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Seize the day and savour it: Horace's carpe diem

Updated Wednesday 16th January 2008

Paula James explores the layers of meaning in Horace's tales of two mice.

Horace by A Von Werner Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) and his reflections upon the world around him have - perhaps surprisingly - stayed in tune with human experience through many centuries. His lyrical, satirical, and sometimes mildly perplexing verse continues to inspire creative poets like Maureen Almond, who appeared in conversation with Stephen Harrison on BBC Radio 3's series The Essay: Greek and Roman Voices.

"Live for the moment!" is one way of translating the compact little command carpe diem that forms part of the final flourish in Horace's Ode to Leuconoe (the eleventh poem in Book One.) We don't know anything about the girl in question or whether this poem urging her literally to seize the day is a nifty strategy for seduction ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" springs to mind here): "Don't ask the astrologers how many years you have left – but this might be the last winter you will see!"

"Even while we talk," writes Horace, "a span of envious time has flown by; best to be savvy, strain the wine and don't trust too much to the future." Carpere, a versatile verb, also suggests plucking, grasping, devouring. The phrase has been bandied about in a fair few cultures over time as it seems to summarise the human condition – a sense of mortality matched with a response of frivolity.

Scene Setting

Horace lived in volatile times. Seize the day was likely to be sound advice when fortunes could rise rapidly and fall just as fast. The poet suffered property confiscation after fighting on the losing side of Brutus and Cassius in the Civil Wars but at least a timely amnesty saved him from permanent exile or death. The Odes were published from 30 to 23 BC, a decade following the battle of Actium where Octavian, the heir of Caesar, and Caesar's armies defeated Antony and Cleopatra.

The young Octavian established himself as the leading citizen, princeps, in other words, Emperor at Rome, enjoying the monopoly of power in all its territories throughout the world. Octavian took the title of Augustus and the rest is history. Rome had emperors from that moment on.

In the meantime, Horace found favour with Maecenas, Octavian's rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor's interests.

Poets like Horace were encouraged to spend at least some of their creative energies celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity. Horace penned elegant Odes to commemorate imperial triumphs and other grand occasions but this genre (and other literary forms he experimented with) also gave him space to produce poems upon a wide range of themes from the ethical to the aesthetic.

Carpe diem - or maybe carpe viam?

As he proved his worth and loyalty, Horace received a country estate near Tivoli from Maecenas - a gift that the poet treasured to the end of his days. The Sabine farm was where Horace spent quality time. The villa life was one of otium (leisure) characterised as far as the educated Roman was concerned by good food and drink (served up by slaves, naturally) and stimulating conversations amongst friends.

Horace's poems on the pursuit of happiness tend to dovetail nicely with aspects of Epicurean philosophy. Being a bon viveur did not invariably entail short-term hedonism for Horace, as the Epicurean guide to rational living was more about a detached perspective upon all human activity - particularly politics and power games.

However, as we have seen, in return for property and (eventually) financial independence, Horace was happy to contribute to a sense of material and cultural revival under Augustus. He also shared in a genuine sense of relief that the Italian countryside was no longer war-torn. Perhaps he had to compromise: Epicurean in the countryside but a pragmatist in the town!

I would like to connect the sentiment of carpe diem to another of Horace's poems in which he introduces the Aesop fable of the town mouse and country mouse. The story starts by underscoring the theme of living for the moment, but ends on a different note of celebration: better to live safely out of sight and on the poorest rations, well out of the way of the good and the great, rather than feasting at their tables and waiting for those tables to be turned!

Horace opens this earlier poem (from volumes he called Sermones, but which we know as the Satires) with a thankful prayer (principally to the Roman god Mercury) for his Sabine farm. At this time he still needed a day job, and was working as a clerk in the Treasury at Rome. He was later to refuse a more important post offered to him by the Emperor.

Horace's friendship with Maecenas, the 'cultural attaché', put the poet under scrutiny whenever he was in the city and in this Sixth Satire of the second book in the series he gives us a glimpse (or, to be more accurate, we hear a set of sound bites) of the kind of requests for favours and information he had to suffer as he walked the streets of Rome.

