From The Independent, December 13 2007
As a student, Martha Kearney fell for the great Roman poet. Now revisiting her old flame for the BBC, she's determined to convert the rest of us to his charms.
As a teenager studying Latin at school, I flung myself into the romantic poetry of Catullus by way of contrast to what I regarded as the drab world of Caesar's Gallic Wars, and all that making camp, and ablative absolutes. The lines of Catullus stirred my vulnerable heart: "da mi basia mille, deinde centum dein mille altera, dein secunda centum deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum" - "give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred more" and so on. When we moved onto Horace, I was disappointed. His world-weary attitude towards love didn't chime at all. I didn't want cynicism, I wanted passion. Dexterity with Greek metre didn't stir a teenage girl whose favourite listening was Leonard Cohen.
As a student I did attempt a more sophisticated appreciation of Horace. At Oxford, I was helped by one of the world's greatest authorities: Miss Hubbard, who was my tutor at St Anne's College, and infinitely patient with my faltering translations. She was one half of the classical world's great double acts. There's Liddell and Scott who compiled the Greek dictionary; North and Hilliard for grammar; and then for Horace, Nisbett and Hubbard and their exhaustive commentaries, not to say exhausting for less industrious students like me. When their first volume came out, a rhyme went round Oxford: "This is the Horace of Hubbard and Nisbett's but which bits are her bits and which bits are his bits?"
Miss Hubbard - I still can't bring myself to call her Margaret - sat at the centre of a smoke-filled study, crammed with books in every inch of space. She chain-smoked without ever flicking her ash so it was mesmerising to wonder where it might fall as she gesticulated about Horace. "Here he gets rather high falutin'," she'd say. On good days we'd end the tutorial with a drink she called "gin and it". What I learnt from Miss Hubbard was the sheer cleverness of the poet, his cunning references to contemporary politics, literary allusions to Alexandrian poetry and puns in Greek.
The poems I enjoyed most were when Horace was at his most playful, like Book III Ode IX, when two ex-lovers taunt each other with their new affairs and then end up vowing they can't live without each other. I remember my Latin teacher at school, Mrs Unger, giving an explanation of one typically compressed description "simplex munditiis" - this woman was like the most fashionable of French women, very expensively dressed but with a stylish simplicity all the same. That phrase comes from the poem with the first line Quis multa gracilis to puer in rosa, which has to have one of the most excrutiating translations ever - to modern ears, anyway. Dryden wrote: "What slender youth bedewed with liquid odors." It is one of my favourite odes. Horace is imagining the man who has taken his place as the lover of Pyrrha, who is yet to experience the havoc she wreaks. This is how Heather McHugh translates the opening:
"What slip of a boy, all slick with what perfumes / Is pressing on you now Pyrrha in / Your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms?"
Horace likens her to a storm at sea and ends the poem by comparing himself to a grateful shipwreck survivor who hangs his dripping garments up on a temple altar as an offering.
Clearly, he'd been bitten by the female sex. He describes another woman as "lascivior hederis ambitiosior" - translated by Debora Greger as: "She'll be all over him like ivy." Unlike his contemporary Virgil, whose influences were epic poets such as Homer and Hesiod, Horace turned to the personal poetry of the Greek Lyric poets such as Sappho and Anacreon, copying their metre and style, which makes his poetry very difficult to translate.
As a young student I could admire the skill of Horace but there was no real connection with the world of a middle-aged man. It has been a very different experience returning to read the Odes and Satires 30 years on.
> From the perspective of someone who has just turned 50, Horace seems
much more sympatico.
In Book IV, Ode VII, his description of the changing seasons evolves into a meditation on death: "Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis." This was translated by A E Housman and quoted by Richard Jenkyns in his introduction to new translations of Horace edited by J D McClatchy. "The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws / And grasses in the mead renew their birth / The river to the river bed withdraws / And altered is the fashion of the earth."
The poem continues: "But, oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar / Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams / Come we where Tullus and Ancus are / And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams."
