Returning to Horace

John Kuhner |

"Horace and Me" Will Make You Want to Read Horace Again

Rudyard Kipling, in his autobiography Something of Myself, notoriously said of his Latin teacher William Carr Crofts, that Crofts “taught me to loathe Horace for two years; to forget him for twenty, and to love him for the rest of my days and through many sleepless nights.” Is this not remarkable? That we may attain to the love of an author only after decades of marinating him in despite and neglect? What does this say about our hasty criticism, that some aesthetic appraisals may take decades to mature? What sort of subject is Horace, that the same person may hold such contradictory views of him? Kipling’s experience is not unique, either. I am personally only the latest of many readers who have found Horace, who in my youth was only the loathsome scribbler of such verses as odi profanum vulgus et arceo (“I hate the profane rabble and keep them away”), grow more and more attractive – enigmatically so – as gray hairs thicken around my ears. Why is this?

In his delightful book Horace and Me, the writer Harry Eyres suggests a simile which helps unlock the mystery of how we grow into a love of Horace. Horace is like wine. Pressed into our minds as mere grape juice, we wonder if all the praise heaped on Horace is just cant lip-synced down the ages. Sealed into us by the long tedious processes of philology, the poems reveal to us at first mostly the unbearably dull labor of it all. There they sit in our brains, fermenting; decades later they are ready for us, if by some happy chance we remind ourselves that they are there, waiting and ripening for this moment. Horatian poetry is a kind of wine that ages to the taste in our minds.

It is an insight that stays with the reader for the length of Eyres’ book. Eyres is undoubtedly correct when he calls wine “a master symbol” for all of Horace’s poetry. We see Horace in his multiplicity clearly from this single point: we see Horace’s religion when he speaks of the divine power of wine and honors its god; in the terroir of different vintages we see the poet’s love for and commitment to place; in fine wine’s exquisite flavors and complexity we find the poet’s aesthetic delicacy; in cheap wine’s convivial openness we see friendship, hospitality, country living – all emblematic of Horace. The fact that anyone can get intoxicated, and that wine was considered by the Romans a necessity of life for all – even slaves were given a weekly allotment of the stuff – here we see Horace’s fundamentally democratic leanings, undoubtedly present despite all the odi profanum vulgus strains. Horace’s father was a slave, a fact he openly avows. And that wine comes from the country, elevates our spirits, inclines us to laugh, sharpens our sense for sadness, makes us more forward in love, helps us enjoy company, opens our lips to our political opinions, renders us unafraid to dance – why this is a table of contents for Horace’s poetry.

Horace and Me is an account of all this and more, a close reading of Horace illumined by the multifarious experiences of a man’s life. Harry Eyres is certainly the man to write such a book. The son of a wine dealer, he received a Classical education at Eton and Cambridge, and thought he might get a doctorate before growing dissatisfied with the university and taking up work in the wine business. Eyres, like Horace, is not afraid to share pieces of his own life; his book is as much personal memoir as an appreciation of Horace. He writes of a wine world which, for those of us who will probably never buy a thirty-dollar bottle, is amazing even to hear about (you can work for Christie’s, the auction house, in their “wine department”!? There is a “wine controller” at the Tate Gallery Restaurant!?). But Eyres, like Horace, is not unidimensional. He is not merely a wine enthusiast, and he can drink vile Sabinum – cheap Sabine wine, Horace’s term for the stuff he made on his own farm – just as well as the expensive stuff.

Eyres also tells of his academic experiences – what it was like to get a Newcastle scholarship at Eton, reading Horace (and other poets) there, then going to Cambridge. For those of us who wonder how we can actually make college campuses the joyful and purposeful places they seemingly ought to be, his account of university life is mildly depressing but honest and therefore interesting: “Theory was a mixture of Nietzschean relativism, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Debordian Situationism, but above all the combination of Saussurian linguistics and Levi-Straussian structural anthropology.” Eyres compares this to Strelnikov talking about the Revolution in Dr. Zhivago: “Feelings, insights, affections... it’s all suddenly trivial now. You don’t agree; you’re wrong. The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it... the private life is dead – for a man with any manhood.” Academic life seemed dry and theoretical and – well, un-Horatian. Eyres left it.

As for many other British writers, Eyres found something in Mediterranean life to fill up the gaps he had seen in himself. He writes of the freer, more poetic, more pleasurable, more incarnated life he found in Spain. Many of us with Classics degrees will find ourselves nodding along for these chapters: for us Classics live much more in the lives of Mediterranean people than in the theoretical postulates and practices of a credentialed “field.” “Spaniards, and here I include Catalans in that category, seemed to be at home in their bodies, and on the streets, in a way that the English, or the English I knew, could only dream of.” Spain and Spanish became his tutor. “I don’t think I could have found my way back to Horace and to Latin poetry without this detour into the living Latinate language of Spanish.” Eyres wrote poetry; he became a freelance journalist; he was able to write about politics and travel and wine. Along the way he started to have a new companion: his little red and gold Loeb volumes of Horace. As he travels, visiting Rome and Venosa and the site of the Sabine Villa outside Licenza, quoting Horace all the while, you’ll find yourself reaching for your Loeb of Horace too.

