Horace and Me

Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet

Harry Eyres

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One
 

More Durable than Bronze
 
Once again I’m taking this small object through airport security and I’m wondering whether any of the machines will pick it up. Probably not. Though the contents are described as “more durable than bronze” and in terms of half-life rival any radioactive isotope, they don’t set off any contemporary alarms. Our systems are geared toward mobile phones and computers, shoe bombs and booby-trapped undergarments. My object is made of metaphorical metal and its power and capacity cannot be measured in volts or gigabytes.
This thing is red in color and measures a little over six inches by four inches by one inch. It is in fact a book—an old Loeb Library edition that contains a hundred and twenty poems written two thousand years ago by the Roman poet Horace. One hundred and three of those poems are arranged in four books of odes (Horace actually used the word carmina, meaning songs), the work of which the poet was proudest, and which he thought would guarantee his immortality.
Placing this small battered book on my airport café table, looking out over tarmac-covered runways, some woods beyond them, a gray English morning sky, makes me feel more moored and anchored in a place whose very essence is hypermobility. Moored to what? To myself, to some depth of feeling in myself.
Reading this particular poem, the thirtieth and last of Book Three, in which Horace prophesies that his odes will outlast the pyramids, is affecting me so much that I am afraid I may start weeping, or generally betray the kind of emotion you are not supposed to show in airport cafés.
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 of steady rain and the passing of the uncounted 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. The scholars who try to nail Horace, and other ancient authors who still speak to us, down to the past have got something fundamentally wrong.
“Not all of me will die; part of me will escape the goddess of death.” Maybe that’s what’s affecting me. Something to counter the fear of death that attends all airports, all flights into the unknown. I’m only flying to Turin (as it happens), but this is the place of departures and sometime soon they’ll call my flight; my number will come. The mobile phone rings; it’s my partner wishing me a safe flight, reminding me to drink enough water. She’s right; I need water. But not water alone; I also need Horace, who said no poetry worth reading was written by drinkers of water. Just for a moment I weigh the sleek metal coolness of the phone against the warmer, frayed old book. In terms of apparent power, attractiveness, usefulness, surely the gleaming gizmo wins out (not that it’s a new phone, or a smartphone—any self-respecting teenager would regard it as an antique). I wonder which will have the longer future.
I am reminded of a phrase from a newspaper article I recently added to my cuttings file in which the historian Timothy Garton Ash criticized the thoughtless stereotyping of Poles as anti-Semitic. He went on to characterize “the language of today’s party politics” as consisting of “prefabricated phrases and glib half-truths.” Such phrases and half-truths cannot be expected to last long. They are not made of the right durable stuff, for a start. Their foundations are not deep. They don’t bear any profound relation to reality, or true emotion. When a big storm or disaster strikes, they fall apart, smashed to useless tinder.
Wandering into the airport bookshop, I notice the volume by the British Liberal Democrat minister Vince Cable entitled The Storm. The cover shows Cable looking suitably gloomy and also prophetic, against a backdrop of ominous clouds. His book is about the economic storm that hit the western economies apparently without much warning in 2008. For a few days or weeks in September and October of that year, following the collapse of the American bank Lehman Brothers, it looked as if the entire system of credit that lubricated the globalized capitalist system was seizing up.
I happened to be having lunch with a very important personage on one of those October days, when the U.K.’s Royal Bank of Scotland, the world’s largest bank at that time, very nearly went bust. That would have meant money not coming out of ATM machines, people unable to pay for food, riots on the streets. My friend, a director of the bank, gamely went ahead with the lunch, during which we talked about the English Hispanist Gerald Brenan and our shared love of Spanish culture, but I could see he had turned pale and that he was hardly touching his food. If someone like him was worried, I reflected, we really must be in trouble.
Since then the crisis has rolled on, deepening rather than resolving itself. As my friend predicted, what began as a financial crisis would become an economic one. Cable was right; the storm clouds really did seem to be gathering. After decades in which the lucky people of the earth felt things were only getting better, could only get better, the kind of conditions that created the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the terrible consequences we all know, suddenly didn’t seem so distant. And they were being exacerbated by politicians who appeared to have learned nothing from history, especially not the lessons of John Maynard Keynes. And as if all that was not bad enough, this financial and economic crisis was merely being added to an ongoing, and potentially far more grave, environmental crisis, in which the capacity of the earth, the oceans, the atmosphere to absorb industrial pollution, to sustain the conditions for tolerable life, was being put under serious threat. Here was a profound crisis not just of economy but of values, born of surfeit rather than penury: born of the excess of credit and consumption.