You can see that philosophical approach again in Book I Ode XI with that famous phrase "Carpe Diem" - seize the day. In your twenties, when so many days stretch before you, it is hard to understand the urgency of the sentiment. In the same poem he has more philosophical advice, which I now find appealing. Many centuries before Doris Day, he urges: "ut melius, quicquid erit, pati" - whatever will be, will be. If you could abide by those maxims - accepting your lot and living for the moment - I think you would score highly on the general wellbeing index.
Certainly that phrase of Horace has endured. I gave my husband a Homer Simpson card. On the front Carpe Diem, inside - "seize the doughnut". Homer and Horace don't just have the classical names in common. In physical appearance the poet, too, was short and stout by his own admission, though his figure perhaps owed more to the Falerian wine he was so fond of than to doughnuts.
Horace's was born in Venusia, on the border of Apulia, in southern Italy. His father had been a slave but achieved his freedom before Horace was born, which gave the poet the social status of "ingenuus" [a freeman]. There is a touching account of theirrelationship in the Satires. Horace writes that his father only had a few acres but ...he was taken to Rome just like the son of a knight or senator and his father took him to every class. The next stage of his education was in Athens, where he studied Greek and philosophy. But his promising career and his father's upward social mobility were cut short when Horace made a terrible blunder by taking the wrong side in the civil war. He allied himself with Brutus who had fled to Greece after murdering Julius Caesar.
He fought on the losing side at the battle of Philippi and found himself "decisis pennis" [with disappointed hopes], with his wings clipped and the family homes in town and the countryside confiscated. "Paupertas impulit audax ut versus facerem" - "bold poverty drove me to become a poet" (supplemented by his day job as a quaestor's clerk).
But it is remarkable how Horace managed to restore his fortunes. Through his friendship with Virgil, he came under the patronage of the wealthy Maecenas and then the emperor Augustus. Suetonius writes: "How fond Maecenas was of him is evident enough from the well known epigram: 'If that I do not love you, my own Horace, more than life itself, behold your comrade leaner than Ninnius.'"
But Maecenas expressed himself much more strongly in his will in this brief remark to Augustus: "Be as mindful of Horatius Flaccus as of myself." Augustus offered him the post of secretary at the imperial court "to help me write my letters". Even when Horace declined, Augustus showed no resentment at all, and did not cease his efforts to gain his friendship. The Emperor refers to him as "a most immaculate libertine" and "his charming little man", and he made him well-to-do by more than one act of generosity.
Horace touches on Rome's bloody civil wars in one of his most famous odes "Nunc est bibendum" ["now we must drink"] - not the merry drinking song that the opening words would suggest but instead an account of the death of Cleopatra in which he both condemns and pities the Egyptian queen, (in a translation by Ellen Bryant Voigt): "She looked straight at the palace now in ruins / Her face composed and without blinking too / Into her arms the scaly venomous snakes / In order to drink each drop of their black wine / And by that cup this woman of such fierce pride / Made the triumph hers: that she would die / Not as a slave and not as someone's prize."
Horace's own experience of battle war didn't preclude him from urging young men to face the hardships of fighting. Book III Ode II was for centuries [used as] a poem that praised the value of patriotism, until the First World War and Wilfred Owen who quoted "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ["it is sweet and right to die for your country"] as "the old lie".
Horace delighted in a farm he was given by his patron Maecenas not far from fashionable Tivoli. As a teenage girl, I found his passion for country life at his Sabine farm inexplicable. Now, as someone who has her own bolthole, I find myself once more in sympathy with Horace and his praise of the countryside.
In Book II Satire VI he tells us of his escape from the rat race in Rome, being pestered by people and city gossip, to his farm where he relaxes with his books and a supper of beans, bacon and cabbage - though even in the simplicity of that meal he manages a literary allusion (the beans are beloved of Pythagoras). The poem goes on to tell the story of the country mouse and the town mouse and you can guess where Horace's and my sympathies lie.