Have Some Good Wine: Horace, Ode 2.11


Another of Horace’s Carpe Diem poems (translation is my own):

May you stop wondering, Quinctius Hirpinus, what the warlike
Cantabrian or the Scythian, separated from us by the Adriatic Sea,
are plotting, and may you not be anxious about what purpose life
has for us, life that demands few things. Fickle youth and beauty
slip behind us, while boring old-age drives away playful love
and easy sleep. Spring flowers do not hold their beauty forever,
nor does the red moon perpetually glow with the same appearance.
Why would you exhaust your soul making plans for the future, a
soul that is not up to such a task? Why should we not, instead,
have some good wine, while we still can, reclining under a lofty
plane or pine tree—in fact, let us do this without a care in the
world, and adorn our gray hair with flowers and Assyrian scents.
Bacchus drives away our all-consuming worries. What servant is readily
available to dilute the cups of fiery Falernian wine with water
from the flowing stream? Who will lure Lyde, that wild sex fiend,
from her house? Come on now, and use your ivory lyre to persuade her
to hurry up—she has her hair arranged in that sexy, Laconian Greek way.

 

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Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I usually devour a 350-page book in a couple of days, but Woolf’s writing, both her fiction and non-fiction, demands careful attention and a slow read. It took me a week to read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel that was published in 1915. She is just beginning to experiment with what will become her signature, stream-of-consciousness style. She pokes fun at the uptight, British upper class who, even while on holiday in a tropical South American climate, insist on wearing furs and formal coats and having tea every afternoon promptly at 5:00. Even though on the surface they engage in polite conversation about politics, suffrage, and social gossip, Woolf gives us a glimpse of what they are really thinking. She introduces us to Rachael, her heroine, by her own thoughts as she sits in her drawing room in solitude on her father’s ship:

To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest. The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.

Rachael is a very naïve twenty-four-year old who was raised by her spinster aunts and her widowed father. Her Aunt Helen, who is also on the voyage to South American, invites Rachael to stay at her villa for the winter in the hopes of better educating her about life and bringing her out of her sheltered existence. When they land in South American, Rachael and her aunt socialize with the British upper class men and women who are staying at the local hotel. Among these guests is Terence Hewett, an financially independent twenty-seven-year-old man who likes to travel and dabbles in writing novels. Both Rachael and Terence have never been in love; even though they are mentally and physically attracted to one another they spend a lot of time drawing close and then pulling back from one another because their feelings terrify them.

Once they finally confess their feelings and allow themselves to be happy, Rachael and Terence start planning their wedding and have a few weeks of bliss. But The Voyage Out ends in tragedy. It’s a shame that the lovers wasted so much time before they decided to embrace what would make them both happy. Horace’s Ode 1.11, the famous Carpe Diem poem kept coming to mind as I read Woolf’s novel (translation is my own):

May you not ask to know what end
—for it is not right—the gods might
have in store either for you or for me
Leuconoe, and may you also not consult
Babylonian Astrology. How much better
it is to endure whatever will be, whether
Jupiter has allotted us more winters, or
if this is the last, the winter which weakens
the Tyrrhenian Sea with opposing rocks. May
you be wise, may you strain your wine, and
because life is brief, may you give up any
long-term hopes. As we are speaking, envious
time slips by. Seize the day, trust in
the future as little as possible.

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Aristotle’s Poetics 1448b

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about poetry lately.  In an end-of-semester bout of insomnia last night my thoughts wandered towards Aristotle’s Poetics.  This section, 1448b, is a discussion of the origins of poetry and the Greek word mimesis.  Translation is my own:

There seems to be altogether two natural causes for the origins of poetry.  It is innate for men to imitate and from childhood they differ from other animals in this capability—that imitation is possible and they first form learning through imitation; and everyone takes pleasure in imitations.  The indication of this is carried out in our actions: some things are painful to look at, but if we look at their exact likeness instead we can take pleasure in them—for example, the shape of very deformed wild beasts, or corpses.  The reason for this is that it is not only pleasant for philosophers to learn, but it is similarly pleasant for everyone else to learn, although most people have a shorter experience with this.  People take pleasure in observing likenesses because it comes upon us to learn from and to make inferences about those things we observe—what each thing is like and that this person is like that person:  and if we should happen to see before us the original, it is not the imitation that brings us pleasure,  but its workmanship or appearance or some other such cause.

Needless to say there are so many aspects of this short paragraph to ponder over.

