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Odes and airports seem to go together. (p. 225)
Harry Eyres, Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
And I will sing you into immortality … (Horace, Odes 3.13)
‘Horace is making a pretty outrageous claim. He is saying that these poems are time-proof – proof against floods and hurricanes, or just the drip-drip steady rain and the passing of the countless days, weeks, months, “the unnumbered series of years and the flight of time.” The extraordinary thing is that he was right; he wrote his poems into the future, for the future as much as for the present, and they remain always contemporary.’ (4)
I didn’t get Horace until I met Harry. It took one poet to introduce me to another, and ten years after I first read Horace, I have gone back to him with a clearer eye. He feels like a friend and helper, not a remote and august figure. And I hadn’t realized the extent to which some of my own ideals and idylls stem from Horace, including the dreamed of home in Tuscany.
I am interested in timelessness and what endures over millennia, particularly in the fragile media of scrolls and paper, and the intangibles of ideas and memory, together with the poems or other forms bundling them together.
The epistles are poetry, but poetry of a different kind, more nakedly concerned with the questions of how to live, how to live well, how to conduct relationships with those you depend on for patronage while remaining free; how to be free in your mind. (25)
My italics. These are timeless issues. What is timelessness? More than something which just lasts and lasts, rather something that retains long-range relevance and feels contemporary and alive, even if it uses old words or means. Key here is the quality of transmission – I have stumbled over great works, wondering what the fuss was about, until I found a translation that resonated (whether with the original text, or with me personally, or both). Eyres recognizes this in his note on translation:
The first rule is that the versions have to live, to hold the reader, as contemporary poems, not museum pieces. (xi)
Eyres is also a poet, and he writes warmly and freshly. This is as much a meditation on poetry and poets as it is on life, and what Horace has to teach us about both. Eyres says he has spent a substantial part of his life ‘devoted to the quixotic task of defending lyric poetry and its essential humanizing space’. I found this definition unpretentious and appealing:
Lyric poetry – the most personal, subjective kind of poetry, whose subject matter is the poet’s life, loves, hatreds, losses – has a special place even within what we might think of (wrongly) as the already rarefied world of poetry. It is, if you like, the purest kind of poetry, poetry tout court. Lyric poems are short, or shortish, which is already a kind of statement in a world given to grandiosity, where in general big is beautiful. (17)
One vast sea of human thinking where I am so lost I can’t even read the timetable to catch a passing boat, is philosophy. That is, Philosophy. I have yet to read a work of Philosophy I understood let alone retained or applied, though I made some headway when I tried a different tack and read children’s books. But generally it’s beyond me and some of Eyres’ comments gave me some possible clues as to my cluelessness:
First of all philosophy is not an academic discipline. It is the study, which should concern all thinking human beings, of how to live and how to die. (26)
If that is philosophy, then I get it, and even have some practice if not proficiency, being fully engaged in the study of how to live, while putting off thinking about how to die until I’ve made adequate progress on the first part. And I discover that a philosopher (Epicurus) asked a question that has occasionally entered my baffled head: “What use is philosophy, unless it casts out suffering from the soul?” I realize, in reading this, that I have a child’s assumption that professional philosophers ought to be wise, just as qualified psychologists ought to be balanced (and doctors healthy? where could this lead?) But enough of my naivety. The real stumbling block may be this:
The hazard with philosophy is that it tends to elevate system above humanity. (26)
Whereas I elevate humanity above system, believing that systems are only worth their salt if they reinforce humanity. Humanity pulsed through Adam Nicholson’s bestellar on Homer, and it’s here on a humbler, non-epic scale in Eyres’ presentation of Horace. Guidance, reminders, prompts on how to live fully and well, and reassurance that you are not alone:
This feeling of safety, an unlikely safety, a safety won against the odds, is one of the most profound feelings and gifts Horace has to offer. (221)
Living in an age when mainstream media calmly reports on the prospect that we may soon be eclipsed by artificial intelligence, rendered redundant in terms of work, and even life, and relegated as one writer put it to the ‘useless masses’ (presumably everyone who lives outside Silicon Valley or other elite-pods), we need – at least I do – some anchorage that withstands the pull and suck of time’s tides and which doesn’t exist, to use Eyres’ fine words, in a ‘vacuum of values’. Horace can help us think through what we want humanity’s future to be, including the world of work and leisure (more than just not-work, I hope).
In envisioning poetry as therapeutic dialogue and friendship, Horace was reaching far beyond his own time, perhaps into a time we have not yet attained. (28)
Among other lovely asides is Eyres’ description of how to end a job interview quickly, intentionally or not, by raising real issues:
At my final board in the Civil Service examination, I was faced with a semicircle of very serious-looking people wearing half-moon glasses. “What do you consider the gravest problem facing the U.K. at the moment, Mr. Eyres?” asked one of them, with solemn politeness. I blurted out what I felt but what I suspect was the wrong answer: “I think the fact that so many people do such dreadfully boring jobs.” (23)
Harry Eyres has apparently had some boring jobs, but he moved on, and as far as I can see now has a healthy portfolio career of poet, writer, teacher and vintner. Having written an ever expanding essay on Time, Wine and Trees, I drank up the wine metaphors in this beautiful book:
You could say there is nothing more central to Horace’s poetry, and philosophy, than wine. (29)
This humble wine stands for the humble poet, the freedman’s son, and beyond that for the poetry this man wrote, which was a kind of transformation of humility into eternity. (44)
Horace shows how human life, transient as it is, can be rich and meaningful even when humble, and can reach well beyond its short span to touch other transient human lives.
The earth, our home, our dear, our loving wife
Are only lent to us and must be left behind
And all those trees you’ve planted far and wide
Will outlive you, all except the cypresses;
(Horace, Eheu Fugaces, Odes 2.14)
The terrible thought comes that one day that breathing, and mine, probably on another day, earlier or later, will cease. Nothing can make that thought unterrible, but Horace’s ode at least bears witness to one who had the courage to think and feel it, two thousand years before I did, to say it and sing it as a friend, in the lucid and lovely words that go on shining with their modest glow, like a warm candle in the darkness. (233-34)
‘Vixi,’ said Horace, ‘I have lived’. He still lives. And Ave to Harry Eyres for introducing me to his friend.
Wisdom’s what we need, and wine,
And the long, slow art of cutting back
For richer, later fruit. As we speak the seconds
Tick away; today is ripe for tasting;
Who knows what tomorrow’s fruit will be?
(Carpe Diem, Odes 1.11, pp. 183-84)
Vintages, after all, bring in the dimension of time; of birth, aging, and death, which wine has in common with human beings.
(Horace and Me, p. 45)