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Carpe diem

Posted by ted danforth on April 7, 2009, 1:01 pm

Thanks for all the responses to the posting. It’s been fun to read the dialogue that ‘big old’ Horace has elicited. As for what the ode ‘means,’ as Daniel’s ex-girlfriend indicated, that’s for each reader to decide for herself or himself.

To me the poem is about death, or rather the foolishness of living in denial of death. It’s not so much about houses per se—after all, Horace is the great poet of the country house and the retirement from the city—but the wisdom of living simply, having perspective on our brief lives, living in the moment: what ideally we are all doing here.

The poet begins with praise of the simple life, the theme for which he is best known, and his contentment with the Sabine farm that his patron Maecenas gave him as a refuge and that allowed him to lead the life of contemplative leisure—the ideal of the ancient world. Dean posted one of the poems Horace wrote about this farm near Rome, the ruins of which were identified in the 18th century.

Then, addressing a non-specific ‘you,’ the poet goes on to the foolishness of building houses as if one would live forever; that is living in denial of death. La Fontaine echoes this sentiment: Passe encore de bâtir, mais planter à cette âge? (It’s okay to build, but to plant—at your age?)

In the last three stanzas Horace drives home the point that there is no escaping death that even crafty Prometheus couldn’t escape, and that however many houses we build, our last house will ineluctably be the great hall of the Lord of Death. A Mexican dicho puts it this way: Para todo trabajo hay maña (a knack, a trick), pero no hay maña para la muerte.

Wisdom lies then in accepting this reality, enjoying the passing moment as it passes and living the simple ‘Horatian’ life: a wisdom expressed in the short lyric with the famous phrase that has now sadly passed into cliché: Carpe diem, or Seize the day.

Here’s the Carpe diem ode. Judging by her name, the superstitious Leuconoë is a slave girl. We might imagine the setting as a villa overlooking the sea. It’s a seduction poem.

Odes I:xi

Don’t you ask—for how can we know?—what end,
Leuconoë, the gods have for you, for me,
nor tempt Fate with your numerology.
It’s much better to accept whatever
happens: whether we have many winters
more, or whether this one, which now wears down
the Tuscan sea against the pumice shore,
be the last great Jove allows. Strain the wine,
put off those far-reaching hopes, for even
as we speak envious time is flying. Seize
the day, trusting little in tomorrow.


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