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).
So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.
I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Salafi Muslims cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):
Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.
Qalam is the Greek word kalamos in fact, but never mind.
Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their gods. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).
By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):
Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).
She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.
I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.
If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):
meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.
But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more and less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.
A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans, but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.
“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:
Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;
quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax
referre sermones deorum et
magna modis tenuare parvis.
This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!
Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness
to report the speeches of gods and
diminish great matters in small measures!
Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.
More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; like almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.
At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.
incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est
cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae
Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.
Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call
for singing, these are real events were dealing with. Tell the story, maidens
of Pieria, and may I profit from having called you maidens.
Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura.
A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.
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.