Few believed his protestations that any conversation he had with the powerful Maecenas was low key trivia; sport and the weather, for instance. For this reason, Horace escaped to his Sabine farm with a great sense of relief. The Satire points up the contrasts between town and country and polarises the two as a work / leisure divide. Horace describes a relaxing dinner party with friends – the banquet consists of beans, greens and fat bacon; plenty of wine; saucy slaves taking titbits at the table, and the evening rounded off by Cervius who entertains the company with the aforementioned Aesop fable.

Although Horace calls Cervius' party piece an old wives' tale, the apparently rustic raconteur upgrades the simple story tale to suit the lofty nature of the discussion so far, which has touched on subjects such as whether wealth makes men happy; whether friendships are formed and framed from self interest or altruism; the nature of what is good, and so forth.

The story told by Cervius goes like this:

A country mouse entertains his friend from town with the best but basic store of his meagre hole. The fussy urbane creature is disdainful of the foodstuffs and the rural setting. He persuades the country mouse to travel to the city for a luxurious meal in elaborate surroundings. In Cervius' version, the mouse is a connoisseur of fine food (the recent film Ratatouille resurrects the rodent as savant!) and is able to produce a rhetorical speech with near epic touches to drive his point home.

The mouse addressing his unworldly friend could be Horace talking to Leuconoe in the later Ode - although I would not want to metamorphose Leuconoe into a mouse; I suspect she is a convenient fictional construct. As the town mouse urges his friend to make the most of a short span on earth he gives a seductive picture of high life in the city. Eking out an existence in the wilds is no way to spend one's days. "Remember," says the eloquent mouse, "we are mortal and must be mindful that our life is all too brief. Take to the road (carpe viam) and put your trust in me as a companion."

My wood and my hole is a safe haven

This particular use of carpere is associated with lofty poetry - Virgil uses carpe viam in his epic the Aeneid although this work postdates Horace's Satire. Virgil's hero, the Trojan prince Aeneas, has arrived in Italy and has to undertake a journey through the Underworld with the Sibyl as his guide. In this solemn and perilous enterprise carpe viam reinforces the vital role the prophetess plays in keeping Aeneas on track: she issues the command. She has to lead him safely through the realms of the dead and back to the land of the living.

In the mouth of Cervius' pretentious little rodent steering his unsuspecting friend towards a dangerous environment, "carpe viam" is wonderfully comic – and for a vulnerable little mouse to talk about the shortness of life gives Epicurean philosophy an added piquancy! The town mouse's persuasive speech about seizing the time by hitting the highway might sound Epicurean, but Epicurean philosophy does not advocate putting yourself in risky situations. And certainly not just for a slap up dinner.

In spite of all his pretensions the little wordsmith has a narrow and parasitical view of high quality life - perhaps typical and proverbial of a mouse! All the humanisation in the world will not alter his basic instincts. The simple country 'cousin' leaps up to follow his eloquent friend and the wonderful feast they find in a town house rapidly converts him to the good life.

However, the banquet is suddenly cut short by the entrance of truly terrifying Molossian guard dogs. As the friends run panic stricken through the hall, the rustic mouse breathlessly condemns the life he has just started to savour, utters a brief farewell and has the last words of the Satire: "My wood and my hole with its small store of vetch is a safe haven from ambush and solace enough for me."

It is typical of Horace to look at life's little ironies and to add a dose of self-irony into the mix. We cannot be sure how real our narrator Cervius is, and Horace may be hedging his ethical bets by having another voice praising a low profile life in near poverty. The moral of the fable needs some massaging to fit Horace's situation but we could say that the poet himself had to make a fair few compromises to preserve his peace of mind and his bolthole of tranquillity.

Horace could never be a complete stranger to town and to the necessary networking that went on there. The later carpe diem ode may have been written when Horace was a high status 'poet laureate' but perhaps this makes it all the more poignant and heartfelt, "a true moment's monument" as Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586) was later to dub the sonnet.

Or am I taking it too seriously?

I am still intrigued by the echo of carpe viam in Odes 1.11 and wonder whether in coining the phrase that has endured the centuries Horace may just have had his two proverbial mice in mind – a wry allusion to the earlier Satire perhaps and the impossibility of a truly Epicurean detachment. After all, whatever the physical distance between Horace and his emperor, all roads really did lead to Rome.

 

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