Tuesday 2 May 2023

Iverus Educational: Ode to Horace

I ought to be glad

That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,

Not everyone here having had

The privilege of learning a language

That is incontrovertibly dead

And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases

Around in his head

Autumn journal  XIII         

So Louis MacNeice, ironically.

The discarded schoolbook of a boy uncle, the youngest of five and the only one of the family in that generation to go to university, may have bequeathed to his nephew, the present writer, such a toy-box treasure:

This pocket textbook, 4” X 6”, was apparently on the Leaving Certificate, or at least the Matriculation examination syllabus, in the Ireland of the early 1950s; it survived through casual neglect the seven decades since. The evident wear and tear is external: the interior is pristine and betrays no sign of assiduous study by its original owner, who was not seen in life again after his student years in UCC. Thereafter a year at the Sorbonne, where he met his French-Canadian wife and emigrated to Canada, dying there 60 or so years later in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, after a career as a much respected and well liked secondary school teacher.

The text was first published in 1879 and the school-text here is a 1949 reprint, by which time its eloquent and grammatically punctilious English must already have sounded arch and antiquated to the CBS schoolboy, and is today as incontrovertibly dead as MacNeice's Latin, all the more regrettably so.

Having set one's stubborn juvenile head stubbornly against Latin, not tempted even by the remarkably modern parallels of Roman history also bundled in the syllabus, the writer here must now content himself with a copy of Jon R. Stone's Latin for the Illiterati.

But all is not yet lost: if your Latin fails, the notes of the learned T.E. Page are in themselves an education, even if excruciatingly erudite in explaining the elegant stylistic inversions, contractions and allusions in the poetry of Horace. The poet famously prized the natural lifestyle on his Sabine farm over that of office and influence in Rome. The pauperiem (Ode 1, line 18) of his circumstances is not to be confused with its modern derivative, pauperism; rather it was the status of a simple yeoman farmer. Carpe diem (live for now, but in a positive and not in a hedonistic way) is echoed in similar maxims throughout Horace. Did you know that it was customary to kick at, rather than to knock on doors (Ode IV, lines 13,14)? Now that's the kind of vivid trivia that makes life in ancient Rome sound interesting!

Another thing the classical illiteratus such as the present writer might not know is that the Peloponnese in the modern-day tourist Mecca of Greece is named from the house of Pelops, whence many of the characters in the famed tragedies of Greek drama (Ode VI, line 8). And, more trivia: what did the Romans wear under the toga? – the tunica,  a sort of T-shirt, whence tunic in English, of course (VI, line 13). The chaps who invented the toga also realized that the right tonsure was a fitting accompaniment, and barbers were introduced at Rome circa 300 BC (cf. Ode XII, line 41).

Aspiring potentates are liable to borrow greatness from ancient Rome: Kaiser and Czar are merely transliterations of Caesar. And Duce, borrowed by Mussolini, meant not emperor, but merely one of the generals leading the campaigns of Augustus (Ode VII, line 27). At the ordinary, man-in-the-street level, Latin also had a words to suit our moods: a morosus (Ode IX, line 18), from which comes morose, meant one who consulted only his own disposition, whereas a moriger was one who consulted that of others. Such succinct terminology is not heard in modern psychology.

There is wisdom to be mined in all the Odes. The civilized horror with which 21st century sentiment reacts to full-blown war in the Ukraine may already be read, refined in the affected astonishment of Horace at the intention of Iccius to sell his carefully-formed library in order to equip himself to take part in an imperial expedition of plunder to Arabia Felix, south Arabia, the area corresponding to modern-day Yemen, war-torn even today (Ode XXIX).

The Horace notes of T.E. Page are themselves clearly the work of a fine classical scholar and, lately discovered by your writer here, must come close to the satisfaction of reading and understanding the original Latin of the polished and witty poetic genius that was Horace.

Not tempted? Well, in that case the rhyming quatrains of Colin Sydenham, secretary and subsequently chairman of the Horatian Society, Horace, The Odes (2005), offer the sheer pleasure of, as it were, easy listening.

The little pocket primer is offered this last tribute; here it is again, just recognizable in a still life painting it inspired: