on Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet, by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

When Harry Eyres excerpted Horace and Me for one of his “Slow Lane” columns in the Financial Times, he entitled the article “Horace Saved My Life.” Eyres packs a volume of Horace’s odes when traveling and may weep while reading at the airport lounge (“People will think I’ve suffered a bereavement, or broken up with my partner, when in fact I’ve just been moved by a perfect line of poetry”).

HoraceCover.jpgBut he hasn’t always been a Horace fan. His classics teachers at Eton were interested only in the grammatical, leading him to concur with Byron’s sentiment in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” -- “Then farewell, Horace – whom I hated so … forced down word for word / In my repugnant youth.”

Other poets have despised Horace for allegedly cuddling up to the imperialistic regime of Augustus. Most famously, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” skewered Horace’s line “It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country.” Eyres counters, “The establishment Horace was a falsification, a travesty. The real Horace would turn out to be an infinitely more complex, poised, critical figure; how else would he have appealed so strongly to so many of the West’s most enlightened and critical spirits, who usually identified him with the struggle for intellectual freedom against all forms of dogmatism?”

Horace and Me comprises an ardent defense of the poet and lyric poetry – not that either needs a custodian. I prefer Robert Francis’ view that “it is not our business to defend poetry but the business of poetry to defend us.” But Eyres seems to have learned from Horace that the poem is always saying Be like me. Relent, put my words in your mouth, and let them be yours. Horace critiques our shortsightedness but defends the humanity that yields it. Most of all, Horace strove for tones of equanimity and chummy candor, and Eyres emulates these protective postures.

HoraceStamp.jpegQuintus Horatius Flaccus was born in Apulia on December 8, 65 B.C. to a Roman slave who regained his freedom and invested in his son’s education. At nineteen, Horace went to Athens to study at The Academy founded by Plato, then dominated by Epicurean and Stoic philosophies. In 42 B.C., Horace fought on the losing side at the Battle of Phillipi in northern Greece (though per his own recounting he may have simply dropped his shield and fled). Octavian (later Augustus) and Mark Antony defeated Brutus’ republican army. Nevertheless, with the support of fellow poet Virgil and Maecenas, a close aide to Augustus, Horace received amnesty and the gift of his Sabine Farm and its rent-paying tenants, and thus accessed the leisure to write.

Asked by Augustus to be his secretary and letter-writer, Horace politely refused – though on demand he did write the “Carmen Saeculare,” an unexceptional state-sponsored festival hymn. Eyres writes, “Poetry, Horace’s mastery of meters, his amazing feat in being the first to adapt Greek lyric song to Latin measures, is what has brought him protection, not least in the form of the Sabine Farm.” Virgil’s epics may have been more popular, but Horace’s epodes, odes, and epistles enjoyed a succes d’estime with the creative and educated elite.

Horace1.jpegEyres sees himself in Horace: difficult years of adolescence, training in Greek classics, travel through the empire, irascibility easily mollified, prized friendships, oenophilia, and a love of one’s study. He envisions a Horace whose views on amassed wealth and communal welfare echo his own, claiming that Horace and Augustus had “a shared feeling that unchecked private affluence was in some strange way impoverishing the whole society.” While appreciating Horace’s complexities, Eyres also “can’t help feeling that the poet has finally allowed himself to become too embedded, to will himself into the role and voice of the good citizen, rather than to allow himself that crucial margin of error, that ability to be different, even dissenting.”

HoraceEyres.jpegEyres does a fine job of sketching Horace’s accomplishments, personality, interests, passions and conflicts, but the author himself fails to emerge as a character – and while one may believe that Horace rescued his life, the need for rescue never quite clarifies. “Horace’s concern with philosophy,” says Eyres, “like my own concern with psychotherapy, stems from personal feelings of dissatisfaction and distemper.” And that’s it. He recalls his days at Cambridge: “There was also a deep and incommunicable unhappiness, probably mostly of a fairly simple and sexual nature.” And no more.

Flipping through the just-published edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), I came across this: “The beauty and delight of Horace’s style … originates principally in this: that it keeps the soul in continuous, lively motion and activity, transported it at every step, often abruptly, from a thought, an image, an idea … The mind has much to do to reach tem all, it is flung here and there, it feels the sensation of vigor … It is overwhelmed by the multiplicity and the variety of things.”

Horace permitted himself to go “quacumque libido est” – “wherever fancy leads.” Eyres’ narrative abilities may be too restrained to cross the boundary of lyric prose – but his discursiveness compensates in large measure. Horace and Me succeeds through lively motion and vigor. If Horace saved Eyres’ life, perhaps it was by showing him how to “immerse ourselves fully in time, which means in the rhythms of the day and the natural world; the feel of the seasons; the sound of the sea; and in relationship, in conversation, wine drinking, and lovemaking, time may be transformed from a horrifying rush into a pleasurable flow.”

[Published June 4, 2013. 240 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

David Ferry's translations

For anyone wanting to ease into Horace's work, I can't imagine a better way than through David Ferry's expertly heard translations of the odes. They sound both classic and modern at the same time, intimate and forceful, often sonorous. Chummy, as stated above. I looked up some of Eyre's op-eds for the Fin Times. He's a bleeding heart, not as tough-minded as his mentor Horace, and predictable in his opinions. He could use some of the "sensation of vigor" that Leopardi found in the poet.

Re Dulce Et Decorum Est

A good piece. Thank you. As you wrote, while the custodianship of poets is clearly unnecessary -- publishers love you or they don't; I'll keep on writing, or I won't -- it seems that Mr Eyres has touched on a different type of custody, viz. that of a certain cultural tradition. The title "Life Lessons" might play into the current game of help-yourself-to-anything, but you have to marvel at the power of a poet's work to still be working on anyone 2000 years later. (And at the racket that will produce something like this for us to buy.) "Incommunicable unhappiness", that's the disease alright, is averted by Horacian recourse. Not bad. Not bad at all.