 

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She is the Spider, not the Fly: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

The breadth of Michael Schmidt’s 600 page, 64 chapter book Lives of the Poets is so extensive that he had to make the biographical sketches of each poet rather succinct and brief.  But this brevity does not detract from the joyful experience of reading his work because one gets the sense that he chooses every word he writes on the page carefully and he makes every sentence, every paragraph significant. He says, for instance, about Emily Dickinson,

Life, time, nature and eternity are the big counters she moves about the rapid little quatrain squares of her verse, but each counter she makes her own through metaphor and her vivid subversions of expectation. ‘Her wit is accuracy,’ says the poet Alison Brackenbury, but ‘She is the spider, not the fly.’ Not being the fly: perhaps that was her strategy of withdrawal from a world in which she saw women snared in the strict geometries of the social web, and decided that for her the freedom of an elected solitude—not of a spinster only but of a recluse—was preferable, even necessary.

Schmidt points out that scholars over the years have come up with a myriad of reasons for her self-imposed solitude—from being rejected by a man or a woman to suffering from agoraphobia—all of which are mere speculations.  “We have the legend,” Schmidt writes, “but the crucial facts in the recorded life are absent.”  Schmidt first becomes aware of Dickinson’s poems at the age of fourteen when Robert Frost visits his school and recites one of her poems aloud; from that point forward he grapples with what, exactly, makes her poems so unique. “Dickinson’s reticence seems part of her poetic strategy: if we could assign the poems to specific emotional events, we would ground them. As it is, they are a miracle and a mystery of language.”

For eight decades editors of her poetry have stripped out Dickinson’s original punctuation; they have been especially targeted her dashes, taking all of them out of her poems.  Editors have also corrected her diction and substituted lower cases letters at the points where in her original poems she had used capitals. The Thomas H. Johnson edition in 1955 restored her original formats for all the poems and it was only then, Schmidt argues, that we finally began to understand her unique voice: “Here is her originality, unmuffled after eight decades of propriety, an irregularity that answers to the darting, tentative process of the poet’s sight and feeling, the rapid transformations that follow an unfolding argument or feeling. Dickinson’s poetry is the drama of process.”

I was reading Dickinson’s collection of Envelope Poems alongside Schmidt’s chapter and even in these poetic fragments one feels her “rapid transformations.” The majority of these envelope poems were written between 1870 and 1885. I found them equally as powerful as her longer, more formal poems. It seems fitting for her that they were jotted down on corners or backs of envelopes.

A139 Begins:
As old as Woe—
How old is that?
Some Eighteen
thousand years—
As old as
Bliss
Joy—

This edition has photos of the original envelopes and transcriptions of each text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And A317 begins:
On that
specific Pillow
Our projects
flit away-
The Nights’
Trememdous
Morrow
And whether
Sleep will stay
Or usher us—
a Stranger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m glad to have much more Dickinson and Schmidt to read going into my summer holidays.

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The Poet in Solitude: Propertius 1.18

Propertius 1.18

(Translation is my own)

This, certainly, is a deserted spot,  a quiet place for my complaints

and an empty grove only possessed by the light breeze of the west wind.

In this place it is freely permitted for me to pour forth my hidden pain;

that is if the lonely rocks are able to keep my trust.

At what point, my Cynthia, should I first repeat the tale of your

scornful contempt?  How did you make me start crying in the first place,

Cynthia?  I was just recently counted among the number of happy lovers,

but now I am forced to bear the mark of shame because of your love.

What have I done to deserve this? What crime have I committed that has

turned you against me?  Is the worry of a new woman the cause for your distance?

If you return yourself to me, cold woman, then and I can assure you that

no other woman has set her fair feet on my doorstep.   Even though in

my distress I have every right to be harsh with you, nevertheless, my savage anger

will not be released upon you and cause you to have perpetual fury against me or to weep

so many floods of tears that those eyes of yours should become ugly.

Or could it be that I give almost no signs of my feelings by the expression

on my face, or that no cries of loyalty towards you ever cross my lips?

Oh you trees, if you are capable of love,  you will be my witnesses—beech trees

and pine trees, beloved by the Arcadian god.   Ah, how often my words echo

under your shades, and how often the name “Cynthia” is written on the

thin bark of your trunks!  Ah, how your injury has caused me great anxiety,

an anxiety which is only increased by your silent door!

As a timid man I have accustomed myself to forebear all the demands of a

haughty woman and not to complain about her deeds through my melodious

grief.  I am given, for all of this grief, endless mountains, frigid rock, and the harsh

silence of an uncultivated wilderness.  Whatever of my complaints I am able

to narrate aloud, I, alone, am forced to say these things to the chirping birds.

And whoever you are, let the forests echo back to me my calling of “Cynthia”

and may the deserted rocks never be free from your name.

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