carpe diem, means “pick the day”, as if the day is an apple that you must pluck and eat while you still can–and who knows how long that will be? In its original context in Odes 1.11 Horace has one particular activity in mind for himself and the young woman, Leuconoe, to whom this advice is directed, and it isn’t a game of monopoly.
Between Odes 1-3 and Odes 4 there was a gap of as many as ten years. The date of Book 4 is disputed, but Horace himself gives his age as circa lustra decem at 4.1.6, “around fifty,” and in-between times he’d written a book of meditative Epistles as well as a long hymn for Augustus’ Secular Games in 17BC. We’re presumably around 14BC. The same lyric themes of the rapid passage of time, the unpredictable future and imminent mortality are found in the later book, but if time was an issue already in 1-3 (as it must be in any lyric poetry), it’s an urgent one in 4, a book deeply conscious that its author is too old to be writing it. The book opens with Horace insisting he’s past it (3-4, non sum qualis eram bonae/ sub regno Cinarae, “I’m not the man I was when good Cinara ruled my life”): Venus should leave him alone and pick on young men like Paullus Maximus. At the end of 4.11 he calls a definitive end to love affairs (29-36), which implies, as in 4.1, a farewell to lyric poetry: age iam, meorum/ finis amorum/ (non enim posthac alia calebo/ femina), condisce modos, amanda/ voce quos reddas; minuentur atrae/ carmine curae, “Come now, last of my loves (for after this I shall feel no passion for any other woman), learn some tunes to sing with your lovely voice. Black anxieties will be lessened by song.” When the lyric song is over, an implication is, there will be nothing to distract him from those anxieties.
There is another poem in Book 4 that’s all about age, Odes 4.13, but in this case the subject is not (or maybe, not directly) Horace. It’s also the most troubling poem of the book to read, a brutal, vengeful celebration that a woman he once loved, Lyce, is getting old. That, at any rate, is where it starts (David West’s translation after the Latin):
audiuere, Lyce, di mea uota, di
audiuere, Lyce: fis anus, et tamen
uis formosa videri
ludisque et bibis impudens
et cantu tremulo pota Cupidinem
lentum sollicitas. ille uirentis et
doctae psallere Chiae
pulchris excubat in genis.
importunus enim transuolat aridas
quercus et refugit te quia luridi
dentes, te quia rugae
turpant et capitis niues.
nec Coae referunt iam tibi purpurae
nec cari lapides tempora, quae semel
notis condita fastis
inclusit uolucris dies.
quo fugit Venus, heu, quoue color, decens
quo motus? quid habes illius, illius,
quae spirabat amores,
quae me surpuerat mihi,
felix post Cinaram notaque et artium
gratarum facies? sed Cinarae brevis
annos fata dederunt,
seruatura diu parem
cornicis uetulae temporibus Lycen,
possent ut iuuenes uisere feruidi
multo non sine risu
dilapsam in cineres facem.
The gods have listened, Lyce, the gods have listened
to my prayers; you’re becoming an old woman
and you still want to be thought beautiful,
you still play about and you drink too much,
and sing in your cups in that wobbling voice of yours
to rouse the sluggish god of love, but he is out
for the night, on duty on the lovely cheeks
of a young Chian lyre-player.
That demanding god soars over dry oaks.
He flies away from you, your black teeth,
your wrinkles, and the snow
in your hair. You are ugly.
Neither Coan purples nor precious stones
bring back the time
buried in old calendars
by the swiftly flying days.
Where has your charm gone? Where is your complexion?
Where is that lovely way of moving? What remains
of the girl who breathed the breath of love,
who stole me from myself,
the girl I so loved after Cinara, and where is
that artful beauty of yours I knew so well? But the Fates,
who did not give Cinara many years,
were to keep you alive
as long as any ancient crow, to raise
a laugh among hot-blooded young men
as they see your torch
crumbling into ashes.
This is Roman literature at its most indigestible. A man assesses a mature woman on her looks, and judges her worthless by virtue of his own failure to find her attractive. What interests me about this poem, though, is the possibility that in as limited a way as a Roman male could manage, Horace evinces some awareness of this imbalance. There’s a hint of that, nothing more, in the shift of tone in the fourth stanza from the vindictive opening to something (slightly) closer to empathy, a general principle that the past is irrevocably the past followed by Horace’s expression of his own dismay at Lyce’s aging, a very different response, at least, from the triumphant taunts he started with. But the conclusion is again merciless: the young men laugh at her; she is a torch that has burnt itself out; she would have done better to die before she lost her looks, like Cinara.
But if I can try to recall my reaction on first reading this poem, it was to be appalled by Horace’s nastiness, but also left with a sense that there was an unavoidable further implication. I can’t personally read this repulsive poem without the rest of Odes 4 in my head, a book preoccupied with aging, as we’ve seen, and first and foremost with the aging of the author. If Lyce is getting old, Horace must be older; if she is too long in the tooth for this game, Horace has already told us he is too. “I am not the man I was when good Cinara ruled my life,” he says in the first poem of the book; here he reminds us of Cinara, and cannot help but remind us in the process that if anyone’s obsolescent, it’s Horace himself. On the matter of names, “Lyce” carries its own associations: we’ve met her just once before, in Odes 3.10, a poem in which the poet ultimately claims to be too old to take love affairs too seriously, or even to be physically equal to them. This at any rate, for what it’s worth, is how I feel compelled to read Odes 4.13: the brutality of it is shocking, but it’s also self-directed, self-eviscerating. There’s every chance I’m indulging the old misogynist, but if I’m not, the loathing he directs at Lyce entails self-loathing: every nasty jibe Horace makes about Lyce drives home, in turn, how old he is, how decrepit, how close to death.
Horace didn’t get old, or not by our standards: he died just a few years later in 8BC, at 56.
There’s a very nice article on this poem, and some similar ones in the Odes and Epodes, by Carol Esler in T. M. Falkner & J. de Luce, Old Age in Greek and Latin Literature (1989), 172-82. David West’s essays on the Odes in his translation/commentaries are always eye-opening (the one on 3.10, for example, I lean on here).