Why Ancient Rome’s Most Boring Poet is Totally Awesome

The phrase Carpe diem is from the Roman poet Horace. It literally means ‘pluck the day’ as one does a flower, sexual connotations attached. The line is addressed to a woman whose name translates roughly from Greek as ‘She of the unblemished mind’ and the thrust of the line is “How ‘bout we fuck before one of us dies?” Only that’s giving it too much credit, because at least that might be humorous. Carpe diem may be the least erotic moment ever put to paper, even if I include the farts and skid marks from Joyce’s love letters.

Seize me!

Horace is best known for one of his worst poems. Nevertheless, he’s the only writer whose birthday I celebrate, because so much of what I know I learned from him or from someone who learned it from him first. It’s impossible to condense it all into a blog post, but I’ll see what I can do.

1. Accept the world you live in.

Philippi was the decisive battle in the war between the supporters of the late Julius Caesar and his assassins. It was the largest and most destructive military engagement Rome had yet seen. As a young man, Horace had been an officer on the losing side.

In his poetry, Horace claimed to have thrown down his shield on the battlefield and ran, the most disgraceful action a soldier could take—in a society built on war! The anecdote is is probably not factual: as son of a freed slave, he would have had to possess genuine martial virtue to earn his rank in Brutus’ army. But there is another message here.

To be a poet in Horace’s world, you had to have a patron, and a patron meant a victor in the civil wars. For the rest of his life, Horace wore the mark of a political loser on his sleeve, praising as benevolent conquerors the modestly-dubbed Augustus and his ministers, especially Maecenas, who rewarded him with a country villa for his poems.

It was his pride he had left on that battlefield. Not, I think, in the sense of his honor (although the argument could be made), but the big-headedness that would have blocked his path toward his ambitions. Laying down the heavy shield meant throwing away everything his world had taught him to value so that he could free himself to pursue something self-fulfilling and groundbreaking. Because obsessing over where others place their esteem is sort of worthless when compared to getting everything you want.

Horace has the sly voice of a man adept at all the court games, who has figured out that if he is prepared to dot the I’s and cross the T’s of what his patron expects him to do, he is free to do anything else it is he wants. That doesn’t sound like a lot of room for experimentation, but for a pair of talented hands, that’s all the room you’ll ever need.

Horace is the the earliest voice in the Western canon to write literature that is not about what it is about. His themes constantly shift shape: a poem about a lover’s quarrel is about a shipwreck is about the Emperor’s victories is about a humble cup of wine. He reveals himself in the concealing of himself. The instant you point to something in one of his lines—a suggestion that the splendor of Rome under Augustus may be a puffed-up shit-show, that the finance minister who supports his art might not have very good taste—it is no longer there.

2. Play to your strengths, adhere to you character

The success of Rome’s military machine had a drawback: it brought the city face-to-face with its cultural inferiority to the peoples it conquered. Romans didn’t have a Homer, for instance. They couldn’t match the Greeks in rhetoric either, and some even argued that it was impossible to discuss the nuanced ideas of Plato and Aristotle in Latin due to the poverty of the language. People like Vergil and Cicero were prepared to spend a lifetime remedying this, but they didn’t want simply to imitate other cultures. The goal was to put a uniquely Roman stamp on these pursuits.

Horace wrote lyric poetry, the kind of verses sung by shepherds or at drinking parties or for a lover. But the Roman genius is the army, and his reader will notice this legacy in the lines about casks of humble wine and the emotional pummeling from the mistress whom the poet escaped like a shipwreck. Like a legionary soldier, Horace’s poems have little power in isolation, but through their organization into a unit they crush with overwhelming force. This is because no poem is an island, each draws strength from the ones standing before and behind it in the collection. It is reasonable to talk of a poetic “formation bonus.”

For instance, in one ode, Horace meets a comrade from a failed campaign long ago and is overwhelmed with joy to be reunited. Two poems later, he receives news of the Emperor’s latest victory but he cannot stop crying because a promising young man was killed in the action. Between these contrasting bookends is an ode about a prostitute who bedevils old men, ruins the fortunes of the young, and makes women of all age weep. Is this a metaphor then, is war a prostitute that seems to offer everything Rome strives for but takes it all away? Not really. Horace never connects the dots, but you think the thoughts. Formation bonus.

From that point follows:

3. You can hide order and structure in chaos.

His poems look and sound conversational and free-wheeling, but when you examine the whole, it is so meticulously planned, you find every plane sanded, every screw tightened.

The modernist era loves Horace for this. See Joyce, see Celine, see Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, oh my God that period is amazing.

4. On the page, the most believable human emotion is ambivalence.

This is the really good stuff.

Horace contradicts himself. A lot. Almost anything you can point to in his work about his worldview, you can find a counter example. Why? Because people have mood swings, circumstances alter their opinions, sometimes they parrot what is expected of them, and sometimes they are contrary for the hell of it. Horace realizes that nothing lends authenticity to a voice like inconsistency.

There are countless ways of doing this wrong in a character presentation, but no rules for doing it right. You just have to study how it is done.

Shit ain’t easy, I don’t know what to tell you.

sloth-576521_640

In addition to carpe diem, Horace makes a list of character flaws that a person should endeavor to avoid. This, I’ve been told, is the earliest extant appearance of the collection of traits now known as the seven deadly sins. So you can thank Horace for that crap-fest too.

Leave a Reply