Eyres writes of Horace’s politics, his religion, his love life, his commitment to simplicity and sustainability, his friendships – illuminated by his poetry (which Eyres translates freely and well for us). In all of these (with the exception of friendship and poetry) he finds Horace perhaps something less than committed; an observer, an outsider, someone who cannot find transcendent purpose and stable certitude. In all this Horace seems remarkably modern. And his modernity is earned – he feels like someone who has simply outlived simple zealous commitments. Eyres finds (to me) unexpected depth in Horace’s love poetry, which is not of the "my love is a red red rose" sort. Unconstrained by a singular “orientation,” Horace writes love poems to male and female alike (“Horace... admits in his satires to “a thousand passions for girls, a thousand for boys”). Though there are multiple lovers, there is a lingering appreciation for monogamy:

The real deep happiness comes from this:
An unbroken bond that survives all quarrels,
That keeps two close until the final day.

This is a free translation of:

Felices ter et amplius
Quos inrupta tenet copula nec malis
Divulsus querimoniis
suprema citius solvet amor die. (I.13)

Lifelong love is desirable, but simply may not be available: life may turn out to be different than one’s desires. This feels modern, an honest account of what it is like to live long in a society where love affairs do not last. So also with politics: Horace fought with Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, against Antony and Octavian, and his side lost. Later he became friends (after a fashion) with Octavian, also known as Augustus: Horace found that he had outlived some of his ideals. Perhaps they were worth less than he thought they were.

Poetry, however, seems to endure. Eyres sets poetic diamonds into his book, and scattered throughout you will feel the presence of Catullus, Cavafy, Wilfred Owen, Ezra Pound, and William Butler Yeats, among others. In Eyres’ hands poetry feels like experience made radiant.

Eyres’ book is subtitled “life lessons from an ancient poet,” but it is clear enough that Horace offers no program for those who are seeking answers, and Eyres does not give us “the Horace diet” or a “how to win friends and influence people with ancient poetry” guide. There are no commencement speeches here, nothing simple and pat to turn Horace into a poet for passionate youth. Eyres rather invites those who are ready for Horace to pick him up again and appreciate what is there – much as a wine writer encourages us to taste again. On the way, he shares bits of his life with us, much as Horace did. I found myself wishing, as I read the book, that I could follow up personally with Eyres, to hear more about his trip to Venosa, to query him about the poems he does not mention, to ask about the relationships he mentions in passing. I wanted to tell him about how Reginald Foster used to bring us all on the last day of classes to Horace’s villa, how we all recited poems and drank wine and read Latin there. I wanted to tell him how Paideia continued Foster’s tradition, how in fact this summer we will be spending weeks in Italy just reading Horace. In other words, I started to think of him as a friend, a suitable companion for a long winter’s night by the fire, with a bottle of wine and absolutely nowhere to go.

As I read, I reflected on why Horace fails so consistently with the young, once they absorb a few trite sayings like carpe diem. Perhaps it is because he shares so much of his own very real life, with all its imperfections. “Who cares about your broken relationships and your cowardice in battle?” we say to Horace when we are young. “I will do better.” Young people have their own love affairs and battles to attend to, and don’t need to bother with Horace’s. But as we get older, love and war for us start to recede into the past – they become stories. They hence become more literary; our relationship to our own selves starts to resemble our relationship to Horace. We have a “nunc est bibendum” story: instead of drinking all night, we have a story of a memorable drinking bout. To some extent, at that point, Horace’s stories may as well be our stories – of love lost or enjoyed, of inspiration in nature, of friendship and poetry and wine. When we have a past that is worth talking about, then we are ready for Horace.

And at that time, we are ready for Horace and Me. It is a marvelous example of someone using his own life and wisdom to enter successfully into Horace’s. It will make you want to return to Horace. You may find that the poet you once loathed and then forgot about – or perhaps never even knew – has turned into the most companionable of them all.

Harry Eyres will be doing an online lecture and question-and-answer session on January 14th  as part of the Paideia Institute's lecture series. His book Horace and Me is available in the U.S. from Macmillan as an Ebook here, from Amazon here, and in the U.K. from Bloomsbury here.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is Editor of In Medias Res. Formerly president of SALVI, he is currently writing a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio.


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