Strangely enough, I don’t think any of this would have greatly surprised Horace. He too perceived a crisis of values in the midst of what appeared to be peace and plenty.
At last the civil wars, a period of almost unimaginable chaos and bloodshed, are over. The major foreign enemies have been defeated. There are no longer any limits, either of space or time. The word comes from on high that history has ended (Francis Fukuyama’s version), or “dominion without end is my gift to you” (Jupiter’s words to Aeneas in Book 1 of Virgil’s Aeneid). The empire has dawned; a sun has risen that will not set.
And yet, just at this moment of supreme temporal triumph come obscure rumors of defeat. Legions are stranded abroad. Daring attacks threaten the impregnable capital city. Immense material wealth proves strangely counterproductive; it even seems to consume itself. City dwellers are deafened by noise, suffocated by smog. Even the fish in the ocean feel their environment contracting, hemmed in by concrete fish pens that extend human dominion into the ownerless deep.
Horace’s time and ours are linked by a curious sense of hollowness at the heart of unparalleled prosperity. The old gods are abandoning the city, just when their guidance might be needed most. Surrounded by skyscrapers, palaces, fed full with delicacies and entertainments, people feel adrift, their moorings gone. Though a relatively peaceful political order has been established, there is a deep crisis of values that threatens to undermine that order.
For a long time now no one sophisticated has taken the old gods, the old religion, or the archaic virtues of frugality and simplicity particularly seriously. God has been turned into money, and money has amazing powers; no gates or guardians can stop it; it can bribe and destroy states. But to the keenest sensibility of the age, materialism itself, which seemed so solid, is revealed as a false god. Growing affluence appears to breed only an insatiable hunger for more, a desolate sense of something always lacking.
Horace asked himself, just as we are asking ourselves, these questions: What exactly is this new dominion, empire, or global new order? Can it offer unlimited peace and prosperity, stretching forward into infinite horizons of time, or does it consist of little more than a soulless efficiency, an instrumentalism that makes everything a means to an end, with the end itself lost along the way? In which case, might not the greatest loss and poverty be of time itself, the lived and living moment, the day, which is the gods’ gift to us, but which is always being sacrificed to a more glorious tomorrow?
Horace’s response to living in his time of global power threatened by its inner vacuum of values, not so unlike our time of global capitalism, in which no value other than the monetary is recognized, was to be contrary. The life work he set himself, writing a body of Latin lyric poetry in Greek meters, could be seen as supremely useless. Though he managed to persuade himself that Augustus’s new order was benign, he railed against plutocracy and declared himself on the side of those with little, while recognizing that he was compromised, a friend to rich men as well as to the poor.
He insisted on the benefits to be gained from recognizing inescapable limits: the limit to human life; the sanity of being satisfied with “what is enough,” rather than the restless reaching after more; the happiness of dwelling in “one dear perpetual place,” rather than being constantly on the move but never escaping what you cannot leave behind, yourself.
Horace’s warning to jet-setters comes at the end of his verse letter to Bullatius: “You can change the color of the sky, not the color of your mind / By jetting over oceans; a sort of busy idleness wears us out; / We think the best way to live is to buy a yacht or an SUV; / Everything you need is here, in Pitsville, if your mind is sane.”
At last my flight is called. I put the small battered book away in its usual pocket in my rucksack and proceed toward the gate. I wonder whether I am inflating the book’s value, putting more onto it than it can bear. But then the book and its author never claimed they could solve any great practical challenge, like throwing a water supply across a valley, or lifting a hundred tons of metal five miles into the air.
What I have in my rucksack, as I move along the walkway toward the marvel of modern technology that will transport me (I hope) over seas and mountains, is just some debris from a long-gone civilization. But it is, as I hope this book will show, a magical sort of debris, the equal and opposite of the nuclear waste that will remain toxic for thousands of years.
Horace is the canniest of classics, able to survive in fragmentary form. He invented some of the pithiest phrases ever coined. Horace’s phrases, lines, and poems have lasted, I reckon, because they’re the opposite of prefabricated or glib. His words are put together with a carpentry or stonemasonry so cunning and precise that nothing can prize them apart. Syllables, sounds, rhythms are locked together with a force that even earthquakes could not budge.
And they are not just decorative. Horace once said that poetry should be both sweet and useful. Or even true.
The Horatian Spanish poet Antonio Machado defined poetry as “a few true words,” a definition that sounds minimal, even despairing, until you reflect on what a few true words can do. They might help us find our bearings, keep us on track, in a world, a universe, that seems to get vaster and more mystifying but not more navigable as knowledge without wisdom proliferates. At least they have helped me find my bearings and keep myself on track. Just now, I’m hoping they’ll see me through to Turin, and beyond.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Harry Eyres